Explanations in the Social Sciences
By Daniel A. Kaufman
I want to sketch some ideas on explanations in the social sciences and how they differ from their counterparts in the physical sciences. The point is to start a discussion, which I hope will further sharpen my own views on the subject and pave the way for a subsequent, academic paper, as well as a dialogue, with my good friend, Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher and biologist, at the City University of New York.
Clearly, this is a much-discussed topic, and a number of classic works inform my views here, including Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind (1949), Peter Winch’s The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy (1958), Jerry Fodor’s “Special Sciences (or the disunity of science as a working hypothesis)”(1974), and of course, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953). That said, for the sake of brevity – and hopefully, clarity – I will not explicitly cite any of these works, here, though they will loom large, in the background.
1. In the social sciences, we are not interested in explaining/understanding human motor movement, per se, but rather, human action, which consists of motor movements conceived under various intentional descriptions. Thus, in abnormal psychology, we are not interested in, say, the movements of peoples’ eyes and the dilations of their pupils, but in voyeurism. In social psychology, we are not interested in the tensing and flexing of arms, legs, and hands, but in mob violence. In economics, we are not interested in the making of ink marks or the pressing of buttons, but in trading practices. In each case, then, it is the interpretation – and thus, the meaning and significance – of the various, underlying physiological events that provide the impetus for our social scientific investigations, not the physiological events, in themselves.
2. The social sciences seek to identify reasons for the sorts of human actions that I have just described. The question is how we should understand those reasons. In the physical sciences, the reasons we seek for the behavior of animate and inanimate matter are causes, and beyond the pleasure inherent in discovery, our main reason for wanting to know the causes of things is so that we can predict and thereby, exert some degree of control over our material circumstances. Of course, ‘cause’ is itself a problematic notion, for which there are competing and thus, controversial accounts (whether probabilistic, counterfactual, or in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions), but I trust that we all have enough of an intuitive sense of what is commonly meant by the term that we will be able to contrast the idea of reasons as causes with the very different conception of reasons that I am going to claim are the bread and butter of social scientific accounts.
How should we understand the sorts of reasons sought in the social sciences? Imagine that we are told by a clinical psychologist that the reasons for a particular young man’s voyeurism are the feelings of sexual shame and the beliefs concerning his own sexual inadequacy that he acquired, over the course of an abusive childhood; or that a social psychologist says that the reasons for the mob violence we have just observed lie in a list of longstanding, unaddressed grievances on the part of the rioting group, combined with the manipulative rhetoric of their charismatic and demagogic leader; or that an economic analyst tells us that the reason for this particular investment firm’s current trading practices is that its senior partners’ share the belief that we are about to enter a bearish market. Do these sorts of reasons provide causes, in the sense of ‘cause’ meant in the physical sciences? I’m not sure and am increasingly inclined to think not. (More on this a bit later.)
Something that they clearly do is render the behavior in question intelligible in a certain way, by providing us with a series of relevant rationales. If the identification of lawful cause-effect relationships makes it possible for us to predict future physical events, being given a relevant rationale for something someone has done makes it possible for us, in a sense, to infer it; to see it as rational. Even when the behavior in question is aberrant and (in another sense of the word) completely irrational – such as that of the voyeur, whose behavior is paraphilic – being provided with reasons of the sort we find in the social sciences enables us to see that the behavior makes a certain kind of sense, within a specifically drawn context. (It is worth noting, in this vein, that social scientific accounts inevitably require a sensitivity to specific contexts that it is the ambition of genuinely causal accounts to abstract from.)
3. The understanding that results involves the ability to fit the behavior we see in our fellow human beings into a rational story or narrative that is necessary if the human world is to make sense, and it is important to us – very important, I would maintain – that the human world should make sense. Do causes provide us with this sort of understanding? Does knowledge of causes render the material universe intelligible, in the way that knowledge of rationales renders the human world intelligible? I don’t think so, but can only give the barest sketch of why, here:
(a) Intelligibility, in the sense of “fitting into a narrative” that I have described, is clearly rationalistic and teleological, and if anything defines the modern revolutions in the natural sciences, it is that they have abandoned a rationalistic and teleological view of nature, in favor of a purely mechanical one.
(b) With every new revolution in the natural sciences, we seem to be moving further and further away from a rationalistic story or narrative about the non-human world, rather than closer to one. Evolutionary biology tells us that the purpose we perceive in nature is illusory, and quantum mechanics casts doubt on whether classical laws of rationality, like bivalence and the excluded middle, hold. Thus, the natural world makes less and less sense, rationalistically and teleologically-speaking, as our scientific understanding increases, not more and more.
