by MPD, March 2011

Hi Sunshine,

A short philosophical digression from your crazy Dad … your mileage may vary.

It’s all Issac Newton’s fault. His formulation of a “clockwork universe” as a infinitely large machine that operated according to natural laws in absolute time, space, and motion provided the intellectual fodder for other elites in the Enlightenment to apply those same principles to societal issues. For surely, if one can explain the movements of the planets and stars mathematically, one can discover, by “rational” thought, similar mechanisms in other areas of human behavior – be they political, economic, or philosophic.

Alas, two problems arose – neither of which are admitted to by the practitioners of these disciplines. First, is the problem of scale. Sir Newton’s mathematics applied to very, very large systems (i.e. the Universe). While the scale of human endeavors is, by comparison, the proverbial “grain of sand on the beach”. Anomalies occurring on the scale of the Universe are totally subsumed by the primary effect and thus, mathematically, disappear. On the human level, those anomalies may actually predominate and overwhelm any mathematical model. The second problem has to do with the nature of systems of explanation.

For a system of explanation (say a school of economics) to be valid, it must satisfy two requirements. It must “explain” the phenomenon it seeks to model and it must be predictive. If it cannot predict, it is merely history. If it cannot explain, it is glorified roulette. To model and predict, you must know: all the important variables; the relative importance of those variables; how those variables interact; and, the starting conditions of your model. If this sounds like chemistry – there is a reason.

For the Social Sciences in particular (and I’d class the “dismal science” of Economics as one), despite centuries of rational thought and study, what the important variables “are” is still being debated and how they interact is pure conjecture. You can see this in the manifold competing “Schools” of each discipline and in the absolute failure of any “School” to predict significant events such as our current recession. There is no “Chicago School of Chemistry” in competition with a “Harvard School of Chemistry”.

I’ll offer my own conjecture that Social Sciences will never successfully model their associated systems. Not just because of our friend Gödel, but because, even on their limited non-Universe scale, the number of system variables and their interactions approach the infinite. To which I will add my own guess that many of these variables, like the protein shell of a virus, change unpredictably over time.

When I sorted this out – during my sophomore year I think – I found it very liberating. It reinforced my belief in free will (some of the Enlightenment philosophers would be happy) and I began to see the Social Sciences as fascinating artistic expressions of Man’s attempt to understand himself in terms of the cosmos. So I studied them as one would Impressionist or Cubist painters – no one would argue that the works of either artistic school represent an objective reality, but each captures a fascinating dimension of that reality.

For what its worth …



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