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[Xmca-l] On Physics and Psychology (and an AAA (anthropology) meeting next week)
Speaking to the Martin/Andy/Vygotsky question of whether Physics and
Psychology might be similar, I wanted to come at it from the other side of
what Martin proposed in the fate, luck, chance thread (which at 100 posts,
seemed to be getting a little long). Whereas Martin suggests that
Psychology turns out to be more like Physics, I'd like to suggest that
Physics is, in fact, more like Psychology (than we think).
Physics isn't at all what we think it is, and so I want to suggest that, in
understanding human social interaction (which, imho, is essential to
understanding consciousness) then we can productively turn to Physics for a
I've pasted a short chunk of a conference talk I'll be giving next
WEdnesday at the American Anthropological Association meeting in DC (if
anyone is in the neighborhood and would like to join, we have a couple
folks on the panel that will be engaging with Vygotsky). I paste the chunk
of it below that makes the argument for using the 3-body problem in Physics
as a model for dyadic interaction (yes, dyadic interaction is comprised of
a bare minimum of three primitives - I'd argue that four is the bare
minimum but that's just adding more complexity and the famous problem in
PHysics is the "3-body problem"). It isn't perfect, but it is surprising
how well it fits human social behavior.
(NB: no billiard balls here!).
Excerpt is pasted below.
I'd love to hear any thoughts that folks might have.
p.s. my main complaint about the metaphor is that it doesn't get to
"constitution". Any thoughts on a metaphor that could do that? (but
thinking about it, one could stretch the interplanetary metaphor a bit if
one considers the problem across massive scales of time (eons!) and the way
that mutual gravitiational pulls are important to the constitution of the
planets in the first place - something that requires a loooooooong view. So
perhaps there is a sense of constitution in this metaphor that is missing
from the shorter timescales considered by the problem). Anyway, excerpt
[I have all too often heard social scientists complain of the complexity of
social phenomena as compared to the simpler and more predictable physical
sciences. This “Physics envy”, if I may, suggests things are much less
complex in Physics and other physical sciences as compared to the social
sciences. As a way of disabusing us of this unfortunate state while also
shedding some important light on the problem at hand, and] To this end, I
borrow from Physics a truly “*Interstellar*” model-as-metaphor that both
demonstrates the degree of complexity with even the simplest physical
systems and functions as a productive metaphor for the anthropological
theory of motivation-in-interaction that I am developing here.
The model-as-metaphor I propose is the physical/mathematical problem known
as the 3-body problem. This problem was first introduced addressed by Isaac
Newton and was formally named as the 3-body problem by Jean d’Alembert
In the problem, one is given the initial conditions, mass, velocity, and
direction of three interacting bodies and from these initial conditions one
must predict the position of the three bodies at some future point. Sounds
easy enough right?
Well, it turns out that even after 250 years of attempts to work out the
problem, and even with all of the computing power that we have today, with
the exception of a small number of restricted examples, the generic form of
the three-body problem remains unsolved (and possibly unsolvable). One
simply cannot predict where the bodies will end up. [And, I should add,
that the three body problem is already massively simplified from the kinds
of problems that one would find when trying to predict the precise future
positions of three actual bodies, planetary or otherwise. Treating the
three bodies as point-masses ignores many other facets of planetary bodies,
for example the problem of rotational velocities and the drag effects of
things like surface or interior liquids OR the problem of the uneven
distribution of mass around the center of the planetary body OR any other
of a number of contingencies that these three bodies might encounter as
they move through space and time. What is remarkable of course is that even
this highly simplified problem dealing with three point-mass bodies turns
out to be unsolvable.]
[Animation of 3 body problem].
As a metaphor, I find the 3 body problem to be compelling because it
introduces us to the incredible complexity of even very simple
interdependent systems. It is just that kind of system that I am suggesting
arises in any human interaction, making it appear to be a rather
unpredictable muddle while not being entirely unsystematic.
If we consider the four primitives of human interaction that I described
above, human interaction appears to be a muddle because, as with the
planetary bodies, each of these primitives of social interaction are in
motion. Perhaps the most mobile (I.e., of the smallest mass) of these is
the particular local interactional context, or framing of the interaction,
that emerges across interactional. As R. Keith Sawyer has pointed out,
these framings can emerge over timescales as short as a few seconds.
Perhaps only slightly less mobile (I.e., of larger mass) are the particular
types of persons that we will come to be recognized as in a given
interaction. And beyond the interaction, the cultural context (or ontology)
is perhaps the least mobile (I.e., most massive) of all of these bodies,
exerting a massive influence on everything that happens in the interaction.
[Image: sun - culture; body1 - person1; body2 - person2; body3 -
Further contributing to the muddle is the fact that, also like the planets,
each of these primitives are interdependent with the others. The types of
person that a participant will come to be in a given interaction depends in
part upon the particular interaction in which one is participating. For
example, when one is engaged in the type of interaction called “gossiping”,
one cannot take on the role of “teacher” without transforming the nature of
the interaction itself. Similarly, should an interactional participant
dramatically change their way of acting, the particular type of person that
they are seen to be will also be changed, as will the nature of the type of
interaction in which they are participating.
And yet, despite the great complexity, there is systematicity here –
perhaps unpredictable systematicity but systematic nonetheless. So then,
how might we understand this systematicity?
Gregory A. Thompson, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology
880 Spencer W. Kimball Tower
Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602