Wednesday, November 23, 2005

An Uncertainty Principle for culture

This blog is, as the short blurb on the upper right indicates, focused on the "naturalistic" explanation of consciousness and culture, meaning that I view those phenomena as part of the natural world, and therefore as subject to causal processes as any other part of that world. (Here, "that world" simply refers to the physical or material world, and so is distinct from notions of a separate mental world, realm, aspect, or orientation, regardless of whether or not any of the latter "supervene" on the physical.) Both consciousness and culture are viewed as mechanisms, in other words. So, given that, and supposing that we continue to make progress in understanding those mechanisms, the question is whether we could eventually come up with a truly predictive science of psychology and sociology/anthropology? That is, would we at that point be able to calculate individual and social behavior?

I think the answer is no. And that's because I think, in fact, that there's a fundamental obstacle to such predictive calculations when made by those who are themselves part of the phenomena being calculated -- which is that such predictions become themselves part of the phenomena. If I try to predict your behavior and communicate this prediction to you, then that prediction itself becomes a factor in your subsequent behavior, that the original prediction hadn't incorporated. I might try to keep my prediction from you (or incorporate my telling you as part of a subsequent prediction which I don't tell you about, etc.), but just by having access to the same calculations I use, you'd be able to, in a sense, predict my predictions, and then decide whether or not to behave as predicted. And the same sorts of considerations would apply society-wide or culture-wide -- any such predictions, or indeed any such techniques for making predictions, would themselves tend to alter the society or culture in ways external to the predictions themselves. (In some cases, it's true, the predictions might be made recursive and the alterations may converge to a stable configuration -- and then, and to that extent, a predictive science of psycho-cultural phenomena is possible -- but there's no indication that that would happen at all, much less to what extent.)

In this way, then, I think it's appropriate to speak of a cultural Uncertainty Principle, analogous to (though of course not as rigorous as) Heisenberg's physical Uncertainty Principle (see also the brief remark at the end of this post)-- both involve the unavoidable disturbances introduced by observer/predictors, and the limits those disturbances present to precision. In the case of cultural Uncertainty, though, because of the nature of the phenomena, those limits also have moral implications, but I think I'll need another post to get to that.

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