Correction: sortition and caution

In my last post, emphasising the importance of giving mavericks a say and of changing general assumptions, I may have given the impression of advocating permanent revolution. I should have been more precise. You need very solid evidence to challenge established assumptions, even though it is sometimes very fruitful to do so. It is a matter of taking the unusual seriously.

Take the instances I referred to from the history of science, Newton first, challenging the old mechanists’ rejection of action at a distance. He set out to look at a very precise and limited problem: how to explain the stability of the planetary orbits. No grandiose questions about the nature of the universe. He found that they could be explained very precisely if one postulated the existence of a particular predictable force that could also explain many other phenomena. It was no open day for any old suggestion about other forms of attraction.

Nevertheless, it subsequently turned out that there were other forms of attraction at a distance, electricity and magnetism. And eventually the sub-atomic forces, all of which were more powerful and fundamental than gravity. They could not have been discovered without Newton’s breakthrough. Nor was it the case that Newton dismissed mechanist explanations. On the contrary, he was he first to formulate precisely the general laws of mechanical interactions. Similarly, when Einstein rejected Newton’s assumption of the invariance of space and time, he did not invalidate Newtonian physics within certain very broad limits. If you want to go to Mars, Newton is your guide, but to go to Alpha Centauri you need Einstein.

In evolutionary biology the strict 20th century Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy claimed that the only factors that could alter the DNA that constituted the genes of all living things were the random impacts of intrusive forces, such as radiation, with no regular relations to any of the organisms they affected. Acquired characteristics, such as skills, could not be inherited genetically, only culturally. More recently biologists have discovered feed-back mechanisms that are responsive to the way in which organisms develop. That seems to show how certain developments of an organism may have an impact on their DNA. A new era in biology seems to be opening up, not by rejecting the discoveries of evolutionary theory, but by amplifying them in very specific ways.

The spectacular and unpredictable successes of the sciences, which have transformed not only our view of the world, but the whole range of our activities and relationships with the world and each other, have been possible because we possess objective procedures for identifying, quantifying and interrelating the factors that determine what happens in certain respects, quite independently of other factors in the situation. So we can determine precisely the effect of gravitational attraction between two bodies, quite independently of any magnetic attraction between them. That makes for amazing precision, clarity and practical utility in handling these factors and their relations to each other.

However, in understanding the relations of one factor to another, there is another important factor to be considered, namely how the elements or bits that make up a complex are organised. There is no more fatal assumption than to assume that the properties of a complex are no different from the properties of their components. Take any piece of machinery; if you are only interested in the effects of its mass you can weigh each component and add the results to get the mas of the whole. But if you want to understand what the machine can do you have to understand all of the diverse ways in which other properties of the bit are organised to do thing that none of them can do on its own.

Arriving at such understanding in the case of very complex things usually involves understanding them as organisations not of the basic elements of which they are composed, but in terms of the properties of the organised complexes whose abilities they build on. So understanding most aspects of plants and animals is based on understanding the workings of the cells of which they are composed in order to understand how they are organised to do things no cell can do either on its own or in a random association with other cells. The more complex the components of an organisation the greater the variety of ways in which they can interact. That means that they have greater potential achievements, but also greater vulnerability to intervening factors that impair their smooth functioning. Some organisms manage to evolve defence mechanism and repair mechanisms to cope with some of these vulnerabilities.

When it comes to understanding ourselves and how we can organise our capacities to do extraordinary things, we suffer from two disabilities. The first is that there is no objective way of identifying, quantifying and interrelating many of the very complex factors that affect us. Our categories, generalisations and patterns of explanation are all subject to emotive interference in cognitive processes. That seems inevitable, because our cognitive activities can be hard work. They require motivations and our motivations are mainly self-centred and very limited, even though they are capable of development as we discover new possibilities. But the range of things that can appeal to human s is so large and various that we each have to be highly selective in the goals we choose to pursue.

