Re: [OPE-L] Overdetermination & Science

From: Howard Engelskirchen (howarde@TWCNY.RR.COM)
Date: Tue Jan 03 2006 - 23:22:48 EST

Hi all,

The issues opened up are vast and I hope we will continue to come back to
them.  I join Ian in thanking Antonio for intervening, and also Jerry for
the Ruccio essay that started this thread.

I will try to put manageable limits on a long list of short notes, questions
and comments.

1.     Quantum mechanics.  Paul's point that quantum uncertainty doesn't
have much to do with the relation of thought to reality seems to me correct.
No one has argued that nature is observer independent.  We intervene as one
of nature's causal structures all the time, intentionally and

2.    Inversion hysteria.  Georg Molnar is a philosopher who died a few
years ago.  He has an interesting background.  He was a Jew born in Budapest
before WWII and he and his family were saved from the camps by Wallenberg's
work.  After the war he went to Australia and began a career in philosophy
(having failed as a professional gambler).  He became an anarchist in the
sixties (Sydney Push?) and as an anti-authoritarian decided he could not
continue with academic philosophy.  He went to England, Leeds, and spent a
generation working for women's rights, children's rights, gay rights and in
the anti-nuclear movement.  Perhaps some of you know of him.  He returned to
Australia in the 80s and then returned to academic philosophy.  Just before
his death he completed, mostly, a manuscript, Powers, which has been
published (while short, the book is unfortunately a bit technical).

The last paragraphs of the book contain an instructive and funny lament over
what Molnar calls 'inversion hysteria'.  Here are examples:

Because necessary causal connection in the world enables us to infer the
future from the past, this gets inverted to "Our habit of inferring the
future from the past is all there is to causal necessity" (Hume).

Or, "It is possible to perceive material objects exist," is converted to
"objects are the permanent possibility of sensation" (Mill).

Molnar observes:

"There is a pattern here:  some piece of objective reality has
characteristic effects on and in humans.  You then turn around and define
this piece of reality in terms of its effects on humans, thereby making it
mind-dependent.  Inversion hysteria is a kind of subjectivizing of reality,
a kind of subjective idealism."

3.   The separation of the real and the mind.  Antonio is skeptical of all
efforts to separate the real from the mind -- these reflect simply the
classical dodges of traditional philosophy.  On the other hand, doesn't this
qualify as an example of inversion hysteria?  Because the mind cannot be
separated from the 'real', we invert this and say instead, 'the real can't
be separated from the mind."

4.   Anti-science.  I agree with Ian on this point.  The inversion just
described is an example of 'anti-science.'  I don't mean this in the sense
that Antonio or postmodern materialism generally is engaged on an attack on
science, or as some crude slur, but in the sober sense, necessary to be made
explicit, that refusing to acknowledge there is a 'real' separate from mind
is simply to ignore or refuse the best scientific evidence available and the
background theories which interpret it for us.  Our best interpretations of
what we can observe and investigate tell us that there were things like
chemical elements, compounds, galaxies, suns, moon and planets before the
emergence of life on earth.  Unless you reject these understandings, this
makes them mind independent in some important sense.  By contrast, according
to the same science, the mind is not and never has been independent of the
physical environment from which it emerged.

What I've argued above is, as I've insisted, fallible and revisable, and
Antonio has appealed to science and new understandings.  But it needs to be
acknowledged that there is quite a boatload to be revised and I haven't
understood from what's been said how this works.

5.    Interpretation.  Another example of inversion hysteria.  Because we
have come to realize that all scientific observation and investigation is
theory dependent, this is turned around to mean that all there is to our
observation is the meaning we find in theory.

6.    Uncles.  The point I made above that mind is not and never has been
independent of the 'real' is important because it insists on the material
embedding of all things social and mental.  Materialist semioticians like
the Italian Marxist Rossi Landi have critiqued the idealist thread of
semiotics represented by Sassure for ignoring the fact that meanings are
always materially embedded.  A Tomahawk missle may be a phallic symbol, but
it has terrible destructive power.  Antonio argues that 'uncle' is a social
relation, which of course it is.  But he argues that it is a social relation
that does not depend on a genetic link so that if I did not know that
someone was my uncle, he would not be.  Presumably, as well, if I thought
someone was my uncle who was not genetically linked to me, nonethless he
would be.  It is not clear what has happened to error here.  Anyway, I have
this question -- if I put aside all consideration of genetic link, how would
I recognize the social relation 'uncle' when it was presented to me?

The point is far reaching in the sense that if we ignore the embeddedness of
mind in the materiality of the world -- in the world's mind independence --
we have no way to explain the causal efficacy of either the social or the

So I am not misunderstood, I add that while social relations are always
materially embedded, they need not be genetically so!

7.     Substituting conversation for practice.  Antonio suggests that the
fact that two people define commodity differently doesn't mean that they
can't have a conversation and that the conversation may well produce
knowledge.   I wondered if this actually responded to my question about
objective truth arbitrating between truths that are intra-theoretic.   Does
conversation among theories become the arbiter rather than practice?  If so,
this would continue the inversion above, wouldn't it?  -- since observations
of practice must be interpreted and conversation facilitates interpretation,
what matters is not practice but conversation among interpretations.

