George Walford – Ideological Uncertainty Principle Query

From time to time IC includes short sharp jabs listed as “provocations”: This one appeared in IC5:

Ideological uncertainty principle: The more precisely, an item of behaviour is quantified the less precise its significance becomes.

Stan Chisman has responded:

The more precisely an item of behaviour is quantified the less satisfactory it becomes as the ground for an emotionally-based argument.

Comments on this are invited, and we suggest it be considered whether there is such a thing as an argument that is not “emotionally-based,” one arising from some motive other than that its proponent derives, however indirectly, emotional satisfaction from putting it forward.

What was in mind when the original “provocation” was written was something rather different. It had not been clearly-thought out – part of the purpose of inserting it in that form was a hope that somebody would help to clarify it – but the general vague idea was that in social and ideological matters there may be something-analogous to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

If the material world is, as it is sometimes held to be, completely deterministic, it must be possible (in principle at least) to predict the behaviour of its fundamental constituents, electrons for example, and in order to do that one would need to know both the position and the speed of each electron. There are (to put it mildly) obvious practical difficulties here, but Heisenberg’s principle asserts that this knowledge is not merely difficult of access; it is inherently unobtainable. We may know the position of an electron but then we cannot measure its speed without affecting its position. Or we may know its speed but then we cannot measure its position without affecting its speed. We cannot know accurately both its speed and its position; one or the other is always uncertain, and therefore the material world is not completely deterministic.

(In what follows I speak, for the sake of clarity, more definitely than is warranted by the state of development of the idea). For an item of social or ideological behaviour the equivalents of speed and position would be its qualitative and quantitative aspects. If society is deterministic then it must be possible (in principle at least) to predict the effects of the various items of behaviour of which it is constituted, and in order to do that one would need to know, for each of them, both its quality and its quantity. What, and how much. The suggestion being made is that such knowledge may be inherently unobtainable, that it may be possible to know either one of these accurately but not both.

We can say, for example, that at the last election Conservative candidates received some exact number of votes. (We assume there were no overtly borderline cases, that every candidate described himself clearly as either Conservative or something. else). The amount of support for Conservatism at that election can be precisely quantified. But then we ask: What, precisely, is Conservatism? And whatever definition we may adopt we shall find that some – we shall never know exactly how many – of those voters do not accept that definition; they were not voting for that but for something else. Some indefinite part of the support received by undefined Conservatism does not adhere to our precisely-defined Conservatism.

So long as we leave the quality of Conservatism undefined we can specify exactly the quantity of support it receives, but if we specify precisely the quality, define exactly what Conservatism is, then the quantity, the amount of support received, becomes imprecise.

So long as we leave the quantity of Conservative voters undefined we can specify exactly the quality of Conservatism, define exactly what it is, but if we specify exactly the quantity, the number of voters for Conservatism, then the quality of Conservatism, what it was they were voting for, becomes imprecise.

Is this just an isolated oddity or one instance of a general principle? Support? Refutation? Other examples for or against?

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PROVOCATION: Equality of opportunity is different from (unqualified) equality only if it is subject to some limitation – e.g. if it applies only at some one particular stage in life. If my opportunities are, all of them, without limitation, equal to yours, then I am, without qualification, equal to you.

from Ideological Commentary 6, March 1980.