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Re: Social Science, Science, and Empirical Study
by Luke Rondinaro
12 July 2002 16:51 UTC
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Mike Alexander wrote:

<[Mike:] ...  Quantum mechanics certainly was a paradigm change but that's almost 80 years ago, hardly recent.  Complexity and Chaos are not new in a fundamental sense  … realization of just how complex a behavior can result from extremely simple nonlinear equations.  Chaos refers to the seemingly random behavior that can result from a very deterministic process  (e.g. my billiard example) Complexity is the study of seemingly random patterns for what might lie underneath.

In Chaos the process that creates the seemingly random pattern is not random; it is deterministic--but it looks random.  Could it be that other things, that look random might actually it be controlled by some underlying deterministic "law".  People who study complexity are trying to find such hypothetical laws.  So far little has come out of chaos or complexity, and perhaps nothing ever will.  But one can't know what one will find unless one looks, right?  So some people are looking into these things.

On the other hand, there was a paradigm shift in the way some scientists  felt about the world.  A 19th  century scientist may have well believed (felt) that, in principle, one could "calculate" how the weather (and other things) would unfold into the future. Once the nature of the equations became known we saw that an exactly correct model can fail to produce exact predictions, or any useful predictions at all.  That is, even if a theory of everything could be found, there would still be uncertainty in the world

So chaos has finished what quantum mechanics started; the destruction of the belief (or faith if you will) that some 19th century scientists (and many nonscientists) held that some day we would be able to understand (predict) everything and so there was no longer any room for religion, moral philosophy and other "nonscientific" ways of knowing.  The result of this destruction has been for scientists to largely "stick to their knitting" and use their tools/methods on those problems for which useful and interesting results can be obtained with a reasonable expenditure of effort.>

Your right.  Quantum Mechanics was a paradigm change 80 years ago; Complexity and Chaos aren’t new in a sense of basic frameworks that have (just) ‘popped’ onto the historical scene in a temporal sense.  But all three are ‘qualitatively’ new in that they represent a differentiation from a Newtonian-fundamentalist framework that constituted a dominant feature of scientific enquiry for many years indeed some centuries, from the dawn of the Scientific Revolution unto the advent of newer models in the Twentieth Century.

Yet, these words we use to determine the ‘new’ and the ‘old’ are somewhat arbitrary and indeterminate themselves.  “Contemporary” has been used both for ‘what’s happening right now’ and “what happened in the last fifty to a hundred years.’  The “Present” can mean both a literal ‘today” and the particular century in which one is situated.  And, “Modern” – I seen that used indiscriminately for the Twentieth Century, the Twentieth and Nineteenth centuries, and as far back as 1500 AD/CE.  So when we talk about something being recent or not recent, we must realized that there is a broad reach to the term.

Of course, the biggest part of the change we’re talking about was (indeed) in the way that “some scientists felt about the world” [as you put it].  I agree wholeheartedly with you here on this point.  The question is … what does such a thing actually represent? ( -> a philosophical perspective on the part of these scientists, more of a personal point of view from the various scientists themselves, or in fact a particular scientific viewpoint within the discipline) (whether we’re talking about our literal present or about the dominant view(s) of the 17th , 18th, and 19th centuries)  That is the crux of what needs to be answered on this issue.

<[Mike:]  It's not a return to Renaissance, Medieval and Ancient ways of thinking.  It’s simply a realization that the tools of science, although powerful, are not all-powerful.  Scientists are still the empirically-focused materialists we always were when we are doing science.  But that doesn't mean we necessarily are empirical materialists when we are doing other things, such as loving our spouses, dealing with difficult people, or practicing our religion.>

No, it’s not a literal return to R,M,A modes of thinking.  But what it probably is more is the loose rehashing of basic metaphorical and/or memetic-symbolic devices over particular periods in history (‘symbolic cycles’, as it were, to cite John Fraim’s concept that he brought up on the Longwaves list).

Yet, you are correct that it basically amounts to the fact that the “realization that the tools of science … are not all-powerful” (in a nuts-and-bolts, pragmatic kind of way).

