Are the social sciences “real” science?

YouTube channel Crash Course is starting a new series on what is perhaps the most social of social sciences: Sociology.

The social sciences, such as sociology, but also psychology, economics, anthropology, and other similar fields get a lot of grief from people about not being “real” science.  This criticism is typically justified by noting that scientific theories are about making predictions, and the ability of the social sciences to make predictions seems far weaker than, say, particle physics.  Economists couldn’t predict when the Great Recession was coming, the argument goes, so it’s not a science.

But this ignores the fact that predictions are not always possible in the natural sciences either.  Physics is the hardest of hard sciences, but it’s married to astronomy, an observational science.  Astronomers can’t predict when the star Betelguese will go supernova.  But they still know a great deal about star life cycles, and can tell that Betelguese is in a stage where it could go any time in the next few million years.

Likewise biologists can’t predict when and how a virus will mutate.  They understand evolution well enough to know that they will mutate, but predicting what direction it will take is impossible.  Meteorologists can’t predict the precise path of a hurricane, even though they understand how hurricanes develop and what factors lead to the path they take.

The problem is that these are matters not directly testable in controlled experiments.  Which is exactly the problem with predicting what will happen in economies.  In all of these cases, controlled experiments, where the variables are isolated until the causal link is found, are impossible.  So scientists have little choice but to do careful observation and recording, and look for patterns in the data.

Just as an astronomer knows Betelguese will eventually go supernova, an economist knows that tightening the money supply will send contractionary pressures through the economy.  They can’t predict that the economy will definitely shrink if the money supply is tightened because other conflating variables might affect the outcome, but they know from decades of observation that economic growth will be slower than it otherwise would have been.  This is an important insight to have.

In the same manner, many of the patterns studied in the other social sciences don’t provide precise predictive power, but they still give valuable insights into what is happening.  And again, there are many cases in the natural sciences where this same situation exists.

Why then all the criticism of the social sciences?  I think the real reason is that the results of social science studies often have socially controversial conclusions.  Many people dislike these conclusions.  Often these people are social conservatives upset that studies don’t validate their cherished notions, such as traditionally held values.  But many liberals deny science just as vigorously when it violates their ideologies.

Not that everything is ideal in these fields.  I think anthropology ethnographers often get too close to their subject matter, living among the culture they’re studying for years at a time.  While this provides deep insights not available through other methods, it taints any conclusions with the researcher’s subjective viewpoint.  Often follow up studies don’t have the same findings.  This seems to make ethnographies, a valuable source of cultural information, more journalism than science.

And psychology has been experiencing a notorious replication crisis for the last several years, where previously accepted psychological effects are not being reproduced in follow up studies.  But the replication crisis was first recognized by people in the field, and the field as a whole appears to be gradually working out the issues.

When considering the replication crisis, it pays to remember the controversy over the last several years in theoretical physics.  Unable to test their theories, some theorists have called for those theories not to be held to the classic testing standard.  Many in the field are pushing back, and theoretical physics is also working through the issues.

In the end, science is always a difficult endeavor, even when controlled experiments are possible.  Looking at the world to see patterns, developing theories about those patterns, and then putting them to the test, facing possible failure, is always a hard enterprise.

It’s made more difficult when your subject matter have minds of their own with their own agendas, and can alter their behaviors when observed.  This puts the social sciences into what philosopher Alex Rosenberg calls an arms race, where science uncovers a particular pattern, people learn about it, alter their behavior based on their knowledge of it, and effectively change the pattern out from under the science.

But like all sciences, it still produces information we wouldn’t have otherwise had.  And as long as it’s based on careful rigorous observation, with theories subject to revision or refutation on those observations, I think it deserves the label “science”.

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26 Responses to Are the social sciences “real” science?

  1. nannus says:

    The question whether social sciences are real sciences might be one created by the conceptual system of the English language.

