“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”

 – Barack Obama

The world is in economic crisis bringing upheaval throughout the planet.  Experts disagree about the best ways to manage paths to stability and prosperity for global societies.  The severity of the crisis pressures policy makers toward pragmatism, whatever their ideologies.  The big question for every leader involves the effectiveness of their intended actions.  Will those actions work? The issues before world leaders range from short-term economic recovery necessitated by the failure of capital markets, to long term survival of humans on the planet earth challenged by climate change and ecological systems, natural resources, and population growth.  Potential consequences for world societies and civilizations are enormous.

World leaders need confidence that they can predict outcomes when they implement their plans.  They cannot manage their policies without prediction.  W. Edwards Deming tells us that management is prediction  (Rienzo, 1993). How does the human mind find confidence in predictions? From where does confidence come?

Confidence comes from knowing the systems we are attempting to manage.  The purest expressions of knowledge that we have as human beings are scientific laws.  Scientific laws allow scientists to predict outcomes with certainty when they engineer physical structures, mechanical technologies, or chemical/biological reactions.  Can political and business leaders use processes similar to the ones that produce scientific laws to address the most pressing issues of world societies?  The perspective of physicist Nancy Cartwright offers some insight.

Truth is Relative Wherever it is Found

Scientific laws come as close to uncontested truth as exists in the human experience.  They are often presented as true in all circumstances, but Nancy Cartwright (1999) argues against what she calls scientific fundamentalism.  Cartwright argues for more realism in pursuing scientific theories to solve human problems.  She is particularly concerned about unwarranted resources given to glamour theories that promise to produce universal laws governing the behavior of everything.

The pernicious effects of the belief in the single universal rule of law and the single scientific system are spread across the sciences.  Indeed, a good many physicists right now are in revolt.  Superstring theory is the new candidate for a theory of everything…The theory consumes resources and efforts that could go into the hundreds of other enterprises in physics that ask different kinds of questions and solve different kinds of problems (p. 16).

Cartwright is concerned that an unrealistic vision of what is possible poses a danger of much waste and little reward in the application of scientific and economic theories.  She questions scientific fundamentalism – the tendency to think that all facts, regimented into theoretical schemes which provide accurate predictions in highly structured environments, are exemplary of the way nature is supposed to work (p.25). She denies the universality of laws, advocating instead a dappled world governed by local realism and metaphysical pluralism in which reality is more like the outcome of negotiations between domains than the logical consequence of a system of order (p. 1).

Cartwright contends that well known laws, like Newton’s second law, F=ma, are successful only in nomological machines -- fixed (enough) arrangements of components, or factors, with stable (enough) capacities that in the right sort of stable (enough) environment will, with repeated operation, give rise to the kind of regular behavior that we represent in our scientific laws.  It is the design of nomological machines operating under specific conditions that produces scientific laws.

So here is my strong claim: look at any case where there is a regularity in the world (whether natural or constructed) that we judge to be highly reliable and which we understand – we can either explain the regularity or we believe it does not need explanation.  What you will find, I predict, is that the explanation provides what is clearly reasonable to label as a nomological machine.  And where there is no explanation needed you will still find a machine.  Sometimes for instance the whole situation is treated as one simple machine (like the lever), where the shielding conditions and the idea of repeated operation are so transparent that they go unnoted (Cartwright, 1999, pp. 58-59).

Nomological machines must be shielded, i.e. the nomological machine must operate as prescribed without interference.  Shielding is an important concept.  Its necessity for successful laws means that laws are true only under ceteris paribus conditions – all things being equal.  Failure to recognize the importance of shielding can result in mistaken notions of reality.

We tend to think that shielding does not matter to the laws we use.  The same laws apply both inside and outside the shields; the difference is that inside the shield we know how to calculate what the laws will produce, but outside, it is too complicated.  Holists are wary of these claims.  If the events we study are locked together and changes depend on the total structure rather than the arrangement of the pieces, we are likely to be very mistaken by looking at small chunks of special cases (Cartwright, 1999, p .29).

This systemic view is shared by Capra (1996) describing biological sciences.

Living systems are integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts.  Their essential, or “systemic,” properties are properties of the whole, which none of the parts have.  They arise from the “organizing relations” of the parts – that is, from a configuration of ordered relationships that is characteristic of that particular class of organisms, or systems.  Systemic properties are destroyed when a system is dissected into isolated elements (p. 36).

Emergentism in physics holds that there are macro-properties that do not supervene on micro-features, i.e. the nature of the parts does not define the properties of the whole.  Even in generally accepted scientific paradigms, reductionism and inductivism cannot adequately explain systemic reality, either in biology or physics.  Sciences are tied in application to the same material world, but scientific domains are not reducible to more fundamental domains.  Their boundaries are flexible, but real.  We cannot simply assume a universal cover of law.

Cartwright challenges the universality of F=ma by comparing the movement of a thousand dollar bill tossed in the wind with that of an airplane.  There is no adequate model for the movement of the paper bill in the wind.

I do not doubt that when the right questions can be asked and the right answers can be supplied, fluid dynamics can provide a practicable model.  But I do doubt that for every real case, or even for the majority, fluid dynamics has enough of the ‘right questions’. It does not have enough of the right concepts to allow it to model the full set of causes, or even all the dominant ones.  I am equally skeptical that the models which work will do so by legitimately bringing Newton’s laws (or Lagrange’s for that matter) into play (Cartwright, 1999, p. 27).


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