Philosophy of Science

Part VI: A struggle in truth politics

The meaning of science is not given. It is a socially constructed phenomenon where the rules of scientific inquiry are created by norms, not by a truth “out there”. Surely laws can be proven, but only in the way we created what proving means, according to the naturalists: evidence, experiment, observation. Surely we shouldn’t argue that there is no gravity, we see it when our smartphone drops from the grip of our hands and hits the floor. But the way we explain it, prove it, predict it –that is based on norms and thus socially constructed.

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Gravity exists without us, but the way we understand it does not, thus the explanation always entails an interpretation by the human mind. Knowledge is in the same way socially constructed, to know something has been given a meaning by society. This does not mean that the naturalist argument of science being laws and prediction is by any means weak. However, living in a technically dominated world, a skill grown out of the natural science, it is not hard to understand the dominance of this perspective of the world, nor the power of the elite creating and reproducing it. Loosing the privileged perspective on what knowledge is, just as any other elite group being challenged in the history of civilization, will not be welcomed with open arms.

Science was created and is maintained in order to understand the world as well as a tool for improving life; finding vaccine to malignant diseases, controlling resources to solve problems as wide as logistics to climate change, understanding other cultures as well as our own, empowering individuals and groups used by others. Here lies the power of science and the value that makes society continue to contribute and support it through tax and funding. A society that looks to science to be guided, trying to “get things right”. This might appear portentous, but still the important contribution of science and so also a responsibility.

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A naturalistic epistemology as the dominant in science would disappoint this responsibility in failing in ability to cover all aspects, such as social inequalities and power struggles, often hidden in our organization of everyday life. When the velocipede had a breakthrough in the turn of the 19th century, natural science told us how it mechanically worked, how pedaling with a balance would make the wheels rotate with greater and greater power and transport the peddler forward. But what social science told us was how it emancipated women, formerly closed of from society in their housewife roles (Ekström, 2010). What is knowledge if we do not understand the meaning of the mechanisms? It is nothing but one-dimensional, and weak.

Another example is the belief many generations have in one new “revolutionary” medium. With only natural science we could regard every new technique as unique, in the sense that it works mechanically in a different way, say a computer from a newspaper. However it is social science that can make us aware that this is not something new, that every time goes through a similar discussion where a new medium stirs up a moral panic in society and challenges old elites. Another example of how these other dimensions can be provided by social science, is the social anthropologist and political scientist Benedict Anderson (2006) who showed how the printing press helped make national states a possibility. Without the contribution of sociology how could we understand the way cinema was a part in forming a youth culture (Sjöholm, 2003)? Arguing that this is not scientific knowledge would be failing the meaning of science, and if anything threatening its existence. If it cannot stay meaningful, it will seize to do what it set out to do.

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The meaning of scientific should also be able to develop towards an improved or more advanced condition. Relying on old norms and traditions in structure and method is not a good foundation for research and knowledge, challenging different perspectives and methods however is. Knowledge does not come from doing things the way they have always been done, but knowledge, insights, understanding, explanations, comes from taking new routes, trying new angles, and questioning the old. No other way can science remain relevant to humans and society as a whole.

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Philosophy of Science

Part V: The dimensions of context and moral

The questions regarding the choices one makes in everyday life in the Western world, also indicates the meaning of context. There are several different levels which people pass through in acquiring a skill and knowledge, in going from the technical to the intellectual, as indicated by phenomenological studies (Flyvbjerg, 2006). These imply that having the skill of something at an expert level, really knowing it, requires not just experience but also include intuition and judgment. If an experienced driver tries to explain the knowledge of driving only in techniques and rules, it would leave out dimensions of his skill. This shows how a naturalistic explanation would fail in explaining the knowledge of an experienced human action. Naturalistic form of explaining does not cover a contextual and social dimension, and without that we are not able to fully understand and so we cant really call it knowledge about human behavior. It might possibly be knowledge about human biological behavior, but still that hardly goes all the way in knowledge, and absolutely not as social science aim is improving human condition. Naturalistic explanations are missing the creative intellect that find solutions without restricting to given rules, thus it cannot be considered complete knowledge, yet perhaps information about certain parts.

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Another dimension missing from the naturalistic explanation is the moral one. Again, social science wants to improve human condition, whereas natural science wants technical innovation, and this entails social scientists to make moral choices about what an improvement is and what is not. The research on human behaviour is a minefield of questions about what is acceptable treatment of research subjects: for instance, can a social scientist lie to people in the experiment in order to not interfere with their normal behaviour? Is it tolerable to expose people to physical or mental harm if it is in the interest of the project? Should a scientist conduct a research which result can be used for interests that might be harmful to others? These are questions for philosophy, where social science must have its natural starting point in deciding on method and limits of the research. But the moral dimension is also very much a part of human action. The moral choices involved in the thought-processes behind the action are a part in shaping the behaviour, and must be a part of the explanation for the action as well, otherwise it will not give us the full knowledge. Naturalistic method applied to the social science is like knowing a third of a recipe: it tells parts of what is needed, but it is not enough to actually achieve the result of a perfect cake for there are still ingredients missing.