    If I translate the term “social sciences” into German (my native language), I get “Sozalwissenschaften”. The term “Wissenschaft” however, has a much wider meaning than the English term “science”. It comprises the hard sciences (“Naturwissenschaften”), but also things like, for example, the study of literature (which is “Literaturwissenschaft”). Actually, there is no term in German that covers the meaning of the English term “science” exactly, and there seems to be no English word that corresponds exactly to “Wissenschaft” (I would have to say something like “academic subject” or “academic discipline” or something like that). So while it is debatable if sociology is really a science, it is definitely a Wissenschaft. Nobody in Germany would care much about the question if it is a science or not. The question is a result of the categories of the English language. Probably nobody would expect sociology to use the same methods as physics, even if certain schools within it are trying to.

    Personally, I think there are no fixed laws to human societies and cultures and to a large extent, there are no fixed, unchangeable laws of human cognition. That psychologists have problems to make their results reproducible might simply be a result of that: if cognition and society are programmable systems whose “laws” can change to some extent, non-reproducibility is to be expected and a methodology taken over from physics that requires we are dealing with things that are always of the same kind would simply be misleading here. We are dealing with historically evolving entities, and criteria taken from physics-oriented epistemology (like Popper-style falsifiability, for example) would not work here. Methods taken from other Wissenschaften (e.g. from history, which is a Wissenschaft (“Geschichtswissenschaft”) although it is not a science) might be more appropriate here.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Excellent points!

      In truth, when I wrote the line about ethnographies being more journalism than science, I squirmed somewhat. I still squirm thinking about it. Because it seems to imply that responsible journalism doesn’t produce knowledge. I’m tempted to say that it itself is a type of science. But it doesn’t fit the English conception of “science” well. It seems like English speakers have two options. Broaden our conception of “science”, or come up with a new term equivalent to the German “Wissenschaft”.

      I think you’re right about these being evolving systems. That’s what Rosenberg meant by his “arms race.” My thinking is that we should just accept that most social patterns won’t have the permanency of physical, chemical, or other natural ones. That doesn’t mean they won’t have a usable shelf life.

      I took a qualitative research class in grad school, where I got some exposure to the foundational philosophy of sociology. From the beginning, there was a recognition that the methods of natural science had to be modified (in truth they’re different in every natural science field anyway), but with a strong commitment to positivism, where empirical data reigns supreme (not to be confused with the later more absolute and untenable logical positivism). Occasionally someone in the field expresses a desire to weaken that commitment, but it never seems to get much traction. I think there’s a feeling that sociology’s status as a science depends on sticking with it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • We used to use the phrase “the sciences” to cover anything with a systematic pursuit of knowledge. I still see that phrase used in translation of older texts. I don’t know why that phrase has left us, but I tend to want to use it, and then I have this little debate with myself over whether or not people will understand what I mean, or whether they’ll assume I mean something too narrow. (And, conversely, there’s the phrase “the natural sciences” which has fallen out of use.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I used to use the word “science” pretty broadly. I still tend to think of what a careful historian does as a type of science. But using it that broadly tended to invite charges of scientism.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, I tend to think of it broadly too, but I had to learn to think of it that way. In school, there was science—physics, biology, chemistry, etc.—and then there was other stuff. I never thought of what the word ‘science’ meant, outside of its current usage. In college, I remember asking about what “the sciences” means, in the plural. I saw it everywhere in classic philosophical texts. I’m in favor of bringing the phrase back.

          Liked by 1 person

      • nannus says:

        It would be interesting to find out when this change in the use of the word happened. I guess it has something to do with the rise of analytic philosophy and their limited (I am tempted to say: truncated) view of science and reality. To use a term I have just coined, reality as a whole, and many of its parts, are proteons (see my latest post), i.e. entities for which every exact description is incomplete. By limiting science the way it has been done, a lot of things drop out of its scope. At the same time, philosophy (which should mainly be concerned with proteons, not with systems), is loosing its role and seems to become obsolete. The tendency to get overspecialized that you can see in analytic philosophy is, I think, a result of the attempt to make philosophy a science (in the restricted sense). For the description of a proteon, the goals of exactnes and of generality of descriptions are mutually exclusive. You can’t get both at the same time. By trying to make philosophy exact, generality is lost and it splinters into many small pieces most of which are rather uninteresting and irrelevant (of course, you can also go too far into the other direction).

