A. What are Physicalisms?
Physicalisms result from borrowing the principles of physics as foundations upon which to build theories in other disciplines, particularly the social or human sciences. They began to be used systematically in the wake of Thomas Hobbes’ proposal of a ‘social physics’ in his classic “Leviathan”. Subsequent authors developed a broad range of social and human concepts that––knowingly or not––were rooted in the theories of Isaac Newton’s classical physics.
The impact of Newtonian physics on the evolution of other sciences far surpasses the contributions of his specific theories. It gave way to an epistemological ‘meta-paradigm’ that served as a model for structuring those other sciences during their weaning from their mother, philosophy. Furthermore, due to its philosophical implications, the Newtonian paradigm has bequeathed to the masses of humanity––at least to the extent that they have become ‘Westernized’––a veritable popular worldview that is at once reductionist, atomistic, mechanistic, deterministic, and materialistic.
According to a simplistic description of the view that emerged from Newton, the world was made up ultimately of atoms: perfectly spherical, indivisible particles that mutually reacted and grouped in different ways to produce the diverse beings and phenomena of the physical world. These atoms varied in terms of mass (size and weight) and the speed and direction of their movements, and bumped into and off of each other like so many billiard balls. This is how all of the multifarious phenomena observed throughout the world––from the formation of crystals to human consciousness–– were generated.
The outcome of this is a worldview according to which the universe and everything in it is like an enormous machine. Each element in the world is a piece of this machinery and interacts with other parts in a continual relationship of forces: pushing or pulling, changing or moving, forming or destroying, enabling or impeding them; while they in turn struggled to impose similar effects on it.
The view of the social world that emerged from this interpretation of Newtonian physics shows interesting parallels. The atoms were individual human beings, of an allegedly foreknown nature. Combinations of these atoms made up the groups of which they were part. The speed or momentum of each member’s movement represented their degree of motivation or ambition, while the direction they moved in signified their diverse interests. Everyone's relative mass symbolized the power they wielded to influence the rest. Collisions among these human atoms translated into conflicts, without which no phenomenon could exist, whether physical or social.
The upshot of this worldview is that we have designed our institutions and social relations as a colossal contest of contending forces. In economics, different players compete to gain greater market shares, while in politics, various parties strive to capture more power, and so on. Below we will see in greater depth how the world came to be interpreted in this way based on 'classical physics.' Then we will visit a few elements taken from the 'new physics' that refute this perspective and will help us rethink the nature of man and society, thereby clearing the path for a deep transformation and restructuring of human life.
B. Philosophical Implications
Philosophy is based, not on ungrounded speculations about reality, but on a rigorous process of successive logical steps up from an observed fact or ‘datum’. Newtonian physics provided philosophers in the different branches with important new data or referents to work with. This is how, in time, that particular view of how the world works served as a basis for several significant philosophical implications, five of which are known as reductionism, atomism, mechanicism, determinism, and materialism. These five ‘isms’, in turn, lay the epistemological foundations for the development of other sciences, including the social or human sciences, thereby becoming strongly rooted in the modern worldview of the West. Let us review each one in greater depth.
Reductionism is the result of a logical fallacy by which an entity is no more than the sum of its constituent parts. The same theories that are formulated to explain the elements also apply to the whole. Phenomena of a higher order are fully explained by those of lower order. From this perspective, atoms would explain molecules, molecules would explain cells, and cells would explain the complex organisms of which they are part. Likewise, many of the theories found in traditional social science are reductionist, because they assume that society as no more than the sum of the individuals making it up. They seek to understand the laws that govern social phenomena merely by studying the behavior of their individual members. And they pretend to know the latter by studying the animal world, and even the neurons in the brain.
This strong reductionist tendency in the social sciences may be due in part to the fact that, until Newton, they were not considered sciences, but branches of philosophy. As philosophies, they were accustomed to taking their referents or data from the different natural sciences and, through processes of logical deduction and induction, obtaining conclusions from them. When they became sciences, they maintained this custom and based some of their foundational theories on the conclusions of other sciences, instead of developing them from their own observations of society.
One of the implications of reductionism is precisely the use of ‘epistemological borrowing’. If higher order phenomena could be fully explained by studying lower order ones, there would be no reason not to borrow theories from the natural sciences in order to explain human and social phenomena. However, to illustrate with an analogy, doing so is like trying to understand the beauty and aroma of a rose by digging in the manure where it is planted.
