Ralph D, particle physics, and BS

Rahul Mahajan rahul at hagar.fusion.utexas.edu
Mon Jun 19 19:36:46 MDT 1995

Howie wrote:
>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.

I don't think I said anything that should lead you to that conclusion.

>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?

Now that you raise the subject, well, I wouldn't say anything
categorically, but, in fact, we see in history that changes in moral
knowledge (i.e., slavery is wrong, women and men are equal, etc.) often
coming about because of technological changes that depend on changes in
scientific knowledge. One could make a reasonable, if not quite fully
convincing, case for technological change's being the main agent of social
change. It's interesting in this context to note Marx's remark to the
effect that the _real_ revolution going on was the one in technology
(c.1860? does anyone remember the exact quote?)

>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.

Obviously, you know the standard bit about how now, after the uncertainty
principle, this epistemological distinction is gone -- certainly a naive
view, because the uncertainty principle does not require any notion of
human agency.
However, let us imagine some social scientist working by herself, keeping
her conclusions locked up until after the fact. Why should making correct
predictions not be of the same nature for her as for a natural scientist?
Also, the business about how the work of social scientists affects the
environment the scientists are analyzing misses the fundamental point -- it
is not that there is ever no disturbance due to the scientist's activities,
the point is simplyh to minimize them and hope you can make the differences
small enough by any reasonable standard. Surely any social predictions made
on this discussion list, for example, are not likely to have any great
effect on society at large.

>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. ...
>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 still doesn't get at the question of what does it mean for something
to be scientific in the social sciences. I would say the understanding of
capitalism generated by Marx and Engels was valuable, though flawed, but I
would never characterize it as scientific. Obviously, we can't naively
extrapolate the ideas of natural science, but how can a method and a
discourse that is unable even to generate consensus on the most trivial of
points (a necessary but certainly not sufficient condition for
scientificity, in my view) ever be called scientific?

>This is why, parenthetically, that I think that Lukacs' insistence that
>method is the heart of Marxism is one-sided.

I think science only started progressing once the idea of the central
importance of some overarching method (this could certainly characterize
the Platonic and Aristotelian endeavors at science) was abandoned, and
people more or less went with a "what seems reasonable for now" attitude.
There's been a lot of mythologizing about the importance of the program and
philosophy that Bacon put forth. As with most philosophers of science, he
was addressing a fait accompli (just as Kuhn brings in the idea of science
progressing by revolutions long after every physicist knew about the
revolutions that were relativity and quantum theory) and, furthermore, also
like most of them, he was making a caricature of it. Newton sure didn't
work by anything like the so-called Baconian method; neither did Darwin,
although he later claimed in his biography that he did.


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