Oxford’s oral tradition, at least, suggests that E.E. Evans-Pritchard (Oxford’s “EP”) 1902-1973 ( “strangest” ethnographer who believed that social anthropology could be a part of natural sciences ) made the first historical attempt to introduce Quantum Mechanics for social anthropologists in the last century. Presently, Vice –Chancellor of Oxford University and experimental quantum physicist realized the second one at Humanities and Science panel discussion ( Randomness and Order , 10 February , www.torch.ox.ac.uk/humsciox ). In his presentation Jan Walmsley reduced the best scientific tradition of the 21st century to the problem of non-classical or quantum probability, correspondingly , he used quantum card game and quantum notion superposition in order to explain real and dramatic challenge of quantum mechanics for humanities and “social sciences”. Definitely Jan used some sort of simplification, because there is a general ignorance in official and educational circles of what quantum mechanics is. In particularly, real drama is that all Western systems of education for humanities and so called “social sciences” are based on non-quantum ( more exactly – anti-quantum ) principles of classical materialism and classical physics of the 18th century. Even Albert Einstein in 1930s considered “quantum revolution “ in physics as return of “wrong idealism “ in science. He famously asked quantum theorists :” the Moon exists when nobody is looking at it ?” And in 1935 Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen published scientific paper where they described seriously impossible experiment which must stop development of “wrong “ idealistic foundations of quantum mechanics.
We may describe today such “EPR-experiment” (in later David Bohm's terms ) as an impossible experiment where a particle with no spin ( with no magnetic circular movements described by “imaginary numbers “), while at rest, decays into two identical particles ( labelled 1 and 2), each with spin 1/2. Since momentum is conserved, the particles fly out in opposite directions. And since spin is conserved, the two spins must add up to zero. Therefore, in good agreement with “right “science, if
the spin of particle 1 is measured to be “up” along some specific direction, then the spin of particle 2 must be “down'” along some specific direction and there is no such thing as “observer dependent spin” at all. Following the results of such sort of EPR experiment, it became obvious that any observer dependent reality, predicted by quantum theorists in 1920 - 1930s, is simply a nonsense.
In the mid-1960s, however, mathematician and experimentalist John Bell ( CERN ) showed that it was actually quite possible to realize the EPR-experiment, when the two particles are emitted with definite spin directions, which are locally fixed at the decay. These directions, according to Bell,nevertheless, might be Unknown to the experimentalist. He then showed that if we measure the spin of particle 1 along one direction, and the spin of particle 2 along another direction, the results will be correlated. For instance, if we measure the spin of both particles along the same direction, particle 2 will always have the spin down when particle 1 has the spin up.
Thus, a nonsense, described by Einstein - Podolsky - Rosen in 1935 ( in which strong correlations are observed between presently no interacting particles, even if they are detected arbitrarily far away from each other ) became a part of experimental physics !
Since Bell's discovery, a number of physical tests have been performed successfully (by J Clauser and S Freedman (1972), A Aspect, J Dalibard, and G Roger (1982), and G . Weihs, Ch Simon, T Jennewein, H Weinfurter, and A Zeilinger (1998)] etc.etc
Moreover, in 21st century whole new non-nonsensical physics with their ideas of quantum computers, quantum telepathy, quantum internet , quantum teleportation, quantum cryptography, quantum credit cards, quantum markets, quantum elections, quantum space communications and even new quantum anthropology are emerging…
Thanks for this, Michael. I for one find it immensely useful and stimulating. I have long held that the "social sciences" cannot be science, since they have not absorbed the perspective and methods of quantum mechanics. Economics, apart from its fraudulent gesture towards physics and mathematics in the late 19th century (P. Mirowski More Heat Than Light), is still operating with 17th century metaphysics (rationalism and empiricism in the form of microeconomic theory and econometrics). They certainly missed the German dialectical tradition of Kant, Hegel and Marx. But I agree with you that we should start with the most recent and best version of physics, the quantum variety. In the meantime, if what twentieth century practitioners do is not science, what is it? Ideology -- the attempt to mystify a gullible public by making it appear that life is derived from ideas rather than the other way round.
We should however ask if any social thinkers of the twentieth century have made effective use of quantic mechanics. We can be sure that no anthropologists have, but what about the others? Heidegger is one candidate -- I regularly draw on his late metaphysics (solitude, finitude, world) where he explicitly describes reality in quantum terms. I have always believed that Keynes picked up something from quantum mechanics in Kings senior common room between the wars. But he never acknowledged this source of his thinking openly. The acronym of his 1930 two-volume on money is interesting however: A Treatise On Money.
