Quantum Social Science is Intellectual Quackery

LJUBLJANA SLOVENIJA 28.1.2009 PREDAVANJE FILOZOFA SLAVOJA ZIZKA NA MINISTRSTVU ZA KULTURO FOTO: JOZE SUHADOLNIK/DELO

Intellectual life is replete with blind alleys, and wrongful paths. Some of these strike latter observers as being oddities, such as say alchemy, but nonetheless for all their weirdness it is easy to see how a reasonable person could come to follow the quixotic path given prevailing systems and standards of knowledge. The oddities, in many cases, alchemy being one, played important roles in the deepening of our understanding of the world.

Some ideas develop out of ideological considerations and enjoy widespread currency despite describing a world that isn’t the one we inhabit. Neoclassical economics is an example.

Then there is quackery peddled by and large by dilettantes. Zizekian nonsense and the like fits this category.

So does “quantum social science.”

Quantum social science seems to be growing in popularity within the discipline of International Relations, no small wonder as its leading exponent, Alexander Wendt, is a well known international relations theorist. But it is also extending its reach toward the other social sciences. What might “quantum social science” tell us about world affairs precisely?

That Palestine is in a superposition of states between existence and non existence because Israel has not observed it, that is Israel does not extend formal recognition to Palestine as a state, so thereby the wave function of Palestine has not collapsed? Perhaps at issue is a type of Pauli exclusion principle between Israel-Palestine? What is the wave function of Trumpism? Are terrorists a form of antimatter and states matter, so that when they meet they annihilate each other? Perhaps the asymmetry between matter and antimatter might be explained with reference to a study of the asymmetry of power between terrorists and states?

Could we use the axioms of von Neumann’s Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics and place social theory on a firm axiomatic basis? Perhaps social interactions are operators on a Hilbert space? Can we depict the history of US-Russian relations in terms of a Feynmann diagram?

What might experiments at CERN and Fermilab tell us about free trade?

My understanding, as much as one can grasp the nonsensical, is that quantum social science begins from the observation that the mind has not been, and cannot be, explained in terms of classical physics, that is everything before quantum theory (including relativity). So therefore we must explore how the mental world can be accounted for in physicalist terms via quantum mechanics. From this some leap, let us call it a quantum leap, is made leading to the posit that social relationships, institutions, structures and so on too must be accounted for in quantum mechanical terms as they are products of the mind, but they enjoy a real existence mandating a physicalist accounting. Yet they too cannot be explained via classical physics.

Roger Penrose is said to offer a theory of how it is that the mind can be construed in quantum mechanical terms.

However, Penrose does no such thing. In his critique of the computational theory of the mind, built upon Godelian considerations, Penrose does indeed argue that current physics cannot provide a physical theory of mind. He does not say that a physical theory of mind must be quantum mechanical. He argues that a physical theory of the mind needs to transcend current physics, including quantum mechanics. Penrose is a radical when it comes to quantum mechanics for he argues that a theory that transcends our current two “superb” physical theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, needs to modify quantum mechanics as it presents us with an incomplete, according to him, picture of physical reality.

Accepting the ideas of Penrose, which we are not compelled to do, manifestly does not lead to “quantum social science.”

My own view is that there exists a faculty of the mind or a faculty of cognition that sets the limits and scope of human social interaction, which can be explained in terms of computational procedures on representations as with the cognitive sciences more broadly. This cognitive theory would be a “social theory,” and it would not tell us much about societies such as, say, capitalism or feudalism. It would not even aspire to do this.

As an aside I once heard Penrose, an outstanding mathematical physicist, once lecture on his opposition to strong artificial intelligence. He stated that Chomsky’s picture of an innate universal grammar is surely wrong, and in doing so presented some pretty simplistic arguments of standard vintage. Be careful when reading up on Penrose and the mind.

Chomsky himself, interesting enough, regards debate, fierce it has been too, on the computational theory of the mind as constituting what the logical positivists called a pseudo problem. Now these too are a curious aspect to intellectual life. See below for why he so argues for this particular case.