Towards the end of the episode, I brought up MacIntyre’s thesis for chapter 8, “The Character of Generalizations in Social Science,” that the findings of a science like sociology can’t be scientific in the way that those in physics are. Now, laws in physics may be probabilistic, but they are so in a precise way, because you know where the imprecision is coming from or at least can define exactly how it works mathematically.
With generalizations about, say, how revolutions start or of steps to take to improve the economy, there is no such hope, according to MacIntyre. Starting around p. 94 (in the second edition), he lays out systematic sources of unpredictability in human affairs:
1. We can’t predict radical innovations.
2. We can’t predict our own future choices.
3. There’s a “game-theoretic character of social life” (i.e. we’re all trying to make ourselves unpredictable to each other)
4. Trivial contingencies can powerfully influence the outcome of great events.
Here’s a quote to clarify #3 here from p. 98-99 that I found interesting:
Consider the following familiartype of situation. The management of a major industry are negotiating theterms of the next long-term contraa with the labor union leadership. Representatives of the government are present, not only in an arbitratingand mediating role, but because the government has a particular interest in the industry-its products are crucial for defence, say, or it is an industrywhich powerfully affects the rest of the economy. At first sight it ought to be easy to map this situation in game-theoretic terms: three collective players each with a distinctive interest. But now la us introduce some ofthose features that so often make social reality so messy and untidy in con-trast with the neat examples in the text-books.Some of the union leadership are approaching the time when they aregoing to retire from their posts in the union. If they cannot obtain relatively highly paid jobs with either the employers or the government, theymay have to return to the shop floor. The employers are not only concerned with government in its present public interest capacity; they have a longer-term concern with obtaining a different type of government con-tract. One of the representatives of government is considering running forelected office in a district where the labor vote is crucial. That is to say, in any given social situation it is frequently the case that many different transactions are taking place at one and the same time between membersof the same group. Not one game is being played, but several, and, if the game metaphor may be stretched further, the problem about real life is that moving one’s knight to QB3 may always be replied to with a lob across the net.
Even when we can identify with some certainty what game is being played, there is another problem. In real life situations, unlike both gamesand the examples in books about game-theory, we often do not start with a determinate set of players and pieces or a determinate area in which the game is to take place. There is-or perhaps used to be-on the market a cardboard and plastic version of the battle of Gettysburg which reproduces with great accuracy the terrain, the chronology and the units involved in that battle. It had this peculiarity, that a moderately good player taking the Confederate side can win. Yet clearly no player of war games is likely tobe as intelligent at generalship as Lee was, and he lost. Why? The answer of course is that the player knows from the outset what Lee did not-what the time scale of the preliminary stages of the battle must be, preciselywhat units are going to get involved, what the limits to the terrain are onwhich the battle is to be fought. And all this entails that the game does not reproduce Lee’s situation. For Lee did not and could not know that it was the Battle of Gettysburg—an episode on which a determinate shapewas conferred only retrospectively by its outcome-which was about to be fought. Failure to realize this affects the predictive power of many computer simulations which seek to transfer analyses of past determinate situations to the prediction of future indeterminate ones.
MacIntyre’s solution is that we should consider the generalizations of social science not scientific at all, but useful like Machiavelli’s maxims. I quote p. 92-93:
Machiavelli takes a very different view of the relationship between explanation and prediction from that taken by the Enlightenment… To explain is on [the Enlightenment] view to invoke a law-like generalization retrospectively; to predict is to invoke a similar generalization prospectively. For this tradition the diminution of predictive failure is the mark of progress in science; and those social scientists who have espoused it must face the fact that if they are right at some point an unpredicted war or revolution will become as disgraceful for a political scientist, an unpredicted change in the rate in inflation as disgraceful for an economist, as would an unpredicted eclipse for anastronomer. That this has not occurred yet has itself to be explained within this tradition and explanations have not been lacking: the human sciencesare still young sciences, it is said-but clearly falsely. They are in fact as old as the natural sciences. Or it is said that the natural sciences attract the most able individuals in modern culture and the social sciences only those not able enough to do natural science… Yet perhaps explanations are not needed, for perhaps the failure that the dominant tradition tries to explain is like King Charles II’s dead fish. Charles II once invited the members of the Royal Society to ex-plain to him why a dead fish weighs more than the same fish alive; a number of subtle explanations were offered to him. He then pointed out that it does not.
Wherein does Machiavelli differ from the Enlightenment tradition? Above all in his concept of Fortuna. Machiavelli certainly believed as passionately as any thinker of the Enlightenment that our investigations should issue in generalizations which may furnish maxims for enlightened practice. But he also believed that no matter how good a stock of generalizations one amassed and no matter how well one reformulated them, the factor of Fortuna was ineliminable from human life… Given the best possible stock of generalizations, we may on the day be defeated by an unpredicted and unpredictable counter-example-and yet still see no way to improve upon our generalizations and still have no reason to abandon them or even to reformulate them.