        Liked by 2 people

        • I don’t know when the change happened. I sense fairly recently, but it’s hard to say.

          My husband’s weighing in here…he says “the sciences” is still used…in fact, he has no idea what I’m talking about when I say it’s no longer being used. I asked him if he’s ever read the phrase in a newspaper or non-academic publication, and he doesn’t know. I suspect it’s still being used in academia, but I really doubt it’s something we can take for granted for a general American audience. Maybe in the Frege article, we could’ve translated using ‘the sciences’…or maybe we did? I don’t remember. 🙂

          Here’s an example that runs through my head as the classic use of the phrase. It’s from Descartes: “…I’ve known for quite some time now that I’ve received many false opinions as true, such that it was necessary for me to seriously undertake, once in my life, to rid myself of all the opinions I’ve received since my birth, if I wanted to establish something firm and constant in the sciences.” (Not an exact quote, I’m doing this from memory.) It’s not something that’s terribly clear even here. I think it’s meant to be inclusive of many areas of study, but also vague about what can properly be called ‘science’ (something systematic, I suppose.)

          I’m not all that familiar with analytic philosophy, but I see what you mean about it trying to become a science. I tend to think of mathematization as the main criterion for ‘science’ in the limited sense, and I can see logic taking the place of math in philosophy, since the two are so closely related. Maybe this came about from holding deductive certainty on a pedestal? I don’t know. It’s been going on for a very very long time.

          I’ll check out your post on proteons! (Autocorrect wants to turn that word into ‘proteins.’) 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. J.S. Pailly says:

    On the one hand, I think turning to the social sciences for answers is better than just making wild guesses about human behavior or going with gut feelings about the way things ought to be.

    On the other hand, I know some of the social sciences have a history of reinforcing social biases. In particular, I’ve read about some “studies” from the 1950’s and 60’s concerning the psychology of women.

    It’s difficult to study a system when you are part of that system. It sounds like Crash Course will talk a lot about how sociologists try to mitigate their own biases, so maybe I’ll gain a better appreciation for the subject. But at least for now, I take the social sciences with a grain of salt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s wise to take all scientific results with a grain of salt until they’re widely replicated and verified from alternate approaches. In the 1950s, physicists still hadn’t settled on the big bang vs steady state theory. Science at all levels is constantly reviewing and revising its models.

      On biases, one thing that social psychology appears to be trying to address, is ensuring that their sample sizes are large, and include people who aren’t WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic). It’s made studies far more expensive (undergrads were cheap and easy subjects), but the results are at least more cross-cultural, and may be closer to revealing innate nature.

      I’d also note that not every study that shows differences between men and women are simply reflecting cultural biases. The knee jerk reaction of many liberals is to reject any study that shows such differences as an attack on equal rights. I totally understand the concern, but I think rejecting rigorous scientific results is the wrong answer. Of course, results from studies with shoddy methods are a different story.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Steve Ruis says:

    As a real scientist (a chemist ;o) what I find offensive is when people claiming to use the methods of science either distort those methods or claim they know more than they really do. In the “hard” sciences (pun intended) nature supplies feedback that is more definitive, so in the soft sciences one needs to be more circumspect.

    Having said that, my biggest outrage recently has been directed at the nutrition establishment in this country. Major claims about the roles of macronutrients in our diets has distorted eating habits making them less healthy as well as obscuring higher quality advice. This form of scientific pollution undermines science and science literacy in the public at large.

    Having said that, I recently read a book on “non-obvious sociology” and which I did learn a few things, most of it I found … obvious. In the sciences it is necessary to verify “common knowledge” and “collective wisdom” but it isn’t until we get beyond those studies do people get really interested.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of the problems with nutrition science is so many people have a vested interest in distorting the results, which means that what most people see and hear about it is a distorted version of what the science actually shows. But nutritionists have been fairly consistent over the last several decades: eat a diet from a variety of food groups, being sure not to neglect fruits and vegetables.

