[xmca] Copernicus, Darwin and Bohr

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Fri Jun 22 2007 - 02:27:05 PDT

Many moons ago, a propos an argument that David Preiss and I were stumbling into over the true position of the USSR as a science power, Mike recommended that I read Science in Russia and the Soviet Union by Loren Graham.
  Mike is an endless fountain of good reading. In Graham's book, he describes how the Soviets considered that in the last few years of Bohr's life, Soviet physicists like Fock believed that they had "won him over" to a materialist view. In particular, they believe that Bohr's last papers showed:
  a) Bohr no longer conceived of uncertainty as being the product of an inevitable interaction between the measured and the measuring instrument.
  b) Bohr did believe that interactions could in principle be controlled.
  c) Bohr did believe in causality.
  d) Bohr was moving to a "minimalist" interpretation of the Copenhagen interpretation that did have a place for "objective" material reality.
  Graham points out (correctly, I think) that the "dialectical materialists" moved in Bohr's direction rather more spectacularly than vice versa, since they began from a position of utterly rejecting quantum mechanics. Nevertheless, Graham concludes (somewhat reluctantly) that the Soviet view of Bohr's late development is a valid one.
  More importantly, I think Graham's book points out that the grandiose philosophical interpretations that people attach to scientific breakthroughs often do not survive the incorporation of those breakthroughs into a much more pluralistic mode of science. There simply isn't one set of ontological or epistemological views that are imposed by a particular breakthrough; that's not the way scientific breakthroughs work.
  Often, there are usually two or more ontologies that are compatible with a given scientific breakthrough at least at first. Newton, for example, believed strongly in a prime mover. One of the best illustrations of this pluralism is Graham's chapter on how Darwin was received in Russia.
  Russians accepted the idea of "evolution" immediately--there was virtually no religious opposition of any kind. But Graham points out that Darwin's theory is not really about evolution--ideas of evolution existed long before Darwin. What is unique about Darwin's theory is the specific mechanism that he proposes, namely natural selection.
  This was something that most Russians, even those who accepted Darwin, did not agree with; nobody would even use the phrase "struggle for existence". Instead, they preferred theories which stressed cooperation and not competition; some species thrived because they cooperated and taught their members, while others perished because they competed against each other and did not hand on their knowledge.
  In the West, the idea of the "struggle for existence" and the "survival of the fittest" and the healthy winnowing mechanism of competition was completely accepted, even by people who did not agree with evolution (e.g. Malthus and the church). What was rejected was the idea of the evolution of species, not the specific mechanism by which this took place. But in Russia things were exactly the opposite; the mechanism of competition, natural selection, and "the struggle for existence" was absolutely rejected, even by those who accepted evolution, but there was almost no resistance to the idea of evolution itself.
  Interestingly, Loren Graham offers a "geological" or maybe biological explanation: instead of living on islands, where there were limited resources to be competed for by a tiny population, the Russians lived on a vast expense of land, where resources seemed almost unlimited, and the only real inhibiting factor to progress was the lack of cooperation and communication (and in this Russia was very similar to that other hotbed of resistance to Darwin, namely America).
  I think it's much more useful to turn the whole question around, and instead ask why it was that WESTERNERS who totally rejected the idea of evolution would nevertheless be willing to accept the specific mechanism proposed by Darwin, namely competition and the struggle for existence. The answer, it seems to me, lies in one word, or rather two: political economy. Or maybe Malthusianism. As Gould points out, this is NOT actually a good metaphor for the way adaptation works, and in some ways the Russian view is closer to the mark, particularly when we look at social systems and how they adapt.
  So it seems to me that we need to accept that the philosophical ramifications we impute to particular forms of technology may not actually follow; they tend to follow, rather, from our own philosophical predilections and even our geographical predispositions.
  That means a kind of pluralism and open-mindedness and acceptance that materialism and dialectics may offer a partial truth that I think is incompatible with a lot of the sweeping statements that Jay (and Shaffer and Clinton) wish to make.
  I guess what I find most disturbing about arguments like "toolforthoughts" (a concept which still seems profoundly NONdevelopmental to me) and Jay's ideas on "radical" ontology is that they are basically monolithic. It seems to me that they do not accept that tools and thoughts may presuppose each other on one level but not on another, or that causality may operate on one level but not on another.
  Consider the following conversation from classroom data:
  T: Do you like apples?
  S: Yes.
  T: Why?
  S: Because it's delicious (sic).
  Of course the deliciousness of the apple does not "cause" the predilection for apples any more than the soporific qualities of opium "cause" the sleepiness of Moliere's patient. Here it can easily be said that causality has no meaning. But it does not follow that causality NEVER has meaning.
  My father had the good fortune to study under Bohr in the fifties in Copenhagen towards the end of Bohr's life (and the beginning of my father's career). He is also very close to Soviet views in theoretical physics (though he is worlds away from Marxism), partly as a result of working their in the sixties.
  I once tried out the argument that the uncertainy principle disproves causality on the old man. He laughed (as he usually does at my physics) and shook his head. He said "causality" is an English word, and what uncertainy refers to is a mathematical wave function.
  As when you translate a cliche from one language to another where it sounds fresh and new, when you go from the mathematics to English, meanings appear that simply are not actually there. I am still trying to figure out what "actually" actually means.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Fri Jun 22 03:28 PDT 2007

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