October 12, 2003


Utopia theory: From theories of pedestrian movement and traffic flow to voting processes, economic markets and war, researchers are striving towards a physics of society (Philip Ball, October 2003, Physics World)

To many physicists, the social sciences are a treasure trove of complex systems, for which there often exists mountains of data and next to no theory. They regard society as a fabulous experiment (although economists sometimes complain that the things that "econophysicists" want to do are simply not interesting). The aim of social sciences, however, has never really been just to understand, but to improve. Social science is often regarded as an adjunct and guide to policy-making. From Thomas Hobbes to Karl Marx, moral and political philosophers have used their ideas about the way society works to argue for ways of making it better. The trouble is, of course, that they seldom agree.

Physicists are wary of making such interpretations - and with some justification, for attempts to construct a "rational" or "scientific" society have often produced ignominious results (witness Hobbes and Marx). "What has always made the state a hell on earth", says German philosopher and poet Friedrich Hölderlin, "has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven." So interpreting physical models of society in terms of social implications or policy recommendations is fraught with danger.

Oh, goody, the Rationalists are back for another bite at the apple.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 12, 2003 7:41 AM

Yes, but this time they really, really, really promise to only do good, as long as no one asks them what good is.

Posted by: Peter B at October 12, 2003 1:35 PM

Asking the question doesn't presume there is an answer, or if there is, it is usable.

But physical models of society can be utilitarian. Queuing theory being just one example. The uses abound, but not so as you would notice.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 12, 2003 2:41 PM

I'd be all for it if they'd aspire to meterology rather than physics.

Posted by: mike earl at October 12, 2003 6:02 PM

To allay your worries, here are a couple simple problems physics can't answer:

Drop sand grains one by one. They form an increasingly steep conical pile up to a point where the pile will slump. Despite the apparent simplicity of the problem, physics can't tell you which incremental grain will be the one leading to the pile re-arranging.

The water drop problem is similar. Physics can't determine precisely how much water will accumulate before the water separates from the surface.

Peter, Tom, OJ: lay back, take a deep breath, calm down, take a powder. There's nothing to see here.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 12, 2003 8:19 PM


We're less worried about the piled grains of sand than the skulls that rationalism has stacked.

Posted by: oj at October 12, 2003 9:31 PM

But can physics tell us which skull, when added to the pile, will cause the UN to take action?

Posted by: David Cohen at October 12, 2003 10:08 PM

I'm still inclined to think that rationalism - or, at least, science - as such is a red herring here.

Rationalism may be easily twisted into a convienent rationalization of the Bad Idea of the age, but I suspect men would be ingenious enough, if need be, to find another without even breaking stride.

Posted by: mike earl at October 12, 2003 10:10 PM


Utilitarianism uninformed by morality leads to death.

Posted by: Peter B at October 13, 2003 6:23 AM


Totalitarianism leads to death. The Catholic Church during the Inquisition was totalitarian, as was Communism, as Islamism hopes to be.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 13, 2003 7:52 AM


OK. Utilitarianism uninformed by morality leads to totalitarianism, which leads to death.

Posted by: Peter B at October 13, 2003 8:01 AM

It also leads to a lot of death that stops short of totalitarianisn.

Posted by: Peter B at October 13, 2003 8:36 AM


Maybe you should read up a bit before you decide that the Catholic Church governed religion, economics, and all of social life at any point anywhere, as totalitarianism requires. The Church is an authoritarian institution, but it has never been given much beyond religious matters.

Posted by: oj at October 13, 2003 8:56 AM

I thought the authoritarion/totalitarian distinctions were clear to everyone as the cold war came to a close during the Reagan administration. The only intrerested parties unable to admit those distinctions have been left-wing sorts. I'm surprised at you Jeff.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 13, 2003 12:45 PM

OJ is right. The primary distinguishing characteristic of Medieval Europe was that it was the only region where two competing power blocs prevented domination by the other - the Church and the secular kings (especially the Holy Roman Emperor). In other areas the Emperor controlled the Church (Caesaropapism in Byzantium) or the religion controlled the government (Islamic Caliphate) or the religion was not strong enough to challenge the state (East Asia).

