Tuesday , October 22 2019
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Economics’ billiard-ball model

Summary:
“The social extension of atomistic methods . . . is not, of course, really a scientific project at all, though it uses scientific language.  It is a distortion that tends to discredit the whole idea of science by exploiting it to draw dubious political and moral conclusions.  This distortion itself has become obvious over the very notion of an atom – the idea of an impenetrable, essentially separate unit as the ultimate form of matter.  We know that today’s physicists no longer use this billiard-ball model.  They now conceive of particles in terms of their powers and their interaction with other particles, not as inert separate objects.  The seventeenth-century idea of a world constructed out of ultimately disconnected units has proved to be simply mistake.  Instead, physicists now see

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“The social extension of atomistic methods . . . is not, of course, really a scientific project at all, though it uses scientific language.  It is a distortion that tends to discredit the whole idea of science by exploiting it to draw dubious political and moral conclusions.  This distortion itself has become obvious over the very notion of an atom – the idea of an impenetrable, essentially separate unit as the ultimate form of matter.  We know that today’s physicists no longer use this billiard-ball model.  They now conceive of particles in terms of their powers and their interaction with other particles, not as inert separate objects.  The seventeenth-century idea of a world constructed out of ultimately disconnected units has proved to be simply mistake.  Instead, physicists now see many levels of complexity; many different patterns of connection.

At an obvious level it follows that we ought no longer to be impressed by social atomism, or by behaviourism, in the way that we once were.  We can see now that it cannot have been scientific to impose on social affairs a pattern which turns out to have been so inadequate for physics.  But the moral goes much deeper.  It is one that would still hold even if physics had not changed.  That moral is that, quite generally, social and psychological problems cannot be solved by imposing on them irrelevant patterns imported from the physical sciences, merely because they are seductively simple.”

Mary Midgley, p.7-8, Science and Poetry

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