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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.

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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.

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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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Philosophy of Science

Part IV: The argument of humanity

Social science studies human behaviour, hence the question for a philosopher would be what the definition of being a human is? Where do we draw the line of human and non-human? The natural scientific answer would be based on Carl von Linné who classified the human species as “homo sapiens”. But are biological features such as bipedal locomotion and a larger brain than other primates enough to explain what it means to be human?

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This might be recognized as the metaphysical expression of the mind-body problem, regarding the relation between consciousness and brain as expressed by Descartes (see among others Treanor, 2006); Can the two be distinguished from one another, is one a cause of the other, where do they meet, can we know for sure both exist? These questions are far from being resolved, however a naturalist would argue that the mental is caused by the physical, or perhaps “faked” by physics as Rosenberg (2013) puts it. But still, we cannot that easily dismiss consciousness, something even creatures appears to have although to a lesser extent. Humans still not only think and feel as a foundation for their own actions, they also are aware that others do the same.

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Then which level of consciousness, self-conceptualization, does one need to have in order to be human? If it is a higher level of intelligence, as argued by Roth and Dicke (2005), then which level of intelligence, since there seems to be individual variations? And turning it around, can there be certain traits that we can loose and still be human? There is also a moral dimension to humanity, where the deontological approach seems to be the dominant in society in that every human has certain fundamental rights and value, which are superior to others. These rights are increasingly being applied also to animals leading to veganism and animal rights-movements. It becomes clear that defining exactly what it means to be human is complex and that it looks to go beyond what it means on a natural level. Naturalistic method seems to be incapable in answering these questions, despite its capability in answering such complicated matters as the Higgs boson holding the world together. But why not give the naturalists the benefit of the doubt, perhaps neuroscience is the Holy Grail in answering these questions, and will be able to do so in the future.

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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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Philosophy of Science

Part II: The ghost of naturalism

If the ontology of naturalists implies that there is only a natural world and science is the best way to find out about it, the philosopher should want to question what this “natural world” is. If it is merely made up by bosons and fermions, then we would only need physics to find out about it. But that reasoning seems too simple, since the naturalist argue the importance of all hard sciences, including chemistry and biology. We might then have to define the natural world as what scientific method discovers. However such an argument seems empty and the idea of naturalism being based on a robust foundation appears to wobble.

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But if we reason that the anti-naturalists won’t have a clearer answer for such an onerous question, maybe we shouldn’t hold it against them and instead look at naturalistic epistemology. Is a unification of science really as simple as the naturalists make it out to be? The argument is that the only way of certifying knowledge is by using a single general method: formulating theoretical hypotheses and testing their predictions by systematic observation and controlled behaviour. It seems an accomplishment to be able to apply one single method to all the world’s possible objects, creatures, humans and the societies made up by them. Unfortunately sociology, psychology, nor history would have a place, something the naturalists might not have a problem with since they could still value them, just not see them as knowledge. Perhaps there is a way of understanding how physics might better explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than history, and chemistry could perhaps more accurately explain the latest financial crisis than economics and sociologists, but what about the heart of natural sciences –mathematics?

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Is mathematical proof as a route to science then also false, not scientific as well as the social domain? Even the naturalists should agree that it would be a flat natural science without math. But say we let the naturalists off the hook, perhaps they can one day show what numbers are and how we can have the certainty about them that math reveals. Let us instead turn our focus on the domain of social science.

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Philosophy of Science

Part I: What is science and why do we need it?

In order to answer the running question if the social sciences really are scientific, we need to understand what science is. The Oxford dictionary (2013) defines it as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”. If we interpret the physical and natural world as the natural sciences, then the headlining question has been resolved. But a large part of the social science world evidently disagrees (se among others Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2009; Fay, 1996), and so the question is not one about semantics but about epistemology as indicated in the introduction. How can we understand naturalism and its outlook?

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The naturalists have a very good argument for their approach, in that scientific knowledge must be certified by causal explanation and ability of prediction. It is a way of showing that what we know is a cause and not accidental, not based on subjective feelings or emotions but really open for others to test and certify themselves. If we were to let go of this certification then everything could be argued as knowledge, there would be nothing to base the claim of knowledge on.

It would entail that all possible interests and agendas could claim their view, perspective, statement, texts was knowledge, for instance journalism could be knowledge. If everything is knowledge, then knowledge is nothing, and science has no value. Well then what is the purpose of science, why do we need it? A world without science would no doubt lead down this just described path, of questioning what we know for a fact, leaving the individual disoriented and surely quite cynic. What would pass for knowledge would be views imposed on people by the winners writing the history, and those strong in political, economic power. What would society and its individuals base their beliefs and opinions on? How would you solve political issues if you have no other guidance than diverging feelings?

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In the end, it would be hard to argue anything but subjective emotions and interests, and could lead to a world where you end up quiet about the persistent social issues and go into a self-absorption since there is not much to learn from others than that they have feelings too. This is a dark picture of the world, but one we can be salvaged from with the help of naturalists, one could argue.

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