Epochal trajectories

Howie Chodos howie at magi.com
Tue Mar 7 23:39:16 MST 1995


Steve Keen posted the following:

>Paul Cockshott recently posted the following in a comment on
>the transition from one society to another:
>
>I am fully in sympathy with this approach. Any developmental process
>of things as complex as societies is bound to be goverened by
>probabalistic laws. But for there to be a direction to history
>all that one requires is that the transition probabilities in
>one direction - summed over time and social ensembles - are
>greater than the reverse transition probabilities.
>
>Hate to play the devil's advocate here, but if social forces are
>chaotic/nonlinear, then such probability summing doesn't work. A
>chance event at one point in time can have cumulative impacts far
>beyond its probabilistic weighting. Economists are beginning to
>apply this notion of "path dependency" to such questions as why
>we continue to use the inferior QWERTY keyboard, but it applies
>to much bigger questions such as societal change too. A few
>chance events in history can have a lot more impact than the
>summing argument would imply.

I've always found the example of the QWERTY keyboard a convincing refutation
of certain kinds of technological determinism. The fact that the keyboard
layout originated in order to make it more difficult for typists to type so
that they wouldn't jam the typewriter keys as often, is an indication of how
technological inefficiency can become embedded in certain "paths" of
development. And the myriad ways in which this technological inefficiency
ensures its own reproduction would seem to scupper any notion of continuous,
linear progress.

Whether it scuppers all notions of necessary progress depends, I think, on
whether or not you agree with Paul about the plausibility of the idea of a
probabilistic direction to history. My understanding of a probabilistic law
is that you can never be sure of its application in any particular instance.
Even if it were true that 50% of smokers died of lung cancer, that still
leaves the other half who don't, so there is no certainty that you as a
smoker will die of lung cancer. Yet if you do we can say that it was caused
by smoking. The question is whether this same kind of probabilistic thinking
can help us understand human evolution.

Then there are the chance occurrences. The meteor which struck the earth 65
million years ago and helped extinguish the dinosaurs, was what allowed
enough space for the smaller mammals to flourish, and ultimately made us
possible. In at least 65 million years there has not been another one with
similar ecological consequences. That certainly seems like a chance event.
And one with a decisive impact on us all.

Now I don'y know if it's fair to drag Juan Inigo into this discussion, since
he's just left for 6 weeks, but there are elements of his reply to Fellini
that I think are relevant in this context. Any notion of necessity in
historical development has to be translated at some point in time into
motivated action by living persons. My question is whether the recognition
of our capacity to innovate is enough to defeat determinism (and whether its
recognition pushes in a different direction from the one in which Juan seems
to be headed).

Juan wrote: "my action can only be a free one if I rule it by having
completely discovered its necessity, its determination", and that "'Free'
will is a completely determined will, not the abstract negation of its
determination." I do not contest the determinations but I don't share Juan's
confidence that we can ever obtain a complete knowledge of them. And if we
cannot, this would seem to rule out freedom in the way that he has them linked.

Moreover there is an inherent ambiguity in all these formulations. Who is
the I doing the thinking here? Even his most basic statement, his
counterpoint to Bhaskar's transcendental question, postulates an "I" capable
of cognizing necessity. But if we are capable of cognizing necessity, then
are we not also capable of transcending it? To put it another way, is a law
which is known different from a law which is unknown? And if we are able to
transcend "necessity", in what way is it still necessary? this is where the
capacity to innovate seems to me to be decisive. It is what permits our
individuality and it embodies our capacity to offer new, unpredictable (in
principle) responses to old situations.

This does not negate the existence of multiple, real determinations. But it
does mean that we can never be completely determined. It means that we have
choices that are real, and that what we do today matters. I suppose,
ultimately, that this is another way of saying that the personal is
political. It also strikes me that Juan's position needs complete knowledge
in order to ensure freedom, while the one that I find more plausible sees
freedom as one result of our living in the kind of world that prevents us
from ever having a complete knowledge of it.

Howie Chodos



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