Here’s the clincher of where I see a problem in your argument.  You say “scientists are still the empirically-focused materialists we always were when we are doing science.”  What does this really mean? … I understand the ‘when we are doing science’ part.  What I don’t understand is the term “empirically-focused materialists.”  That expression is very problematic.  By way of an example, I looked up the definitions of dialectic and historical materialism on Louis Proyect’s Marxism Mailing List site.  As far as I can tell, there’s really nothing in those definitions that could pose an irreconcilable difference with Chaos, Complexity, Relativity theory, or Quantum Mechanics.  Nothing whatsoever.  {Even I, with my own philosophical commitments to Western Classical thought, literary models for the sake of expressing certain important principles in human experience and the natural world, plus my great interest in the above theories of C,C,R, and QM – but also Buckminster Fuller’s Synergetics and Whole Systems Theory, even I could legitimately be a historical or dialectical ‘materialist’ and still keep my commitments to all these other models as well.}  There’s really nothing in the definitions given that could exclude or contradict the basic premises of any of these other fields.  (At least that’s my own personal opinion, no more and no less.)

Yet, if we look at the use of the term ‘materialist’ as it’s used in public (which is a model that posits a universe of objective, static-state matter {set against another view of the cosmos as being one of fluid-dynamism with layer upon layer of matter-force-energy relationships within itself}) there’s a level of meaning that’s not in the definitions; a level of meaning having more to do with what I call normalism, manifest objects, ‘what you see is what you get’, and the idea that matter is “just stuff” (as I’ve explained in earlier posts here on WSN).  The ‘materialism’ of the “Material Girl” (Madonna) is a very different materialism from the ‘materialism’ [and thus the empirically-focused materialism] of scientists.  And its different even from the materialism of social scientists: among whom, of the more pragmat., util., domestic social science variety – which is itself almost indistinguishable from social work and human services – there’s the most similarity to this media-driven materialism of the public sphere.  Even Professor Andre Gunder Frank is a [historical] materialist; and nowhere do I see in his works this other kind of materialism I’ve mentioned.  For all intensive purposes, it’s not there because this other (consumerist, commercialized) materialism is really not the materialism of scientists and social scientists.  It’s a cheap, superficial substitute (which, if social scientists ever thought of embracing or have done so already out of pragmatic, utilitarian concerns involving a commitment to concrete, ‘relevant’ social issues), they should abandon it for a less shallow model.

<[Mike:]  No.  Studying a phenomenon in situ will often not provide the information you need to understand what is going one in a reasonable amount of time.  If we can bring it into the lab to study it, that's great, but sometimes you can't do that.  For historical sciences (like what Diamond does) you can't.  Astronomers can't either.  Even if you can bring it into the lab that won't mean you will be successful.  You do your lab work and that gives you an idea of what happens.  You then have to go out and see if the same thing happens in the real world (now that you have identified an important variable you know what to look for).  If it doesn't happen the way you predict then you missed something and back to the lab you go.  Its iterative, and one doesn't always succeed.  By going to the lab one does simplify the system, sometimes fatally.  One finds this out by failing to obtain an accurate description even after many tries.  A good example is ecology.  Ecological systems can have too many interconnections to study them in labs, even very large ones.  Hence a lot of observation is needed.  Lab work can still be used to look at relatively independent pieces of the whole system.>

I see no big or real problem in your description/explanation here.  It’s good.  For the most part, I can go along with you on this …

<[Mike:]  No.  Both scientists and engineers (like Harrison) are empiricists.  I have a B.S.

in chemistry (scientia) and a Ph. D. in chemical engineering (techne/praxis) so I have a foot in both worlds.  The difference between us is in motivation, not our methods of knowing.  Scientists wish for knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  Engineers wish for knowledge for the sake of people.  >