According to atomism, all the phenomena in the universe, including the most highly complex ones such as the human mind, can ultimately be ‘reduced’ to atoms, their movements, and the interactions among them. In the social sciences, atomism finds its parallel in ‘individualism’, translated as the supreme importance attributed to the individual as the axis and driver of the diverse social phenomena through their motivations, interests and power in society. Another case of atomism in the social sciences is the theory by which a culture can be ‘reduced' to a myriad parts and pieces called ‘culturgens’.1 Atomism also bolsters the tendency to see everything in terms of dichotomies––black or white, left or right––which has had a heavy influence on the extreme polarization that has characterized the debates among economists, political scientists, etc.
Mechanicism was the result of the continual actions and reactions among countless atoms and resulting phenomena, which functioned like a great machine. The entire universe was seen perceived as a giant clock, used as an analogy by René Descartes in his description of the ‘bête machine’ (animal-machine). Descartes, being a religious man, left the human soul out of this device, but his successors were not long in including it into the ‘homme machine’ (man-machine). Thus it was that all modern sciences came to operate under this perspective, including the human and social sciences. Mechanicism goes from the basic concept of cause-effect to the behaviors of action-reaction, which do not allow for free choice but limit human beings to following the ‘instincts’ of their ‘animal nature’.
Determinism is the logical conclusion of the three preceding elements. If everything is made up of atoms, and if all phenomena can be reduced to successive interactions of cause and effect among these atoms as if they formed an enormous machine, then the past determines the present, which determines the future. This was even taken to the extreme of stating that, if it were possible to calculate precisely the mass, position, speed, and direction of every atom in the universe at any given moment, one could predict the future with absolute certainty. It was like a scientific version of fatalism, in which the governor of destiny was no longer a kind, fair God, but rather an impersonal, implacable machine.
Traditional, positivistic social science is deterministic. It sustains that the sum of the interests, motivations and power of all individuals, and the how, where and when collisions or conflicts occur and are resolved among them, determine the events that progressively unfold in society. One variant of this is ‘environmentalism’ (or ‘culturalism’ to avoid confusion with ecological concerns), according to which the behavior of all persons is determined by their environment or culture. Biological determinism, on the other hand, postulates that human behavior is genetically determined, as we will see below.
One of the implications of determinism is that human behavior is limited to an action-reaction relationship with one’s physical surroundings. This takes away both our free choice and responsibility for our actions. If I am the product of what has happened to me in my life, I cannot voluntarily change. If a society is the outcome of its own past, it cannot willfully change either. So why make an effort to improve or to change society? Viktor Frankl questions this and proposes a decision-making space between action and reaction, a space that in some is greater and in others smaller, but that can be broadened through constant effort to exercise our ability to choose.2 From this perspective was born abundant literature on cultivating proactivity.
Materialism follows as a consequence of all of the above. According to this view, all beings and phenomena that exist ultimately consist of atoms and the cause-effect relations among them. Human beings are no more than packages of fibers, hormones, DNA, nerves, and impulses, genetically programmed and socially determined to act in a given way, which could potentially be predicted and controlled by the social sciences. Several ideologies and pseudo-sciences, which continue having much impact today, are based on this view of man as a merely material being and, therefore, motivated only by material interests.3 This goes against the sense of meaning and quality of life for billions of the Earth’s inhabitants.
In summary, it is on the basis of these five assumptions that most of the social theories that support the adversarial myth of origin were built: that human beings are selfish, aggressive, greedy and violent by nature; and that conflict and competition are endemic and even necessary to all societies. Further on we will look at alternatives to these assumptions, but before continuing let us briefly review a theory borrowed from physics that has had an important role in consolidating the adversarial myth of origin: Social Entropy.
