Explanations in the Social Sciences, Part Two

My discussion with Massimo Pigliucci on the natural and social sciences. A follow up to my essay, on the Electric Agora, “Explanations in the Social Sciences.”  This dialogue originally aired on the MeaningofLife.TV channel of the BloggingHeads.TV network.









7 responses to “Explanations in the Social Sciences, Part Two”

  1. I think it’s great that we’re getting a shot at this one from the more leisurely paced and deep EA!

    By minute 22 Massimo had done a great job of emphasizing to me that he and I remain on the same page. The position is that nature is amazingly complex, but we humans will always be far to stupid to relate something such as “sociology” back to something such as “physics,” for example. If contrary views are held under scientism, then I must smile at these grand ambitions. But if most under the scientism banner simply claim that reality occurs in a causal fashion, and thus that our literature does ultimately reduce down to the physical dynamics of electrons spinning around protons and so forth, then I certainly agree. The only other option that I can think of ontologically, would be a void in causality (also known as “magic”).

    One thing that I would add to this naturalistic perspective, is that we should try to simplify the way that we figure things out beyond harsh classifications of “physical science,” “social science,” “mathematics,” “art,” “sports,” “religion,” and so on. Observe that conscious beings are responsible for all such endeavors, and so there ought to be various associated commonalities.

    I believe that in each of them we take what we think we know (evidence), to assess ideas that we’re not so sure about (theory). The more that our theories tend to stay consistent with what we think we know, the more that they tend to become accepted. Perhaps some day this will be referred to as the fundamental principle of epistemology.

  2. Well, Massimo wants to say that social phenomena differ from physical phenomena in two ways: 1. Complexity; 2. Context dependency. This is why he views biology as a special science, alongside the social sciences, and why the distinction he makes is not between the natural and social sciences, but rather, the physical and social sciences.

    In my view, social phenomena have a feature that distinguishes them from biological phenomena, and that is that they are interpretive. I don’t take interpretation to just be a matter of complexity or context dependency — or at least, not *mere* context dependency — and so for me, the social sciences stand alone from *all* the natural sciences, as a matter of category, rather than degree.

  3. Daniel in my comment above, I did present one categorical distinction of my own — causal versus magic. (Furthermore if each of us believe reality to exclusively function causally, then in practice we believe that no such diversity exists). Massimo made a categorical distinction between physical and social sciences, with biology as “a bridge” as I recall. You seem to have divided things up even more resolutely by categorizing an interpretive distinction between social and natural phenomenon, since normativity exists on the social side. So given our various categorical distinctions, what do we mean by the term “category”?

    It seems to me that reality just “is,” without any categorical distinctions whatsoever. Surely only something which is conscious can build categories of big versus small, natural versus supernatural, biological versus non biological, interpretive versus non interpretive, and so on? We do seem to find such distinctions quite useful after all. Thus my point is that each of us are free to define our categories however we like in the quest to build and convey our various ideas. I find your presented categorical distinctions useful, as well as Massimo’s, and also mine.

    Still it is conceivable for you to state that the “category” that you were actually referring to, remains beyond human whim. My perception is that you’d tend not to assert a “true” classification regarding the social versus the natural, but rather simply “your” classification. Thus I suspect that each of us remain in relative agreement regarding this particular topic.

  4. Marcus, Philosopher Eric,

    ‘Theories of everything’ are not only what we do not need – there are so many to around, no? – but they may actually be obstacles to advances that could be made in philosophy and the sciences. We might be better off setting aside such theories – and the hope for one – and get on with studying and discussing what is present to hand.

  5. EJ,

    I agree with your comment above entirely. Hopefully no one takes the “Theory of Everything” title literally, given how ridiculous such an interpretation would seem. Regardless, I also hope for you to interpret my own comments through the filter of a belief that I hold very deeply: When referenced against the dynamics of reality itself, the human shall always remain an idiot. I’m quite sure that you agree.

  6. Hi Dan, sorry for the late response. I saw this video earlier at MoL and thought it was useful watching Massimo draw connections (or create a spectrum) between sciences.

    To the extent that I agreed with him, I felt that this did not really prove anything but showed how things could be viewed in two different ways:

    1) all science is a continuity with some major jumps in complexity

    2) all sciences at some level can be thought of as distinct based on approach (descriptive, causal/predictive, etc) and nature of phenomena investigated.

    Maybe neither position is wrong, but more right depending on the question one is considering about different fields of science and particular topics being studied.

    I think most of what I have to say was already covered back at your earlier essay on this topic. To me, even within a specific field like physics, the way a particular topic is studied or treated by theory may be very different so each field is not monolithic. Likewise, there can be similarities between fields on very different subjects. For example the treatment of Heat (flow of energy) in classical physics seems similar to treatment of Capital (flow of money) in economics.

    That said, I think in many cases (perhaps most) point #2 is more accurate/useful, particularly when discussing social vs natural sciences. While I might agree with Massimo’s take that both biological and social sciences representing significant increases in complexity, I feel like your point regarding content or phenomena being significantly different (even between biology and social sciences) is valid.

    Biology is still restricted to causal relationships between entities that are based on and understandably connected to lower level functions. Social sciences involve changes that can occur within entities as well, with no (relevant/useful) connection to lower level phenomena.

    For example, it is not simply a matter of complexity (from molecules to multicellular life process) which underlies the construction of crosses, stars, crescent moons, and bits of patterned cloth by homo sapiens, or the anguish and violent conflict individuals and groups suffer around such things. Nor do I think complexity of process can explain why groups of homo sapiens learn to speak Klingon, or engage in debates about proper use of Klingon epithets.

    Perhaps this is because, unlike biological processes on down, decisions of sentient organisms are based on mental reconstructions (models) of their environment that have very little to do with knowledge or understanding of biological processes on down. Or maybe I shouldn’t say little to do with, but rather a lot more to do with gross level (organism to social) entities and concerns, with no reference/connection to anything else.

  7. marc levesque

    Hi Dan,

    Interesting questions.

    “I don’t take interpretation to just be a matter of complexity or context dependency — or at least, not *mere* context dependency”

    I feel there’s something(s) different about the social level that’s not a matter of *mere* context dependency too. At the same time I followed what Massimo was saying but I think there might more involved.

    In short, I enjoyed your interview and ideas on the subject.