I look forward to your next part and hope we can take this further.
Michael’s Comment and Keith’s Reply highlight a problem within anthropology that has only grown worse over the years: social / cultural anthropologists are increasingly hostile to what they take for “science” even though they have little or no understanding of what contemporary scientists are up to. This prejudice (which we would find intolerable if directed toward ethnic or gender groups) was enshrined by the American Anthropological Association several years ago, when they rewrote their mission statement, deleting a reference to anthropology as a “science” of humanity.
Like Keith, and no doubt Michael, I have long regretted this bias born of ignorance, especially now that it is installed in the canon of AnthroLand. Perhaps I can advance this most necessary discussion – if you will humor me – by attaching a brief essay on the very subject I wrote (lo, now these) twenty years ago for Anthropology News : “The Logic of Things That Just Happen.”
The Logic of Things That Just Happen
By: Lee Drummond
Center for Peripheral Studies
Cultural Anthropology and Science
This little essay is intended to be a synthesis of sorts, but, like any remodeling project, it produces a good deal of rubble along the way. Its immediate inspiration is the call, in the April 1995 Anthropology Newsletter, for comments on the imposing topic of the relation between anthropology and science. I suspect, however, that many AN readers will view this invitation in a rather more focused light: as an occasion to thrash out the issue of whether cultural anthropology and science have any meaningful connection. Although I certainly cannot speak as a member of the intellectual communities formed by archeologists, paleontologists or linguists, it is my strong impression that most of these specialists have already made their separate peace with the anthropology-and-science conundrum. They may not all have decided that, yes, anthropology is a science, and yes, we are scientists, but they have, I think, more or less concluded that the issue itself is far less important to them than determining the key factors in the origins of urbanism, the evolution of the Homo line, or the spread of languages. It is only cultural anthropologists who are left dangling on the tenterhooks of an identity crisis that continues to provoke lively, heartfelt, and acrimonious debate.
Science, Genuine and Spurious
Generally speaking, I think it is fair to say that the question whether or not anthropology is a science matters a great deal to cultural anthropologists. It matters so much, in fact, that they have formed themselves into rather snitty little factions based on the exclusionary "yes" and "no" answers to that question (those who would answer "maybe" -- or even "who cares?" -- are branded "generalists" and scorned as pariahs by both camps).
Without sorting through the labels and their theoretical nuances here, it is probably safe to say that those in the "yes" and "no" camps draw their lines in the sand over the issue of objectivity. Members of the "yes" camp (whose totemic emblem is Marvin Harris) embrace the idea that there exists a clear separation between the observer and observed, and that the latter (which they call "facts") manifest an inherent connectedness and regularity (which they call "laws"). This matter-of-fact, empirical orientation to the world, when dressed up in philosophical garb, is called positivism. Members of the "no" camp (whose totemic emblem is Clifford Geertz) maintain that anthropological observer and observed, being persons, can only artificially be segregated into subject-object categories, and so knowledge of the observed is inherently inter-subjective and context-specific. This rejection of a conventionally scientific outlook in favor of approaches taken from literary criticism and philosophy has been called interpretivism or, following the fashion, postmodernism. Anthropological positivists believe there is a social world out there which can be known objectively, while their opposite number, the postmodernists, believe that all knowledge of the social world is itself a product of social forces, of inter-subjective understandings.
In attempting a synthesis here, I do not propose to borrow a bit of one theory and a dash of another in order to cobble together something that should please everyone (but that, like Bill Clinton's politics, winds up pleasing no one). Nor, you may be relieved to know, am I going to take sides and contribute to the polite name-calling that characterizes the anthropology-and-science debate. Rather, I want to suggest that both approaches are very seriously flawed, for both stereotype and misconstrue the nature of "science" so badly that it makes little sense to say that one approach is "pro-science" and the other "anti-science." If cultural anthropology's stock-in-trade is to understand what "those others" in the world are about, I am afraid we have failed miserably where "those others" turn out to be, not exotic tribesmen or ethnics, but those rather bland characters in our midst whom we label -- often with a tinge of a racial slur that would not be tolerated in other circumstances -- "scientists."