Yes, to a certain degree …

 Scientists are "empiriologists" (Martin O Vaske’s (S.J.) An Introduction to Metaphysics, Omaha:  Creighton University, Philosophy Textbooks, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc, 1963]; engineers are technical empiricists whose work with experimentation and raw data is oriented towards the invention/innovation of a particular product and/or the perfection of a productive process.  Yet, there’s even a difference in the way in which they work with and apply the use of their data in each respective instance; the (end/goal/purpose) of science and engineering really does in a way shape the kinds of data itself that both groups work with in their respective research fields.  Even, moreso, is this the case among various kinds of scientific fields.  The work – and thus the data also  – of a Copernicus or a Kepler, is going to be different from a Galileo, is going to be different from a Newton, is going to be substantially- qualitatively (empirically) different from a Harrison (even though all these scientists are empiricists)(in other words, the field one’s in, very much so, determines/(picks & chooses) the manner of empiric orientation and the kinds of data scientist utilizes in his or her own field).

Another good source I’m finding very helpful to me on this topic is in Ch. 4 (GLOBAL ECONOMY) of Andre Gunder Frank’s ReOrient in the intro. of the section about QUALITIES:  SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY/EUROCENTRISM REGARDING SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY IN ASIA, Pgs. 185-195).  Again, and actually in support of both our positions to a certain extent [[clearly there’s this connection of scientia to praxis we’ve been discussing, plus the notion that praxis/techne really does in this actual sense determine the character of Science & therefore made Science today what it is, although the Scientific theories of the early Early Modern European scientists did not have as much of an effective technological impact on the growth of the field as Asiatic craftsmanship ‘industries’ and technology did …]] we find Science not so much influenced technological development leading to the Industrial Revolution (in Europe) but that the globalizing World Economy – as an Asian based phenomenon – influenced technological development which in turn had a (later) influence upon Science.  [Thus, European scientific theory may not have been originally conceived with the same sort of practical techne we today notice in the field as a driving characteristic of Science; this techne was a carryover from an Asian milieu.]

So, Science is still empirical, but that particular brand of techne and praxis that science exhibits today and began to exhibit in force [from really the 17th to the 19th centuries] (as the potential-for-such fully actualized in the final decades of the 19th) is itself – and was – a function (not of  Science as episteme & scientia) (but) of practical technology and Asian craftsmanship technologies which were/was, in turn, diffused into Europe and led consequently to the rise of the empirical kind of Science we know at present. And, it is this kind of Science we find indistinguishable from Technology.  {It is this fact, I believe, that substantiates my own opinion on the subject; though Science may always have had a techne associated with it thr/out human history, the brand of empiricist Techne that we associate with today’s Science may not be necessarily part-and-parcel of what it means, on principle, for a study to be Science][Science still is fundamentally Scientia & then secondarily techne and praxis.  This, of course, isn’t to say the contribution of an Asian-based Techne was (or is) unimportant.  It is!  But Science is still about the episteme of trying to understand the nature, processes, and phenomena of the universe primarily.  Only secondarily is it about how we use it to improve peoples lot in life.  And, this is true for both the Natural/Physical Sciences and the Social Sciences]


In conclusion, I’ve also found the other recent posts by Francesco Ranci. Damian Popolo, and Eduard Prugovecki all very fascinating and helpful to me in my own further understanding of this crucial topic.  The material on the ‘probibilizing revolution’ & ‘Virtuality’ is quite interesting (Popolo) and so to is the distinction Ranci draws between Deterministic Laws and Probabilistic Laws.  Eduard Prugovecki’s seems perhaps to be one of the most interesting of these posts; there is indeed “a fundamental indeterminacy in nature” as he points out.  The question is: how?  And, still, how can we move from the very complexities of our own mental processing as it actively conceptualizes this (‘determinism’ versus ‘indeterminacy)’ to the natural indeterminacy that we’re discussing and debating at this point?  Also, how many people on this list thought of the indeterminacy/probibilizing hierarchy or process in scientific thought [moving from most deterministic to least] started out with Deterministic Science (Newtonian Mechanics, et al) to (Quantum Mechanics and Relativity) to Chaos and Complexity as opposed to the model mentioned by Prugovecki?  Finally, in terms of whatever model we go by when we consider Deterministic Science/Quantum Mechanics and Relativity/Chaos and Complexity, where does social science stand closest to in terms of its ideas and methods? … What do you all think?  I look forward to your responses.


Luke R.

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