Saturday, March 07, 2009

A refutation of scientific materialism

Using arguments from August Comte and the original Positivist movement. Note that this is really a refutation of it as an organizing principle for helping us understand the world. Scientific materialism is the belief that everything that exists exists as distinct objects, that engage in predictable behaviors that can be demonstrated in the laboratory. Applied to human society it posits the idea that human beings are like individual atoms, and that society is simply the aggregation of all of these separate atoms bouncing into one another, with a measure of freedom and self determination.

To see what's wrong with this idea lets take the metaphor of the universe being like a big billiard table where balls that have been set in motion bounce into one another in constant reactions. While one ball hitting another one and causing a reaction may be as straightforward as can be, what happens when the result is chaos? When the situation gets complex enough it doesn't matter anymore that you know the balls hit each other in predictable ways; instead, in order to make meaning out of what's happening you have to try to detect patterns in how the billiard balls as a whole interact with each other on the table. Are there predictable patterns? Patterns that repeat in certain ways? Strictly speaking these patterns aren't things in and of themselves: they're just relationships existing between the balls; yet the relationship becomes essential to understanding the behavior of the whole.

The same could be said of society. Everyone is an individual, and has a will of their own, and yet people exist in social relationships with each other. People are enmeshed in the relationships of family, friends, neighborhood, city, region, profession, work place, interests, hobbies. Likes, dislikes. While these relationships aren't 'things', if you want to understand how a society functions or even how an individual truly exists in the world you need to look at these things and take them into account. History is another significant relationship that everyone finds themselves in. If I said that I want to study a person, find out what they were really like, what formed and shaped them, and then said "Well, their family life doesn't matter that much, the significant events in society that happened while they were in their formative years doesn't matter that much" you'd probably think that I was far off base. The same criticism could be applied to society as a whole. The question of what society is, then, turns on what you mean by "is". If you mean literally what are the physical basics that make up society you could say individuals and stuff. But if you mean something more interpretive by "is", and believe that interpretations, although not strictly 'things', nevertheless carry force, then examining the social relationships that people find themselves in is essential for understand what society is.

The same thing applies to science in general. You have isolated chemical reactions, and then you have how those reactions exist within a given system or environment. Strictly speaking, the system or environment that they take place in isn't a 'thing' because it's an aggregation of stuff interacting together, but for the purpose of understanding what's going on it has to be thought of as a thing.

How does the circulatory system function as a whole, how does the gastro-intestinal system function as a whole? How are the various parts of cells constructed and how do they work together?

While some of the concepts are abstractions, for the purpose of understanding they serve to illuminate things.

You can apply the systemic, or organic, conception to politics, provided that you understand that it's a metaphor and that a relationship isn't a physical thing. We're individuals, and yet we find ourselves enmeshed in social relationships. We find ourselves born into a particular family of a particular social class, in particular environment, like a city or a suburb or a small town. If you're conservative you can make the argument that the family relationship is so important that social legislation has to be passed to protect it, because a break down of that relationship leads to a decrease in the quality of life. If you're radical you can make the argument that although people are independent actors the economic structure of society that they find themselves in is such a substantial factor that it should be treated as something almost separate from them, and that social policy about the economic structure--what's the level of justice it embodies and what should be done to ensure that it serves justice by its organization--should reflect that. No one person has created the economy, no one organization controls it, it's a creation of many, many, people that has a distinct history that's been developing for hundreds of years. The situation we find ourselves in today wasn't made by a person named Ralph, and as individuals we, for the most part, have no power over the course of the economy or over its structure as a whole.

Both the right wing critiques based on the importance of family, or an xenophobic arguments regarding culture, and the economic critiques on the left, are rooted in this common sort of criticism of scientific materialism which developed in the early 19th century. It was a social phenomenon in Europe, something going beyond partisanship. Virtually all of the Materialism so-called, including Marx's materialism, that developed after this incorporated the critique into itself.

*on edit: it should be noted that there were two attempts to take the concept of organic relationships out of the abstract but valid, in my opinion, area in which they existed: one of them was one we've already dealt with, Marx's materialism, which focussed on how the economic structure of society as it existed influenced that society as a whole. The other attempt to anchor this in something was biological racism, which saw cultural and familial relationships as coming directly out of the racial and ethnic background of the people involved.

One of these lead to socialism and social democracy, the other one lead to Naziism.

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