The Question of Causality: Nature, Nurture and a Whole Lot More

Published: Apr 02, 2010

3/20/10, Bryan College

Notes, Quotes, Sources, Visuals, Resources

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

(from C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?,” in The Weight of Glory)

[Here is the fuller context:

If I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on bio-chemistry, and bio-chemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees. And this to me is the final test. This is how I distinguish dreaming and waking. When I am awake I can, in some degree, account for and study my dream. The dragon that pursued me last night can be fitted into my waking world. I know that there are such things as dreams; I know that I had eaten an indigestible dinner; I know that a man of my reading might be expected to dream of dragons. But while in the nightmare I could not have fitted in my waking experience. The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world; the dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one. For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific point of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.]

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

T. S. Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”, first stanza

Spencer Rathus anecdote re Dr. Seuss’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish is from his textbook Psychology: The Core (Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers, 2000, p. P-2).

Armand Nicholi’s discussion neurological substrates is from his “Introduction” to The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry, 3rd edition (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 3).

Deborah Blacker and Ming Tsuang’s discussion of DSM-IV validity is from “Classification and DSM-IV,” in Armand Nicholi, ed., The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry (Ibid., pp. 66, 72).

Charles Barber’s description of an “infinitely complex dialogue between genes and the environment… an intricate, infinite, dialectical dance between experience and biology” is from “The Brain: A Mindless Obsession?,” The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2008 (http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=wq.essay&essay_id=400008).

See DP’s 5 nested circles visuals and a brief discussion (“5-fold complexity in the springs of human action”) in the final five pages of this document.

Quotations on seeking the simple rather than the simplistic or overly-complicated:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

—Oliver Wendell Holmes

“On the near side of complexity is simplistic; on the far side of complexity is simple.”

—Addison Leitch

I think I mentioned Tanya Luhrmann’s anthropological study of the psychiatric community: Of Two Minds: The Growing Disorder in American Psychiatry (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000). Chapter 7 is particularly thought-provoking, where she discusses the different strategies psychodynamic and biological psychiatries employ in order to enable compassion. Christian faith offers a radically different basis for genuine compassion. To get a feel for how biblical counseling appreciates and engages social science research, you might want to read Ed Welch’s review of Luhrmann in The Journal of Biblical Counseling, 19:3, Spring 2001, pp. 55–56.

In the context of Psalm 23, I think I mentioned C. S. Lewis’s words from The Four Loves, chapter 1 (even if I failed to mention it, you’ll still appreciate the quotation):

“Man’s love for God must always be very largely, and must often be entirely, a Need-love. This is obvious where we implore forgiveness for our sins or support in our tribulations. But in the long run it is perhaps even more apparent in our growing—for it ought to be growing—awareness that our whole being by its very nature is one vast need; incomplete, preparatory, empty yet cluttered, crying out for Him who can untie things that are now knotted together and tie up things that are still dangling loose.”

J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Is everything sad going to come untrue?’ (and the longer quotation) is from “The Field of Cormallen” near the end of The Return of the King. I read from pages 930-931 in my copy, but there are many versions of Tolkien’s Ring trilogy.

I didn’t give you my “antipsalm 23” during the talk because of time limitations. But you may find it interesting.

Psalm and antipsalm

The antipsalm tells what life feels like and looks like whenever God vanishes from sight: the "I'm-all-alone-in-the-universe" experience. The antipsalm captures the drivenness and pointlessness of life-purposes that become petty, and thus self-defeating. It expresses the fears and silent despair that cannot find a voice. There’s no one to really talk to, no one who really cares. Something bad gets last say, when whatever I live for is not God, when how I’m living forgets what’s so.

Antipsalm 23

I’m on my own.
No one looks out for me or protects me.
I'm always restless. I’m easily frustrated and often disappointed.
It’s a jungle ¬– I feel overwhelmed. It’s a desert – I’m thirsty.
My soul feels broken, twisted, and stuck. I can't fix myself.
I stumble down some dark paths.
Still, I insist: I want to do what I want, when I want, how I want.
But life's confusing. Why don’t things ever really work out?
I'm haunted by emptiness and futility – shadows of death.
I fear the big hurt and final loss.
Death is waiting for me at the end of every road,

but I'd rather not think about that.