(c) It is precisely because causal explanations do not render the world intelligible, in this sense, that so many people seek to embed the causal, scientific picture of the world into a larger, supernaturally-infused picture (religion) that will provide that sense of the reasonableness and purposefulness of the non-human world that modern science denies.
4. The theist and the eliminative materialist are thus, mirror images of one another: the theist can’t stand the thought of a material world that cannot be construed as reasonable and purposeful, and the eliminative materialist can’t stand the thought of a human world that can be so constructed.
5. The remaining question is whether the sorts of reasons given in the social sciences – that is, intentional reasons – are also properly deemed causes. Beyond rendering human actions intelligible – beyond helping us to see why peoples’ myriad behaviors make sense – do intentional reasons (what I have been calling “rationales”) also give us the causes of human action, such that we can accurately call the resulting accounts “explanations,” as the term is meant in the natural sciences?
This question is most commonly addressed in the debate over whether Folk Psychology should be thought of as a science and whether folk psychological explanations are properly causal and thus, properly scientific explanations. (Folk psychological explanations are cast in the intentional idiom.) This is unsurprising, given that psychology is fundamental, relative to the social sciences, much in the way that physics is fundamental to the natural sciences. Part of the difficulty of construing intentional explanations as causal lies in their irreducibility to physical explanations, though this difficulty is hardly decisive – Fodor, who is responsible for one of the most well-known critiques of inter-theoretic reduction is also one of the strongest advocates for the idea of intentional causation. The bigger problem, to my mind, is a Wittgensteinian one that concerns the very nature of both intentional states and actions.
The idea of intentional (“reason-action”) causation is supposed to be analogous to that of neurological-motor movement causation. We understand what it means to say that a particular series of neurological events caused the fingers of my left hand to curl up into a fist. The neurological causes are clearly identifiable as discrete, localizable events in the brain that make certain other discrete, localizable events in the hand occur. The problem is that there is no clear, analogous story that we could tell about an intentional reason and an action. A reason, whether a feeling of sexual inadequacy or the belief that a bear market is coming, is not a discrete, localizable event; unlike neurons firing, one’s feeling of sexual inadequacy or belief that a bear market is coming, are not things inside one’s head, to which we can point. Intentional states are inherently linguistic, insofar as they involve our representing states of affairs in various ways, and are thus necessarily rule-governed. For reasons that I am not going to state explicitly here, rule-following is an inherently public activity, from which it follows that one cannot follow a rule (and thus, employ language) from “inside” one’s own mind. To speak, then, of beliefs and desires and feelings and all other manner of intentional states as discrete, localizable things or events “in” the mind or brain can be nothing but a kind of nonsense or at best, a highly misleading, metaphorical way of speaking.
Actions also are not properly identifiable as discrete objects or events, for they too are as much a matter of interpretation – of how things are represented in the public language – as they are a matter of motor movements. In the Investigations, Wittgenstein famously asked what is “left over,” when I subtract the fact that my arm goes up, from the fact that I raise my arm, and the answer that tempts us is that what is left over is a prior, mental act of intending to raise my arm. We’ve seen, however, that such an answer must be a mistake – that we cannot construe intentional states like “intending,” “wanting,” “hoping,” and the like as discrete, localizable, internal events – and that there must be something else that makes these motor movements count as raising one’s hand, asking a question, requesting permission to go to the bathroom (the latter two of which, notice, can also be effected by one’s hand raising). That something else would seem clearly to be various interpretations that are warranted, given relevant features of the context and the linguistic rules and conventions of the speaking community. But this means that the action of raising your hand is no more a discrete, localizable event in the world, then your desire to ask a question or go to the bathroom is a discrete, localizable event inside your head.
Summarizing this point and wrapping up this “sketch,” for α and β to be related as cause and effect, at a minimum, α and β, must be discrete, localizable, events. One trouble with the idea of the intentional causation of action, then, is that neither intentional states nor actions can be properly characterized as discrete, localizable events, and to think that they are is to commit what Gilbert Ryle has called a “category error,” one that is easy to make, for the sorts of reasons that Wittgenstein devoted a good portion of his philosophical work to describing.
I look forward to what I hope will be a rigorous (and vigorous) discussion and to further developing my thoughts on this fascinating and important topic.