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Re: Social Science, Science, and Empirical Study
by Luke Rondinaro
19 July 2002 21:30 UTC
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Reply to Mike Alexander:

This reply of mine seeks to elaborate on points made in my last posting and hopefully clarify/explain statements that, for one reason or another, appear to be confusing.

(1)     The issue of Matter and Materialism:

The big thing here is we’ve got to define the nature of matter and then try to arrive at the fundamental concepts that underlie a ‘materialist’ worldview.  First thing:  We must try to get it out of our little brains/minds that “Matter = Stuff” and that it constitutes “distinct, essentialist particle-based realities that like Lego blocks are put together into bigger and larger things (the objects we sense and experience in our everyday lives, etc.)

To some extent, we should analogously frame our understanding of material entities in the way Andre Gunder Frank has done so on the topic of relational linkages (between ‘localities’ and their economic activities) in the World System.  In other words, just as more solidified, concrete entities like civilizations, societies, states, and cultures are not real things, we should also view (molecules, atoms, protons, quarks, and so on) not as concrete, real “stuff” (the little spheres of popularized misconception) but as interlocking bundles of force-energy relationships; their ‘solidity’ and concrete manifestation being a function of how much force is programmed into the system by (“Physical”) evolution.

Matter-Force-Energy relationships à The underlying dynamic of all physical reality (please note I don’t say “material” reality, because that implies the “stuff” paradigm that I absolutely don’t agree with at all).  In the basic sense, there is no real ‘stuff” but only relationships and bundles of relationships (of so-called “things”)

We say “forces” are ‘pushes or pulls’ and energy is the “capacity to do work” and/or to “the capacity to make changes happen in reference to material things.”  Well, these two definition themselves aren’t necessarily helpful either to our understanding of large-scale cosmological dynamics.  These definitions end up telling us in effect, more about what “energy” and “forces” can do for us in our applications of such phenomena than what they are in-and-of-themselves.

So, what are “forces” and what is “energy” (leaving aside the issue of “matter” for the moment)?  They seem to constitute [in a Physical sense] both the “flux” reality in the philosophical system of Heraclitus and the positive “Is” (as opposed to “ Is Not”) reality in the philosophy of Parmenides.  “Forces” would be like the underlying glue of the cosmos.  “Energy” would be the first level of complexity, building up from such primordial forces.  So energy in this context both counts (in lack of a better term) for being a “kind of stuff” that arises out of primary forces in the universe and it’s also a constitutive element of other more complex Physical structures (that we commonly call “matter.”)

Hence, (M)-F-E relationships are the primary ‘building-blocks’ of the cosmos that start out from the smallest iota of physical existence and build upward in ever-increasing levels of complexity towards these formations we call “material” forms, like subatomic particles, and upwards still to the sense objects of our everyday lives.  That is what I mean by “Matter-Force-Energy relationships”; because matter-as-such doesn’t exist except for the kinds of forces and forms of energy that constitute/shape it. 

“Fluid-dynamism” is the natural operative-state of our cosmos.  It tends to follow non-linear principles (or at the very least linear principles that from our own perception seem non-linear, indeterminate, and unpredictable ).  It is different from mechanical models because it doesn’t possess the linearity, [what we define to be] orderliness, predictability, and determinable static character that our technology does and our applied use of natural phenomena.  To use a literary term, natural things that operate by fluid-dynamism tend to be more “free-flowing” and “organic” in state than is the applied, mechanistic technology of things we do or make in our world.  

Examples:  I guess the best example would be photons and/or any other kind of wave-particles.  Is light a wave or is it a particle?  It seems to exhibit the properties of both; perhaps it’s a wave bundle à which would thereby explain its solid particle-based properties and its wave-based properties.  What I’m saying is that structurally light and all physical things (material substances like gold, energy forms light like light, heat, and sound, and forces like gravity) are composed of & comprise Force-Energy-[and hence]-Matter relationships.  If we wanted a irreducible physical form in the cosmos – and because of Fundamental Indeterminacy we still may not be able to get it – the M-F-E relationships would seemingly constitute such.  “Fluid dynamism” would describe the variance-variability of light to manifest both wave properties and particle properties in the indeterminate, free-flowing, “organic” manner described above.  Chaos and complexity can also be used in describing such phenomena.  But I actually ‘prefer’ these other terms precisely because they’re less statics-oriented.  Thinking about the motion of electrons and the naturally indeterminate electron cloud, even with chaos and complexity you would tend to have to an “unmoving” cloud that’s soley chaotic and non-determinable (“linear”) just because we haven’t found the simplifying law to mathematically describe it.  But we know electron behavior is dynamic; even the cloud doesn’t exactly stay the same as it was before in its complexity.  Nature is fundamentally “dynamic”, not “static.”

