Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Natural and the Social Sciences

BookTV aired a panel discussion tonight — "Panel Discussion on the Global Economy" — that took place on February 16, 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During that discussion George Soros said:
"The natural sciences deal with facts that unfold independently of the scientific statements that are made about them. The facts, therefore, serve as an independent criteria by which the truth or validity of the statements can be judged. And that is what has enabled natural science to produce such amazing results. By contrast, the facts that form the subject matter of the social sciences are produced by thinking participants, and these agents think very differently from natural scientists. They don't have an independent criteria by which they can judge the validity of their views. Therefore, they base their decisions, not on knowledge, but on an inherently imperfect understanding of the facts."
This clearly attributes Peirce's scientific or experimental method of fixing beliefs to the natural sciences, but denies that method to the social sciences. What's more, when it comes to the social sciences, the other methods of fixing beliefs don't look that good either. The method of authority would make it difficult to refer to the social sciences as "sciences," but the a priori method would also render that designation suspect.

Soros goes on to say:
"Economics, which became the most influential of the social sciences, sought to escape this inferior status by taking an axiomatic approach similar to Euclid's geometry. But where Euclid's axioms resembled reality very closely, the axioms of the official market hypotheses distorted reality quite substantially, because they eliminated the uncertainty caused by imperfect understanding."
using precisely the standard Friedman (my last post) was arguing against — trying to match the diagrammatic assumptions with reality — when it comes to economics. Peirce and pragmatism would not offer Soros much support in this regard either. Peirce doesn't rely on the analogy between experience and a diagram, between the relationships of our experience and the relationships being diagrammed, to substantiate a diagram. Diagrams, even Euclid's, are judged by means of their results, by how the consequences diagrammatically inferred play out in regard to subsequent kinds of experience. Paraphrasing one of my undergraduate philosophy professors: "You build railroads with the parallel postulate; you send men to the moon without it."

The operative phrase in Soros' distinction between the social sciences and the natural sciences is not "external facts" but rather "thinking participants." Human beings, as the 3-dimensional creators and users of diagrams, with minds that are themselves diagrams, inevitably chafe at the constraints of being rendered into the 2-dimensional indices and relationships of a single diagram. Such social sciences are, indeed, "inherently imperfect understanding[s]" of their subject matter.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if this is Soros' excuse for not contributing (thus far) to the Obama effort this time around. I think Peirce would have found some way to argue for the relevance of social sciences. He was certainly aware of the forces of greed.