Re-thinking the foundations of social sciences

Published: June 1, 2015
The writer is vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics

The writer is vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics

In the March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman writes about the extreme corruption in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church in the 16th century as among the “most consequential (events) in European history.” This led to the Catholic-Protestant split, ruthless inter-religious wars and persecution, and the eventual emergence of secular thought in opposition to religion. One of the goals of secular thinkers was to discredit religious thought, and replace it by science as the sole producer of valid knowledge. Antipathy for religion was expressed eloquently by the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume as follows: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

In his zeal to burn religious books, Hume did not notice that his own statement, like many others in his influential books of philosophy, did not contain any abstract, experimental or quantitative reasoning. Applying this metaphysical statement to itself would lead us to commit it to the flames. Regardless, the project of replacing religion by science was pursued enthusiastically in Europe. This project reached an amazingly successful culmination in the philosophy of logical positivism, early in the 20th century. The rise and fall of logical positivism is among the most fascinating stories of the 20th century, and is also essential to understanding the methodology of social sciences today.

Following Hume, efforts were made to prove the superiority of science on the grounds that it was based on observables, which all could see and verify. Central concepts of religion, like God, life after death, angels, etc. are all unobservable. However, un-observables like gravity, neutrons, electromagnetic forces etc. are also central to scientific theories. Positivists proposed a solution to this problem which was eagerly accepted by all. They suggested that all unobservable ideas could be replaced by their observable implications. For example, the effect of gravity is to create elliptical orbits which are observable. So when we talk about gravity, what we really mean is that planets have elliptical orbits. If this idea is accepted, then we can say that science is solidly based on what we can touch and see, while religion relies on speculative conjectures about the unseen. Some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century engaged in a strenuous effort to eliminate all references to unobservable entities in scientific theories. Logical positivism had a spectacular crash when it became clear to all that this could not be done. Even ardent advocates like A J Ayer were eventually forced to admit this it was “all wrong”. Nonetheless, positivist ideas continue to rule the hearts and minds of the general public, and exercise a strong influence on contemporary social science theories.

The attempt to replace un-observables by observables was especially damaging to the social sciences. For example, behavioral psychologists attempted to eliminate the unobservable internal psyche of human beings from their theories. Removing free will, courage, and other unobservable qualities from the picture led B F Skinner to the conception of a human being as a robot, which could be programmed by stimulus response sequences. This misconception is reflected in the title of his fundamental book: Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Throughout the social sciences, application of positivism led to a very shallow understanding of human behaviour, and seriously mistaken theories. Economists today model human beings as homo economicus, who are driven by the single selfish motive of maximising their lifetime consumption. Studying the complexities of actual human behaviour allowed a small minority of behavioral economists to predict the global financial crisis of 2008, where conventional economics failed miserably. Over-simplified models of human beings and societies have led to defective theories which have led to a vast number of economic, political, social and environmental crises which we face today. Foundations of social sciences are still based on positivist ideas, and are in need of radical revision to create deeper understanding of human beings and societies.   

Published in The Express Tribune, June 1st,  2015.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • lancersboy
    Jun 1, 2015 - 6:28AM

    Religion can still deal with human nature and help social sciences as human nature has not changed much. Atila the Hun and Ganges Khan is replaced by Burmees Monks and ISIS or even NATO lead war machine. On the other hand,noble people of antiquity find their reflection in Mother Teresa and Edhi. Although science has given us goddies and changed the course of human progress,it remains deficient without religious thought.I agree with the author that we need a new paradigme to develop new models of social sciences.Darwinism is dead and Intelligent design the new mantra,but we dont want to utter the word God,thats cheating ourselves. If our limited vision cannot penetrate the unobservable or distant galaxies,how can such deficient science explain everything.Recommend

  • S. M. Naseem
    Jun 2, 2015 - 8:33AM

    In the interest of full disclosure and because of his belief in the dualistic nature of social sciences, the author’s strong affiliation with the Tableeghi Jamaat, a sectarian and bigoted group of Muslims, in whose favour he openly uses the resources of the institution he formally heads as a public servant, should have been underscored by the Express.

    It would have been far less objectionable, if these views were expressed from the platform of the Islamic Ideology Council, a body ostensibly created to provide suggestions for correctives to the secular functioning of the state and bring the latter into conformity with the teachings of Islam. The author’s claim that “Over-simplified models of human beings and societies have led to defective theories which have led to a vast number of economic, political, social and environmental crises which we face today.”, is only partly true. Most practitioners of economic science, regardless of their ideological persuasions, try to build models, both simplified and complex, of their perceptions of economic reality. The extent to which they succeed in doing so is, of course, debatable and the realism of their. The main difference in the two approaches is, however, that while the mainstream approach is a work in progress and subject to discussion, that represented by the author, is largely in regress and is making the world a more conflicted place than it could be, if the scientific approach was firmly pursued.

    It is about time that the serious task of promoting development economics and its application for the good of common men and women, for which it was established half a century ago, is handed to someone who has belief in its usefuness to the country. Or else the Institute be disbanded.Recommend

  • Pervez Tahir
    Jun 2, 2015 - 1:01PM

    @S. M. Naseem:
    Thank you Naseem Sb for calling a spade a spade. It’s time PIDE is rescued from evangelism. Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Jun 2, 2015 - 8:31PM

    Religion is static wheres science is not and evolving as the clinical research continues to explain the knowledge contained in scriptures. All knowledge emanates from the scriptures and this the author must know and comprehend. David Hume was a speculative philosopher indeed but never made it to the university and suffered from the decease that we pray that the author economist does not become the prey to.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Uzair
    Jun 8, 2015 - 4:21PM

    Awesome piece. Loved how the author disentangled the flawed theory of logical positivism. All of the atheistic (including neo-atheists) theories are purely speculative and are susceptible to counter-factual narratives. Well articulated piece!Recommend

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