Schismogenic Anthropologists: The Double Paradox of Our Identity Crisis
This breakdown in our ethnographic sense of the world has resulted in a bizarre double paradox that does far worse than obscure our understanding of the anthropology-science relationship. It ties it in knots. The double paradox is just this:
a. While positivists stridently claim to follow the "scientific method," the matter-of-fact, nuts-and-bolts social world they describe is nothing at all like the world of physical reality as that is presented in contemporary physics, cosmology, and chaos-complexity theory. Anthropological positivists are thus very unscientific, both in their approach and in their depiction of social reality. Their nostalgia for a scientific worldview of cause-and-effect determinism allies them, not with a putative empirical tradition handed down from Francis Bacon, but with other religious or ideological movements. Positivists are myth-makers, who tell the myth of Science.
b. While postmodernists are as strident as positivists when they denounce the notion of a privileged, objective description of the world following scientific canons of observation and analysis, the circumstantial, inter-subjective social world they do describe bears a surprising resemblance to the physical world presented by practicing scientists and mathematicians. Despite their efforts to distance themselves from the whole enterprise of science and to ally themselves with the "discursive strategies" (as they like to say) of literary critics and hermeneutic philosophers, postmodernists are actually quite scientific in their depiction of social reality. It is just that, like the fellow who had been writing prose all his life, they didn't know it.
This double paradox (which is much like Gregory Bateson's notion of schismogenesis) locks postmodernists and positivists in a ritual of mutual antagonism and perhaps (as our tribal elders fear), destruction. For all their differences, both are myth-makers who tell themselves a myth of Science. Curiously, their discord arises from telling themselves what is essentially the same myth: that of science (or Science) as an ideological affirmation of a world of cause-and-effect determinism. They are drawn into battle under this common banner. In such a situation there can, of course, be no winner -- any more than Bateson's Iatmul could triumph over the stereotypes of friend and foe, man and woman that filled their lives with suspicion and violence.
The Logic of Things That Just Happen
At this critical juncture in the (d)evolution of cultural anthropology, I believe it is essential that both positivists and postmodernists take stock of the exciting developments in the disparate fields of elementary particle physics, cosmology, and chaos-complexity theory. For these have much more than a general intellectual interest: besides bringing the anthropology-and-science debate into focus by showing us what scientists are actually doing and thinking, they suggest close parallels with vexing theoretical problems in the analysis of culture.
In the limited space available here, let me put my case as starkly as possible. Positivists intent on producing a "science of culture" place their faith in the idea that there is an order, a pattern, a "logic" in social life, that our actions and beliefs have a connectedness and determinacy about them. Things don't just happen, and things don't just mean whatever you or I or even an exotic "native" says they mean. Things have an objective, patterned nature. Postmodernists are forever doing a fan dance with nihilism, for they deny the existence of an underlying order or logic, claiming instead that whatever passes as "knowledge" or "truth" is itself a socially wrought, motivated form. Even granting them the knowledge-power complex, it is still true, I think, that for postmodernists things just happen.
Where could a synthesis of these antithetical positions possibly lie? How might we salvage the idea that events have an inherent order or logic and the claim that things just happen? I suggest that the only way to deal with the paradox(es) before us is with another paradox: we need to find a logic of things that just happen.
Quixotic as that search sounds, it is the very goal that workers in the fields of quantum mechanics, cosmology, and, more recently, chaos-complexity theory have been pursuing -- and with staggering successes. While anthropological positivists chant their mantras to determinism and postmodernists dance on the sands of contingency, sober-minded physicists and mathematicians are busily sketching the outlines of a physical world which combines a sublime logic with an indeterminate welter of nearly chaotic events. Bit by bit, they have been assembling a logic of things that just happen.
Suppose, for example, that we have a very simple physical system before us, say a tiny cloud of electrons confined within a magnetic field. This system is installed in our laboratory, where we have hooked up loads of instruments to measure everything about its action. We know that the kinetic energy of the individual electrons is too low to smash through the confining magnetic field, so whatever else we can or can't say about the system, we are confident that it is whole and stable as a group. Yet when we check on our apparatus the next day, we discover that a few electrons have escaped. How could this have happened? We go over the pile of data produced by our instruments during the last twenty-four hours and learn that nothing spectacular went on in the chamber -- except that from time to time an electron simply got out. There was no identifiable cause-and-effect event, such as a collision, nor was there even any temporal regularity to these electron escapes. (The Aztecs didn't run low on protein one day and start eyeing their neighbors in the next valley and licking their chops. The Hindu priests didn't figure out that it made more sense to keep stray cattle around rather than throw another Zebu on the barbie.) Here, at the most minute and simplest physical level, with loads of instruments to keep track of everything, we are confronted with a world in which things just happen. For the positivist, anthropological or otherwise, this is, as Sly says to the bad guy in Cobra, your worst nightmare.