      The problem is that people either are just eating whatever they want (potato chips, cookies, etc) or looking for magic solutions. And there are plenty of businesses wiling to tell them what they want to hear to get their money.


  4. mittflorg says:

    The line between science and art is not clear given the case that you presented. In both the hard and soft sciences those who make predictions are in many cases.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’d rather that people did not question the legitimacy of these sciences as “sciences.” There are obviously quite important realities to explore in them, and therefore we can either approach them scientifically or go back to standard anecdotal notions.

    The real criticism seems to concern something that most people actually accept, or that these sciences happen to be “soft” rather than “hard.” But then if you work in one of these fields, for reasons of personal respect you’ll naturally want to portray a narrative more like, “Yes our understandings do happen to be ‘soft,’ though this is not our fault. This is instead because the subject of our exploration does not actually harbor clear answers.” So that’s the question that I think needs to be assessed. Would it be possible for these fields to develop theory that’s more like “force equals mass times acceleration,” or are there no “hard” observations to be made in them anyway?

    I believe that there are such observations to be made in them, though there are also dynamics which have hindered us from formally acknowledging them. The theory is that these sciences will need to become founded upon a purely “descriptive,” or “non-normative” form of ethics. Without formally acknowledging the realities of what’s good and bad for any given conscious subject, the thought is that we haven’t yet been able to develop solid enough theory regarding our nature. And why would we find it difficult to formally acknowledge realities associated with good and bad existence? Apparently because these realities can conflict with standard normative ethics, or what we think people “ought” to do. Thus I’d like for us to acknowledge the sometimes repugnant realities of what’s good and bad for us, so that these kinds of sciences might finally gain themselves a solid foundation from which to build, and thus harden up.

    Any questions or comments about my project so far?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      You and I have already had extensive conversations on this, and you’ve already fielded a bunch of questions from me. I’ll just add one here.

      What examples of work do you see in these fields, that are currently well regarded by people in the relevant field, that are not being descriptive, that are letting normative values cloud their methods?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Mike,
    Yes we’ve discussed this quite a bit. I’ve enjoyed it immensely, though I don’t seem to have quite gotten my point across for your assessment yet. That’s what I’d like. I’d like for you to be able to state my position, perhaps from various perspectives to demonstrate a reasonable understanding of it, and then give me your opinion about any faults or merits that you see with it. For example it’s not my position that normative influences are the great problem that these fields face. A bit of normativity was illustrated in the video, but I don’t even consider that to have been a problem. My ideas would actually validate the presented view for the most part (and here’s where it gets tricky) but not from a normative position of “ought.” Rather I believe it would do so from a descriptive theory of “is.” I know that sounds like some kind of trick, or can only be definitionally inconsistent. But once you’re able to state what my theory implies in various situations, I think you’ll see that there’s an “is” of welfare that exists beyond socially constructed “oughts” of it.

    I’ll continue on with my quest to give you my theory if you’re ready.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      I think my difficulty remains in understanding what you want to change. I just rewatched the video, and while I detected some things with implied normative ought connotations, none of that came across as the main thrust. It seemed overwhelmingly descriptive, about what is. What described by the presenter needs to be changed?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. (Screwed up the order again. If this one posts right, maybe delete the other one.).

    I agree with you Mike that her focus was quite descriptive, and I think that she did a wonderful job promoting her field. She even excited me! But what I’m trying to do is give these sciences in general a basic new tool from which to work. Notice that she briefly got into the welfare of a society, though her science does not yet have an accepted descriptive definition of “social welfare” from which to work. Thus I don’t mean to stop her from going there, but rather would help her do so in a descriptive rather than normative sense.

    (In truth the science of economics already has this tool at its disposal, though I don’t consider economics to be soft the way that the others happen to be. At the micro level it’s extremely effective, while in the macro there are just too many unknown variables as you’ve mentioned. The basics of economic theory itself seems quite solid to me.)

