[OPE-L:2162] Thermodynamics

From: P.J.Wells@open.ac.uk
Date: Sat Jan 15 2000 - 06:27:26 EST

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My answer to Mike W about this is that it's misleading (although strictly
correct) to describe Farjoun and Machover's approach as "thermodynamics".

-- correct, because the mathematical formalism they rely on is the same as
that underlying thermodynamics

--misleading, to those not familiar with the formalism and the (physical)
science to which it is applied

F&M themselves refer to their approach as derived from statistical mechanics
(Chapter Two of their book "Laws of Chaos" is titled "A paradigm:
statistical mechanics"), but they directly address Mike's concerns at the
beginning of Chapter Three:

"How can methods borrowed from statistical *mechanics* be applied to
political economy, which is a *social science*? Surely, an economy -- unlike
a gas -- cannot be made up of a mechanical system made up of mindless
particles. Economic activity is a conscious activity of human beings,
motivated by human aims and impelled by human volition; nothing can be more
different from the blind collision of material particles." (F&M p. 57,
emphases in original)

The answer is that (here I summarise) the whole point of statistical
mechanics is to see what structural features a system must have given the
weakest possible assumptions about the elements which make it up --
essentially that it is composed of a very large number of independent (but
interacting) particles; virtually nothing is assumed about the particles

The results of thermodynamics (and of F&M) depend on showing that the mixing
effect of the particles' interactions imposes certain structural features on
the whole ensemble, provided that the number of parameters needed to give a
complete description of its state at any given moment is substantially
greater than that of the constraints on the system (in the sense of
equations linking the value of some parameters to others).

Whether the particles are thought to be Newtonian tiny billiard balls
(classical statistical mechanics), or conscious agents with intentions,
etc., is irrelevant to the results, *provided* that they are
*unco-ordinated* (relatively few constraints).

In the first case, one can derive results about the temperature and pressure
of an gas (macroscopic features of the system) from the assumption that the
gas is made up of such tiny billiard balls bouncing off each other in 3D

As F&M point out, the idea of a vast number of unco-ordinated agents whose
only form of interaction is to collide with each other is an intuitively
appealing image of a competitive market economy. In this case what can be
deduced about the macro-state of the system are such things as prices and
values, the general rate of profit, etc., etc. -- all of which (as well as
the states of the individual particles (e.g. firm profit rates) are quite
independent of -- tho' *caused by* -- any plans or intentions which the
particles (agents) may or may not have had.

They might also have pointed out that this conception fits very well with
Engels' views on chance and necessity as expressed in both the introduction
to "Socialism: utopian and scientific":

"Calvin's creed was one fit for the boldest of the bourgeoisie of his time.
His predestination doctrine was the religious expression of the fact that in
the commercial world success or failure does not depend upon a man's
activity or cleverness, but on circumstances uncontrollabe by him."

and in a letter to Bloch:

"... an infinite series of parallelograms of force which give rise to one
result -- the historical event. ... For what each individual wills is
obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one

I hope to come back to Mike's points about naturalism in a further post --
there was an interesting 19th century debate (which, very unfortunately to
my mind, appears to passed Engels by) as to what the discovery of
statistical regularities in social phenomena implied for free will.


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