[Marxism] Hegel : 'hopeless baggage'?

Leigh Phillips leigh.phillips at gmail.com
Fri Jan 10 16:30:48 MST 2014

Mark Lause and Shaun May appear to want to draw a sharp line between the
predictive capacity of the natural sciences and the social sciences
(correct me if this is an unfair reduction of what you both intended).

I think it is more the case that there is a continuum from the natural
sciences through to the social sciences. Furthermore, I don't believe that
the distinction is useful. At the end of the day, all humans are nothing
more than the physical particles that make us up, which are as subject to
physical laws as the particles that make up plants and sausages and salt
crystals and asteroids.

At the classical (that is, non-quantum) level, the universe is
deterministic. The probabilistic non-determinism at the quantum level
remains a bit of a bugger, but regardless, this randomness has nothing to
say about the determinism (and hence predictability) of human society
composed of humans composed of physical particles.

The religious will argue that there is something else, something special,
with humans, but this substance dualism founders when required to explain
how a non-physical substance (the soul) affects and is affected by physical
substances (the body, our 'blood and guts').

In any case, the materialist rejects this.

And where do the natural sciences end and social sciences begin? Is
neuroscience biology, psychology or sociology? Clearly you cannot do
neuroscience without biology, but neuroscience without a sociological
understanding - neuro-determinism - is as reductive as genetic determinism.

The problem with the different determinisms (genetic determinism,
neurodeterminism, economic determinism, even early-childhood determinism
[from some parts of the attachment theory community]) is not that humans
and human society is not deterministic, but that it is insufficient to only
look at one tiny collection of variables (genes, neurons, the economic
base, a nurturer's relationship with a child before the age of two, etc.)
while ignoring all the other variables. Taken all together (a very
difficult, but not in principle impossible, task) - an 'integrated'
determinism, if you will, would be fine.

Ultimately, the source of the false dichotomy between the natural and
social sciences is that there are two factors that present ever thornier
problems as one moves from physics to chemistry to biology to psychology to
sociology: a) the number of variables involved in a system being studied
increase dramatically, making prediction harder (but not impossible), and
b) that humans are ever more internal to the system they are studying,
making it impossible to find an external, objective location from which to
study the system.

But the latter problem is not unique to social systems. Our unacknowledged
biases affect even the study of physics and chemistry. Even mathematics is
not immune to social conditioning! Think of the difficulties Georg Cantor
had with the acceptance of set theory, given the prejudice at the time that
reserved consideration of infinity to the church or even God Himself.

We will always be hidebound by social conditions influencing our
investigations, but through reason (and struggle!), we get asymptotically
ever better at avoiding them, correcting them, and better knowing the world
while never actually being able to know the world perfectly in its

No, there is no 'natural sciences' which are objective, observing
deterministic systems about which predictions can be derived on the one
hand, and 'social sciences' which are subjective, observing
non-deterministic systems about which predictions are impossible.

And as for a) - the number of variables involved, this is basically ever
more manageable as well. Slowly, as our understanding and processing power
expands, the mathematicity and scientificity of social sciences expands as
well, and alongside this, the accuracy and precision of our predictions in
this realm. This has happened to all sciences in the past and will continue
to occur into the future. (There does appear to be an upper limit beyond
which problems begin to be intractable, but computational complexity theory
is a discussion for another time, and, really for individuals far more
knowledgable in that area than I am)

These are not interesting but abstract discussions. Computational social
science, computational archaeology, even mathematical history or
cliodynamics exist as disciplines, even if the latter field is a little
over-hubristic in its claims of what it can do at the moment (but I'm sure
this science will mature in the coming decades and produce some remarkably
rigorous sociological findings).

Meanwhile, outside the academy, we have the worrying development of
'predictive policing', using algorithmic tools predicting likely human
behaviour not too different from Google's PageRank and the backend of
Amazon's book recommendations and Facebook's friend suggestions.

But responding to the advent of predictive policing with an anti-positivist
"Human society is inherently unpredictable" would kind of get the wrong end
of the stick, as if were criminality predictable, predictive policing would
then be okay. (And while predictive policing is clunky and inaccurate
today, in the coming years, undoubtedly it will improve its accuracy). No -
we argue against predictive policing because of its profoundly totalising

We live in a deterministic universe (again with the quantum caveats) and
human society is (in principle) predictable. These are not scary things. On
the contrary: if this were not the case, the universe would be a very
unnerving and inexplicable place indeed.

Leigh Phillips
European Affairs Journalist & Science Writer
leigh.phillips at gmail.com
Twitter: Leigh_Phillips

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