    To jump right in, the essentials of my theory is quite simple. It’s that there’s a product of the conscious mind called “affect,” “happiness,” or whatever you like, that’s all that’s valuable to anything. If you want to know the value of existing as a specific bird at a given moment, it will be represented by how positive or negative it feels at that moment. Then the value of being this bird over time will be constituted by each momentary figure aggregated together over that period, and so feeling good adds while feeling bad subtracts. Furthermore the welfare of any defined society will be the same, though from an aggregated total throughout that society. This is a descriptive theory of reality in the sense that I’m referring to an independent dynamic like “mass” or “velocity” — there is no social construct to this measure of welfare. It seems to exist as the mechanism which drives the function of the conscious mind.

    Stating this theory is the simple part. From this point I can field all sorts of practical questions, such as what I mean by “happiness,” how it might be measured, what happens when there are repugnant implications, and so on. My answers should help clarify my position in various specific ways, though they aren’t always popular. For example philosophers jealously guard their normative form of ethics as the only variety possible, ever watchful to squelch an expansion of science in this regard. Also our mental and behavioral scientists seem quite defensive in general to criticism that there are better ways of doing things, and apparently for good reason. Though unpopular, I think you’ll find my explanations to be extremely consistent.

    At some point I would hope to get past such details however. If it’s true that I’ve developed a useful model of descriptive value regarding existence, and that the absense of such theory in our mental and behavioral sciences holds them back (except for economics), then what can I do with it? What have I been able to figure out that traditional psychologists, sociologists, and so on have not been able to? Once the basics to my position are understood, I’d like to demonstrate what I’m thus able to do with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,

      “how it might be measured”

      I think this is the question that comes to mind whenever you explain this concept. I take it we’re agreed that for it to be science, it must be testable in some way. It must be falsifiable. How would you go about testing and measuring “happiness”, positive affect, or hedons?

      Particularly, how would you do it in a more objective way than it’s currently done with things like the Gross National Happiness, Social Progress Index, Satisfaction Life Index, or other similar indexes, all of which, while quantitative, seem to ultimately depend on self assessments for their data?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Mike,
    As I recall you’ve “Carl Poppered” me a while back as well. Perhaps a more in depth answer than what I’ve said before will sufficiently get my thoughts across.

    I don’t believe that objective happiness measurements will specifically be required in order for what I’m talking about to usefully exist in science. Furthermore the science of economics happens to already be founded upon this premise, so it not only can exist in science, but does. I’d like an expansion however.

    Notice that subjective measurements could potentially provide reasonable evidence. Let’s say for example that we pay volunteers to be shocked with various intensities, first showing them the difference between “one” and a maximum of “ten.” I suspect that their subjective assessments of disutility would reasonably approximate how bad these shocks actually feel to them. Of course they’d probably do less well when memory must play more of a role, as well as in situations where there are various competing feelings to assess. An honest attempt might still be effective however. Science can be challenging.

    In the end I don’t think that it’s disputed by most that happiness and unhappiness exist, and thus could potentially be measured somehow and somewhat. What’s disputed seems to be whether this stuff is useful to consider as what’s ultimately valuable to a given subject. If so then we could use this concept to develop a descriptive form of ethics, and even without measuring it. When a person or society is deciding between two options, it might suspect that one of them would probably it bring more happiness over various time frames than the other. If that suspicion is true then this theory suggests what’s best for it to do over those periods. Notice that here simulations about the future are run rather than after the fact measurements of how much happiness resulted from a given option. Conversely today people don’t seem to understand what’s best for a given subject, even in a theoretical sense. Providing humanity with such an understanding could thus be big.

    Also notice that even without objective measurements of happiness, this premise could potentially still be used to help us build better models of what we are. For example “consciousness” still needs to become figured out, and if it were formally understood that “affect” is what drives the function of this kind of computer, then this might be a useful understanding from which to do so. From this premise I believe that I’ve developed quite a few useful models regarding our nature, and without any objective measurements of happiness. Nevertheless each of these models do have implications to other things, and so can be tested in a variety of ways.