And things only get worse when a quantum physicist drops by the lab and, seeing us scratching our heads, takes a minute to explain to us poor sods that those electron escapes are to be expected. True, the particles do not have the physical energy required to penetrate the magnetic field confining them, but from time to time an individual electron just "tunnels" through the barrier. As the physicist explains, there is always a small degree of uncertainty about an electron's position, and sometimes that uncertainty simply locates it on the other side of the barrier. Elementary particle physics, surely most people's candidate for the "hardest" of the sciences, revels in this "magic and mystery" of the physical world (the phrase is Roger Penrose's, in The Emperor's New Mind).
Postmodernists cannot spend much time rejoicing over their positivist colleagues' frustration, however, for the physicist has some unsettling news for them as well. She goes to the blackboard and begins scribbling down some truly formidable quantum field equations, which she says rigorously describe the particles' behavior and tie that behavior into a grand scheme of physical theory. There is an inherent logic to the physical system, but that logic does not and cannot specify just which particle will "tunnel" through the barrier next nor when that event will occur. It is a logic of things that just happen. No amount of "contextualizing discourse" or "experimental modes of ethnographic writing" will alter the implacable truth of the system. To the postmodernists' chagrin, they have glimpsed the future -- and it resembles Foucault less than Plato.
Life in the Ruins
If cultural anthropology is to survive the growing schism between positivists and postmodernists, where does it look for its reintegration? What hope is there of the synthesis I spoke of at the beginning of this piece? How, as southern Californians love to say, will we Grow In Our Relationship? I would suggest a two-stage process to promote said Growth. First, it is essential that we recognize the debilitating effects of what I have called the double paradox that afflicts all our thinking about the role of science in cultural anthropology. The distressing truth is that our differences, which are all too real, are based largely on notions of "science" that are riddled with stereotype and conceit. Second, I think an inevitable result of learning even a little of what contemporary scientists are up to will be to invigorate and deepen our quest for the meaning of cultural processes.
For those thinkers are truly onto something (and some of them, perhaps remarkably for physicists and mathematicians, even sound like they are on something). They seem to be peeling back layers concealing a universe that displays an astonishing combination of the logical and the mystical, of determinism and chance. Consider only a few of the titles by one of the most prolific and profound of today's physicists, Paul Davies: The Accidental Universe, God and the New Physics, The Ghost in the Atom, The Cosmic Blueprint, The Matter Myth, and (the audacity of these physicists!) The Mind of God. Although we cultural anthropologists are not likely to tap into the Mind of God in the foreseeable future, I believe we can participate, and participate fully -- not just as lapdogs of the physicists -- in exploring the mystical and logical workings of that entity that is every bit as mysterious and magical as the quantum world: human culture.
Quantum mechanics dates 24 centuries further back to Greek Atomism by Leucippus and Democritus. They (?) “invented” the first DISCONTINUITY – isolated atoms embedded in empty space. Founders of Quantum mechanics always suggested “we have simply held on to Greek Atomism “ ( Schrodinger E. Nature and the Greeks, 1954 - 2014 CUP). Because nobody knows how did the ancient /” primitive “ atomists come by the idea of atomism of matter indeed , we can also assume ( why not ?) that the idea of atomism is simply unconscious genetic phenomenon. This explains in particular why atomism has proved so successful, durable and indispensable for 24 centuries…
In order to see invisible atoms ( as well as invisible trajectories of Sun and planets in astronomy, for example, in Aristarchus of Samos calculations in 300s BC ) ancient mathematicians developed arithmetical calculations and geometric theorems. In some biological sense some forms of religions and some forms of philosophical idealism are connected with justification of the world of invisibility, associated with the atoms.