I spend my life protecting myself. Bad things can happen.
I find no lasting comfort.
I'm alone… facing everything that could hurt me.
Are my friends really friends?
Other people use me for their own ends.
I can’t really trust anyone. No one has my back.
No one is really for me – except me.
And I'm so much all about ME, sometimes it's sickening.
I belong to no one except myself.
My cup is never quite full enough. I’m left empty.
Disappointment follows me all the days of my life.
Will I just be obliterated into nothingness?
Will I be alone forever, homeless, free-falling into void?
Sartre said, "Hell is other people."
I have to add, "Hell is also myself."
It’s a living death,

and then I die.

But the antipsalm doesn’t tell the final story. It only becomes my reality when I construct my reality from a lie. In reality, someone else is the center of the story. Nobody can make Jesus go away. The I AM was, is and will be, whether or not people acknowledge.

When we awaken, as we see who Jesus actually is, everything changes. You see the person whose care and ability you can trust. You experience his care. You see the person whose glory you are meant to worship. You love him who loves you. The real Psalm 23 captures what life feels like and looks like when Jesus Christ takes you in hand, when he puts his hand on your shoulder, when he takes your hand.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil.
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Can you taste the difference?

You might want to read both antipsalm and psalm again, slowly. Maybe even read out loud. The Psalm is sweet, not bitter. It's full, not empty. You aren't trying to grab the wind with your bare hands. Someone else takes you in his hands. You are not alone.

Jesus Christ actually plays both roles in this most tender psalm. First, he walked this himself. He is a man who needed and looked to the Lord. He said these very words, and means what he says. He enters our predicament. He walks the valley of the shadow of death. He faces every evil. He feels the threat of the antipsalm, of our soul's need to be restored. He looked to his Father's care when he was cast down – for us – into the darkest shadow of death. And God's goodness and mercy followed him and carried him. Life won.

Second, Jesus is also this Lord to whom we look. He is the living shepherd to whom we call. He restores your soul. He leads you in paths of righteousness. Why? Because of who he is: “for his name’s sake.” You, too, can walk Psalm 23. You can say these words and mean what you say. God's goodness and mercy is true, and all he promises will come true. The King is at home in his universe. Jesus puts it this way, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). He delights to walk with you.

Views of Nature-Nurture Causality

[NOTE: in the talk I spoke of 5 nested circles, but this older version of my visual only has 4 circles. I need to update it to include the role of the Evil One (the Liar behind cultural lies, the Murderer behind bodily death, the Slavemaster behind spiritual darkness) who unquantifiably works in and through nature. nurture and personal factors—without either reducing to such factors, or reducing such factors to epiphenomena of “spiritual forces”—and who works, incomprehensibly, within God’s ultimate purposes.

  1. “The Donut” (socio-somatic causalities hanging in space)
  2. “Psychology’s Big Issues. The biggest and most persistent issue concerns the impact of biological nature and experienced nurture, the relative contributions of biology and experience. This nature-nurture debate is long-standing. Over and over again we will see the nature-nurture tension dissolve: Nurture works on what nature endows.” (David Myers, Psychology, 5th edition, Worth Publishers, 1998, p. 6). Where is the person as a significant, decisive variable?

  3. “The Target” (a soul on the mountaintop)
  4. Too often the church talks as if our physical embodiment and social embedment is irrelevant, and the result is either pietism or moralism, not a ministry of Christ that walks on the ground in real time and place. Where are the realities of physical and social life?

  5. “Nested circles” (all of life before the face of the Lord of creation, history, and redemption: active heart vis-à-vis God, physically-embodied, socially-embedded)
  6. cf. Michael Emlet, “Let Me Draw a Picture: Understanding the Influences on the Human Heart,” Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol. 20, No. 2, 2002, pp. 47-52. This uses OCD as a case study in thinking comprehensively rather than reductionistically.

