RE: [OPE] Is 'dialectic' a scientific, pre-scientific or pseudo-scientific concept?

From: Paul Cockshott (
Date: Tue Apr 01 2008 - 16:25:27 EDT

 Dave Z

At worst, 'dialectic' is used as pseudo-scientific nonsense. What does 
any claim that "one must think dialectically" or a reference to the 
'dialectical method' mean to a physicist? Nothing at all. Yet it is 
evoked by some Marxists when looking at social processes, as if it were 
a scientific method.  
I have certainly seen Soviet literature that used the term dialectics
in a very wordy and wooly way, that seems to amount to dressing up
pregiven results of other researches in new language

Dave again

Here are some reasons why dialectic is pre-scientific. A minor point is 
that it pre-dates the scientific method. More importanly, the natural 
sciences can describe the same type of processes given above much more 
accurately with no need to add a notion of 'dialectic'. 'Dynamical 
systems', 'discontinuities', 'feedback signals' and 'phase transitions' 
have more precise meaning and predictive power in scientific theories. 
Dialectic is at best a redundant concept.


I think Dave that you should be cautious here. People use some of these
other terms in a similar metaphorical way to the way that dialectics
is used. It amounts to little of significance whether one speaks of 
a phase transition or a qualitative change when talking of boiling or
freezing. One is just an newer terminology and the other an older
philosophical language. The problem comes in defining exactly what
a 'quality' is. Physics gives us a proper understanding of this by
grounding it in the mechanics of the constraints on molecular motions.

But consider the more metaphorical use of phase transition that people
working in complexity theory have.  

For instance in the 90s it was shown that certain problems in logic
exhibit 'phase transitions'. An example is the so called 'Satisfaction Problem'.
Suppose we have N logical variables a,b,c,d,... each of which can be true
or false. Suppose also that we have a logical formula in the form of
a conjunction of disjunctions, ie  of the form

(a or b or not d) and (f or not a or c) and (b or not f or not c) and ....

the satisfiability problem consists in discovering combinations of truth values
of a,b,c etc which will cause the formula to be true.

For some formulae there are many combinations of truth values which yield
a true formula, for other formulae, no assignment of truth values to the variables can ever
yield a true result.
For large logical formulae, finding if any valid assignment of truth values exists
can be very difficult. The difficulty in finding such an assignment is a
measure of the complexity of the formula.

In the 90s it was discovered that this complexity peaked in the neighborhood
of what came to be called a phase transition where there was a particular
critical ratio of constraints to boolean variables.
( Gent, I., and Walsh, T. 1995. Phase transitions from real computational problems. 
In Proceedings of the 8th Int. Symp. on Artificial Intelligence, 356--364. 

see also Toby Walsh's power point slides  
It was observed that around a certain ratio of disjunctions to variables the
cost of finding an assignment of truth values became very much harder.
This area where it was very hard to find a solution is termed the phase transition
neighbourhood. Basically it marks the boundary between problems which have lots
of solutions and ones that have no solution.

But this use of the term phase transition is a metaphor applied from a slightly different
domain, but a metaphor which helped people understand what was going on in the
new domain.

I would argue that whilst a great many Marxists use the term dialectics as just
so much verbiage, for some acute thinkers such as Mao Tse Tung, the language
of dialectics provided the metaphors necessary to think through complex problems.

If you read through 'On Contradiction' by Mao, you find that it is part very abstract,
but part very concrete. The language of dialectics is being used to think through
complicated problems of military and political strategy.

Paul Cockshott
Dept of Computing Science
University of Glasgow
+44 141 330 1629

//Dave Z
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