C. Social Entropy
Entropy or the “second law of thermodynamics," was formulated by Rudolf Clausius in 1865. The first law says that matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, but only undergo changes of state or place, while the second law says that the degree of disorder in an isolated system will continually increase or remain constant. Since the universe as a whole is an isolated system (no exchange with other systems), its entropy is steadily increasing.4
Social entropy is an epistemological borrowing from physics, according to which society tends to disintegrate, like everything else, leading some to assume that its final destruction is inevitable. The general argument is that the multiplication of individuals, drivers and interests, along with the struggle of all to fulfill those interests, will multiply the complexity of society until it reaches an unsustainable point and collapses. The need to continually increase the complexity of social systems in response to growing social complexity, combined with the natural decline of all social structures, means that in time a society would spend more energy on maintaining its structures than on providing its members with benefits. The subsequent social dissatisfaction would eventually lead to anarchy (literally ‘absence of law’) and the total disintegration of society into a mere aggregate of individual components, lacking in shared conventions, perceptions and objectives.5
The law of entropy has been associated to the ‘big bang’ theory, according to which the universe is expanding outward in a continual explosion, which some authors have taken as the cause of entropy. This shows an erroneous understanding of entropy, which actually does not imply the existence of a natural law that causes entropic behavior, but is rather a random behavior seen in absence of any organizing law. William Hatcher explains:
…the law of entropy… says that order, or the evolution of a system towards order, is improbable, and that disorder, or the degeneration towards disorder, is a probable (natural) configuration. In the light of this law, many fact-theories do not necessitate an explanation. If our observations of a system show a steady increase in disorder, then we do not have to bother looking for a cause to this phenomenon: this is the natural state of affairs. But if we observe a system that is evolving persistently towards increased order, then there must be some cause (whether observable or not) for the phenomenon, and we must seek out that cause.6
Entropy, then, is what happens when no law applies. This would mean that the existence of laws works against decay into entropy. Therefore, if there is disorder in society, it is not due to the operation of a supposed entropic law, but rather the lack of legislation and organization needed to establish social order, or that they are not suited to the exigencies of the time. In the case of society, as with all systems, there is interplay between internal evolution and changes in the external environment. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has observes that, just as the social world is expanding outward, it is also going through a process of ‘complexification’ or organic evolution from simpler to more complex structures. This is correlated to an increase in interiorization, that is, in the human psyche or conscious.7
Not adapting social order to the exigencies of these changes produces tension, both internally and with the environment, which if left unresolved can end up destroying the system. Just as organic life is adaptive, the life of society must adapt to its own internal transformations and to changes in its environment, or disappear. Accordingly, the idea that an entropic end to the world––whether natural or social––is not necessary has been proposed by several authors. For example, ecological economists Norgaard and Swaney maintain that life is an anti-entropic force insofar as it struggles to extend itself and to adapt to environmental conditions.8
D. The New Physics
The ‘new physics’ represents a paradigmatic revolution in that science, primarily as of early 20th Century with the development of quantum physics. Its discoveries practically cancel out the postulates of Newtonian physics regarding the behavior of atoms (except for games such as pool and marbles). It turns out that atoms are not indivisible, but rather made up of subatomic elements such as electrons, neutrons and protons. They are not spherical and impenetrable, either, because if they were blown up to the size of a football stadium, the nucleus would look like a grain of sand in the middle of the field, and the rest of the elements like dust particles in the air. Neither are subatomic elements solid matter. Rather, they form a type of electro-magnetic field around the nucleus, behaving either like particles or energy waves, depending on the viewpoint from which they are studied.
As for collisions among atoms, they do not explain very many phenomena, but primarily relate to an increase in the caloric energy of a gas or liquid. When subatomic particles collide at close to the speed of light, such as in solar rays or ‘particle accelerators’, they do not bounce off each other as Newton imagined atoms did. Rather, the latent energy in their mass plus velocity explodes into a burst of new subatomic elements. The stable ones persist, and the instable ones spiral inward and disappear.
The philosophical implications of the new physics have given birth to many scholarly books and much speculation. For example, in his “Tao of Physics”, Fritjof Capra says that the new physics lead to many of the same conclusions as Buddhism, but via another route. Subsequently, in “The Web of Life”, the same author shows how the new physics offers a unified view of the world, similar to that achieved by the ancient mystics. However, for now let us briefly consider how it questions the five assumptions that classical physics bequeathed to traditional social science.
