Philosophy of Science

Part VII: Science 2.0

All scientific knowledge is based on a process that involves certain ways of thinking about the world, being interested in the environment and sensitive to topics relevant for study. The base for social scientific inquiry is philosophical reflection on what can and should be studied, systematic procedures in data collection and tentative interpretation carefully expressed and counter-argued. A meaningful and relevant science of the 21th century needs to include context and the thought-process behind as well as experience and experiment.

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An approach would be to use the Aristotelian three-folded definition of science, where naturalism would stem from a theoretical science meaning physics, metaphysics and mathematics, though missing the ethics and politics of practical science, as well as the rhetoric and art of poetical science. Aristotle’s definition allows for an epistemology where knowledge includes reasoning, context and moral: foundations for the study of human behaviour as explored above.

Adding to this is Flyvbjerg’s (2001) route which suggests that social science should look to the framework in the Aristotelian concept of phronesis, translated as practical wisdom or prudence. It goes beyond analytical knowledge, episteme, and technical know-how, techne, in that it is involved in social and political practice. Phronesis cannot be reduced to or comprehended by episteme or techne, which underwrites the weaknesses of naturalistic method applied to social sciences.

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Pointing to the absurdity of using intentional explanations of physical matters is not an argument against the social sciences being sciences. There are of course limits to the disciplines and their methods, and no serious social scientist would argue against such a claim: there are no beliefs and desires by a stone on the beach, or a swing in the playing ground. But that is not an argument against the social sciences, since these objects are not the subject matter, however human action is. There are as in the natural science limits to the appropriate epistemology and method, at times overlapping and at times not. A sound science will approach every inquiry with open and analytical eyes, not with prejudgment on method and results.

However in the end, any theory of knowledge should include the element that knowledge cannot be separated from the knower, in addition to data and facts being the constructions or results of interpretation. The fact that social sciences are able to study the natural sciences, their actions and why they work in certain ways, should benefit the natural disciplines and work.

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Science will always be a complex business, and today’s social science could appear more vulnerable to different interests since it is intertwined with subjective sense making. Therefor social scientists must be open to and reflect on the criticism, realizing that the naturalists make a strong case. However as seen above, when challenged with strong naturalistic arguments, the non-naturalists will need to take them on, find the problems, and formulate good reasons for why their approach still make the strongest case. In addition it would be beneficial for the naturalists not to repress the criticism on their approach to the study of human behavior. In the end, all the scrutiny of scientific method will be useful to social science, in that it will be challenged and thus continue to develop and be current, valuable and strong.

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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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