    Regarding objective measurements however, I do have some thoughts. I consider happiness to be a physical product of the conscious mind, meaning that we might some day find chemical and/or electrical factors to measure that correlate with it to some degree. Such evidence surely does exist somehow, though I can’t say when or how it will be found. If the theory that I present were to become prominent, many would surely look for such evidence, though I bet it’s on the radar even today. For example, when I go to a doctor for some kind of pain, I seem to always be asked to assess how bad this pain is from one to ten. I find it quite annoying. I’m sure they realize how much better it would be if they could objectively measure my supposed pain for themselves.

    Though good electro/chemical evidence would probably be best, I do have one source from which to objectively measure happiness with existing technology. Notice that many of the facial expressions that we display are not consciously choosen, but rather non-consciously reflect how we feel. We naturally tend to smile when we’re happy, frown when we’re unhappy, and so on. Thus recorded video (perhaps with audio as well) should be possible to assess algorithmically for objective evidence of how a given person feels from moment to moment, simply based upon facial evidence. I doubt this would reflect the extremities of significant pain for example, but might do pretty well in some regards.

    (As a side note, I theorize that our amazing set of facial muscles evolved as a result of the evolution of language. Language should have given us far greater capacity to lie about how we feel, but evolution seems to have found it useful to provide some truth through non-conscious facial expressions.)

    Does my explanation make sense? Furthermore, do you have any other questions regarding the premise behind my ideas in general?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      (Looking over this reply, it seems to read a bit harshly. I hope you’ll take it in the constructive spirit it’s offered.)

      I probably have challenged you before on falsifiablity grounds (“Karl Poppered”). I don’t recall your previous answer so I’m grateful for the walk through. You noted a few times that economics uses the principle you’re discussing. Maybe a few examples from that field would help?

      I don’t personally have a problem with subjective assessment being a part of data gathering. I took a course in graduate school on qualitative research, and I know it can be made rigorous. However, the subjective component inevitably adds a variability, a noise to the data that inherently makes it “soft”, or softer than what can typically be gathered using strictly objective measurement. You seem to recognize this in your remarks, but it’s not clear to me how you plan to improve on the situation.

      “What’s disputed seems to be whether this stuff is useful to consider as what’s ultimately valuable to a given subject.”

      I actually don’t see that it’s disputed that much, but I may be missing the exact point you’re referencing here. I suspect any sociologist, psychologist, or practitioner in any related science would agree that happiness is good and unhappiness bad. You say that it could be measured “somehow and somewhat,” but a working scientists needs specific “hows” and “whats”. A sociologist or psychologist, it seems to me, would agree that measuring those things is difficult, that we currently have little choice but to accept some degree of subjectivity and the noise it creates, and the resulting “softness” it produces in the results. I think they would want to know how you proposed to improve on it.

      On measuring electrochemical signalling, again, I think everyone would agree that it would be ideal, if it were possible with current technology. But as far as I know, it’s only possible with very invasive surgery that is only acceptable with animals, and even then there remain daunting obstacles and the measurements are still often very imprecise.

      If we ever reach the point where we could measure nervous system signalling precisely and non-invasively, it seems like the human mind would be opened to us and we’d have a chance of objectively determining anything we wanted about it, including the levels of pain, depression, happiness, unhappiness, or probably anything we cared to measure.

      But that doesn’t exist yet. At the risk of sounding Rumsfeldian, science has to be done with the technology (and budget) available, not the technology (or budget) we wish was available. Modern brain scans help a lot. It’s allowed neuroscience to be much more precise than in the days when they had to correlate medical diagnoses with brain lesions revealed years later in post-mortem autopsies. But while a vast improvement, the resolution of those scans still leaves a lot to be desired, with scan voxels still including thousands or millions of neurons.