1. The Death of Reductionism
Reductionism has been discarded in favor of understanding the dynamics of each phenomenon at its own level. The world cannot be reduced to collisions among atoms; we need to observe each phenomenon seeking without bias what it can teach us as such. Of course there is no lack of new reductionisms, such as the tendency to redefine the world in terms of ‘energies’, or the book “Critical Mass - How one thing leads to another”, where Philip Ball explores how recent discoveries might lead to a "new physics of society.”9
2. Systemic Thinking
In contrast with the individualism that arose from atomism, such discoveries as electro-magnetic force fields have resulted in an awareness of how intimately all beings and phenomena are interrelated. This has given way to new interpretations of the world, such as Systems Theory, which analyzes the dynamics and evolution of systems as more than the sum of their individual parts. It covers all kinds of systems, from subatomic elements to individual behaviors, from ecosystems to societies, and even the solar system. Systems Theory is not a new reductionism, but rather a recognition of the forces that link all beings in common patterns. It offers a way of perceiving the diversity of systems, not as dichotomic elements in conflict, but as contributors to a relationship of mutual complementarity.
The new physics and Systems Theory made it possible to trade the mechanistic paradigm for one that has come to be called ‘organicism’, also known as ‘organism’ or ‘organismic theory’. This new worldview perceives the world’s diverse systems, not as different parts in a vast machine, but as living beings with their own vital processes, from atoms to the cosmos, from individual human beings to the human race as a whole.
There is a whole series of analogies for the social sciences that could be grouped under the heading of ‘organicism’. Basically, it means viewing society as a living organism like the human body, whose cells are its individual members and whose systems and organs are its institutions and social structures. These organisms often contain sub–systems and also form part of more comprehensive super-systems. Viewing society as systems within systems, forming a single living organism, has contributed powerfully to rethinking social sciences from a mutualistic standpoint.
During the colonization, this image was used to naturalize and justify the continuance of structures of dominance under the status quo. If European white men enslaved African Negroes, it was thought to be as natural as the fact that the brain controlled the feet, a law of the universe, divinely ordained. Currently, therefore, many social scientists reject a view of society as an organic unit, claiming that this way of thinking is contrary to the diversity of humanity and leads to uniformity.
However, under its current conception, it is not proposed as a way to justify the status quo but to question it. If society is like the human body, then the ills that afflict it are like the diseases of that body. The rich diversity of the human race is comparable to the variety of cells and tissues in the body, which when healthy work together in perfect unity and balance. Similarly, society as the 'political body' should be characterized by 'unity in diversity.’ The ailments that threaten the health of this body are due to the lack of justice among its constituent parts, which destroys its unity and––therefore––its peace.
The organismic theory is not a reductionism, but rather uses the image of an 'organism' as an illustrative analogy. It represents what in Systems Theory can be classified as ‘systems’, which include both physical bodies and human groups. Both seem to be subject to the same processes and laws that govern all systems, from an atom to the universe as a whole. This has made it possible to go beyond the image of society as the mere sum of its individual members, or as a machine whose parts move in dichotomic, mechanical relationships of action-reaction and domination-submission.
Determinism has given up its position of privilege to new principles such as uncertainty, indeterminacy and probabilism. No longer can we dream of predicting the future based on the past or present, since it is impossible to determine simultaneously the position and movement of a particle. More importantly, the implications of the new physics attribute a measure of will to all systems, from the simplest to the most complex. Their decisions are oriented towards what they can become and what they need to achieve that. All systems take or adapt from their environments what they need in order to realize their potential, in a non-deterministic relationship of mutual influence. If a fetus in its mother’s womb does not find the nutritional factors it needs for development, it will manufacture them based on the available resources. Children need affection for their psychological development, and if they do not find it, they look for it in their environment, or create it with their toys or using their imagination. Therefore, entities are not pushed or obliged by events in their past, as determinism would have it, but rather are pulled or attracted towards the latent possibilities in their future.
The mere fact of switching the focus from past to future means that we can no longer seek excuses for being how we are, but must arise to the challenge of becoming different and better every day. Furthermore, it provides an entirely new way of understanding destiny in a non-fatalistic way. For example, a seed may be predestined to become a large tree, heavy with leaves, blossoms and fruits, a home to an entire ecosystem of other plants and animals that inhabit it, while being a productive member of an even greater ecosystem. However, if that seed never has the chance to germinate, it will never fulfill its high destiny; if it germinates and grows in a place lacking in the nourishment it needs, it will fulfill it only in part; and if it is rooted up or burned in a fire, its destiny will be thwarted.
