Science and the Baha’i concept of “True Religion” (Part 2.1)

Image

To read Part 1 of this series, click here.

To read Part 2.0 of this series, click here.

More on the demarcation problem…

I just wanted to make another comment on the demarcation of science and non-science before moving on. I work in a field (Experimental Psychology) that is often criticized for not being a true “science.” In fact, one of the greatest scientific thinkers of our time, Richard Feynman, dismisses the social sciences (see full video here) by saying, “Social science is an example of a science that is not a science.”

Now, remember that my argument for what makes a question or theory scientific is the degree to which it is falsifiable. Can we prove it wrong through observation, measurement, and experimentation? Furthermore, can these tests be replicated by other researchers to get the same, or different, results? According to these criteria, the demarcation between science and non-science is rather simple.

Feynman follows his comment about the social sciences with “…they don’t get any laws, they haven’t found out anything.” This, I believe, is a very misleading comment and (although I love the man) I’m rather disappointed that he made such a comment.

I think where the problem lies is how some choose to demarcate science from non-science. Instead of using the criteria I’ve outlined above, some scientists use “causal inference” as their reference point for what makes something scientific. Basically, causal inference is when we draw conclusions about a causal relationship (A causes B) where an effect (A) occurs. If we determine that this relationship is universal and fundamentally true through empirical evidence, then we can define a law. For example, the observation of an apple falling from a tree leads to the question “why does it fall?” This question leads to the hypothesis, “because there is a natural force pulling it down.” Then after decades of experimentation and peer-review we discover the laws of gravitation and relativity. These laws, in turn, explain why the apple falls to the ground, i.e., we can infer that the basic law causes the movement of the apple. For some scientists, the degree to which a field can explain phenomena through cause-effect relationships determines how scientific it is.

But what fundamental, universal laws govern human behaviour, rational decision-making, and social interactions? Are we to believe that since these phenomena are incredibly complex that we can’t study them through scientific methods? We can’t ask questions and develop testable theories?

Another comment that Feynman makes in the same interview regarding the social sciences is, “they haven’t got anywhere, yet. Maybe some day they will…” Does this imply that we should dismiss an area of inquiry as unscientific because it hasn’t “yet” contributed any laws to explain phenomena in the universe? Do we dismiss the efforts of the early natural philosophers and alchemists as pseudoscience simply because they had not yet discovered the Law of Thermodynamics or Henry’s Law? It seems to me that these early scientists were discovering associations between phenomena, which we could later explain with higher degrees of precision. Similarly, the social sciences are still at an early stage of development where they’re mostly describing associations between things.

In summary, I would counter Feynman’s comments by stating that what he’s talking about is the difference between experimental and non-experimental designs. I won’t get into describing the difference between the two, but basically the former allows for greater causal inference whereas the latter does not, and the social sciences employ a lot of non-experimental approaches.

Sorry, Feynman – we have to start somewhere.

To be continued…

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Science and the Baha’i concept of “True Religion” (Part 2.1)

  1. Another interesting post.

    Something that’s interesting to me that Feynman says in the video — social sciences may one day, eventually become more scientific. I think historically most sciences have gone through a period of a non-consensus over a set of core assumptions and rules by which we ought to generate conjecture in a given field. I’m somewhat unsure of what this looks like in psychology, but in so far as sociology, anthropology, political science, economics is concerned there seems to be multiplicity of competing explanatory models or paradigms (Marxism, structuralism, post-structuralism, liberalism, realism, social constructivism, behavioralism, ideationalism, historicism, rational-choice theory, critical theory, functionalism, interactionism, feminist critiques of all of the above, and so on…). These accuse each other of various flaws, related their explanatory power, objectivity, normative interest-base, methodology, core philosophic assumptions, etc.

    I think a further problem exists where we’re attempting to understand social reality. Social reality is something observer created (by the minds of people, who include the ‘scientists’ that are trying to understand it), yet observer independent, but at the same time influenced by the observer to the extent that no other object of scientific enquiry is. It may change by virtue of the theories we make about how it functions. For example to say human beings are “self-interested and rational” as would a rational choice theorist — this could in itself function as a normative justification for shaping society in a particular way, which after being shaped that way, confirms the seeming objective statement that we’ve made about the nature of human beings.

    If we accept that science is something like an epistemic community, which generally has consensus on what we call false, non-false, and true, and that has negotiated what collectively the community formally knows and doesn’t know, and that this general consensus takes a lot time — I think its very reasonable to say that most social sciences are in a somewhat pre-scientific phase, having not met this criteria. Pre-Aristotelian physics I think had something of the taste of what social sciences look like today — various competing claims on the basis of very different metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, before some kind of consensus (which I believe was initiated under Aristotle) that physics could be something unified, systematic, productive, continuous, etc. To say that falsifiability is the true demarcation of science, I think runs into a number of problems — is what we accept as science really just demarcated by theory that extends forth its neck in a kind of Popperian-falsificational bravery. Or is it more nuanced than that — what is the process by which scientists actually concluded in a kind of consensus that a certain theory is indeed false — does that process occur by purely rational calculations or is there more involved…..

    Anyways just a few thoughts that were sparked by this. Looking forward to reading more.

    1. Again, thank you so much for commenting Aaron. I particularly appreciate your comments about falsification as a demarcation. Without complicating it too much, or prolonging the point since we are far from consensus on this issue, I think we need to somehow define the parameters of the scientific method otherwise it becomes very difficult to diffuse the current debates surrounding reliable vs. non-reliable evidence/findings/information. I’m not talking about philosophical/theological truths that pose the question “what is truth, really?” I’m more concerned with the Dr. who prescribes medicine or treatment that could harm rather than heal, or the psychologist who argues for the supremacy of one race over the other. In this regard, we need to define some parameters.

      The scientific method has many elements, which are used in different degrees and ways by many fields in academia. However, the one principle that applies to all science is that which says “as long as your questions, theories, and hypotheses can be tested, critiqued, challenged, and refuted for the purpose of falsification, than you’re engaged in the scientific method.” On the other hand, if you say that “my theory is true irregardless of evidence suggesting otherwise,” than we’re no longer engaged in science, but this doesn’t mean that this claim should be dismissed. For example, the existence of God is often presented as a case of the latter. I won’t go any farther on this here, but in future posts I’ll discuss alternative approaches to understanding reality, the complexity of sapience and the interaction of conscious life, and the need for “True” religion as a source of guidance for this metaphysical complexity.

      I hope you keep reading and keep commenting on my posts. As I mentioned in my first post, this is all an exploration for me. Just trying to get my thoughts down on paper, so that I can offer them to the greater discourse for review and refinement.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s