Sunday, October 24, 2010

The unity of science

I have always disliked the idea that there is some kind of dividing line between the human sciences and the so-called 'hard sciences' like physics and chemistry. In the 1920s and 1930s the thinkers of the Vienna Circle pursued the 'unity of science' ideal, sensing in the division between the human and other sciences traces of a dualism of mind and matter.

But the unity of science project was strenuously resisted, and attempts (often rather crude) to apply the methods of quantitative science to human questions were - and still are - attacked as 'scientism'. Even the scientifically-minded thinker and  economist Friedrich von Hayek used the term 'scientism' to describe what he saw as misguided attempts to turn economics into a science like classical physics.

But (and I take my cue here from Nassim Nicholas Taleb) Hayek and others who maintain "a hard and qualitative distinction between the social sciences and physics" * are working with an outmoded notion of physics.

The 'hard sciences', we now know, go well beyond the traditional engineering-oriented mentality and the approaches of classical physics - they are far more complicated and shot through with predictive uncertainties (randomness) than was appreciated in the past.

So the idea of the unity of science is given a new lease of life as the nature of science (and reality) is better understood.

Furthermore, socialistic notions of central planning - once claimed to be 'scientific' - are clearly exposed as being based on an inadequate view of science; while the conservative's traditional skepticism about government action and awareness of the dangers of unintended consequences is given (rather belated) scientific support and vindication.

* The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable (Penguin, 2008), p. 181.


  1. I have two viewpoints on this.

    One: I think there's a basic distinction between the explanatory and the normative. Science, social science, and psychology fall into the explanatory basket. Epistemology, ethics and any evaluative disciplines fall into the normative basket. Some might put metaphysics into the explanatory category, but I doubt that philosophy can be an explanatory discipline, since explanation depends on how the world is contingently, and not on our conceptualisation of it.

    Two: I also find helpful Phil Cam's "question quadrant" approach, which divides our thinking into four categories: closed textual; open textual; closed intellectual; and open intellectual. Philosophy is in the fourth quadrant. Googling QQ will explain it more fully.

  2. I should point out that Alan is continuing here a long discussion attached to an August post (The ghost in the machine). The issues are getting a bit complicated, and I will take a day or two before I respond ...

  3. Alan, I have some reservations about the normative basket. First of all, the normativity of ethics seems to me very different from the normativity involved in epistemology or logic (assessing, say, scientific claims to knowledge or the validity of an argument), but I admit I haven't thought a lot about this. And I am very skeptical about the possibility of being an expert in the normative. (See the post I will shortly put up.)