Materialism è You’re right in thinking that materialism itself doesn’t make any claim about the motion of matter (such that it is either static or dynamic); it doesn’t.  It isn’t in the definitions that it would.

This is one of those areas where I expect subtle media influence has come into play and helped to shape a kind of meaning for materialism that’s not in the definitions at all, but that influences all of us (academics and the public in general) in our basic assumptions and operative premises regarding the concept.  Not that we consciously recognize it as such and for such; for the most part we don’t.  But it definitely shows up in the context of our discussions as scientists and social scientists.  Take any present day (going back about fifty years or more) speech, essay, article, book, or the like [on the subject of Economics, Business, and Finance in the public domain] and I will guarantee to you that you’ll find a set of memetic, media-induced popular expressions showing up in the text.  I will further guarantee to you that these expressions more or less spell out the basic assumptions of the Public Materialism I mentioned in my previous posting.  Do a simple linguistic analysis on this text or these texts and you’ll find the pieces of this puzzle start coming together.  Pay close heed to the way in which key terms – “science”,“matter”,”material”, “materialism,” “empirical” and so on – are being used, the purpose the writer has in writing the text, and the hidden shades of meaning that come up in the writer’s argument, and you will begin to see what I’m talking about here.

The issue is this:  that scientific/social scientific materialists really can be both people who hold to a statics perspective on the universe (as a matter of  nature’s basic orientation) or who hold to a more dynamics-oriented perspective.  I think it’s an expression of Parmenidean-styled ideas versus Heraclitean-styled ideas that come down through the ages; each scholar and even moreso each individual choosing what model best suits him and his work/activities in life.  AGF is a historical materialist and yet his arguments in ReOrient and Centrality of Central Asia are very much characterized by a fluid-dynamic outlook on human economic activity in the world.  Christopher Dawson was a non-Materialist and Christian Humanist historian/social theorist – contemporary of  Toynbee and Spengler – and it was his work th/ became characterized by a somewhat determinist, linear, statics-oriented ( although he dealt with culture as a focus of his research) outlook on human behavior; a carryover really from 19th century deterministic” social theory.

Yet, it is this statics-oriented paradigm [which is a matter of fundamental & natural orientation, not motion], this “stuff”-oriented-focused paradigm of manifest objects and normalism – connected to 19th century scientism, social theory, and radical empiricism as its roots – that’s become the assumed norm of the Public Materialism that we see around us in our modern society in the world.  These ideational aspects may not be in the original definitions of historical and dialectical materialism, but like it or not both the public and we as intellectuals have also subconsciously picked up on & bought into some of these mimetically-based notions that come to us through the media (movies, TV entertainment and news, magazines and newspapers).  Some of these ideas are passed on through slick advertising; some aren’t.  But all are largely memial; all affect us in our subconscious’s, to do something or buy something, or buy into something.  Thus, we tend to as a society, subconsciously buy into the assumptions of this publicized, public materialism without even realizing we’re doing it when we watch our CNBC, our Weather Channel, and our Bloomberg Information Television.  What would we possibly do if our TV and radio and online Stock Market reports went off the air for a year and we couldn’t follow the soap opera of what was happening with business and finance in the world? … After the initial shock, and granted it would be a SHOCK, the world would go on economically and we would go on (personally and as [socio]economic analysts).  The effects of this mimetically-fed Public Materialism would wear off; but then again we might live again and get a picture of what real Materialism (is/was) by reading about it from actual books/journals and not the glitzy fare of Time and Newsweek and other highly commercialized periodicals like them.

(2)  The issue of Science and Empirical Inquiry:

The model of science that’s been outlined by MA is certainly not a bad one (by any means), but a misleading and misapplied understanding of it can be both erroneous and detrimental for the scientist or social scientist who uses it in regard to his or her own field; bad ideas (+ bad data) can make a difference … for the worse.