Immanuel Kant termed Space and Time as he knew them the form of our mental intuition ( Anschauung ). Kant made the first attempt to introduce non-Newtonian ( Nonclassical ) physics where Space have infinite number of dimensions and they are observer dependent ( Heidegger in his speculations on 4-dimensional Time represents merely Kantian like imitation in the context of German transcendental idealism ). In some sense Kant’s Infinite Space is embedded into today’s Hilbert Infinite Space of quantum mechanics formalism as well. “ I will not say that Kant’s idea was completely wrong, but it was certainly too rigid and needed modification when new possibilities came to light, e.g. that space may be closed in itself, yet without boundaries, and that two events may happen in such way that either of them may be regarded as the earlier one …” ( E. Schrodinger, Science and Humanism , 158 ).
Physicists use experimental techniques, accelerators, mathematical imaginary experiments, visualizations and computer simulations in order to “see” the atoms. Pre-quantum physicists and philosophers applied mathematical principles of macro-scopic classical physics ( Newtonian physics) for prediction of atomic behaviour. However, quantum theorists showed the first time that atomic world is very different and extremely fantastical ( “jumps”, “teleportations”, “ no hidden structures “,etc )
Modern Classical ( Newtonian and Einstein’s ) physics ( in the context of discovery of the God’s particle - inertial mass producer Higgs boson in CERN ) are usually considered as merely Phenomenology of real quantum world. Thus, sooner or later, all gravity dependent and independent phenomena of the macroscopic world could be explained in the terms of quantum physics ( such macroscopic processes as Black Holes and Superconductivity have already quantum theoretical understanding and some experimental proofs ).
My experience suggests that there exists, nevertheless, room even for social anthro-pologist in quantum physics of the 21st century. In 2002 Editor of famous Russian physical journal ( Vitaly Ginzburg , Nobel Prizer in Physics ) asked me to describe what I intuitively defined as “Quantum Idealism” for publication. After publication in 2003 I received number of interesting comments in spite of my non-scientific affiliation. I have considered quantum mechanics in the terms of transcendental idealism and my defence of so-called Bell theorem/ Bell idealism became readable among professionals
Some physicists assumed that anthropological background can help to realize some forms of simplicity which physicists and mathematicians are desperately needed. Correspondingly, anthropological field observations and experiments equipped with knowledge of modern atomism can help to see what we usually neglect as “nonsense”, ”mystery” etc. Thus, to transform social anthropology into something scientific indeed, the first - we are needed only to live in our 21st century…
in 1990s I had opportunity to work in King’s College Keynes Archive at Cambridge. Indeed, Keynes’s “Principles of Probability” has some associations with quantum logic, however, following his may be Newtonian passion, he was not unfortunately able to finish such beautiful project. Please, see also :.
As is known, Lord Rutherford suggested "All science is either physics or stamp collecting “. May be it can explain Logic of things in modern anthropology ?
This is all very rich, but I will stick with the comment addressed to me. I looked at Keynes on Probability with a view to making a connection with his economic ideas and was disappointed to find that it was an exercise in traditional English philosophy. I recall that one major example concerned choosing whether or not to take an umbrella when leaving home. But maybe I should go back to it now.
I have written about Black-Scholes which has generated an interesting discussion about probability and contingency in economics, involving Taleb, Ayache and others, as well as the question you raise of its responsibility for the financial crash. Incidentally the third party was Merton (not Morton) and they engineered a crash as early as 1998 with the failure of their hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management. But that did nothing to impede th epopularity of their methods, since they permitted easy mathemaical application.
in 1990s I had opportunity to work in King’s College Keynes Archive at Cambridge. Indeed, Keynes’s “Principles of Probability” has some associations with quantum logic, however, following his may be Newtonian passion, he was not unfortunately able to finish such beautiful project. Please, see also :.
First, it is essential that we recognize the debilitating effects of what I have called the double paradox that afflicts all our thinking about the role of science in cultural anthropology. The distressing truth is that our differences, which are all too real, are based largely on notions of "science" that are riddled with stereotype and conceit. Second, I think an inevitable result of learning even a little of what contemporary scientists are up to will be to invigorate and deepen our quest for the meaning of cultural processes.
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. But, then, as always, the question arises, How to proceed? For those with the time and inclination, I strongly recommend the Santa Fe Institute's Complexity Explorer courses. The basic courses require no previous math beyond high-school algebra and do a marvelous job of introducing basic concepts related to complexity, chaos and dynamic systems.
