Philosophy of Science

Part IV: The truthiness of causality

How can we understand why a person does something? For some reason, they felt obliged to create the act. Just observing the human behaviour as observing a Higgs boson won’t give us the full answer since this form of behaviourism won’t cover the conscious mind. How do we know what people think? We can ask them, but again a person might not tell us the truth, or they might think they are telling the truth but perhaps are unaware of the real reasons behind their action. Knowing the thoughts behind action appears a tricky business. But natural sciences cannot take thoughts seriously as causes of anything.

When you’re sitting at your desk at work, thinking about tonight’s dinner that you are going to buy the ingredients for at the supermarket and then cook in your kitchen, you are thinking about places far away from your brain. You are planning your actions in order to prepare dinner. But these thoughts wont be approved by the naturalists as scientific explanations to your actions (going to the supermarket and cooking in your kitchen) since no physical matter can be “about” anything. This follows the naturalists’ idea regarding how intentional explanations are not scientific, since a future event cannot explain a previous one. This is not a causal explanation, where the past causes the future, comparable to a linking chain. The human however is a link in natural selection and blind variation, meaning that over a long period of time those traits best fitted for the environment, or at least not somehow disadvantaging, have been selected out to follow in the genome.


But then what about the thoughts considering tonight’s dinner, are they too to be explained by natural selection? Let’s say that we agree with this naturalistic idea in general, how would we then be able to break down human action in everyday life? Consider how action is explained in social sciences based on folk psychology, a commonsensical form of explaining that we learn growing up in society, which helps us understand ourselves and others, as well as allowing us to take assumptions about what others believe and feel for granted (Rosenberg, 2008). The interpretavists’ explanation of human action rests on folk psychology’s way of citing the desire and belief that lead up to it. Finding the real reasons behind action has been the framework of sociological theories showing how social facts imposes on societies and influences their organization and behaviour.

But to naturalists these are not scientific explanations. Knowledge must be able to be taken apart, and how would you take apart social facts? That would mean breaking it down to the behaviour of individuals since they stem from individuals, as methodological individualists would argue, and so social facts are in the end only individual facts and thus do not really exist. Does this argument hold? Imagine waking up in the morning: you take a shower using a specific shampoo, did you choose that shampoo only on your own or were you somehow affected by advertisements? You get dressed and choose a hipster-look, does your taste in clothing come from nothing but yourself, or were you influenced by fashion trends? You get in your car to drive to work, were your choice of car strictly based on your personal need or somehow influenced by the values attributed by your environment: did you choose a Volvo so you wouldn’t seem showy or full of yourself, or a Ferrari to appear successful and younger? Now, does all these ideas and choices really just come from you as an individual, or is there something more too it? Surely, it is hard not to see how bigger forces in society, such as norms, values, and ideology, constantly influence our actions. Imagine explaining societal institutions, organizations, wars, and religion. In all cases it appears hard to see how actions are explained by being broken down solely to the individual.

Sketch for World Map

However, if we despite the strong arguments against it assume the naturalists are right in claiming human behaviour is only based on the individual which is a cause of natural selection, everyone should be a rational utility maximizing agent: struggling for existence, focused on taking care of herself and her own needs. But how then could tipping, charity, voluntary work be explained since these are all utility reducing actions? Why would people share their “piece of pie” if they could have it all to themselves? Biologists such as Richard Dawkins explain humans’ altruism as a cause of genes working to better their chances of surviving, and where giving to others is a way of doing so. Kin selection is a part of his explanation, which means “an altruistic gene can spread through the population so long as the altruism is directed at other organisms that have the same gene.” (Dawkins, 2012). He also argues that genes returning favours better their chances of surviving. Nevertheless, when we see someone we don’t know cry on the street and stop to ask if they are ok, can this truly be explain only by kinship and a reciprocal gene? If we had not grown up in society, would we really know that something was wrong and that the decent thing to do is to stop and ask? If a stranger instead had been crying at a funeral, it would have made more sense to us that they were sad and we wouldn’t have asked. There seems to be another dimension to the behaviour than just biology, a learned understanding of when behaviour is suited and when it is not. It can therefor not fully be explained by a naturalistic method, but seems to need another dimension of context and moral.



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