Chaos theory and dialectics

Chris M. Sciabarra sciabrrc at is2.NYU.EDU
Wed Sep 20 05:48:34 MDT 1995

On Wed, 20 Sep 1995, Chris Burford wrote:

> Jerry's "Fourth question:
> what is the *specific* relationship between chaos theory
> (in *all* of its variations) and dialectics?
> I think this requires an attempt at an overview of these two theoretical
> approaches in their concrete historical context. It also requires taking
> a marxist epistemological stand that the reality of the universe exists,
> and that all ideas can at best only partially reflect it.
> My dictionary tells me that "dialectics" is derived from the
> exercise by mediaeval church men of structured disputation. (Hence the
> expression about the devil's advocate.) I am not sure to what
> extent through Aristotle or Plato they had connections with the
> Socratic method of disputation, faithfully recorded by Plato.
> Without knowing Aristotle well enough (can Chris S help?) I assume that
> although he was a great synthesiser, his writings show strong evidence
> of the effect of trying to understand reality in a disciplined
> scientific way through looking at different aspects of the situation.

	Good assumption, Chris B!  Aristotle, throughout all his works,
practices a dialectical method of disputation, in that he always studies
a problem from many different vantage points and on many different levels
of generality.  He did however, part from Plato and others, who believed
that only disputation could yield "truth" -- in essence, Aristotle is a
bit more epistemologically realist than that.  However, scholars like
Terence Irwin argue, quite persuasively I think, that Aristotle uses a
"strong dialectic" in arguing for ontological foundations on the basis of
"negative demonstration."
	I enjoyed the rest of this post....

> The discipline of disputation whether it is the Socratic method
> or mediaeval "dialectics" I suggest can be seen as a method of science
> suitable to a society without printing, and only laborious hand-written
> books. (Legends, which often having dialectical aspects to them, are
> sufficient for societies where hand written records are not necessary and
> the understanding of the universe is passed down only orally.)
> Dialectics as we venerate it, of the 18th and 19th centuries, is
> in a world of printing. Hegel could not only elaborate a complex
> structure of many apparently opposing interactions and their overall
> synthesis, but he could see its reproduction in sufficient
> quantities and imagine he was aproaching the height of consciousness.
> Printing is central to this process. The catch is that someone may
> manage to get published an alternative synthesis.
> Chaos theory is virtually inconceivable except in a world of computers.
> In one sense therefore it is wise to see these theories as linked to
> the material base, without of course being mechanically deterministic
> about it.
> Given that all these theories are crude approximations to the
> wonderful richness of the universe, I confess my bias that chaos theory
> is "more scientific" than 19th century dialectics. I will therefore
> address Jerry's question by rephrasing it to ask, if chaos theory
> is now accepted as a recognised part of science, does this explain
> anything about the workings of the universe that illuminates why 19th
> century dialectics approached questions the way it does?
> Yes I can see some features.
> 1) In a pattern that has some permanence over time there is usually
> a mutually balanced feedback system between processes that could
> in one sense be called opposed, but in the overall sense are complementary.
> Ingestion and excretion. Heat loss-heat retention. Production-consumption.
> The scrupulousness with which Marx looks at the commodity from all
> different angles is a way of studying a dynamical system fluctuating
> over time, without the advantage of more complex modelling methods.
> 2) One divides into two in dialectics. This is linked to the previous
> point. It illustrates how discussion of the different factors of an
> apparently coherent entity can illuminate in turn counterposing
> features. A stone appears hard, but it is in the main a lattice of
> empty space. Under certain conditions the balance of elasticity and
> inflexibility will break down, and what appeared to us to be
> such a durable stone, will be a stone no more.
> 3) Fractal scaling: each increasing power of magnification may show a
> picture of comparable complexity to that at the lower level of
> magnification. And this is not academic or a mere curiosity. The fine
> detail at the higher power of magnification may illuminate a crucial point
> about why the broader picture is at it is. Hence the validity of the
> marxist principle that the concrete analysis of concrete conditions is
> [I have forgotten how the quote goes - can anyone help?] - very important.
> Thus the mess of Yugoslavia requires concrete analysis before it is
> really possible to clarify a principled marxist line. With Bryan taking
> advantage of his personal visit and connections, and me pursuing other
> sources, it has been possible to get deeper and deeper into this with
> some semblance of rationality. For example we have zoomed into discover
> the contradiction between town and country. In order to study the
> class ideology it is necessary to turn up the magnification still further:
> what happens in a village between two peasant neighbours when a cow
> dies. Ridiculous? Not ridiculous. Their lives depend on that cow.
> This is not to say that the whole war in Yugoslavia is to be explained
> by a microscopic examination of envy and jealousy in cattle rearing,
> but no serious scientific analysis *rules out* the possible role of
> such fractal scaling of attention. Dialectics in the idiom of the 19th
> century was very prepared to shift focus in this war, and then to shift
> back again.
> 4) Phase changes - chaos theory shows how in some situations a small
> alteration in the factors may produce a big change. The temperature drops
> one degree, and all the molecules of water realign themselves in chains
> to form a glassy matrix, of slightly less density. The saying from
> dialectics that marxists know, is about quantitative changes leading
> to quantitative ones. It can be observed not only with water at the
> freezing or boiling point, but with societies, when there is occasionally
> and all too unpredictably a period of rapid explosive change, a revolution.
> Any other similarities between the two theoretical approaches?
> Chris B, London.
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