This competing duopoly prevented the monopolization of political power frequently found elsewhere. This practical limitation of power allowed for eventual political liberty in the West. When threatened by one group, people could flock to the other to protect them.

At different times both the state and the Church made pronouncements of universal authority, but was never able to achieve them.

The Inquisition was never totalitarian. It was established because civil authorities was taking it upon themselves to decide what was heretical and thus a threat to social order. The Vatican said it was a Church matter, not secular and took over matters pertaining to heresy. One of the reasons was the alarm caused by the abuses done by the secular authorities. It did not all of a sudden decide to begin investigations into heresy.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at October 13, 2003 12:55 PM

But when it did, the Church did so with a vengeance.

"Compared with the persecution of heresy in Europe from 1227 to 1492, the persecution of Christians by Romans in the first three centuries after Christ was a mild and humane procedure. Making every allowance required of an historian and allowed to a Christian, we must rank the Inquisition, along with the wars and persecutions of our time [1949], as amont the darkest blots on the record of mankind, revealing a ferocity unknown in any beast."

Will Durant, The Age of Faith, page 784.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 13, 2003 9:39 PM

"Pile of skulls" is a particularly unfortunate image to use against irreligious murderers. The actual piles of skulls were heaped up in the name of religion.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 13, 2003 10:07 PM

Religion is religion. Whether the deity is mortal or supernatural is beside the point.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 14, 2003 11:45 AM

Or any of the "bearded god killers" who replaced Him : Freud, Marx, Darwin.

Posted by: OJ at October 14, 2003 12:03 PM


Will Durant is one historian among many. His lack of finesse or objectivity regarding a subject he feels very strongly about is not that unique among historians. His particular views regarding the "Age of Faith" are not articles of faith among all of his peers.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 14, 2003 8:43 PM


That quote came at page 784 of nearly 1100 densely typed, picture free pages. You may disagree with his conclusions, but unless you are going to accuse him of Blairing the facts, then the mountain of evidence is impossible to ignore.

Throughout his History of Civilization, he repeatedly asserts that religion is essential for an orderly society--he and David are in complete agreement. He is, in general, particularly admiring of Catholicism and Christianity.

That's why I quoted him. The opinion of someone with a jaundiced point of view like mine would scarcely carry the weight his does.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 14, 2003 9:04 PM

Durant wrote at a time when that's how the Protestant adcendancy had portrayed the Inquisition. It's a lie.

Posted by: oj at October 14, 2003 9:18 PM

The hundred thousand skulls of Samarkand predated that by 800 years and were done in the name of God.

More recently, your pals the Czars sold the bones of their soldiers to be ground for fertilizer.

In the name of God.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 14, 2003 10:00 PM

What does either of them have to do with religion?

Posted by: oj at October 14, 2003 11:05 PM


Surely you understand religion bears complete responsibility for any wrong done by any nominally religious person (or even done by anyone at all in religious societies)anywhere, anytime. It's known among secularists as the doctrine of Original Sin.

Posted by: Peter B at October 15, 2003 5:29 AM


I'm fine with that so long as they take responsibility for the irreligious.

Posted by: oj at October 15, 2003 8:07 AM


His history is extensively footnoted. Are you telling me he made the historical record up?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 15, 2003 11:45 AM

No, the cited historians did. He simply exaggerates the horror. Over 350 years about 4,000 people were executed in the Inquisition. That was a day's work for Stalin.

Posted by: OJ at October 15, 2003 12:10 PM

And your source would be?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 15, 2003 9:39 PM

Thomas F. Madden, chairman of the department of history at Saint Louis University

Posted by: OJ at October 16, 2003 12:35 AM