Philosophy of Science

Part III: The challenge of human action

A fundamental problem with naturalistic epistemology when applied to the social science is illuminated by the interpretavists. The natural sciences’ subject matters are objects or creatures, but the social domain covers human agents with the unique features of their level of self-conceptualization and the ability to apply meaning to arbitrary objects and events. The now classic Hawthorne-studies indicated this conceptual and social characteristic of human behaviour. The studies tested among other things different forms of lighting in order to see which level created best work productivity, however no matter the lighting the productivity grew under the testing, and not only for those in the testing room but also other workers in the facility area (Wren & Bedeian, 2009). This indicated that the attention given to the staff by the experiment influenced their behaviour.

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People have a reflexive capacity in that they can become aware of scientific studies about them and react to them, which can also mean that a scientific study disseminated can prove a theory wrong which otherwise would have been confirmed. Consider a study spread by an economist regarding the job market for nurses, which states that based on the large amount of students applying for nurse-school there will be a surplus of nurses in two years meaning high unemployment and lowered wages for nurses. The study is blown up in the media and several of those students might hear the news and reconsider their career choice, choosing a different path to ensure a better chance for employment once their studies are over. Hence, in two years there is no surplus of nurses on the job market, rather there might be a shortage, which raises salaries and make employment easy for those that did graduate nurse-school. This means the theory of the economist was wrong in its predictions, but that it should have been confirmed if it had not been disseminated.

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Consider the same in the physic’s domain, where in studying the Higgs boson, a Nobel prize winning revelation (Morgan, 2013) which provides mass to all other particles and so keeping the world together (Baggott, 2012), becomes aware of that it is under study, second guesses its actions and decides to only provide mass to some particles instead of all. It seems highly unlikely, and of course silly. The Higgs boson doesn’t have this self-conceptualization and ability to give meaning to its action. But that is just the point. The subject matter is fundamentally different and thus taking a method that works in one area and applying it to another doesn’t mean it will work in the same way. The physicist can be an observer, but the social scientist will always be a player in the research. The naturalistic epistemology thus seem non-applicable to the study of human behaviour, and the need for an alternative theory of knowledge becomes clearer.

But suppose the argument goes too far in pointing to humans’ self-conceptualization and ability to attribute meaning as a judge on epistemology. After all, humans are biological creatures created by natural selection, shaped by nature just as the Higgs boson. Let’s then consider what being human is in order to fully understand the difference in subjects, or as Aristotle put it, we need to “carve nature by its joints” (Rosenberg, 2008, p.18).

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