Rethinking the Foundations of Social Science

This article explains how the rejection of religion in the West led to distrust of unobservables, and a defective methodology for social sciences.

In March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman writes about the extreme corruption in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century as among the “most consequential (events) in European history.” This led to the Catholic Protestant split, ruthless inter-religious wars and persecution, and the eventual emergence of secular thought in opposition to religion. One of the goals of secular thinkers was to discredit religious thought, and replace it by science as the sole producer of valid knowledge. Antipathy for religion was expressed eloquently by the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume as follows:

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

In his zeal to burn religious books, Hume did not notice that his own statement, like many others in his influential books of philosophy, did not contain any abstract, experimental or quantitative reasoning. Applying this metaphysical statement to itself would lead us to commit it to the flames. Regardless, the project of replacing religion by science was pursued enthusiastically in Europe. This project reached an amazingly successful culmination in the philosophy of logical positivism, early in the 20th century. The rise and fall of logical positivism is among the most fascinating stories of the 20th century, and is also essential to understanding the methodology of social sciences today.

Following Hume, efforts were made to prove the superiority of science on the grounds that it was based on observables, which all could see and verify. Central concepts of religion, like God, life after death, angels, etc. are all unobservable. However, un-observables like gravity, neutrons, electromagnetic forces etc. are also central to scientific theories. Positivists proposed a solution to this problem which was eagerly accepted by all. They suggested that all unobservable ideas could be replaced by their observable implications. For example, the effect of gravity is to create elliptical orbits which are observable. So when we talk about gravity, what we really mean is that planets have elliptical orbits. If this idea is accepted, then we can say that science is solidly based on what we can touch and see, while religion relies on speculative conjectures about the unseen. Some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century engaged in a strenuous effort to eliminate all references to unobservable entities in scientific theories. Logical positivism had a spectacular crash when it became clear to all that this could not be done. Even ardent advocates like A J Ayer were eventually forced to admit this it was “all wrong”. Nonetheless, positivist ideas continue to rule the hearts and minds of the general public, and exercise a strong influence on contemporary social science theories.

The attempt to replace un-observables by observables was especially damaging to the social sciences. For example, behavioral psychologists attempted to eliminate the unobservable internal psyche of human beings from their theories. Removing free will, courage, and other unobservable qualities from the picture led B F Skinner to the conception of a human being as a robot, which could be programmed by stimulus response sequences. This misconception is reflected in the title of his fundamental book: Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Throughout the social sciences, application of positivism led to a very shallow understanding of human behaviour, and seriously mistaken theories. Economists today model human beings as homo economicus, who are driven by the single selfish motive of maximising their lifetime consumption. This model has no match to the realities of human behavior: see Homo Economicus: Cold, Calculating, and Callous. Studying the complexities of actual human behaviour allowed a small minority of behavioral economists to predict the global financial crisis of 2008, where conventional economics failed miserably. Over-simplified models of human beings and societies have led to defective theories which have led to a vast number of economic, political, social and environmental crises which we face today. Foundations of social sciences are still based on positivist ideas, and are in need of radical revision to create deeper understanding of human beings and societies.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 1st, 2015.

See also: A collection of articles and videos about Logical Positivism




BS Math MIT 74, MS Stat 76 & Ph.D. Econ 78 Stanford

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Asad Zaman

Asad Zaman

BS Math MIT 74, MS Stat 76 & Ph.D. Econ 78 Stanford

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