Saturday, September 7, 2013

Causalist-Statisticalist Debate

Physicists debate whether the laws of physics are deterministic or not. My impression is that most believe that quantum mechanics has proved that nature is inherently random, while a few (like Einstein) believe in determinism and that quantum mechanics must be replaced by a deterministic theories. I posted some polls here. I believe both view are wrong, as explained in my FQXi essay.

The July 24 episode of Through the Wormhole on the Science TV channel argued that we do not have free will.

A similar debate occurs in biology. Darwin was a determinist, and did not appreciate statistics. Evolution is usually described today in terms of random mutations and natural selection. A new paper on The Early History of Chance in Evolution says:
For those who have been following contemporary philosophy of biology in the last decade, the novel question I posit here will not seem so novel after all. Precisely the same worry about the relationship between statistical theories and biological processes has been hotly debated, under the guise of the “causalist/statisticalist debate.” On the one side, we have “causalists,” who argue that natural selection and genetic drift describe causally efficacious processes (e.g., Brandon, 1978; Mills and Beatty, 1979; Hodge, 1987; Stephens, 2004; Ramsey, 2006; Abrams, 2009; Otsuka et al., 2011). They are opposed by the “statisticalists,” who claim on the contrary that these theories are merely statistical summaries of genuinely causal events at the level of the individual organism (e.g., Matthen and Ariew, 2002; Walsh et al., 2002; Ariew and Lewontin, 2004; Krimbas, 2004; Walsh, 2007; Ariew and Ernst, 2009; Walsh, 2010).
Here is an example of confusion about randomness:
This modern view was summarised by one of the greatest ever advocates for neo-Darwinism, Richard Dawkins, when in an article in New Scientist magazine he wrote, ‘Natural selection is quintessentially non-random, yet it is lamentably often miscalled random. This one mistake underlies much of the sceptical backlash against evolution. Chance cannot explain life. Design is as bad an explanation as chance because it raises bigger questions than it answers. Evolution by natural selection is the only workable theory ever proposed that is capable of explaining life, and it does so brilliantly.’
Dawkins disagreed with S.J. Gould on this and other points. Here is a recent blog with a confused argument about whether mutations are random in biological evolution. I listed other confusions about randomness last week.

1 comment:

  1. You can hide anything under 'randomness' and 'statistical average', it tells you absolutely nothing about what is really going on, just the 'average' of many many factors, which gives no depth or insight into what you are actually measuring. As to why quantum mechanics says the universe is random, good grief, of course it does, because it isn't mechanics of any sort or kind, it's entirely statistical and has abandoned kinematics of any kind. Saying Quantum Mechanics proves the universe is statistical is like saying the metric system proves the universe is metric...see, whatever we measure with it comes out in metric units! whoohoo!!!
    It should be painfully obvious that if you use statistics to model or crudely measure something... your results are going to be statistical. Particles are not points or numbers, they have extension and actually spin and move about, they never have been and never have been "probability clouds" of any kind. Actual things do not turn into math and then back again unless you believe in magic.