      On facial expression, I might could see where facial recognition software could correlate facial expressions with reported mental states, then use those correlations to try to read the facial expressions of other subjects. But the results of the latter would only be as good as the data gathering of the former. And I wonder how accurate it would be with someone with a good “poker face”. Given enough budget, technology, and data, it could be possible, but this again feels like technology we don’t quite have yet.

      So addressing your final question, I guess I’m not seeing where your breakthrough is, what it adds to existing paradigms and processes. I apologize if I’m just being dense, but that appears to be where I am right now.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Mike,
    I appreciate your sentiments, but the above response didn’t seem very harsh to me. You should see some of the replies I get at other sites! I hope that you’ll always enjoy our conversations, though if either of us ever decides otherwise, I also hope for there to be no worries or hard feelings. I realize that you aren’t quite sure what I’m saying yet, and therefore that you must wonder if there’s anything to figure out all? If/when you do get it, you’ll also be able to give me an assessment. If you could somehow think of my ideas as “architecture” rather than the practical “engineering,” then they should make more sense to you. Perhaps the following will help.

    It was mentioned above that you aren’t sure it’s disputed that happiness is considered good for us, as well as that you may have missed my point regarding this dispute that I consider to exist, while you aren’t sure. Perhaps I haven’t been explicit enough in this regard, and so I’ll try to be.

    Beyond the casual agreement which people seem to have that happiness is better than unhappiness, I’m talking about an ideology from which to accurately state what’s best for anything regarding anything. Abortion? Suicide? Immigration? Trade? The environment? How to parent your child? There is no question of welfare that it does not cover. In the end it’s an ideology from which to lead our lives and structure our societies.

    Though most of us have anecdotal notions that happiness is better than unhappiness, I’m not aware of anyone who holds this belief to the perfect extremity that I do. But am I wrong about this? Do you or anyone beyond me believe that aggregate happiness over a given period, effectively represents a given subject’s welfare? I hope so! I mean for this theory to become a formal scientific understanding, and therefore scientists would use it to state opinion regarding all matters of personal and social welfare. Or conversely, can you explain why this model of reality is not an effective one? How might it be inaccurate?

    This is the position that I came to even before college, and then in the decades since I’ve used it to develop all sorts of models regarding our nature. I’m quite proud of them! But maybe it would be best to explore the ideology side first and then work over to the rest. So who beyond me has this ideology, and/or how do you consider it to be an inaccurate portrayal of reality?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      I do enjoy our conversations, particularly when we’re just talking about intellectual matters just to explore our positions and sharpen understanding. I hope those continue if I end up not buying into your ideas.

      “If you could somehow think of my ideas as “architecture” rather than the practical “engineering,” then they should make more sense to you.”

      I think this gets into whether you are talking about science or philosophy. Science, including philosophy of science, can’t get by without addressing at some point the practicalities of the main thing that separates science from philosophy, how we look at the world and gather data for conclusions. If we just want to hypothesize without doing that, that’s fine, but we’re no longer talk science, but philosophy.

      My understanding is that the main reason for the “softness” in the social sciences comes from the limitations of the observational methods available to those sciences. If you’re going to “harden” them, then I can’t see how you can do so without addressing these issues.

      Or maybe I should ask, what makes the points you made about maximizing happiness more than moral philosophy, a variant of classical utilitarianism?
      From Jeremy Bentham:

      Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do… By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever, and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Mike,
    I don’t consider this to be about you either buying into my ideas or not. Like you, I’m a curious person. Therefore if there are problems associated with any of my ideas, I’d like you to help me understand what they are. Our ideas seems to correspond quite well in cases where we understand each other, though epistemic uncertainties where we don’t will need to be worked if you are to help me in this regard as well. I consider the whole “agree to disagree” meme to be a load of shit. I will not so lightly condone failure from earnest explorers, or at least when their beliefs happen to be as close as ours.

    While blogging I’ve come across a number of ways to differentiate between science and philosophy, and wherever I am I try to use the local definition (given my EP1). I quite like the one that you’ve just provided, since it suggest that science and philosophy are two parts of the same thing. For example, back when Einstein was a Swiss patent clerk theorizing how various apparently inconsistent observations might work together, he would thus have been “a philosopher.” As he displayed, science does require good architecture. (Of course modern philosophers derisively call sentiments such as this “scientism.”)

