Under The Sun

Tuesday, February 25, 2003



NDPR: Social Science vs. Free Will

"Montesquieu, according to Rosen, holds both (a) that human beings have innate traits, as a result of which their actions fall under laws that are analogous to the laws of Newtonian mechanics, and (b) that human beings are free to deviate from these laws. This incoherent stance indicates that Montesquieu has failed to grasp exactly how human nature is expressed in political practice. No coherent political science can result from commitment to both (a) and (b)."
--Richard Eldridge, Swarthmore College, reviewing Stanley Rosen, The Elusiveness of the Ordinary

Rosen's critique is insufficiently precise. Social science in general--especially economics, but also sociology, and political science to a significant extent--deals with the behavior of groups or of aggregates, not necessarily the behavior of individuals. And mathematical complexity theory, a contemporary discovery (it requires computers), shows that aggregations may behave deterministically regardless of the conduct of individuals. Sometimes such aggregate trends are simply averages, consequences of the Law of Large Numbers; but that is by no means the only kind of "self-organizing complexity". On the macro level, therefore, it is not incoherent to affirm the possibility of "social science" while also affirming the possibility of individual free will.

The "science" that does face contradiction if it believes in free will is psychology, which (obviously) can't resort to aggregations. My psychology teacher, Mr. Davis, believed that psychology presupposes determinism. If anyone reading this has an argument otherwise, I'd love to hear it.


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