    5-fold complexity in the springs of human action

    Yale psychiatrist Charles Barber has argued eloquently against overselling the current cultural obsession with neurophysiology and genetics. He assembles evidence why the dream of explaining human choices by brain biology will always fail. Barber describes an “infinitely complex dialogue between genes and the environment… an intricate, infinite, dialectical dance between experience and biology."1 Each of these partners is incomprehensibly deep, and the dialogue and dance between them is incomprehensibility squared. But notice, Barber has considered only nature and nurture, the two most accessible factors. He rightly reckons that human beings are physically embodied and situationally embedded. But the full dance is at least three orders of magnitude more complex. The other three partners in the dance are even less accessible and even more decisive than nature and nurture.

    First, the intricate, unsearchable motives of the human heart obviously make human life a three-way dance, infinitely complicating the infinite complication which rightly humbles Barber. The person cannot be reduced to biological factors plus social factors. He misses the obvious here. Nature-nurture only describes some of what influences a person, not the final cause of the thoughts and intentions of the heart. The heart is deep water. With reasonable accuracy we might sometimes describe what motivates ourselves or another. But we can’t explain why any of us would be self-righteous, or self-seeking, or self-deceived. Why are people obsessed with being liked? Why do people compulsively attempt to control other people? Why do hopeless schemes for earthly joy consume us and destroy us? Why on earth does a person go snowblind to God and obsessively lurch after lusts, lies, idols and fantasies? Similarly, we can’t explain why on earth a human being awakens to God and begins to love. The mystery of godliness, like the mystery of iniquity, is deep water.

    Second, comprehensive understanding must factor in the inworking and outer working of the Evil One. The old black preacher, speaking of sin and of the sin-inducer: “First it blinds, then it binds, then it grinds.” The Liar, Slavemaster and Murderer operates beyond human observation, knowledge and evaluation. How does one quantify the fog of war? How exactly does Satan affect psychological functioning and interpersonal relations? How is he an agent in an individual’s culpable blindness, unbelief, wayward cravings, chaotic fears, false hopes? How do his schemes work to divide, alienate and antagonize our closest relationships? For that matter, how does the agency of one with power to kill affect the actual breakdowns and disabilities operative in our physiology (e.g., the physiology of Job’s boils, of those from whom Jesus cast demons, of Paul’s thorn in the flesh)? But just how does the agency of the author of lies actually shape and misshape the sociocultural voices that deceive us all? There’s more than meets the eye even in nature and nurture. Barber sees far, but he hasn’t named the half of it. So it’s a four-way dance, and this fourth partner is more inaccessible than the other three.

    Third, to all this we must add the purposes and workings of the Living God – in our bodies; in our situational/social experience; in our hearts; the strategies, impediments, beguilements of the evil one. How can we ever quantify the purposes of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will? How can mere clay pot ever comprehend the gaze and intentions of the potter? How does one ever weigh the operations of the Holy Spirit. How does He indwell, influence and master an individual? How does He indwell, influence and master a community of people? This final-cause God uses Satan as an instrument of his judgment and a foil for his salvation. This God softens or hardens the hearts of the children of men. This God arranges familial, historical, social, cultural, economic, political, educational,… even meteorological circumstances in which each person lives. This God makes and sustains our bodies with every variable of endowment, temperament, disability, medical condition; he kills our bodies (Mt. 10:28); and he will raise our bodies on the last day.

    Barber recognizes an unsearchable complexity in “nature x nurture.” But in reality the dialectic operates as “nature x nurture x heart x devil x God.” To truly explain a person, we’d have to exhaustively understand all five factors and all their mutual interactions. And perhaps I’ve left out several other infinitely complicating details that, like Barber, I didn’t know to notice!


    1 Charles Barber, “The Brain: A Mindless Obsession?,” The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2008 (http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=wq.essay&essay_id=400008). Cf. Charles Barber, Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry is Medicating a Nation, New York: Vintage Books, 2008.