Sidgwick, a great Victorian moral theorist, said that we ought adopt “the point of view of the universe”. If our universe can be seen as having a purpose it is that of continually exploring new possibilities and testing their capacity to survive. It is, to say the least, hard to see how any of us, let alone all of us, could consistently adopt that objective. We have to be parochial, our highest concerns the survival of our ecosystem, and our ordinary concerns the enhancement of our particular interests. Even those modest ambitions are not easy for us individually or collectively.

Where does sortition come into all of this? It can help us establish, on a more cooperative basis than our present procedures, the rules that ensure our pursuing different goals without interference from others and the specialised organisations which enable us to do constructive things that none of us could achieve without such organisation. We need to recognise both its importance and its limitations. Comparison with the most successful of our collective enterprises can help us understand both those tasks.


13 Responses

  1. John,

    It is important not to take the comparison between physics and political theory too far. In fact, the two fields are almost extreme opposites in their function.

    In physics there is very little reason to ignore reality and very good reason to recognize it. A physical model that is false is worse than useless. In political theory the opposite is true, there is very little to gain from recognizing reality and very good reason to ignore it. A political model that justifies your power is much more useful to you than one that makes good predictions.

    In view of this, there is very little reason to expect established political science to produce accurate theories, or, in fact, theories that bear any resemblance to reality. Dahl’s assessment of Madisonian republican theory applies quite broadly within political science:

    The absence of specific meaning for terms like “majority tyranny” and “faction” coupled with the central importance of these concepts in the Madisonian style of thinking has led to a rather tortuous political theory that is explicable genetically rather than logically. Genetically the Madisonian ideology has served as convenient rationalization for every minority that, out of fear of the possible deprivations of some majority, has demanded a political system providing it with an opportunity to veto such policies. [Dahl’s footnote: Calhoun’s transparent defence of the southern slavocracy by his doctrine of concurrent majorities seems to me prone to all the weaknesses of the Madisonian system, which in many respects it parallels.]

    At the formation of the Constitution, the Madisonian style of argument provided a satisfying, persuasive, and protecting ideology for the minorities of wealth, status and power who distrusted and feared their bitter enemies – the artisans and farmers of inferior wealth, status, and power, who they thought constituted the “popular majority”. [… W]hatever its defects of logic, definition, and scientific utility, the Madisonian ideology is likely to remain the most prevalent and deeply rooted of all the styles of thought that might properly be labeled “American”. […] Ideologies serve a variety of needs – psychological, socio-economic, political, propagandistic – that transcend the need of pedants for scientific cogency.


  2. Yoram,

    >In political theory there is very little to gain from recognizing reality and very good reason to ignore it. A political model that justifies your power is much more useful to you than one that makes good predictions.

    My colleagues working in politics departments (and I’m sure John will have many ex-colleagues) will be a) surprised to learn that they have significant political power and b) deeply insulted to learn that this causes them to “ignore reality”. Peter Stone (Politics, Trinity College Dublin), for example, has just reviewed John’s new book in Contemporary Political Theory so will be surprised to hear that he is another one who is “ignoring reality”. Yoram is the convenor of this public forum, so outbursts like this will only serve to further alienate those who we are trying to get interested in the sortition project.

    PS exactly why Dahl should be the exception that proves Yoram’s rule is peculiar, especially as he was the polemical target of Steven Lukes’ Power: A Radical View

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sutherland’s sentimental apologia for his colleagues and their discipline could have been more persuasive (if less amusing) if sheer indignation was replaced, at least partially, with a coherent argument for his point of view. Alas indignation is much easier to produce than coherence and following established habit Sutherland spared himself the effort.

    It might be added that it is rather ironic that such is the offering made in favor of the idea that political science is based on rational argument.


  4. It was neither sentimental nor apologetic, merely a plea for the integrity of my colleagues working in the field of political theory, including the author of this post (John Burnheim) who, presumably, is also only pursuing his own interests (unlike his colleagues in science faculties). As for the absence of argument, political science is an inductive discipline, that (no longer) makes sweeping statements purely on the basis of deductions from logical syllogisms.


  5. Yoram

    Balance in theorising is always a precarious balancing act. I no sooner appealed to a resemblance between assumptions in science and in political theorising than I thought needed to correct what I had said by drawing attention to some of its limitations. Now you want to carry those corrections further, and I agree with mot of what you say, but correcting it on two points. points.

