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A Physics of Society: Critical Mass Notes #1

Ton has written an elegant post about the value of maths in the design of social tools. It reminded me of a book by Philip Ball called Critical Mass, and I realised how little I could really remember of it other than the broad brush strokes.

So I thought I'd reread it and post some notes.

1: Raising Leviathan

  • The Scientific Revolution did not just affect the sciences. It affected politics too.
  • Various thinkers, such as More, Grotius and Bacon began to imagine societies based on scientific reasoning. They were "Utopians"; in many ways descendants of Plato in that they gathered some first principles, and tried to deduce what sort of societies would work given those principles
  • Hobbes was an especially mechanistic Utopian. He fell in love with geometry and the way mathematicians could build on simple assumptions to find more complex, and sometimes surprising truths.
  • With his Leviathan, he aimed for
    "a theory of governance as unimpeachable as those of Euclid's geometry".
  • Traces of his approach can be found in Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and other political theorists.
  • That's one trajectory, but it's not particularly scientific one.
    "Political theorists tend to concern themselves with what they think ought to be; scientists concentrate on the way things are
  • "There are few political thinkers who have defined a social model with the logical precision of Hobbes, and none who have carried those precepts through to their conclusions in a truly scientific way."
  • Physicists have developed tools since then that, however unintentionally, add rigour to the sorts of scientific models a modern day Hobbes might want. The same tools that allow physicists to understand the behaviour of atoms can be used to begin to model the behaviour of people.

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