Human beings and societies are also living systems, packages of potential that seek out what they need in order to reach their destiny. The wellbeing of all individuals and society are inextricably interdependent, because the misfortune of any member is a misfortune for the entire community. In order for society to achieve its full potential, it is imperative that each of its members to achieve theirs. This has lead to a new ethos that makes society jointly responsible to do whatever is needed to cultivate the latent capacities in all of its members. From this outlook, every child is born as a trust to all of humanity, which is accountable for looking after it and cultivating its potential. We no longer need to see ourselves as locked in a “war of all against all”, as Hobbes suggested, in which life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It is now possible to conceive of a society of all for all, and a life that is friendly, rich, pleasant, enlightened, and long.
5. Beyond Materialism
Finally, there has been a profound questioning of the value attached to the narrow epistemological confines of materialistic assumptions in science, particularly the social and human sciences. This change has been fed by discoveries such as: the wave-particle duality of subatomic elements; the organic life of systems that were once believed to be inanimate, deterministic and mechanical; the rediscovery––by the hardest of sciences––of truths that were already known by ancient mystics; the concept of spiritual capital and its development;10 and others.
Furthermore, the lessons learned through the application of two materialistic systems over the past centuries––industrial capitalism and Marxist communism––have fed a growing awareness that physical wellbeing is not enough to fully realize individual and social potential, and a search for ways to promote the development of our spiritual potential. Of course, certain elements of this search have led down thorny paths––such as the new reductionism of interpreting all phenomena in terms of ‘energies’ and certain imaginative speculations that have arisen from that––but the important thing at this early stage in the process is the intense interest seen among many segments of society in enriching the spiritual life and health of human beings and their society.
Although it is now clear that atoms bumping off each other cause very few phenomena, social interpretations of this notion still hold sway in popular philosophy and in certain circles within the social and human sciences. This despite the fact that the philosophical implications of the new physics have demythified many elements of that traditional worldview. Some of the sciences that were forged in that crucible––specifically social and human sciences––do not seem to have awoken to this fact and continue carrying around the dead weight of an archaic, obsolete meta-paradigm. The underlying assumptions of reductionism, atomism, mechanicism, determinism, and materialism still live on, as their implications for social sciences have not yet been broadly questioned. Perhaps this is because for the most part they remain unconscious and unacknowledged. Their “salvation”, as Bourdieu pointed out, will consist of “making the unconscious conscious.”
After reading the text, answer the following questions in your own words:
• How did classical physics further the development of the human and social sciences?
• How did it lead to the worldview for the culture of adversarialism? Describe the elements of this old worldview.
• How have the ‘new physics’ opened the door to a new worldview? Describe the elements of this new worldview.
• What is the matter with Social Entropy?
1. Lewontin, R.C: “Biology as Ideology - The Doctrine of DNA”. New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, Inc., 1991, p. 14.
2. Frankl, Victor E.: “Man’s Search for Meaning, an Introduction to Logotherapy” (título original: “From Death-Camp to Existentialism”), Nueva York: Beacon Press, 1959.
3. El mayor error de estas interpretaciones es su sesgo positivista, evidenciado en el uso de palabras como ‘siempre’ y ‘nunca’, ‘todos’ y ‘ninguno’. El hecho de haber encontrado una explicación para un fenómeno determinado no significa que sea necesariamente la única. Además, el que con los métodos actuales de la ciencia no se haya logrado estudiar un fenómeno, no significa que no existe.
4. Cabe notar que estas leyes no invalidaron las de la física mecánica de Newton, sino que únicamente constituyeron una interpretación alternativa.
5. Este pensamiento distópico es tratado en mayor detalle en Newton P., “Rol de la Utopía en la Configuración de Nuevos Imaginarios hacia el Cambio Socio-Cultural.”
6. Hatcher, William: “Minimalism”. Hong Kong: Juxta Publishing Ltd., 2004, p. 79.
7. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. “The Phenomenon of Man”. Nueva York: Harper & Row Publishers, 2008.
8. Analizado en Araujo, María Caridad: “Entropía y procesos productivos: una aplicación a la economía ecuatoriana”. Quito: Ediciones Abya-Yala, 1998.
9. Ball, Philip: “Critical Mass - How one thing leads to another”. Nueva York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004.
10. Zohar, Dana y Marshall, Ian. “Spiritual Capital – Wealth we can live by”. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2004.