Nonoverlapping Magisteria

This looks like an interesting book.

She’s arguing, as I understand it, that science cannot be ontologically complete, that it always coexists with other kinds of truth:

There is always ‘room left’ for alternative ontologies in cognitive-intellectual space, a realm that is neither cramped nor finite but, on the contrary, appears – both historically and for humans individually – exceedingly and perhaps infinitely elastic. … For many people … accepting, applying, and/or producing scientific knowledge and being religiously observant are no more in conflict than would be, for any of us, both playing the violin and practising law.

Interesting, maybe, as a bare assertion; more for the particular argument. Let’s say, on the one hand, that we accept a scientific view of religion. It’s a pattern of human behavior created by the interaction of our biological brains and our social environment; the potential for it was favored by its usefulness to our savannah ancestors and its actual existence by its usefulness for some social-political purpose today. Group cohesion then, the ploys of the Jesuits now, something like that.

The problem with this isn’t that it isn’t true; it is true, within some limits. The problem is that it explains too much. Every human belief system is the product of our Darwinianly-evolved brains and our social environment. You can fully explain religion, in principle, by a combination of genetic predisposition and practical advantage, but you can just as fully explain science, or anything else that people do. After all, we’re natural beings in the natural world; everything we do has a natural explanation. The most you can say in this framework is that science has displaced religion from many areas of life because of its greater utility; but by the same token you have to concede that religion has held on in other areas thanks to its greater utility. A purely naturalistic account of human beliefs has no place for them being true or false. People adopt them all for the same kind of reasons.

(Sraffa to Wittgenstein: “If the rules of language can be constructed only by observation, there can never be any nonsense said. This identifies the cause and the meaning of a word. The language of birds, as well as the language of metaphysicians can be interpreted consistently in this way. It is only a matter of finding the occasion on which they say a thing, just as one finds the occasion on which they sneeze.”)

On the other hand, almost anyone who cares about science prefers to believe it corresponds to some external truth about the world. One can’t object to this (Thomas Nagel, in this review, accuses Smith of objecting, but I suspect he’s got her wrong), but it’s not consistent with science being ontologically complete. A scientific account of scientific beliefs can offer various reasons for why people happen to hold them, but it has nothing to say about whether they are true. You may believe, if you like, that Betelgeuse would be 630 light years from the Earth whether anyone had measured the distance or not; but in a naturalistic account of why people do believe that, it all comes down to the measurements; independent of those the “objective” distance has no effect on anyone.

Put it another way: science offers heuristics for sorting beliefs into relatively confirmed and relatively falsified piles; but it doesn’t, and can’t, tell you why should prefer to hold the beliefs in the confirmed pile. Oh, say the new atheists, because they’re more useful. But right there they’ve conceded that if someone finds some social or psychological advantage in being religious, that’s as justified as anyone’s belief in science. To get along with your neighbors, to be free of angst about The Point of It All: aren’t those useful too?

Galileo is a hero of science and of civilization for eppur si muove. But what’s he saying? With respect to the heavens, he’s asserting that the demands of reality take precedence over what we think is right. But with respect to the earth, it’s just the opposite: He’s insisting on the priority of abstract right over concrete reality. After all, if he applied the same unromantic empiricism to his life as he did to his astronomy, he’d take one look at the instruments and conclude that practical experimentation revealed that the Earth goes around the Sun. (As did Brecht’s Galileo.) A belief that’s liable to get you tortured to death is pretty clearly less practically useful than a belief that leaves you torture-free. Galileo’s insistence that one should believe in science, come what may, is entirely unscientific, and — Brecht struggled with this — so much the better for Galileo.

The thing about the contradiction between the scientific method and belief in science is that it can be resolved either way. Nagel thinks that Smith is trying to apply the naturalistic, constructivist view of human beliefs “all the way down”. Me, I prefer to think she’s showing that’s exactly what you cannot do.

How biologists think about genes

From Tangled webs: Tracing the connections between genes and cognition, by Simon E. Fisher:

The deceptive simplicity of finding correlations between genetic and phenotypic variation has led to a common misconception that there exist straightforward linear relationships between specific genes and particular behavioural and/or cognitive outputs. The problem is exacerbated by the adoption of an abstract view of the nature of the gene, without consideration of molecular, developmental or ontogenetic frameworks. … Genes do not specify behaviours or cognitive processes; they make regulatory factors, signalling molecules, receptors, enzymes, and so on, that interact in highly complex networks, modulated by environmental influences, in order to build and maintain the brain. …

What is a gene? Answering this question is far from trivial, but a useful operational definition might be ‘‘a stretch of DNA whose linear sequence of nucleotides encodes the linear sequence of amino acids in a specific protein’’. … It is important to realise that the appearance and biology of a mature organism is the result of a complex series of ontogenetic events unfolding over time, moderated by environmental and stochastic influences. Genomes are much more like knitting patterns or recipes than blueprints (although even the former are poor analogies for the peculiarities of the genome). …

