Ralph D, particle physics, and BS

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Thu Jun 22 10:34:18 MDT 1995


I want to try to do two things. First, respond to / query Justin's position
on determinism. Second, briefly try a lateral tack, using an assertion drawn
from a recent article by Norman Geras in New Left Review. I confess that I
am still having trouble understanding where Justin and I differ. At times I
think I agree but then I get the impression the usage of terms starts to
move in ways that make me uneasy. At the very least Justin's responses raise
several further questions. He wrote:

>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
>should also be distinguished from fatalism, the view that things are
>decided beforehand in 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.

Fine, I think. But I now want to ask: How narrow a time frame for
"everything must happen as it does" and what is the nature of "the given
circumstances"? These questions strike me as important when we consider the
following statement, which, again seems to accurately describe the state of
play:

>At the social and psychological level things are quite otherwise. We have
no robust
>genneralizations, statistical or other, which allow us to be confident
>that described as actions, things done for reasons, anything we do is
>determined in the relevant sense.

The truly interesting issue seems to me to be why we don't have robust
psychological and social theories. Is it the nature of psychological and
social reality, or is it the insufficiency of time, or the frailty of our
faculties? Why, if we as a species have been able to develop robust theories
in the natural sciences have we been unable to do so in the social and
psychological ones? My inclination, as I've been trying to argue, is to
favour an ontological explanation. It is the nature of social and
psychological reality that precludes deterministic accounts of what is going
on. This doesn't mean non-scientific (in some sense) or non-truth producing,
simply non-deterministic.

>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. [...] 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 that we don't know
>everything beforehand and we must make the discoveries we do.

I guess what I have been trying to argue is that this is true only if our
discovery  does not affect the operation of the object of our study. I am
not qualified to say whether this is the case of the observer at the level
of quantum mechanics. But I would argue that it is the case in the social
sciences. Our discoveries have ontological implications. Consider Marxism
itself. Its fortunes as an explanatory programme and as a guide to action
certainly affect the functioning of capitalism. Our current weakness gives
capital a much freer hand than it once had. It is not that we could make up
whatever theories we want and expect them to have a major social impact. But
to the extent that we understand the social processes at work we gain
additional ability to affect the outcome. Because these social processes do
not exist outside our intentional, purposive activity (though we do not
"create" them from scratch, as Bhaskar points out) these theories,
discoveries, etc., become part of the complex processes whereby social
reality is reproduced (and transformed). And to the extent that they are in
principle unpredictable, determinism at the social and psychological level
cannot be sustained.

>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.

(Does this last sentence contradict the thrust of Justin's position?) I
think we agree that determinism has a legitimate sphere, and that there are
determinations which affect the social as well as the natural. But isn't
this another case where we have to be careful about how far we extend the
argument? If everything must happen as it does, how do I make a difference
to the outcome, unless my actions must also happen as they do? This still
strikes me as an unacceptable determinism. If the assertion that agency is
compatible with determinism means that we, as free agents, live in a world
where there are wholly deterministic processes at work that we have to
negotiate in order to survive, then I agree. If, however, it means that the
outcome of our actions, either individually or collectively, are always
determined in some strong sense then I think we disagree. This does not mean
that there are never circumstances where the degree of freedom available to
us is severely restricted. In fact it seems to me that recognition of this
fact is at the heart of most arguments against capitalism as a system which
forces people to sell their labour power. What I am trying to argue is that
what we do about it is up to us, that there is only very rarely a single
feasible course of action, and what we decide to do can make a difference in
the way that history unfolds.

Which brings me to Norman Geras' assertion that "without truth there can be
no justice" (which I will just affirm here, without trying to defend it). It
seems to me that this captures an important aspect of the relationship
between social science and human action. "Truth" about social reality is a
multi-faceted thing to be found as much in art, literature, philosophy as in
the social sciences. Science is not the only instrument of truth, but to the
extent that we need to be able to speak the truth about our lives and the
world around us in order to aspire to creating a more just world there is a
place for social scientific enquiry. Can we know the truth about capitalism?
Can we acquire sufficient confidence in the accuracy of our views so that we
can advocate radical social change that will disrupt thousands of lives with
no guarantee of success? These are the kinds of questions we need to be able
to answer in the affirmative if we are to be able to respond to the
Popperian argument that our cognitive abilities only permit "piecemeal
social engineering".

Howie Chodos




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