Chris Burford cburford at
Wed Dec 7 14:20:44 MST 1994

Subject: Determinism and Birmingham

As a community psychiatrist (working in London mainly with people
with schizophrenia) I have been lucky enough to have an education
that spans the arts and sciences, in a way that is less common in
England than the States. I should therefore be able to comment
more on Jon Beasley-Murray's reference to the Birmingham School
than I can. I tend to regard people like Williams and Hall as
essentially trenchant moralists, giving not so much direction as

But I am delighted recently to have discovered the forum, so
to plunge in hopefully relevantly in view of the references to
determination and determinism, with a small piece I did for
another group in London, associated with the New Interventions

Although there is a philososphical and literary
series of meanings to determinism (and psychological with Freud's
concept of "over-determined") basically I suggest we must anchor
ourselves in the new dynamical systems science of chaos and
complexity. In short I think there is space for an emerging
phenomenon of "systemic marxism".

    DETERMINISM AND CHAOS - The Modern Scientific Meanings

In the Forum for Marxism Science and Philosophy, some of us have
spent a lot of time reading recent books on so-called chaos
theory and complexity theory. After teasing out the hype from the
essence we consider there are many echos in truly dialectical
Marxism even if there are no easy solutions. About determinism
there is a catch, but a catch which if understood, illuminates
I suggest, the relationship between reform and revolution in a
way that steps over the old conflicts about this important
question. The catch is that mathematicians do not use the word
"deterministic" in the philosophical way we may. For us
"determined" means that the consequence is certain or
predictable. But for the mathematician and the student of chaos
theory it means something different: "complete determinism, that
is you can determine all the terms going into the equation".

Consider this passage, like the quote, from "Turbulent Mirror"
by John Briggs and David Peat.

"The honor of being the first to discern how iteration
[repetition of a process such as a simple mathematical
calculation] generates chaos goes to Edward Lorenz, an MIT

In 1960, Lorenz was using his computer to solve a number of
nonlinear equations modeling the earth's atmosphere. Repeating
one forecast in order to check some details, he plugged in his
data on temperature and air pressure and wind direction rounding
off the figure in the equations to three decimal places instead
of the six he had used in the previous run. He cranked the
equation into the computer, and went out for a cup of coffee.
When he came back he had a shock. The new result he saw on his
screen wasn't an approximation of his previous forecast, it was
a totally different forecast. The small, three decimal place
discrepancy between the two solutions had been grossly magnified
by the iterative process inherent in solving the equations. He
was left with a picture of two vastly different weather systems.
Lorenz later told Discover magazine, "I knew right then that if
the real atmosphere behaved like this [mathematical model],
long-range weather forecasting was impossible."

     Lorenz had immediately realized that it was the combination
of nonlinearity and iteration that had magnified the microscopic
three-dimensional-place difference in the two computer runs. ...
Suddenly Lorenz and other scientists became aware that in
deterministic (causal) dynamical systems, the potential for
generating chaos (unpredictability) crouches in every detail."

[Glossary: "linear"  refers to straight lined or curved graphs
(Recti)linear eg Time = Motion x Speed
Non(recti)linear eg if n is this year and n+1 is next year
     Population n+1 = 2 x Population n]

In the natural world there is no such thing as a deterministic
process because unlike simple mathematical equations we cannot
shut out other variables. But non-linear dynamical processes in
biology, society or economics, often fluctuate between broad
bands in a roughly predictable way, but can become unstable and
flip into another state altogether, a "phase change" in the
language of physics, a "revolution" in politics.

A culture is therefore a complex phenomenon more
or less influenced ("determined"?) by many factors, including previous
culture, and of course the process of production of the material
conditions of life. To say this is in the "last instance" is faint
hearted; to correct by saying "in the first instance" is more vivid but
fails to do justice to the absolutely integral nature of the whole
process. Human beings have never existed outside a social culture and
social structure has never existed separate from the way human being
reproduce their material bodies as well as their social relationships.

I would suggest that concepts of free will and determinism were more a pre-
occupation of the 19th century than now. The nuances have shifted as
Williams is suggesting. I would suggest the abstract and specialised
mathematical meaning of determinism is scientific though unfamiliar.
What we are really talking about is connections, probability and
predictability. We can live in a world that is not totally predictable,
indeed we have to. But we can still argue like Marx that economic relations
have a major influence on society and ideas. In fact such an analytical
approach is so widespread nowadays that people do not think of it as
particularly Marxist.

In view of his very interesting project, I wonder if Hans Ehrbar could
give a commentary on the German and the English nuances in the trans-
lation of the famous passage in the introduction to the Critique of
Political Economy about social existence determining consciousness.
I am at the moment referring to a translation of 1903. What was the
original German, and what were its resonances I wonder.


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