False dichotomies: the case of nature vs nurture

nature nurtureI have been writing an unofficial mini-series on “false dichotomies” (i.e., informal logical fallacies where one is being forced to choose between two extreme options, while in reality there are more nuanced positions available) for The Philosophers’ Magazine.

The third (and, for now, at the least) last installment just came out. It deals with the nature-nurture issue, one that I’ve covered a number of times in the past (see, for instance, here; I’ve also written a book about it).

The previous two essays were concerned with specific applications of practical import: the first one on so-called trigger warnings (see this long but worthwhile article in The Atlantic for background), the second one on Islamophobia.

In this last installment I discuss the issue of nature-v-nurture in the context of ongoing (very delicate, controversial, inflammatory) discussions about gender, transgender, sexual orientation and, to a lesser degree race.

(As an aside: stay tuned for the launch of my new regular column for TPM, entitled, obviously, Footnotes to Plato. The first issue will come out in a few days…)

2 thoughts on “False dichotomies: the case of nature vs nurture

  1. Donald Lee

    All three “false dichotomies” articles were great to fun to read. Thanks.
    However, the “case of nature vs nurture” article provided the most research topics for my notebook.

    Although the article doesn’t explicitly say it, I think it agrees with Pascal’s slogan: “419 Custom is our nature.” Pascal succinctly places custom (practices, skills, roles) in the primary more fundamental position while leaving biology as a secondary abstracted factor. I think this excerpt supports the idea that “biological bases” are at most secondary:

    …it seems to me, is entirely unnecessary: from a philosophical, and particularly an ethical, perspective, the biological bases of human behaviors are irrelevant to how we ought to treat other human beings…

    OBTW: Pascal grouped 419 with his famous writing called “The Wager”. This writing often gets mischaracterized as a false dichotomy. (excerpt from 418 “…Let us then examine this point, and let us say: ‘Either God is or he is not.’…”)
    Full Quote…
    Series II

    419 Custom is our nature. Anyone who grows accustomed to faith believes it, and can no longer help fearing hell, and believes in nothing else.
    Anyone accustomed to believe that the king is to be feared…
    Who then can doubt that our soul, being accustomed to see numbers, space, movement, believes in this and nothing else?
    [https://goo.gl/F54exF] Pensées by Blaise Pascal [Penguin]


  2. Massimo Post author

    Donald, that’s an interesting observation, though of course Pascal was talking about a different context, and without the advantage of modern knowledge in developmental biology.

    I think “custom is our nature” only partially captures what I was trying to say here, but still.


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