Thursday, February 25, 2010

Communism Fails in Theory Too

I occasionally see the phrase "communism works in theory too" or some variant.  It is usually used to express skepticism about an idea without actually giving a reason for that skepticism. 

The phrase always bothers me a little bit because communism doesn't just fail in practice but also in theory.  And I am not even talking about theory of "man's nature" where communism supposedly works if men are perfect but fails because we somehow fall short of its ideal.

Communism fails, even in theory, because it centralizes control over resources.  In reality, information is subjective, time-sensitive, and distributed among everyone.  Only a system that allows individuals to act on the basis of the information they possess can succeed, both morally and economically.  Communism denies that ability for the individual to act and places the burden on a centralized authority.

This failure of communism is especially relevant with respect to money.  The pricing structure in a free-market economy emerges from the actions of all individuals who participate in the economy.  This structure is the primary information used by individuals to guide how they allocate scarce resources.  In "pure" communism, there is no money and therefore no means for the central authority to meaningfully determine how to allocate scarce resources. 

Even "on paper", communism can only result in mass destruction, starvation, and authoritarianism.  

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Laws as Habits (False Intuitions of Science IV)

In part 1 of this series of posts, I outlined a few intuitions that are often assumed as part of the scientific mind-set. In part 2 and part 3, I discussed the first two intuitions. In this post, I will discuss the third intuition:

* Universal laws (the discovery of which is the task of science) dictate the behavior of all things

This may be the most widely held intuition of the four I presented and is not even unique to what I have been calling the scientific mind-set. The idea of universal laws that dictate the behavior of all things is common to many people. After all, if you throw a ball in the air, it must come down, right? The law of gravity seems both inevitable and inescapable.

I am not going to argue that if you try long enough, you can throw a ball into space. Rather, I am going to challenge the interpretation of laws as prescriptive, top-down impositions that result in a deterministic world.

The main problem with positing universal, non-violable laws is to explain their origin. A few centuries ago, such laws were thought to originate from supernatural decree, i.e. an omnipotent God. Laws may have even been seen as proof of God's existence and control of the universe! Of course, science does not have much use for a puppet master who is unseen and undetectable, and in the past few centuries the concept of laws as divinely prescribed has largely been discarded. But what has been left in its place? We have been left with God's laws without a God; laws that determine the behavior of all things but are of inexplicable origin.

The question of the nature of laws can be resolved once we realize that the origin of a law is no more than the behavior of actual entities. Laws emerge from behaviors of entities acting within the world, and as such they are better understood as habits. A habit implies that there is choice involved, and as a result this leap in understanding results in a whole-sale rejection of determinism. Rather, freedom is seen as an essential ingredient in all occasions and in all entities.

Now, we must not overstate the case for freedom, as the case of gravity ultimately shows. The creative, self-determining aspect of an entity is but one ingredient, as the choices of all other actual entities impose upon one's being as well. In some cases, the self-determining aspect might dominate, and in other cases the impositions of others dominate.

In the regime of macroscopic objects, the laws of classical physics seem to determine the positions of everything. The paradigmatic laws of classical physics include Newton's laws of motion and his law of gravitation. These laws treat the world as comprised of solid, massive bodies that endure through time. If taken as a complete description of the world, they imply a mechanistic world of determinism (if not for the intervention of a supernatural deity).

But modern physics has revealed that the solid, enduring object is but an abstraction of what is a sea of energetic, smaller entities. The rock is composed of molecules and mostly empty space! Furthermore, there is no dominant molecule, and the rock as a result represents an aggregate society with the effects of the molecules averaged out. This averaging out of many entities is the reason for the seeming determinacy of classical physics. These laws result when the individual is overwhelmed by the effects of many others in the environment, where no individual within the many stands out.

In the regime of the super-small, on the other hand, the self-determining aspect of individual entities emerges. This is expressed in the inherent randomness of the wave function of quantum physics. The historical struggle to interpret this randomness has been a result of applying the same mistaken notions in large-scale objects to those of small-scale objects. That is, electrons and other entities are viewed as vacuous objects with properties, the positions of which ought to be determined by laws governed from without. This interpretation would demand a sort of determinism even with quantum entities, which act according to some randomness that just happens to (inexplicably) be present. An alternative interpretation is to understand the quantum-scale entity as a "throb of experience", with each entity exercising partial self-determination over its behavior.