Another useful resource for those who want to advance their thinking but lack the math to tackle quantum mechanics is Model Report, which provides a host of links to material related to the systems thinking community. The heart of the matter is learning to diagram and think about situations that involve multiple relationships and complex feedback loops. To get started with this material I recommend Systems Thinking Demystified, which provides an excellent brief introduction to the subject.
As we know, integers were always results of mental measurement – in other words, Discrete came from Continuous. All non-atomists (including mathematician Euclid) believed this is one-way road : Continuous could not be produced from Discrete !
However, quantum experimentalists as true atomists had found that when the eternal energy of an atom changes, due to emission of light, it does not do so evently or continuously but in quantum steps ( hence, QUANTA ) – in other words, there is another road where Continuous could be produced from Discrete…
Fundamental Quantum Fact suggests also that a beam of electrons exhibits interference phenomena similar to those of a light wave. These observations are inconsistent with classical physics and classical materialism.
Similar discovery of difference between Continuous and Discrete in mathematics( between Lebesgue integral and, say, Feynman integral ) was the most radical departure from Classical Euclidean world made by mathematicians.
As a consequence, both quantum physicists and pure mathematicians investigate the same new discrete world producing continuous world in the different contexts.
For example, in a finite – dimensional context, modern mathematicians think seriously about Cantor sets, Housdorff dimension and fractals, curves filling a square,
whereas in infinite – dimensional contexts wide new horizons opened by Hilbert and Banach linear spaces, Bourbaki, homotopy theory, categories ( pre-categories were used by Levy-Strauss in ethnography), poly-categories etc etc…!
My own observations :
(1999) Continuous sequence of perfect numbers could be produced from Discrete rule, correspondingly there exist beautiful periodic perfect numbers – please, see
(2010) Continuous sequence of odd integers could be produced from Discrete Cubic Groups - please, see
Cryptology ePrint Archive 653/2010 PDF |
This is connected with Plato's Enigma :
Unseen World of Fractals :
Regarding anthropology incorporating quantum mechanics and other scientific developments in its study of culture / society, John notes:
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. But, then, as always, the question arises, How to proceed?
Here I must confess that the appeal quantum mechanics, complexity theory, and cellular automata have for me is at the level of analogy or metaphor. I wouldn’t know how to operate with a nonlinear differential equation to save my life. But I find the ideas generated by those fields tremendously suggestive – ideas that can be folded into anthropological thought. An example from work I did long years ago: the idea of a “virtual particle” in quantum physics encouraged me to propose that anthropologists deal with virtual cultures in their work. The credo that a “social scientist” proceeds by accumulating a set of “facts” and then works them into an “objective” description of a society is undone by the quantum metaphor, which sees the anthropologist surrounded by a fuzzy cloud of potential, mutually inconsistent and incompatible beliefs and actions – in short, virtual cultures.
Your important question, how to proceed?, is one Michael might take up, since he has the scientific competence to lay out some specifics.
The crippling problem for anthropology, as I outlined in “The Logic of Things That Just Happen,” is that in the U. S. social / cultural anthropologists have rejected what they mistakenly think of as “science” on (seriously flawed) ideological grounds. I was dismayed a few years ago when the AAA, in a maneuver worthy of Orwell, rewrote its mission statement to exclude any reference to anthropology as a “science of humanity.” And this snit fit at a time when advances in real science, such as MRI imaging of cerebral activity and genome sequencing of ancient and contemporary Homo populations are contributing greatly to our understanding of the human mind and human history. We need to incorporate those developments in our work, not wall ourselves off in a suffocating, oh-so-intersubjective ghetto.
Lee, again, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. But seriously, you don't have to be able to operate with nonlinear differential equations to understand Melanie Klein's introduction to complexity science, and spending a little time with the course will deepen your grasp of the metaphor and may even suggest new ways to apply it. Things are evolving so rapidly in these areas that ideas that seemed fresh and exciting even just a decade ago may need updating.
In the meantime, rethinking old ideas in light of current circumstance can still deliver advances in thinking. Consider, for example, "objective description." We know that quantum physicists don't consider themselves incapable of objectively describing virtual particles. They observe that their current models don't account for observed phenomena, rewrite the math, and develop experiments to test their new conclusions. Their objectivity lies not in some entirely fictitious omniscient God-like take on the whole thing they're observing. It lies, instead, in the modest recognition that all observations are partial and that it still makes sense to try to combine them in ways that yield new knowledge that seems, at least for the moment, beyond reasonable doubt.
