Conversations with Dan: social vs natural science

nature of scienceHere is another of my occasional conversations with my friend and colleague Dan Kaufman, this time on the nature of explanation in social vs natural science (i.e., psychology, sociology and economics on one side; biology, chemistry, physics and the like on the other).

We begin by discussing what constitutes an explanation in the natural sciences, and the role causality plays in it. We then look for (and, in my mind, do not find) categorical differences between social and natural sciences — which of course does not mean that there are no interesting differences at all.

The conversations moves to the divergence, if any, between biological and social explanations of human behaviors, and we agree that there are, in fact, some significant differences to be fleshed out.

Dan brings up what he refers to as the distinct “narratives” of the social vs physical sciences, which leads us to talk about whether the social sciences are in the business of explaining or interpreting human behavior (I argue both).

The last part of the video deals with a bit of general philosophy of science, as we question the necessity of “laws” (whatever they are) in natural science, and talk about why the social (and, indeed, the biological) sciences will likely never discover laws in anything like the physical sense of the term.


41 thoughts on “Conversations with Dan: social vs natural science

  1. Robin Herbert

    Actually philosophers have a number of meanings for “reductionism” and the usually specify which.

    Using the term “special sciences” does not commit one to the proposition that a framework devised by some philosopher in the past applies to anything at all. It really doesn’t.

    Having settled that, can you name any philosophers who have made the claim that fundamental physics is closed under the scheme suggested by Nagel?

    Bear in mind that Fodor’s paper brought even the concept of that kind of reductionism into question.

    Now, as for my alleged confusion, help me out here.

    I have always been upfront that I have no idea what you mean when you say “Supervenience Physicalism”. Weinberg’s statement I quoted above, on the other hand, seems perfectly clear.

    So can you confirm that the Weinberg definition above is what you mean by “Supervenience Physicalism”?


  2. Robin Herbert

    I think that it is reasonable to say that the statement “A does not reduce to B” does not contain any implication or claim about what the elements of B might reduce to.

    And also, in the physical sciences, it seems to me that the statement “A explains B” implies that there must be, at least in principle, some statement of that explanation.


  3. Robin Herbert

    And let me say again, that it makes no sense to claim that the mere use of the term “special sciences” commits someone to the proposition that a certain area of science is closed under a framework proposed by some philosopher in the 1960’s


  4. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    I have always been upfront that I have no idea what you mean when you say “Supervenience Physicalism”.

    Supervenience is the doctrine that if one exactly replicated a complete lower-level account of an ensemble, then the higher-level properties would be entailed.

    Or one can state it: no high-level difference without a lower-level difference.

    (Though there’s a caveat about quantum indeterminacy about both of those.)

    That ontological thesis leads to the doctrine that descriptions in terms of higher-level properties must be entirely consistent with descriptions in terms of lower-level properties.

    That is a hugely powerful and essential tool of science, unifying and tying different levels together. That is what Weinberg is talking about and that is what physicists mean by “reductionism”.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Philosopher Eric

    I suspect that the intellect needed to comprehend this particular discussion, was extra steep for those who happen to be less familiar with Massimo and Daniel. The pace was fast, or of two people who seemed to comprehend the other’s points well before associated arguments were completed. For this reason their responses to each other seemed extra crisp and relevant. Though I may have become reasonably familiar with each professor over the past year, I can’t claim to have sufficiently kept up with this one. Regardless, I will take a separate path.

    My thought is that great advancements in epistemology, will not be earned through “smart discussions,” so much as through ways to simplify associated ideas. Shouldn’t a “clean up” be helpful today? Yes I think so. The following describes my own such plan:

    Observe that even though I am generally known as “Eric,” we needn’t get platonic about the “Eric” term itself. Similarly in our quest to simplify, let’s place classifications such as “science,” “philosophy,” “religion,” “art,” and so on, as humanly fabricated instruments that don’t otherwise exist. (Isn’t this “purge” already starting to feel good?)

    I believe that there is a single means by which we consciously figure things out. The theory is that we take what we think we know (evidence), and then use this to assess various ideas that we’re not so sure about (theory). As a given idea continues to stay consistent with what we think we know, it does tend to become more trusted. Thus in science, philosophy, religion, art, and so on, we take what we think we know, and use this to assess what we’re not so sure about.

    If validated, this theory should greatly simplify various complex questions raised here. (I should have time for responses Friday evening, by the way.)


  6. brodix

    “(Though there’s a caveat about quantum indeterminacy about both of those.)”

    aka, fuzziness. Like the peak of a wave, a point of contact (as in electric discharge, as how touch screens work, being treated as a real object).

    Which might explain why its only there, if we measure/make contact with it, but it has to be somewhere, aka, “the field.”



  7. brodix


    That is very much how it works, but consider the bias, in that these nodes of meaning become much more conceptually important than the networks which give rise to them and from which we have consequently isolated them.

    Then when we try to reverse engineer the reality, it becomes objects bouncing around, giving rise to the more complex reality.

    Essentially we have extracted the hard and stable structures, then treated them as foundational rather than equally emergent features. Sort of like boiling the flesh away from a body and treating the resulting skeleton as though it is the foundational seed from which everything else, including social relations, sprang.


  8. brodix

    Math even goes to far as to treat these descriptive models, statistics,etc as foundational and we get back to platonism.


  9. brodix

    In two thousand years, we have gone from the theory of atoms, to reality as digital quanta.

    Maybe time to consider a network, context theory as equally foundational.

    The hologram, not just bits of matter.


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