Ralph D, particle physics, and BS

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Sun Jun 18 23:29:48 MDT 1995

There are a number of important points raised by Rahul Mahajan in two of his
recent posts. I, too, have some discomfort with the tone of many of his
remarks, but I think that they nonethelesss squarely pose some key
questions, notably, as Hans Ehrbar has pointed out, how we understand the
relationship between the natural and social sciences.


>This is a dangerous line of argument to take. It's certainly an appealing
>one, but it also leads to mushy metaphysics like the anthropic principle --
>in order for science to be possible, we must be possible, therefore (weak
>version) the universe and natural law must be set up so that we could exist
>(this is trivially obvious, because we're here) or (strong version) U and
>NL are set up so as to mandate our existence.


We only get mushy metaphysics, I think, if we read 'did become' as 'had to
become'. This suggests that determinism is mushy metaphysics. And,
interestingly,  I think that Rahul does open the door to some form of
determinism (without necessarily crossing the threshold) when he writes:

>It doesn't necessarily pay to be too dogmatic about this separation. The
>first-order-second-order distinction, while it makes sense, may be obviated
>by discoveries. In fact, one could make a case that projects like that of
>string theory, which could be taken to be that of deriving a unique
>universe from consistency requirements, have crossed that line, i.e., that
>physics at least contains 1st and 2nd order questions in its legitimate
>realm. Of course, no experimental results have come out of string theory,
>but there's no a priori reason they shouldn't sometime.


The only way to obviate the distinction, whether by new discoveries or new
interpretations of old discoveries, between first and second order phenomena
is to embrace a form of determinism. This is how I understand the
implications of Rahul's string theory example. The problem here is that
obviating such a distinction abolishes the possibility of agency. And
without agency I cannot see how we could have science. And without science,
well... In other words, I don't think that it is logically consistent to
defend science and to be a determinist. Science depends on some notion of
discovery, which would seem to possess an irreducibly contingent component.
To the extent that there is this contingency there is not determinism.


>I never said it was. I just don't think any social scientists have come
>close to such a thing, in my conception of what a scientific understanding
>is. This doesn't mean that people like Marx and Engels didn't make major
>contributions to our understanding of many aspects of society -- they did.
>They also made some major blunders.
>When you say "scientific understanding," what do you mean by it -- i.e.,
>with regard to questions like quantitative results, predictability, etc.?


My sense of what differentiates the social sciences from the natural
sciences is that the object of the social sciences (society) is constituted
in part by the contingent activity of the knowers themselves. For there to
be something common to the notion of both the natural and the social
sciences it is only necessary that they share a similar epistemological
relationship to their objects of study. What is actually studied varies from
one branch of the sciences to another. It is therefore also permissable to
hold that the types of conclusions that are warranted in different branches
of the sciences can be qualitatively different without having to abandon a
defense of their common scientificity. The possibility of an external
observer predicting the outcome of a system which she does not influence
would thus seem to be completely foreign to the social sciences. (For better
or for worse I draw just about all of this from Bhaskar).



>You pomos see the trees and miss the forest because of your vulgar
>reductionism. Everything is mediated by the self, but once we have
>developed language, where there is a modicum of agreement on meaning
>between different people, we have the means to observe that there are
>certain phenomena that everyone can agree about -- the sun is shining, etc.
>This is how we begin to transcend the limitation that everything is
>mediated through the self. You try to take such a concept and construct a
>totalizing system of negation using it -- we work with the contradictions
>dialectically in the hope of finding at least small areas where the
>significance can be partially nullified, and we can begin to transcend such


I think that this is an interesting and important point. I would agree with
Rahul that contrary to the assertions of most (all?) postmodernists language
does not exclusively separate us from objective knowledge, it also quite
literally enables it. I think that it is important to see that although the
*possibility* of acquiring objective knowledge is conditional on
intersubjective relations, the knowledge that is so generated can be thought
without logical contradiction to refer to external realities, either ones
which themselves involve intersubjective interaction (the domains of the
various social sciences) or ones which do not (the natural sciences). There
is no guarantee of its doing so, but it has nonetheless been proven possible
by the success of countless scientific experiments, theories, etc.

Howie Chodos

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