How might this apply to anthropology? A long time ago, in Culture and Experience, A. Irving Halowell observed that people's mental models do not have to be identical for them to be able to work together. They need only overlap enough to make cooperation possible. This observation applies, I suggest, to anthropologists as well as the people we study. Anthropologists rarely study unstudied peoples anymore. In East Asia, where I live and work, there are now dozens of ethnographic studies of Chinese and Japanese, not so many but still several, of Koreans and Vietnamese. All of them contain bits of new information; but the overlaps are large, and there is now enough information, from all sorts of sources to explore variation in well-known phenomena and to develop and test hypotheses that turn out to be relatively solid. There is plenty of change and variety to be accounted for; there is nothing very mysterious about the work that could usefully be done.
New metaphors may generate new insights; but the job that needs doing is an old-fashioned form of scholastic labor, carefully assembling and systematically analyzing the material we already have at hand. And here is where the current plight of scholars constrained by what has come to be called "audit culture" is genuinely detrimental to the field. If your chances of getting a job, tenure, a promotion, all turn on the number of articles you publish in journals listed in the Social Science Research Index, combining dribs and drabs of anecdote with currently fashionable buzzwords and adhering to established formats is clearly the way to go. Spending years achieving real mastery of large and constantly growing collections of relevant information, mastery that becomes even more challenging when comparative analysis is attempted, is to court academic oblivion. What we need are institutions that recognize and cherish the value of small contributions that contribute to projects larger than personal hobbies.
That's my two yen.
I have difficulty guessing whether Michael has discussion in mind with this series of posts or just welcomes the opportunity to air some of his private thoughts in public. It does appear to be intended as a contribution to anthropology, but so far the nature of that contribution is obscure. Lee struggles to answer the question, What can anthropologists do with this stuff when we don't know the science? and comes up with metaphors are good to think with. I for one do not expect to be studying electrons in a laboratory, but I do find it interesting to ask how scientific generalisations may specifically be said to reflect the social history of which they are a part. I have published one article addressing this question for the shifting paradigms of modern statistics in The social meaning of the power law. Here I drew on Durkheim and Mauss's essay on primitive classification. So in the case of quantum mechanics we might want to place it in the history of the period immediately before the first world war, alongside such phenomena as cubism. The war transformed scientific, social and artistic thinking, giving rise inter alia to Malinowski's ethnographic functionalism which many anthropologists still adhere to as a basic method. Quantum mechanics survived the war, but, as Michael points out, figures like Einstein led a significant backlash against it. I would suggest that its failure to inform 20th social science has something to do with its social logic and we could study that. I have found that because natural scientists believe that their observations are uncontaminated by social interests, the social influences on how they communicate their findings in words are more reliably discerned than the utterances of so-called social scientists.
Try this discussion by Edmund Leach from his BBC lecture series Runaway World; Godel's theorem, failure of analogy of society as a machine etc. etc.
First, an erratum. How my aging brain turned complexity scientist Melanie Mitchell into psychoanalyst Melanie Klein is a mystery perhaps best left to Klein's colleagues.
But, then, Keith, personally I find the sort of intellectual history to which you point us fascinating and a worthy subject of study in itself. It does not, however, address directly enough the issue to which Lee points us to be of much use in advancing anthropology today.
If I read him correctly, Lee has pointed to the fact that anthropology, once conceived as a bridge between the sciences and humanities, has not only been painfully split between these two options. The deeper irony is that, whether we choose one or the other, we let the terms of our arguments remain defined in terms of a positivistic, clockwork universe view of science on the one hand and a hermeneutic view of interpretation that can find no solid ground in a world where meaning is constantly shifting on the other.
If this reading is right, the question becomes, Does either studying quantum mechanics or its intellectual history point us along a path that will escape this dilemma? I am willing to be persuaded to the contrary, but at the moment my answer is "No." Were I to attempt to study quantum mechanics, the learning curve is too steep —and I am moderately numerate and mathematically inclined compared to most anthropologists I know. Revisiting debates from a century ago is not likely to leave me better informed about what is going on in science today. That is why I prefer a more modest path, taking advantage of current opportunities like those provided by Complexity Explorer to achieve a better grasp of where science is today and possibly discover ideas that will improve my anthropology.
Consider, for example, Daniel Lende's piece Culture Like Relativity. I may not agree with everything Lende says, but the direction in which he is thinking strikes me as having great potential.