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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Methodological Sub-Atomic-Particle-ism

I am proposing a new doctrine: methodological sub-atomic-particle-ism. This doctrine posits that all explanations of the behaviour of anything other than sub-atomic particles are really just "shorthands" for the behaviour of sub-atomic particles. So when someone says "Leopards climb trees with their prey's corpse in order to protect their food from other predators such as lions and hyenas," I will tell them that is really just a convenient description of what a whole mess of sub-atomic particles happened to do. And if they insist we understand something new when we describe this at the level of the leopard and its ecosystem, I now know what snappy comeback I should use: "Did you ever encounter a leopard that was not made up of sub-atomic particles?!"

And when they talk about storms, I'll respond "Did you ever encounter a storm that was not made up of sub-atomic particles?!"

And should they mention stars, I'll answer "Did you ever encounter a star that was not made up of sub-atomic particles?!"

That'll learn em.

9 comments:

  1. re: "I am proposing a new doctrine: methodological sub-atomic-particle-ism. This doctrine posits that all explanations of the behaviour of anything other than sub-atomic particles are really just "shorthands" for the behaviour of sub-atomic particles."

    You just made me realize why this charge never bothered me all that much... I've never minded shorthand explanations!

    Better a shorthand explanation that seems to help me understand things than a longhand one that can't even be worked out!

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  2. I would go further, and say that the explanation in terms of the leopard lets us *see* something true, and important, that simply is invisible at the level of particles, not matter in how much detail you trace their maneuvers. So it's not simply a shorthand: it is a new and different way of understanding a situation that can also be understood in terms of biochemical reactions, and also in terms of quantum physics. I believe the correct attitude is methodological pluralism.

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  3. Right Gene, but the obvious reply is that subatomic particles don't think or have goals, and neither do nations. The former is obvious, the latter not as clearly so, but I think it's still true.

    One way of understanding the contribution of Public Choice economics is to realize that there isn't such a thing as "government" that *acts* in a volitional sense.

    You can actually spin this to your advantage, Gene. The next time a libertarian starts complaining about how "the State" is trying to get him, you can point out that there is no such actor.

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  4. Let us say we grant your point, Bob: Why should all social analysis be confined to the level of things that think or have goals? Why isn't analysis at the level of, say, group selection of moral rules a la Hayek perfectly valid, even if we grant that we cannot say a group chooses or sets itself a goal?

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  5. Although you intended this post as a reductio ad absurdum, there are many people who make similar arguments with a straight face. They deserve a serious answer because, while I believe they are mistaken, I do not think their arguments can be dismissed as absurd.

    My own serious answer would be that the “I” is real, not illusory; that it can be known through a process of thoughtful introspection; and that its subjective mental activity cannot be adequately or completely explained by its neural (atomic) correlates. But this is really just a fancy way of saying what Bob Murphy already said: "subatomic particles don't think or have goals." See, e.g, Brentano; Mises. Therefore, something more than physics alone is needed in order to fully comprehend human action.

    But what analogous truth is there about groups which would justify what you are advancing here, e.g., that groups act qua groups, so when a group "behaves" badly then all of its members deserve punishment? I am not aware of any collective mind, for instance.

    And I never said that MI "incorporates" things like synergy; I just said it doesn't deny them. Perhaps we are talking past one another? I have always seen MI as a fairly narrow and modest doctrine, and primarily as a caution against the reification of groups. I too favor methodoloical pluralism, but I don't think this entails viewing groups as literal actors.

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  6. "Why isn't analysis at the level of, say, group selection of moral rules a la Hayek perfectly valid, even if we grant that we cannot say a group chooses or sets itself a goal?"

    Well that's the real nub, isn't it -- "if we grant that we cannot say a group chooses or sets itself a goal?" If indeed you grant that point, then I don't see how you could justify concepts like national covenants (if one Jew dissents from the covenant, is he still bound?) or intergenerational punishment (if one grandson is innocent, is he still punished?), etc.

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  7. "Well that's the real nub, isn't it..."

    Well, Mike, in terms of my Old Testament post, yes, but it turns of MI as a whole, no, not at all.

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  8. I think your comment is better than the post:

    > it is a new and different way of understanding a situation that can also be understood in terms of biochemical reactions, and also in terms of quantum physics. I believe the correct attitude is methodological pluralism.

    If by "correct attitude is methodological pluralism," you mean that we should study multiple conceptual frameworks, then sure. Each framework may focus on different aspects of real world things, explain "what happened" in terms of those aspects, and maybe even contain laws which relate some aspects to others. So it's good to study chemisty and biology and physics, etc. There is no need to focus on one set of concepts to the exclusion of others.

    Now I think the physicist is concerned with discovering, verifying, and applying the laws that _every_ particle [or class of particle] obeys in _every_ scenario. It does not matter whether the particles form a cat, a lump of dirt, a tree, the dead prey, etc. So the physicist would not _dispute_ your claim that the cat climbed the tree. She would say that "physics laws X, Y, and Z should have ALSO been applicable to the process." For example, mass-energy is conserved. If some physics law_did not_ hold, then she would be really interested. Analyzing the cat may help her discover _new laws_ or _refine_ existing laws.

    Now what are the implications for MI? I think that MI _also_ provides laws. And those laws hold for _all_ actions, whether performed by individuals in isolation or individuals in groups. It is not incorrect to say that "the team won the game." It is incorrect to say that "the team won the game, but this group of individuals coordinating in such and such way did not win."

    The cat particle example is interesting because it forces the MI advocate to state why he applies teleological concepts at the level of cat [or person], but not at the level of team. Is this your real question?

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  9. "Although you intended this post as a reductio ad absurdum, there are many people who make similar arguments with a straight face."

    I think hardcore reductionism is self-refuting, Mike. The claim "All real explanations should be formulated in terms of sub-atomic particles" is itself an explanation about what constitutes good explanations, but it is quite distinctly NOT formulated in terms of sub-atomic particles!

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