Further clarification on permissive and instructive causes


I respond to recent criticism of my analysis of the permissive-instructive distinction and outline problems with the alternative analysis on offer. Amongst other problems, I argue that the use of formal measures is unclear and unmotivated, that the distinction is conflated with others that are not equivalent, and that no good reasons are provided for thinking the alternative model or formal measure tracks what biologists are interested in. I also clarify my own analysis where it has been misunderstood or ignored.

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  1. 1.

    There is more than one way to normalize mutual information. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutual_information

  2. 2.

    I thank Karola Stotz (pers. comm.) for pointing this out to me.

  3. 3.

    It is interesting to note what Bourrat’s own method of analysis produces when applied to this model. As I show in the paper, range-of-influence specificity is low for both variables in a simple competitive analysis. Thus, we should conclude, following Bourrat, that neither cause is instructive. Yet, as I show, wiggling the pins produces over three million different layouts and over five thousand different ways of distributing the balls. Only a hierarchical analysis, as I propose, captures this.


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The initial ideas for much of this work occurred during my time in the Theory and Method in Biosciences group at the University of Sydney with Paul Griffiths, Arnaud Pocheville, and Karola Stotz, where funding was provided by Swansea University Templeton World Charity Foundation. Many thanks to Maureen O’Malley and Emily Parke for reading and commenting on drafts.

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Calcott, B. Further clarification on permissive and instructive causes. Biol Philos 34, 50 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-019-9700-4

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  • Permissive
  • Instructive
  • Specificity
  • Information
  • Causation
  • Development