Problem # 1 – with regards to such a model – people using a skewed understanding of it could end up thinking (under this framework) that as long as something been proven to them in their own concrete, personal experience that’s it has been  proven in the real far beyond a reasonable doubt.  This notion places far too much credit and emphasis on a person’s personal experience and the unaided power of his/her own senses (& ‘scientific’ observations)  What’s to say that this or that persons observations, senses, and experience is any more of a valid proof than anybody else’s?  Case in point, why should my seeing an elephant with my own two eyes make elephants any more real now that I’ve seen it and experienced it?  Why should this be any more valid (and anymore valid for me) than being told about by another person and/or reading about another person’s observations of elephants.  This may be more an issue of reasoning and philosophy, but it’s this funny sort of pragmatist, utilitarian philosophy that many scientists have bought into hook, line, and sinker?  Why should this idea of personal pragmatic philosophy of finding out for oneself  be any more valid scientifically than the observations and words of others on a given subject?  Why at times does the power of this notion seem to trump even the empirical work of others’ research on a topic when these others have the added validation of verifying their personal observations with instrumental readings and, to whatever extent, the power of repeatability and predictions?  Why should personal verification of a fact be any more of a validation for the reality of a given phenomenon than another person’s work?  It seems to me that it shouldn’t.  But what do you think? ...

Problem #2 – regarding such a model – is an assumption that instrumental readings somehow validate one’s sense perceptions and scientific observations; and certainly to a degree they can.  (Furthermore by repeatability and probability-predictions one’s assessments can be further validated via the comparison of results)  However, here’s the problem with such a notion.  If one’s own observations are incorrect (and one’s sense perception have been put off-kilter by a set of unwarranted premises); how then can those same sense perceptions themselves be trusted for correctly taking readings of data gathered through instrumentation?  Let me put it this way; If Postmodern Theory is right and our cultural and personal systems of meaning shape the way we “”see”” the world – and thus take readings and interpret info. from our instruments – then how can any of us be assured that our scientific observations are correct, [even after we’ve gotten comparative results from others’ empirical research, we’ve replicated the results ourselves, and been able to some extent make various kinds of probabilistic or more determinable predictions]?  What really is it in the power of our senses and {active} perceptions to be able to do (supposing that our mental processing shapes the way we perceive the [so-called] real world)?  If we can’t ‘see’ the way things really are, what can we by our sense perceptions do in order to get an accurate assessment of our environment?  What do you think?  [And, perhaps Francesco Ranci could chime in here on the answer to this question also.]

Problem #3 – determination and goals in one’s science – You say

[Mike:]  Well of course [[the field one’s in, very much so, determines/(picks & chooses) the manner of empiric orientation and the kinds of data a scientist utilizes]].  You did not address my point that empirical demonstration is a key element of science.  Scientists need to be convinced that an idea "works" before they will buy it.

I will grant that empirical demonstration is important.  Although, I would like to know how such demonstration works in more of an indeterminate natural world, as such would be the case with our cosmos?  Can there be any more to it than just intellectually ‘convincing’ another person (i.e., rhetorical persuasion) that an idea works, (especially since our concrete practical empirically-scientific observations and senses are so much tied in with our own mental and cultural systems of meaning)?  If it is not , then wouldn’t one’s science be acting in no more than a superficial manner regarding empirical investigations and one’s own concrete, practical demonstrations of scientific principles?  What do you think?

[Luke:]   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 …

[Mike:]  Here you are talking about the different goals between science and technology, which I discussed before.  I don't see how the basic activities or approaches of the two are different.  Both science and engineering use a type of knowledge acquisition based on observation, reasoning, and repeatability

They’re different due to the fact that … just because all scientists may use praxis and techne in their understanding of the universe [and this means that all scientists can be engineers of a sort, at least to the degree in which their doing or making something allows them to understand the principles of nature] … not all engineers are (or even can be) scientists (even with all their lifelong projects of praxis and techne lumped together).  Would a small-town car mechanic from the 1950’s be a scientist?  Would a blacksmith from PreModern times be a scientist?  I’m not sure they would because, even with all their lifelong praxis and techne (and even if they in retrospect made something or did something that contributed to the betterment of humankind and the history of technology) without the episteme of trying to better understand the universe and the laws of nature as their objective, all they would be was merely tinkerers.  If all I do is to make things (inventions, innovations) or do things (creation or perfection of a productive process), such that this is all I ever do in life with no epistemological direction at all in understanding the natural world, I would still not be a scientist.  Without scientia and scientiaefic reasoning which has its end in the attempt at discovery of natural truths about the cosmos, one wouldn’t and cannot be a scientist, despite having all the techne and praxis in the world.  It’s not that techne and praxis don’t help move science along.  They most certainly do.  But unless the understanding is engaged and actually helps guide the praxis and techne towards an epistemological end, there is no science to the work of the doer, the maker, and the inventor.

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