Ralph D, particle physics, and BS

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Mon Jun 19 23:31:07 MDT 1995


Further comments on Rahul's latest post.

Rahul:

>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.

Howie:

I am inclined to formulate the question as being one of whether we can
identify different types of knowledge of the world around us. I see you
heading in that direction with your statement that "it essentially boils
down to the question of whether all the 2nd-order questions are amenable to
scientific analysis or not". But I detect also an inclination to rank these
different forms of knowledge according to some criterion or other. It is
here that I think we run into problems.

Can there ever be grounds to categorically affirm that scientific knowledge
has been more important to the survival of humanity than, say, moral
knowledge? The very notion of scientific knowledge implies other kinds of
knowledge that are not scientific. But are all these various kinds of
non-scientific knowledge necessarily less important than all (most?) of the
scientific types? The criteria for importance seem to me to encompass
elements that most would agree fall ouside the purview of science, such as
morality, justice, etc. While the elucidation of these latter can require
extensive use of logic and rational calculation (I think here of examples
such as biblical scholarship, for example the Talmud) they also involve
elements that can best be ascribed to areas of personal preference, at least
insofar as physical survival is concerned. In some senses it matters not
whether I believe that it is god's will that I eat my food everyday, as long
as I eat enough to survive. (In other senses it is possible to argue that
beliefs affect action; which, I believe, is a re-statement of the
[Davidsonian, I think] argument that "reasons are causes").


>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.


Is not to argue that the question has no answer at least to imply what the
practical consequences are of the argument in question? What I mean is that
if something is impossible to decide in theory then there is some sense in
which things cannot be resolved in advance. It is possible that we are
wrong, and there may be some way to resolve the question of whether
scientific discovery is "predictable", "inevitable", or whatever. But should
that happen it would change some very important features in the way that we
relate to the world. On the other side, people who agree that the question
is open because unresolved or unresolvable can share a common understanding
of some key aspects of the nature of our interaction with the world.

>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.

I am sure that this in no way constitutes a complete answer, but one thing
that distinguishes the social sciences from the natural ones, as far as I
can tell, is that predicted outcomes in the domain of the social sciences
are inevitably influenced by the nature and content of the predictions
themselves. What social scientists say has an impact on the outcomes that
they predict; social scientific discourse is part and parcel of the process
of reproduction of complex, communicative and reflexive social formations
(for want of a better term). This is not the case with predictions in the
natural sciences. There it seems to me that we mainly act as if these
systems of various kinds would behave as they do regardless of whether we
are there to understand them. It is only with such an assumption that it is
possible to envisage predicting the outcome of a given system without
influencing it. It is a warranted assumption in the natural sciences but
cannot be sustained in the social ones.

What does this mean for the nature of social science? I think we are left
with two choices. Either declare the social sciences scientifically
deficient to the extent that they do not support the kinds of predictions
that the natural sciences do, or define scientific in such a way that it
does not require a unique type of prediction. I am not sure though that
there is a categorical answer. For example, I think that it is still
possible to hold that the Marxist endeavour is a scientific one with a
lineage stretching back to Marx and Engels, without requiring agreement with
any of their specific predictions. The issue is how to define the central
dynamics of capitalism. I would argue that Marxists look at capitalism as
being defined by the relationship between what can be variously described as
capital/labour, capitalist/worker, oppressor/oppressed, exploiter/exploited.
Beyond that there are very many versions of Marxism, which include
disagreements concerning the status of the relationship betweeen the
defining relations of capitalism and those of other social structures (eg.
race, gender). But if one agrees that the Marxist account is a legitimate
attempt to conceptualise the underlying dynamics of capitalism, one can
acknowledge its scientific intent. The outcome of such a scientific analysis
will not necessarily yield a prediction of what the outcome of the class
struggle will be in a given situation, but it must yield an accurate
understanding of the forces at work and the nature of the dynamic they are
engaged in.

This is why, parenthetically, that I think that Lukacs' insistence that
method is the heart of Marxism is one-sided. It is not just dialectics (or
whatever) as an abstract, universally applicable, masterable once and for
all, method, but also a certain type of conclusion that the method yields.
It is a methodologically substantive conclusion if not an historically
substantive one.

Howie Chodos



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