Tuesday, January 11, 2005

More on altruism, genes and selfishness

My previous post on space for altruism attracted some criticism from Philosophy etc, who points out in an update that the idea that "we are selfish because our genes are" is deeply confused, conflating the metaphorical motives of the genes with the real motives of people. I agree; un fortunately I couldn't get the stuff I wanted to say about it into my original post. Fortunately, though, Sock Thief has given me a perfect opportunity:

I don't agree with Philosophy, et cetera's distinction between Biology and Psychology. Although it is wrong to ascribe psychological motives to genes, it is our biology that provides the foundation of the cognitive abilities of belief, desire and motivation. Individuals can, and often do, have different goals from those of their genes but that does not mean that our psychology is free from their influence.

But it's not about freedom from influence - it's about different levels of explanation.

There is no question that our genes strongly influence our psychology. The logic of kin selection and reciprocal altruism applies to humans as well as ants, and these concepts provide a good explanation for parts of our psychological makeup - our concern for family, our sympathy for other human beings, our outrage at those who cheat. The rest of our basic psychology - things like our desire for revenge, flight or fight reactions, and pursuit of status - also exist for adaptive reasons. As evolved organisms, we must also have evolved minds. This makes adaptationism a powerful method for explaining why we think the way we do - but it does not mean that it is the only way of explaining it, or that it should be the preferred one.

Philosophy, etc has pointed out that there is another level of explanation available: psychology. This is ultimately grounded in genetics and in chemistry - but that does not mean that its theoretical entities don't exist. The fact that happiness is just a chemical concentration in the brain does not make it any less real. And the fact that altruism is ultimately caused by the genes doesn't make it any less real either.

The question then is which explanation we should prefer. And the answer is "whichever is most useful". And in explaining altruistic behaviour, it is far simpler and more useful to talk about altruism than about the strategies of the far-off genes.

As for the argument that we should reinterpret human motives in light of the genes as those motivations ultimately have a genetic origin, I think that the compatibilist argument for free will is informative here. Compatibilists believe that we are meaningfully free despite the fact that our brains are deterministic and therefore our actions are ultimately caused by events beyond our control; we are free insofar as our actions stem from our beliefs and desires. It's about ownership, in other words. A similar argument can be made with respect to motivations. Yes, many of our motivations are genetically caused - but that does not mean that they are not ours, or that we should usurp them in favour of their ultimate causes.


Great post! My only quibble (and it's a minor one) would be: not only is adaptationism not the only 'explanatory level' we can view things at, but it's not even the full evolutionary story. It seems likely that much human cognition involves the emergent properties of non-adaptive genetic byproducts (or 'spandrels'). My post on Genes, Brains and Behaviour has more detail.

Posted by Richard : 1/11/2005 11:20:00 PM

"Compatabilists" seem to make the mistake, (or at least it is being made by them as you describe them as I'm unfamiliar with the term) of thinking those beliefs and desires are somehow independant of what makes us deterministic.

Those beliefs and desires are just as deterministic as everything else we are.

Personally, I think the evidence shows that the entire universe is completely deterministic, except at the subatmomic level. In other words it is a deteministic system working over a random system, which is why it works, much like TCP/IP, which is a connection-oriented protocol operating over a connectionless protocol in a similar apparent paradox.

If you could predit every quantum event, or if you somehow knew every quantum event as it happened, you could predict what will happen in the universe.

It is possible that even the subatomic level is deterministic in some way, though that currently seems unlikely.

The only reason we seem to have free will is that the compute power required to determine what an individual will do given their current state and the thousands of quantum events that affect one's state every second is prohibitive. Heck, it's prohibitive to even model that current state effectively, let alone model state changes at the rate at which they occur.

Of course, there's also Heisenberg, which means that even if you had the neccessary compute power you couldn't have all the neccessary knowledge.

Thus as everything is deterministic based on state, possibly affected by random minute changes to that state, "free will" does not exist.

But, like altruism, "free will" is a useful description of the concept of deterministic results from random minute state changes , because the percieved effect is similar to what "free will" would produce if it did exist.

Though it does have the drawback of giving the impression we are actually making choices, and are thus somehow more than the sum of our parts, when we are really just (extremely complex) Turing machines reacting to minute state changes, both internal and external

I don't know if there's currently an acceptable term for what I've just described, I seem to get into arguments when I give what I think the terminology is :)

Posted by Anonymous : 1/12/2005 11:06:00 AM

Anonymous, you've misunderstood NRT. Note the following passage: "Compatibilists believe that we are meaningfully free despite the fact that our brains are deterministic and therefore our actions are ultimately caused by events beyond our control".

If you're confused by how we could be free in the face of determinism, have a read of this.

Posted by Richard : 1/12/2005 01:19:00 PM

If by "meaningfully free" you mean that we are able to remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that we ultimately aren't free to the extent that everything we do is the result of deterministic mechanics on a quantum substrate, then there is no quibble.

I'm afraid I find Anonymous's explanation more coherent, and consistent with what I take to be reality.

Posted by Paul : 1/12/2005 02:34:00 PM

There's no "blissful ignorance" about it; compatibalists are perfectly happy to accept determinism, because they don't think it matters.

What matters about freedom is not being able to choose either way regardless of circumstance (an idea which seems to leave no space for having beliefs or desires - see Kant on the idea that our passions infringe our autonomy), but being able to choose in accordance with our beliefs and desires. Those beliefs and desires may in some circumstances give us "no choice at all" - but we're still free because we're being true to who we are. And the fact that they're deterministic and ultimately caused by events beyond our control doesn't make them any less real, any less ours, or any less meaningful.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 1/12/2005 11:58:00 PM