    It is true that in many respects it is harder to ignore particular realities in science than in politics, because in science there’are objective and agreed procedures for identifying and quantifying the basic factors at work. But that very success regularly leads to tgnoring factors for which there is as yet no such procedure of identification and quantification. For a long time physicists did not take electricity seriously. I could multiply examples. We all love simplicity and hope that what we can’t explain will turn out just to be a fringe phenomenon. It’s mot always ideology the makes us myopic.

    But even in science ideology often intervenes, even with the greatest. Recall Einstein’s remark that he could no believe God played dice with the universe. Many scientists on the other hand have been driven by a simplistic materialism that Einstein rejected.

    Politics is about power, not just raw power like force, but also about sway over peoples attitudes and the conventions that we accept. In science ideologies ultimately succombe to reality. TSo a certain degree this is also the case in politics. Soviet Communism was a giant experiment that unequivocally failed, but at awful cost.

    I want to try to downplay ideological considerations in policy debates for two reasons: A) we ignore opponents at our peril. Paying attention to what they say will often save us from ignoring realities we need to face. Pepke often come to the right conclusion for the wrong reason. B) although social concepts always have fuzzy boundaries and messy content, it is nevertheless less true that there are cases of such things as majority tyranny. Ask any black in any white country. We need to develop ways of characterising such facts that can be agreed for practical purposes. The way to facilitate this is to concentrate on specific problems and the specific facts that are relevant to getting agreement about them.


  6. John,

    >The way to facilitate this is to concentrate on specific problems and the specific facts that are relevant to getting agreement about them.

    Yes I think that’s something that both demarchists and nomothetai-style sortinistas agree on, especially those like Terry and myself who argue that randomly-selected decision bodies should be selected on an ad hoc basis (as with the Athenian legislative courts). The danger of full-mandate single-body sortition is a different (and democratically illegitimate) kind of majority tyranny.


  7. John,

    Your comment doesn’t seem to address my point.

    It is a standard argument that

    > in science there are objective and agreed procedures for identifying and quantifying the basic factors at work

    and that

    > We need to develop ways of characterising such facts that can be agreed for practical purposes.

    But this ignores the underlying framework. The reason there are no objective procedures in political science is not that it is hard to come up with such procedures, but that such procedures are not useful to the powerful. Objective procedures may turn out at some point to lead to inconvenient conclusions. Why would the powerful commit to be constrained by reason? It is much more convenient to create some sort of a “tortuous political theory that is explicable genetically rather than logically” which is unfalsifiable and can reliably produce any desired conclusion.


  8. YORAM


    I disagree, not of course, because I think the interests of the powerful are not an important factor in the actual direction that political science often takes, but because the fact that they can have such influence has a more fundamental explanation, namely that in social matters objectively based agreements are elusive, because all our ways of describing those facts employ subjective elements.

    That used to be the case in the physical sciences as well, as long as a simple empiricism ruled. We had to learn to substitute mass for weight, temperature for hot or cold, precise clocks for perceptions of time and so on. In all of these cases we use such things as beam balances, rulers and clocks to characterise every mass by relation to a standard mass, every length in relation to a standard length and so on to ever more sophisticated concepts and measurement.

    In social matters we are still at the stage of characterising phenomena according to the way they look to us, making it almost inevitable that we characterise them according to our hopes and fears, which are easily manipulated, mainly, but not only by the powerful, whom we credit with knowing because they are powerful and also successful. Trump must know what to do because he is successful in the real world of business, business, not just in political games. So people listen when he tells them lies to play on their fears.

    We can construct relatively objective agreement in some circumstances, within certain limits, e.g. economics. Unfortunately some recent developments in gathering and quantifying information have put very powerful tools in the hands of the powerful, as I shall explain in a forthcoming post. These developments pose enormousness problems for democracy


  9. Yoram,

    >The reason there are no objective procedures in political science is not that it is hard to come up with such procedures, but that such procedures are not useful to the powerful.

