Mechanistic Physics and Early Social Science

An interesting article on early modern science here.

A brief comment: The reductive, mechanist (in the modern sense) model of explanation outlined in this paper seems to fit the kind of explanation used by early modern physicists such as Descartes and Boyle much better than the deductive-nomological model traditionally applied. I suspect the same could be said of explanations in Newtonian physics.

That is to say, the positing of laws or generalizations is far less important in such explanations than the uncovering of mechanisms, meaning ‘entities and activities organized such that they are productive of regular changes from start or set-up to finish or termination conditions’, as Machamer, Darden, and Craver put it. But the D-N model was very influential as a way of explaining how Mechanistic physics worked (here the capitalised term is used as a historical label). Indeed, the application of the D-N model was encouraged by many Mechanistic physicists.

In the eighteenth century, Condorcet, d’Holbach, Hélvetius, the Physiocrats, and others promoted the attempt to develop an empirical social science modeled on the natural sciences, especially Mechanistic physics. But their way of understanding the latter was by way of the D-N model. They believed that the key explanations in Mechanistic physics involved inferences about causal outcomes made valid by way of law-like generalizations. This is what they sought to emulate in the social sciences. As a result, they largely overlooked the question of what mechanisms could be proposed to produce such regularities. For example, Condorcet proposed that the classic law of supply and demand held universally, while admitting that we have no knowledge of what psychological mechanisms produce the supposed tendency towards equilibrium.

If Mechanistic physics had been understood mechanistically rather than according to the D-N model – as the linked article proposes it should be – the failure to identify the mechanisms underlying economic laws would have been enough to undermine the supposed analogy between early economics and early modern physics. It is true that other early economists, mostly those working in the British tradition, did identify certain such mechanisms. Ricardo described the arrangement of entities and activities productive of certain economic regularities through his fictionalised models of individuals bartering in an imagined uncivilized condition. These fictions can be said to have described the psychological mechanisms underlying his economic explanations, though by way of analogy rather than directly. But the interesting point is that the early economists who were providing such descriptions, thus giving the kinds of mechanistic explanations successfully employed in physics, were also the economists opposed to the idea of a strong analogy between their science and that of physicists. Most importantly, they rejected the possibility of providing any mathematical formalization of their theories.

The resulting situation was odd. The (largely) French economists sought explicitly to match the mathematical precision and predictive power of physics, but their attempt was largely undermined by their improper understanding of the latter in terms of the D-N model of explanation. The (largely) British economists had no interest in matching the epistemic achievements of physics, but it was they who unwittingly came the closest to emulating its true methods. There has always been a poor connection between the attested scientific virtues of economics and its genuine scientific achievements. Here is, perhaps, the beginning of the historical explanation of this.


One thought on “Mechanistic Physics and Early Social Science

  1. Pingback: Defining ‘History of Philosophy’ | Watson Weltanschauung

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