8.    Overdetermination.  I have argued that overdetermnination cannot be
taken as a methodological a priori.  It has enormous utility in explaining
the actuality of events.  It does not follow that it is always useful when
we explore underlying features of the world, natural or social, that give
rise to such events.  For example, what does overdetermination contribute to
understanding why H2O is a possible molecule, but HO2 is not?  (H2O is
possible because of hydrogen bonding.)

9.    What does it matter?  Jerry asked why these issues matter, or at least
why particular scientific issues in a particular science matters.   I guess
part of it is that doing science we try to situate ourselves within the
whole of science.  Marx said there was one science, or that was the goal.
It's a good working hypothesis.  Each special science is determined by its
object and the emergence of social life from nature raises all sorts of
complexities that are different from those presented by the natural
sciences.  But that does not mean there is not a common foundation.
Moreover, getting foundations wrong may skew our ability to deal with the
social -- for example, the social remains embedded in the material.  Also,
in general it's necessary to keep pace with the progress of thinking about
science.  Consider Marx.

I think also Antonio's point below is responsive.  The issues of realism and
anti-realism have been most vigorously fought out in the natural sciences,
but there is no reason to think that they are specific to the natural
sciences, nor have those issues not been joined in the social sciences.  So
if a particular domain of any science bears importantly on that debate it is
relevant.  For postmodern materialism there is this, too -- since it
developed in part as a necessary attack on implausible forms of empirical
realism, as Antonio notes, then as more sophisticated forms of realism
develop it seems appropriate that it respond.

10.  Let me narrow the differences.  Scientific realism insists on the mind
independence of the causal structures of the world.  This is because we need
to accommodate our practices to them in order to get our practice right.
Beyond that, because all observation and investigation is theory dependent,
realism might readily be prepared to concede virtually all the important
postmodern critiques of social theory.

And whether or not there are mind independent causal structures that we need
to accommodate our practice to does seem itself to be a question open to the
test of practice.



----- Original Message -----
From: "antonio callari" <antonio.callari@FANDM.EDU>
Sent: Tuesday, January 03, 2006 6:39 PM
Subject: Re: [OPE-L] Overdetermination & Science

> Jerry,
> the reason to discuss something like quantum mechanics, in my view,
> is that it gets at the nature of the science model that seems to
> frame the methodological concerns people express about postmodernism,
> overdetermination, anti-essentialism etc.. If the model of
> science/knowledge we use in social analysis rests on certain
> presumptions about the properties of reality, then it seems to me
> that a discussion about those properties is pertinent (and, in the
> end, inescapable). i don't remember the 2002 discussion of the
> uncertainty principle. Do you have the approximates dates of the
> postings on that? thanks
> Antonio
> >Antonio,  Ian, Howard, others,
> >
> >Do Marxists whose concern is political economy really have
> >to take a position on the character of objectivity and
> >scientific research in physics? Can't we be 'agnostics' on that
> >question? (relatedly:  can't we be 'agnostic' on the question of
> >the 'dialectics of nature'?)
> >
> >*To the extent that*  a particular understanding of the natural
> >sciences has important social consequences,  then we should
> >have some grasp of the issues (e.g. the application of laws
> >of thermodynamics to the environment?).  But, is it really
> >important  for us to take a position on quantum mechanics?
> >
> >I'm not asking that the discussion stop; I just want to know
> >why you think it is important for us.
> >
> >In solidarity, Jerry
> >
> >PS: we discussed the Heisenberg uncertainty principle  in
> >November -- December, 2002.
> >
> >
> >>   The 'strong' argument I will now add (and I'll have
> >>  to preface it by saying that I do not claim the expertise/voice here
> >>  that I hold more confidently with respect to the issue of social
> >>  structures) is that, in my understanding, the notion of objectivity
> >>  that the critics of postmodernism seem (to me) to be using is/may-be
> >>  untenable (or questionable) even when it comes to nature. I am
> >>  referring here not only to Heisenberg's original formulation of the
> >>  uncertainty principle (that you can know either the position of a
> >>  particle or its direction, but not both) but also to lots of other
> >>  experiments/theories since then that seem to question the very
> >>  independence of matter from thought ( a recent article in the science
> >>  section of the December 27 New York Times, "Quantum trickery: testing
> >>  Einstein's Strangest Theory," outlines the theories and experiments).
> >>  In practice, scientists have chosen to ignore this, but it seems to
> >>  me that the existence of
> >>    these theories/experiments undermines any philosophical defense of
> >>  something "real" in the objectivist (mind independent) terms that I
> >>  have been discussing.  Some scientists do not like the implications
> >>  of these developments (but only on practical and philosophical
> >>  grounds; they can't quarrel with them as a matter of logic or
> >>  experimentation as i understand things); but that's not a standard on
> >>  which to base a defense of "objectivist real" as anything that has
> >>  structure. I myself don't mind it: I don't mind it for Marxism, which
> >>  argued/s that we make the world (not as individuals, of course, and
> >>  not under circumstances of our choosing--for the circumstances always
> >>  involve us in relationships with others we can only partially
> >>  control) but collectively (through dialogue, negotiations, politics,
> >>  class relations, etc. etc.: overdetermination).
> --
> Antonio Callari
> Sigmund M. and Mary B. Hyman Professor of Economics
> F&M Local Economy Center
> P.O. Box 3003
> 713 College Avenue
> Lancaster PA 17604-3003
> e-mail:
> phone: (717) 291-3947
> FAX:  (717) 291-4369

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