    Do you have any evidence to support your claim that politics departments are in hock to the rich ‘n powerful? Since the late 1960s we have been led to believe that the humanities and social sciences in general have been hotbeds of politicised anti-establishment subversion — see, for example, John Burnheim’s description of the goings-on in his own department at U. Sydney. From the back cover of his autobiography:

    When the Philosophy Department was split in 1974 he was appointed head of the radical General Philosophy Department, attempting to administer the new venture as a participatory democracy and encouraging an opening towards Continental philosophy and feminist thinking.

    Yoram’s own alma mata, UC Berkeley, was also a hotbed of anti-establishment student activism from 1964-1974. My own politics department at Exeter has been ravaged by a series of radical movements — Marxism, Critical Theory, Deconstruction, Feminism etc — and is still dominated by what Jeremy Waldron has disparaged as “57 varieties of luck egalitarianism”. I have not been under any pressure to rein in the conclusions of my PhD (Election by Lot and the Democratic Diarchy) by either my supervisor, my upgrade committee or peers and neither have any of my colleagues. But perhaps we are all part of this conspiracy of the rich ‘n powerful?

    >in political science . . . it is not hard to come up with [objective, scientific] procedures.

    Goodness me, it would save us all a lot of time and trouble (not to mention forests) if Yoram could enlighten us as to what these covering laws are. Carl Hempel is reincarnated! But perhaps Yoram is too busy explaining to classical historians what Athenian democracy was really about (in addition to his day job at Google). What a busy man!


  10. Hi John,

    In my opinion you have the causality reversed. The power of elites to shape political science is not due to the rudimentary state of the science. The fact that political science is at the pitiable state it is is the result of the power of elites to shape it.

    In fact, elites can shape any science, since science requires resources and therefore requires elite support. What is different about physics and political science is the motivation. Elites have little to gain and a lot to lose by deforming physics, but they have a lot to gain and little to lose by deforming political science.


  11. Yoram,

    >The fact that political science is at the pitiable state it is is the result of the power of elites to shape it.

    That’s quite some conspiracy theory. Who are these elites and how is their nefarious power realized?


  12. Yoram

    > causality reversed…

    I take it yours is not a conspiracy theory, but like Marx and others relies on specific causal processes. So, when Marx explains a certain sort of religion as “the heart of a heartless world’, HE SEES IT AS CAUSED BY THE PSYCHOLOGICAL NEED MOST PEOPLE HAVE to hope that things are better than they appear to be. That sort of religion does, he points out, serve the needs of the powerful to get people to accept their lot instead of revoting. So the powerful do tend to encourage such religion, but it is not the sort of skills that can fabricate religions to order.

    Other kinds of religion work on different bases in different circumstances and favour different regimes. Other-worldly, very ascetic religions despise concern with worldly affairs, leaving those affairs to the elites. The elites duly express their reverence for such high ideals, but they did not invent them. Other similar regimes of power found different forms of religion, with different characteristics and origins, to assist them in going about their business untroubled.

    Certain religions are routinely coopted to serve their purposes by whatever powers rule, but those powers usually have very little effect on the details of religious practices and beliefs and cannot always prevent the religions developing in ways that are counter to their interests. Some revolutions have had religious origins.

    Again, it cannot be assumed that the interests of the powerful are always agreed among them. Power is fissiparous, breeding conflict among the elites, struggles between different kinds of power or for this or that faction. So, in contemporary struggles some elites find it useful to back hard-nosed realist theories, while others find more moralistic theories useful. But the theories are invented by people who are genuinely trying to understand how things work or how they can be improved.

    You can explore and discount all the effects of cooptation, and indeed the general effects of our limited experience and the assumptions it leads us to take as obvious. but unfortunately, that gets no nearer to inventing the concepts and procedures that will enable us to get it right. Removing a blindfold is not enough to enable one to see in the dark. Even in the light we see many things we just don’t know how to categorise. We are too often suckers for ideological dogmas that remove such uncertainty by insisting that only such snd such a model of explanation is correct, or ,worse steal, that it is obvious.



  13. John,

    >We are too often suckers for ideological dogmas that remove such uncertainty by insisting that only such and such a model of explanation is correct, or ,worse steal, that it is obvious.



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