Philosophy of Science

Part VIII: Conclusion – Are the Social Sciences Sciences?

A world without science would be filled with cynical, self-absorbed humans, disoriented in the social sphere. Nevertheless, naturalistic method applied to the social sciences will not be able to give full explanations of what it means to be human or the reflexive ability humans have, taking part of the scientific research in comparison to an object that does not have such a capability. Causal explanations fall flat when taking on intent, and natural selection does not cover the social forces shaping human behaviour. Naturalistic form of explaining does not cover a contextual and social dimension, and without this ability we are not able to fully understand and so cannot call it knowledge about human behavior. The concept of science must then be widened to include context and thought-processes behind actions, whereas the Aristotelian three-folded definition of science or concept of phronesis, are two of the suggested approaches.

In history, we have seen how old and new elites struggle over power, as are the naturalists in the scientific sphere, trying to hold on to their right to the concept of science. Still, this is not in favor of a powerful science, which needs creativity and challenge to stay relevant to humans and society of whom without it seizes to exist.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

Urban Sketch - Belle Is013

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.

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.

maps illustration

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.


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).

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.


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?

NY street illustration

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.

Philosophy of Science

Intro: Are the Social Sciences sciences?

The headlining question is a leading one in that the formulation surely implies that social sciences are not, why else ask such a thing? It is not the first time it has been asked and it will not be the last, for it stems from a long-running debate in the history of philosophy of science. Why then would such a leading question be formed? It is rooted in an epistemological deadlock for social science between naturalists’ theory of knowledge being based on natural scientific method, versus the anti-naturalists or interpretavists’ theory of knowledge based on intelligibility and it means being interpretation (Rosenberg, 2008).

Natural science

Despite the strong argument for natural scientific method being the benchmark for science, thus forcing the social sciences to adapt it or to rid the name of science, coming posts will argue that the social sciences are in fact sciences by pointing out the limits of naturalistic epistemology and method applied to the social sciences, as well as arguing the need for widening the concept of science in including context and the thought-process behind.