Ralph D, particle physics, and BS

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Thu Jun 22 19:27:50 MDT 1995


This stuff is very hard and as usual I do not have a theiry about it. I
think I agree with Rousseau who, discussing political freedom, explicitly
disavowed discussion of metaphysical issues. I'm not as good as R in
avoiding these. I'm also not sure that I have a great deal to add.

1. Whether determinism is true is an empirical question to which we don;t
know the answer. Quantum indeterminism is true but doesn't help with any
worries we have about agency. Relativistic determinism, governing all the
gross motions of our bodies, is also true. In both acses as far as we know
now.

a. Whether the issue will be decided, sidestepped, or confused by the
conjunction of STR, GRT, and QED in a grand unified theory we do not know.

b. If realtivistic determinism holds, the neoKantian dodge of saying that
described as actions our behavior escapes determinism (Davidson, for
example) is a cheat. (I think Howie wants to hold this view--a neoK one.)
After all, what good is it if, described as typing a reply my action is
"free" or undetermined but described as moving my hand, etc. the event had
to occur. It still had to occur.

c. I think that therefore we must prepare our defenses ofc freedom anad
agency--which, I agreew ith Rahul, are seemingly very hard to escape and
anyway why would we want to?--as if determinism were true.

2. Set preditcability aside. Predictability has nothing to dow ith
anything. Things can be such that they must in the circumstances happen as
they do and still be unpredictable for lots of reasons. Our epistemic
limits or ignorancxe. Maybe we can't compute fast enough or hold the data
to make the predictions on our brains. Maybe--more deeply--we are dealingw
ith singular causality which involves necessitation, but only inn a given
case. Maybe nbecessitation is so complex that it can only be determined
aftrer the fact, because we're dealing with open  systewms. Etc. The
issue is: must things happen as they do? Not: can it be known what will
happen? I should alkso add that predictable events are not necessarilyt in
any obvious was determined. I know which party Gingrich is going to vote
for in Nov. '96, but that doesn't mean it is determined ina ny interesting
sense that he will do so.

This means that the Popperian argument I savaged in my previous discussion
and the Merton-style reflexivity argument are both beside the point. The
issue is determination, not predictability. Anyway the reflexivity
argument isn't so good. Reflexive theories are perfectly capabable of
takling themselves into account. Marxisam predicts the rise of proletarian
theories of class struggle and socialismw ihich, it says, are necessary
for thetransition to socialism. This is quoite consistent with saying that
proletarian revolution and socialism are inevitable (although they're not).

Why don;t we have good social theories, or theories as good in the same
ways as we do in the natural science? I haven't any startlingly new
answers. I doubt, though, that we are in a position to offer an a priori
reason about why this is so (much less,a s Howie suggests, that it must be
so). I wonder whether the social sciences are worse off than evolutionary
biology, so in a sense the question (why are things so dreadful?!) may be
misguided. Of course they're full of ideological claptrap, but that's to
be expected. I also doubt whether the social sciences are more different
fro,m the natural ones than the nnatural ones are from one another.
Hair-tearinga bout the Geist-und-naturwissenschaften doesn't necesasrily
strike me as productive.

Today I sound deflationist and Rortyian. Well, he was a teacher of mine
long ago.

--Justin Schwartz




On Thu, 22 Jun 1995, Howie Chodos wrote:

> 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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