The apparent ease of correlating genotype with phenotype without reference to molecular/developmental mechanisms promotes an erroneous impression of neurogenetics; one in which individual genes are able to mysteriously control specific behaviours or cognitive abilities, leading to talk of ‘‘language genes’’, ‘‘smart genes’’, ‘‘gay genes’’, ‘‘aggressive genes’’ and so on. It is indisputable that variations of gene sequence can contribute to variability in cognitive abilities and personality traits (sometimes in a dramatic manner) and that apparently straightforward genotype-phenotype correlations can sometimes emerge in our datasets. But the simplicity of these relationships is merely an illusion; genes do not (and indeed can not) specify particular behavioural outputs or cognitive processes, except in the most indirect way. … The gross activities of the human brain are the products of a complex interplay between factors at multiple levels; be they genetic, cellular, developmental, anatomical, or environmental, and the routes linking genes to cognition will inevitably be tortuous…

… the gap between genes and cognition can only be bridged by a thorough systems biology account of brain development and function. Even pure candidate gene approaches can be victims of the ‘‘abstract gene’’ perspective. In many cases, when researchers find statistical evidence to support association between a particular variant of a gene and a common trait, it is erroneously assumed on the basis of this that the variant is likely to be causative and that there is a simple pathway connecting gene to trait. … There is a large gulf between finding statistical evidence for a genotype-phenotype correlation and demonstrating a convincing causal relationship…

There is no doubt that the gene known as FOXP2 is relevant to linguistic ability. However, any characterisation of this as a ‘‘gene for grammar’’ clearly becomes untenable once we are able to view it within a more complete biological framework. … Reduced amounts of functional FOXP2 protein can lead to disordered brain development or function, in a manner that primarily interferes with speech and/or language abilities. … this is emphatically not the same as saying that FOXP2 is a ‘‘gene for speech’’ or a ‘‘gene for language’’… FOXP2 [also] regulates key pathways in the developing lung, heart and gut. …. The recycled use of the same regulatory factors to control multiple pathways in different developmental contexts is a common feature of complex biological systems; it is rare to find a transcription factor that has an exclusive role specific to only one context. Thus, calling FOXP2 a ‘‘language gene’’ makes no more sense than referring to it as a ‘‘lung gene’’… the data on FOXP2 from molecular and developmental biology confounds any expectations that one might have for a hypothetical ‘‘language gene’’; and the reason for this is that this entire concept is flawed, being rooted in an abstract view of the nature of the gene. …

How to think about genes

Pre-scientific or magical thinking has several key features:

* The idea of a direct or intrinsic connection between things, i.e. that if two things influence each other or are associated in some way, they are bound by an occult link, are subject to the same invisible forces. One can instantly affect the other with nothing linking them.
* The idea that the visible characteristics of something are the expression of an invisible essence.
* The failure to distinguish between perceptions an reality, so that anything we see or imagine or experience is assumed to have an independent existence in the objective world.

Popular thinking about genetics has exactly these characteristics. Anything we can say about an organism, any description we give it, is reified as an objective trait of the organism. (As if the placement of an animal in Borges’ Library of Babel was a property of the animal.) These traits are then assumed to be present in the organism’s inner being, i.e. its genes. And the genes are then believed to produce and modify the trait by occult direct action, without any need for specific intermediate transmission mechanisms.

It’s just scholasticism. They said a person who behaved intelligently must have a property of intelligence. We say they must have a gene for it.

The alternative, scientific view insists that until we know the mechanism by which something happens, we don’t know anything about it at all. And there’s no expectation that the mechanism has any formal or inherent resemblance to the observed phenomenon.

The beginning of wisdom is that genes code for proteins. (Or for RNA.) The only thing a gene does is produce a particular protein. Nothing except the protein is the product of the gene, there’s no sense in which a gene is “for” anything else.

These proteins then participate in causal pathways. These pathways always involve the organism’s pre-existing physical state, the products of other genes, and the external environment, and almost always involve the organism’s behavior. Each protein may participate in many pathways, and at least as important, various pathways converge at points where they are interchangeable. Great proportions of this protein or that protein or this dietary change or that behavioral stimulus will all produce the exact same developmental response. And multiple points along the pathway may be sites of selective pressure – there is no sense in which the influence of the gene stops at the point we’ve chosen to identify as a “trait”.

There are many wonderful examples of what this means in practice in Mary Jane West-Eberhard’s Developmental Plasticity and Evolution. There she also makes the somewhat related point that organisms constantly lean on the self-organizing capacities of inorganic matter — another way the whole “code” metaphor is wrong.