When we recognize that laws emerge from the behaviors of acting entities rather than being imposed (somehow) from beyond, we can understand that there is no true randomness. Whether the individual in question is an electron or a person, "indeterminacy" in behavior is only inexplicable from without; from the point of view of the acting individual, any behavior is the result of a process of subjective experience and action. We observe patterns in how similar entities act and formulate them as laws. When an individual remains dominant in the applicability of the law, there will be a component of randomness in the law. As the individual recedes into a multitude of entities, an averaging effect occurs and the law appears deterministic.  But even in this case, it is not a "law" that determines one's behavior but the cumulative imposition of many other actual actual entities.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Red Lights, White Lights

Red lights ahead, white lights behind.
Moving forward, stop now.
Still red lights ahead, white lights behind.
Red light becomes white light, white light becomes red.
Lights disappear,
but now new ones appear.
Still always red lights ahead, white lights behind.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Science and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness (False Intuitions of Science III)

In part 1 of this series of posts, I outlined a few intuitions that are often assumed as part of the scientific mind-set. In part 2, I discussed the first intuition that science provides the only valuable explanations of the natural world. In this post, I will discuss the second intuition:

* The history of scientific theories is to march incrementally toward a complete and truthful account of the universe

As with the first intuition I discussed, this second intuition is based on a truth that is extended well beyond its proper scope. In the first intuition, the core truth was that the domain of science is the entire natural world, and the fallacious extension was that it therefore provides the only valuable accounts of the natural world. In the case of the second intuition, the core truth is that science advances over time. However, the fallacious extension is that one day it will necessarily provide a complete account of the universe.

The scientific method can never provide a complete account for the universe because it necessarily restricts itself to externalist categories of explanation. This point was introduced in part 2 but is vital to this series of posts and warrants more discussion. In particular, it bears repeating that if there is more to existence than external relationships, then scientific models must necessarily fall short of providing a complete account. However, many science-minded people do in fact take this position that physical models describe the ultimate, complete reality (or that these models incrementally approach that ideal as science advances). Alfred North Whitehead gave a name to this fallacy of thinking: the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. This fallacy is committed whenever one mistakes an abstraction for the concrete reality. Given this potential fallacy, it is important to think about what physical models abstract away from reality if we are to understand their proper scope.

The most important abstraction that physical models make is to ignore subjective experience. Rather, matter is seen as a vacuous "stuff" that persists through time and devoid of experience. This abstraction is necessary because in relying upon observation and measurement, the scientific method must objectify its data. However, we know this abstraction must not be the whole story from our own existence; we each possess experience and an inner world. We know we are each subjects for ourselves and cannot be completely objectified (even if some make self-refuting claims to the contrary). It is true that we cannot know anyone's experience but our own, but unless we turn to solipsism, this does not mean we ought to deny experience other than our own. David Ray Griffin says: "We know ourselves from within, hence as having duration, and other things from without, hence as devoid of duration. To translate this epistemic duality into an ontological dualism between two different kinds of actualities - those that are always subjects and those that are always objects - is to commit a category mistake." (The World-Knot p. 161) In addition, we must somehow make subjective experience part of the universe beyond humans if we are to fully naturalize it (and avoid supernaturalism).

Given that subjective experience is outside of the scope of science, scientific theories must ignore "half of the evidence" and as a result will never be able to provide a complete account of the universe. At best, scientific models will over time approach a perfect externalist model, with all of the shortcomings which that implies. This is particularly important in considering what sort of questions are appropriate for science to satisfactorily resolve. For example, when presented with the "mystery" of experience or consciousness, a science-minded person can do not much more than take on faith that "some day" science will be able to explain its existence. Given an understanding of the limits of science though, we would understand that this is not an appropriate question for science at all but is better suited for philosophy.

As discussed above, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness provides science with the illusion of more explanatory power than it actually possesses. In addition, it can lead to outright confusion as to the nature of reality. That is, if we are to believe that physical theories approach a complete and truthful account of the universe, what are we to make of the reality of the mathematical forms they describe? Are there "actually" lines of force permeating the world? How is the wave function of quantum theory real? Is action at a distance possible, or are there "really" virtual exchange particles that facilitate forces and wave propagation?

The march of scientific progress is undeniable, and the phenomena that have been revealed and studied must be accounted for in our views of the world. In this respect, scientific theories play a major role. However, we must also understand the limits of science and place those theories in their proper scope. Failure to do so results in the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, where we mistake those theories as providing the ultimate account of the universe. Such a mistake produces not only an inadequate philosophy of the universe but also produces confusion in relating the particulars of those theories to reality.