    One prominent definition that I’ve come across defines philosophy in a purely “critical” capacity, and so can somewhat be considered an outside stuard of science. I suppose this gives us our “philosopher of (physics and so on).” Furthermore we shouldn’t forget that the field does formally consider epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, mind, metaphysics, and I suppose more.

    One less prominent account characterizes philosophy as “art.” I consider this historically quite an effective definition given that ancient questions are still pondered today without professional agreement. A subject without professional consensus is actually where I like to distinguish philosopher from scientist.

    You may be right that the softness of our mental/behavioral sciences is mainly the result of natural observation limitations. Regardless, my ideas do not concern fixing those limitations. There are plenty of people working in these fields in this capacity today, though my role is different. I propose theory (whether as philosopher or scientist), and it does have implications that are testable both subjectively and objectively. If my ideas happen to be both valid and basic, then they should help improve associated sciences even without bringing them new sources of objective evidence. It’s true that good evidence should incite good theory, but furthermore good theory should demonstrate the kinds of evidence that we’re most in need of.

    The premise behind my ideas most certainly is a variant of classical utilitarianism, and more specifically the “total” rather than “average” form of it. But my impression is that both old and new utilitarians assess “the rightness and wrongness of behavior” rather than what I do, or “the goodness and badness of existence.” It’s a theory regarding the nature of conscious function, not a tool from which to judge our behavior. It’s about what “is” rather than what “ought,” and so it’s descriptive rather than prescriptive.

    I title my position Amoral Subjective Total Utilitarianism, or ASTU, and don’t mind it being classified under philosophy’s branch of ethics — though with the stipulation that it isn’t considered “normative.” In truth however I don’t see a fundamental distinction between science and philosophy, rather like the architecture/engineering association that you’ve just made. It’s funny how people interested in these fields are all generally monists these days, and yet philosophers nevertheless try to maintain a position of epistemic dualism — as if that what they study isn’t inherently connected to everything else. This seems quite unproductive to me.

    Perhaps an education in philosophy tends to religiously indoctrinate a person into it as something unique, and even though everyone acknowledges that science emerged from philosophy at around the time of Newton. We all have our clubs and associations, but I think that the exploration of reality needs coherence, or at least from a naturalistic perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric,
      I appreciate the clarifications. It gives me a better idea of where you’re coming from.

      When it comes to whether theoretical science is itself science or philosophy, I think it’s more of a spectrum than a sharp distinction. Einstein’s theories were formulated largely to explore the results of late 19th century experiments, and it’s often forgotten that Einstein himself actively recruited astronomers to look for observations that would confirm or refute general relativity. So Einstein never strayed too far from testable realms.

      But a lot of other theoretical physicists do. String theory is the example everyone’s familiar with. But getting too far from testable notions is frowned upon in the physics community. Many physicists, including theoretical ones, regard string theory and related notions more metaphysics than physics.

      The argument that science came out of philosophy is one I hear a lot, and it’s one I used to accept without too much skepticism. But after reading some history of science, I think it’s a bit too simple. The earliest proto-scientists in the 16th century seemed to take elements from both natural philosophy and engineering for their methods, creating what was initially thought of a new type of natural philosophy, but which we recognize today as a distinct field. But the reason for this breakthrough seemed to have more to do with the printing press than any philosophical realization. By the time Bacon wrote his treatise on methods, the earliest experimentalists had already been following them for years.

      Anyway, would a good summation of your ideas be that you are concerned with the determination of what produces positive and negative emotional feelings in conscious subjects? And would the distinction from moral philosophy be that you’re not concerned with whether those feelings are right or wrong?

      If so, I can see the distinction from philosophy, but I’m not sure if I necessarily see the distinction from psychology. Or are you saying that you don’t think psychology is sufficiently concerned with this area?


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