Ralph D, particle physics, and BS

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Tue Jun 20 19:53:37 MDT 1995


I want to follow up on comments made by Rahul, Justin and Paul. To begin, I
will try to state succinctly how I understand the relationship between three
terms which recur in this discussion, causality, determinism and prediction.
As Justin notes, as long as one accepts that intentions (or more generally
reasons) cause actions, we can affirm that everything has a cause. My sense
is that it is this causality that science (both social and natural) attempts
to explain. However the ubiquity of causality does not mean that everything
is decided beforehand. Causality does not imply determinism, or a single
necessary outcome to a particular array of causal factors. This is because
certain causal processes are inherently unpredictable, and their precise
contribution to the final outcome can only be known after the fact. The
degree of necessary contingency varies depending on the nature of the
processes being studied. Some will be more determinate than others, some
will be more predictable than others. There are closed systems where there
will be a very high degree of determinism.

Rahul wrote:

>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.

My point concerning the differences between the natural and social sciences
is an ontological one. The object of study of the social sciences has the
peculiar feature that it is sustained (reproduced or transformed to use
Bhaskar's terms) only in and through the intentional activity of living
human beings. This is not the case for the objects of study of the natural
sciences. In this sense it is Rahul's example that misses the point. Yes it
would be possible for a solitary social scientist to make an accurate
prediction. The point I was trying to make is that as soon as she reveals
the content of, and reasoning behind, her prediction she alters the very
object of her study. This is different from predicting that a billiard ball
will behave in a precise fashion when struck in a particular way. It is also
inevitable, and I am not sure that social science can ever be "neutral" with
regards to the impact of its conclusions. This does not mean that it cannot
aspire to the same standards of scientific rigour in formulating those
conclusions as the natural sciences.

Now I never claimed to have fully thought through the implications of this
ontological difference in the objects of study of the various sciences. But
I do think that it introduces elements of contingency into the nature of
living systems (and here I am inclined to see an overlap between the human
and the non-human) that are incompatible with strong notions of determinism.
If the object of study contains ambiguities, uncertainties, contingencies as
part of its very nature then shouldn't our theories seek to encompass those
features rather than attempt to eradicate them in the name of a spurious
scientificity? (If memory serves, A. K. Sen makes this point eloquently in
_Inequality Re-examined_)


Paul wrote:

>I do not see that there is any inherent contradiction
>between an idea of determinism and of science.
>In a deterministic view, the state of the world
>is such that at certain points in time the corpus
>of scientific knowledge contains some given amount
>of data. This prescribes the experiments and
>investigations possible in the next time period.
>The underlying reality determines the results of
>the experiments, and together this deterines the
>state of knowledge in the next time period.

I am not trying to argue that there are no deterministic processes, but
simply that determinism does not exhaust the category of what can be termed
scientific. In Paul's description of science I think it is important to note
that he begins by assuming a certain corpus of scientific knowledge which
contains a given amount of data. Was this corpus pre-ordained? Rahul noted
earlier in this discussion that scientific discovery is locally contingent.
It seems to me that the process described by Paul, while not being a
description that I would necessarily object to, can be thought to be
deterministic only if one posits a necessary unfolding to our knowledge of
the world. Otherwise the starting point, the existing corpus of scientific
knowledge has to be accorded a degree of contingency.

Justin wrote:

>For once Paul and I agree, and Howie should know better. Determinism,
>which is certainly as true as relativity theory and classical mechanics,
>wholly deterministic theories, and false (in physics) only on the quantum
>level, is compatible with agency, if we understand agency to require that
>my actioins are caused bny my intentions. Determinism isn't the same thing
>as predictbility-in-principle unless you regard causation as givong you
>predictability, which isn't obvious. But even if our actions are
>predictable-in-principle, they may still be ours, and actions in the
>relevant sense. Howie also dusts off Popper's bad old argument that
>science requires discovery and since discovery means finding out something
>new, it excludes predictability-in-principle. That fails for the reason
>cited above (causation doesn't mean predictability), but also because I
>don';t see why science requires discovery in that sense--God, who knows
>everything if she exists, has all the scientific knowledge there could be.
>Science as a body of knowledge is quite distinct from the process of
>discovery.

Well maybe I should know better, but that is largely irrelevant to the
substantive issues here. I get a bit of a feeling of deja vu as the
discussion on whether there is a direction to historical development from a
few months ago flashes before my weary eyes. I must admit that I find this
paragraph a trifle too condensed to know exactly how to respond. I tried to
clarify my position on the relationship between causality, predictability
and determinism above, and I can't honestly say whether I feel that I agree
with Justin or not. I am, however, inclined to think that it is not Popper's
argument per se but his uses of it that are objectionable, but then my
knowledge of Popper is sketchy at best. The question is what is
unpredictable here? It seems to me to be a sound argument that elements of
scientific discovery are in principle unpredictable. Will we find a cure for
AIDS? Will we discover WARP engines and boldly go...? Will we achieve a
scientific consensus on the nature of human consciousness?

It is not only science that involves discovery but potentially so do all
forms of human action. The capacity to knowingly (and reflexively) develop
new responses to old dilemmas, new ways of doing things, new ways of talking
about things, all seem to me to contain some important common elements.


And finally, back to Rahul:

>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?

Clearly there is no consensus amongst self-defined Marxists on most crucial
issues, and the views of Marxists achieve an even lower degree of acceptance
in both the social scientific and general communities. But the underlying
thrust of the argument here seems to me to be heading in the direction of
denying the possibility that an oppositional doctrine could ever contain a
scientific analysis of social relations. As I said in a previous post we are
confronted by the dilemma of either accepting as scientific types of
conclusions that are different from the natural sciences, or of denying
large swathes of social studies the appellation scientific. The criterion of
consensus is even trickier with regards to the social than the natural
sciences (though I think that a case can be made that it is never
straightforward there either). In the social sciences, as I have been
arguing, conclusions become particularly entangled in the web of prevailing
social relations, and I do not expect that the conclusion that capitalism
needs to be transformed will ever be accepted by the entire social
scientific community, no matter how scientifically it is defended. One
question this raises is how to identify the group of people whose consensus
on a given issue can be taken as the "necessary" reflection of the
scientificity of the argument in question.

I suspect that I have not come much closer to answering Rahul's question
about what constitutes social science, but I have to stop here.

Howie Chodos



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