Ralph D, particle physics, and BS

Rahul Mahajan rahul at hagar.ph.utexas.edu
Sun Jun 18 23:54:31 MDT 1995

Howie Chodos wrote:

>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.

Howie, I apologize to you and anyone else who is willing to discuss things
in a civil and sensible fashion. I started out just taking a page from
Ralph D, who, although abrasive, is often very effective, but I understand
that when some people do that it doesn't cause a problem, but when others
do it can lead to a flame war. I hope you'll note how much worse is the
tone of JJ and RW, to whom I definitely don't apologize.

>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.

Sorry, I don't see it. First of all, we are mixing up two different things
under the heading "determinism." The search to answer 2nd-order questions
scientifically does certainly posit a structure, a severe limitation of the
possibilities of natural law, in a sense a determinism with regard to
natural law. This must be distinguished from the ordinary usage, which is
determination with regard to _events_. Discovery is irreducibly contingent
locally (will theory X be discovered by Y or Z at time A or B), but whether
it is globally is still very much an open question. As you imply, in fact,
it essentially boils down to the question of whether all the 2nd-order
questions are amenable to scientific analysis or not. Many, many scientists
believe that, when looked at on a sufficiently large scale with some
coarse-graining, scientific discovery is not contingent. This is a question
which I believe it is impossible to answer -- simply asserting an answer,
as you do, is insufficient.

>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.

This is exactly what my question was about. In the old days, pracTically
all social scientists would agree that the N and S sciences share a similar
epistemological relationship to their objects of study. Now, I guess the
majority, and certainly a whole lot, of them would disagree with this

>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.

One at least has to decide, in the context of the social science, what does
scientificity mean.

> 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.

Why? I wouldn't even ask for much -- why shouldn't economists be able to
predict with 90% certainty whether a Third World country's balance of trade
will get better or worse under an IMF structural adjustment plan? And, yes,
I know
that political ideology plays just a little bit of a role here.

I would like to ask anyone out there who has a good answer: if you believe
that the social sciences bear at least the potential to be scientific, tell
me what you think that scientific means in this context.


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