Re: science of complexity

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 1 Apr 1995 22:41:49 JST

Tibor Benkes writes,

"I think, what needs to be done is to have a serious anthropology
research programme aimed at the social role of mathematical and
technical knowledge."

Hallelujah. There's a lot of great work in the history of science that
offers a place to begin. A key source for me is A.N.Whitehead,
_Science and the Modern World_.

Again I trace an argument from memory, but what I remember goes
like this: The evolution of modern science involved

(1) the experimental method--in which the isolates the essential
factors unders consideration, attempting in this way to eliminate
extraneous influences on the relationship being studied.

(2) the representation of essential factors in mathematical terms--
which while it has the effect of precision also has a by-product a
prejudice in favor of factors easily represented using available
mathematics (geometry and calculus in the case of classical

These steps lead to

(3) a bifurcation of the world into things which can be
experimentally isolated and represented mathematically and a
residue (in fact the bulk of commonsense experience) which resists
isolation and/or mathematical representation.

It is then a short leap to asserting

(4) that experimental, mathematical science defines the domain of
Truth--everything else being, at best, mere opinion, and

(5) that research is properly ranked by how closely it approximates
the experimental-mathematical model. Thus, for example, while
neither economics nor anthropology conduct real experiments (the
subjects of both being too entangled in the world for experimental
isolation), the former, by paying more attentionto relationships that
lend themselves to mathematical representation is thus more
scientific--a superior thing to do.

Needless to say, these conclusions lead to great roarings and
gnashings of teeth among those who feel their fields of study
degraded by this scheme. Some, predictably rush to imitate their
friends in high (and highly funded) places by adopting the guise
(more rarely the reality) of science. Others attempt to turn the
tables by arguing that the sciences have missed the really important
stuff, aka art, emotion, spirit, morals, politics...add your favorite to
the list.

Tibor may be on to something when, a few sentences later, he also

"It seems to me, that much of the po mo wars can be traced to the
urge to revenge among the mathematically abused."

What is sad about all this is the sheer bloody-minded ignorance of
folks who, stuck at the point I left the argument just now, are
apparently unaware of work being done by philosophers of science
and scientists themselves to expand the limits of the classical
model and to understand the history of science as a human activity--
I think immediately of Stephen Gould. Meanwhile, too, the
mathematicians and their cousins in computing and cognitive
science keep coming up with mathematical representations of things
once thought to be unrepresentable. Don't claim to follow the math
or be able to write the programs myself--but fractals, chaos, neural
networks...there's so much going on that continuing to beat the dead
horses of 19th century positivism is becoming downright quaint.

I venture a prediction. Those folks at Columbia will have their 15
minutes of fame (the Andy Warhol principle). Then they will be one
with the dodoes. But then, so may we all. <g>


John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)