Ralph D, particle physics, and BS

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Wed Jun 21 11:17:58 MDT 1995


Howie argues that while everything is caused (actually I didn't say this),
that determinism is false. The reasons for this are that (a) even if
something is caused that doesn't mean it is predictable, and (b) even if
something is caused that does not mean it has a single determinate
outcome, or anyway one which can be known beforehand. But determinism
should not be identified with predictability, even in principle. Rather,
if something is determined, then it had to happen that way (given the
circumstances), whether we can know this beforehand or not. Determinism
shoulkd also be distinguished from fatalism, the view that things are
decided beforehand inm the sense that they had to happen that way
regardless of circumstances.

I take it that whether determinism is true is an empirical question.
Determinism is the view that everything has to happen as it does, given
the causal structure of the world and the circumstances. Do our best
scienntific theories support or undermine this claim? At the quantum
level, we know that indeterminism is true. Quantum events are in-principle
undetermined--not merely unpredictable (actually the probabity of theior
occurance is highly predictable, moreso than almost anything we know), but
undetermnined in that they could be otherwise. At the level of relativity
theory, the world is wholly deterministic. Every event had to happen as it
did. Whether this paradox will be resolved at the level of a grand Unified
Theory remains to be seen. BUT insofar as our actions are the behavior of
mass-energy in spacetime, they are determined.

At the social and
p[sychological level things are quite otherwise. We have no robust
genneralizations, statistical or other, which allow us to be confident
taht described as actions, things done for reasons, anything we do is
determined in the relevant sense. (Never mind predictable--although
actually human behavior is pretty predictable at the aggregate level.) We
might go metaphysical and say that if our actions are caused they are
determined, even if the determination is singular, applying only to
particular cases. But this would be metaphysics--whether it could be more
tham an assertion I cannot surmise.

Howie repeats the Popperian argument that the possibility of discovery
refutres determinism. This argument depends on confusing the
epistemological with the metaphysical or ontological. To discover
something is to find out something new. God makes no discoveries,
since nothing is new to her. The argument is that we do make
discoveries, so determinism is false, QED. But this doesn't even work for
the version of determinism which identifies it with predictability in
principle. All the argument shows even against that is that we cannot
square the possibility of discovery with omniscience.God makes no
discoveries. What follows from this argument is not that everything isn't
in-principle predicatble but that, since we make discoveries, we're not
God. Surprise, surprise. The argument has no implications whatsoever for
determinism as the view that everything must happen as it does given the
circumstances. If that is true, it must happen taht we don't know
everything beforehand and we must make the discoveries we do.

Determinism is clearly compatible with agency, if that means acting from
intentions or on reasons which cause our behavior. If we do so, that
doesn't show that determinism is true, just that our actions are caused.
They might be caused without being predictable or, perhaps, without
having to be what they are, and even if they are predictable and
determined that doesn't mean everything is. In fact, if quantum mechanics
is true, everything isn't.

--Justin Schwartz

On Tue, 20 Jun 1995, Howie Chodos wrote:

> 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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