Do we Need the Social Sciences?

There is a debate in philosophy of science about the status of “entities” like “churches”. Most of the philosophers agree on the fact that “churches” don’t really exist; that is, don’t really exist apart from the people that are part of a church. Just like a forest cannot exist apart from the trees being part of it. That’s pretty clear, right? The sum is merely a collection of its parts; “1 + 1 is always 2”. This is the ontological part of philosophy; the part of what exists out there in the world, with the position of “ontological individualism” winning the battle.

But there is a problem. Because if “churches” don’t really exist – in the sense I explained above – then they cannot have causal powers. After all, how can you cause something if you don’t exist? That’s impossible, right? But if that is true, a painful question arises: what then about sociology? Or what then about any social science dealing with entities like “churches”?  If these entities can’t cause anything, why then use them in “social laws” like, “If a group has the property of being a church, then its degree of solidarity will be higher than groups that do not have this property”? Then this “law” wouldn’t make sense, right? Unless, of course, it is not a causal relationship being “captured” in this ‘law”, but merely a correlation between the properties of “being a church” and “having a high degree of solidarity”. In this latter interpretation of “law” it can be true that members finding themselves to be “part of a church” have a relatively high degree of solidarity.  But then this would be merely an observation, right? Not a law representing the “causal nature of the universe”, right?

This is difficult issue for philosophers to crack. Since it is appears not to be easy to do without terms like “churches” in “social laws”; that is, if we would claim that “churches” don’t really exist and that the “laws” making use of the term “church” are not really laws, then we would have to come up with an alternative; an alternative posed in terms of individual properties instead of social properties like “being a church”, “being a football game” or “being an argument”. So how are we going to do this? Well, we could come up with a list consisting of all the “individual level properties” belonging to the social level property “being a church”. That list could look something like this: (1) the individuals share a building in which they pray, (2) the individuals believe in the same God…etc. etc. You get it? But then the problem would be that this list can go on forever! How could we ever put this in a law?! That’s impossible, right? And because this is impossible to do, it also becomes impossible, according to certain philosophers, to do away with social properties like “being a church” in social “laws”; after all, they claim, these social terms are needed to make sure that we don’t regress to those kinds of infinitely long lists.

The conclusion of this debate? Social laws are needed. Although churches might be composed of nothing more than individuals; it is conceptually impossible to reduce “social level entities” to “individual level entities”; where the former are used in sciences like sociology and the latter are used in sciences like psychology, neuroscience etc. Another implication of this observation is that it is impossible to do away with the social level sciences – like sociology – by reducing them to individual level sciences – like psychology. Therefore, our efforts to do so have failed miserably……although I seriously doubt the validity of this argument. But that’s something for another article.

But what do you think?

Written by Rob Graumans

One thought on “Do we Need the Social Sciences?

  1. Pingback: Why Physics is Not More Scientific than Economics | TheYoungSocrates

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *