Guest book review by Professor Douglas Porpora
Douglas Porpora is a Professor of Sociology in the Department of Anthropology at Drexel University. His book, Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach, explores the implications of critical realism for American sociology. He has written widely on critical realism, including The Concept of Social Structure (Greenwood 1987), his well-known “Four Concepts of Social Structure” in the Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour (1989), “Cultural Rules and Material Relations,” Sociological Theory (1993), Transcendence: Critical Realism and God (2001) “Morphogenesis” in Margaret Archer (edited) The Morphogenetic Society (2012, Springer). In addition, Doug is also writes on a diverse range of topics including works such as How Holocausts Happen: The United States in Central America (Temple 1992),Landscapes of the Soul: The Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life (2001: Oxford), and Post-Ethical Society: The Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and the Moral Failure of the Secular (2013, Chicago).
I am absolutely delighted that Alex Wendt will be doing a webinar with the Critical Realism Network on his new book, Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology. Alex is one of the most important figures in International Relations and has written provocatively on a range of topics, from UFO’s; the inevitability of world government; to whether states are persons too. Alex has been a consistent interlocutor with critical realism and is one those un-common social scientists who read widely beyond their own specialization and own field. As a result, we always have something to learn from him. His Quantum Mind and Social Science is a case in point. Having already had the privilege of reading it as one of its initial reviewers for Cambridge University Press, I have previously described the book as perhaps Wendt’s most daring effort yet. Quantum Mind and Social Science argues for a new kind of physicalism that encompasses elements of mind all the way down to the quantum processes that govern elementary particles. For most social scientists, all that Wendt takes us through will be a revelation. Wendt’s basic thesis is that mind and social life are macroscopic quantum mechanical phenomena. In contrast with the causal determinism generally associated with classical mechanics, the behavior associated with quantum mechanics is characteristically weird. In addition to exhibiting a causal holism Einstein decried as “spooky action at a distance,” quantum reality can seem evanescent and even mind-dependent. Then there is quantum causality, which is probabilistic as opposed to deterministic. Along with general relativity, quantum mechanics – or, more precisely, quantum electro-dynamics (QED) – is considered one of the best-confirmed theories we have. It is the theory that underlies the mechanics of your cell phone, your Blue Ray, and much more. Yet, physicists themselves are completely baffled by it. As John Wheeler has said, “If you are not completely confused by quantum mechanics, you do not understand it.” Richard Feynman has similarly opined, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t.” Alex Wendt likewise may not understand the reality behind quantum mechanics, but he is one of the best guides to quantum mechanics we social scientists are going to get. His is one of the clearest and most accessible presentations of quantum mechanics I have seen.
It is of course what Alex does with quantum mechanics that is novel. He draws on it to develop a humanist ontology alternative to the deterministic reductionism of classical physicalism. And just as Alex has ploughed through the literature on quantum mechanics, he is also one of the few social scientists who knows his way around the concept of supervenience and other technicalities of the philosophy of mind. There is thus much provocative – like vitalism and pan-psychism – that Alex will bring to the table. In some important ways, what Alex says runs counter to what some of us critical realists affirm. To be sure, among other things, I continue to uphold a more materialist understanding of social structure. It makes no difference. Alex Wendt is one of the most exciting interlocutors we have, and I look forward to his discussion.