Science or Science?


There exists within our culture an artificial controversy—a shamtroversy—whose origins are philosophical. I am talking about the conflict between a scientific and unscientific or mystical view of human nature.

To understand this conflict one must know something about the two prominent conceptions of knowledge in most of Western thought, rationalism and empiricism. Briefly stated (indeed), rationalism has it that all knowledge must rest ultimately on purely rational principles, formal axioms, which do not refer to reality. Empiricism, in turn, is the view that knowledge must rest, ultimately, on experience and the kind of experience, more specifically, which one obtains by the exclusive use of the senses. Here no recourse to principles of reason is allowable.

In our encounter with the world and society these two views emerge in the well-known conflict between good but impracticable theories and firm but unexplainable experiences. Virtually all fields of knowledge embody elements of this conflict. In our daily lives we meet with it constantly. And to respond in such contexts is virtually impossible, since the conflict is frequently so entrenched within the thinking people do (or do not do) that one would require ages—not to mention extremely attentive and cooperative interlocutors—to resolve it.

There is, however, an important area or region of human life within which progress is more likely than not. This is the university circuit. Since it is at least the nominal commitment of intellectuals, educators and scientists to consider views which, if nothing else, pretend to reasoned exposition, the likelihood exists that interlocutors on campuses across the country will engage in the reexamination of the conflict. This does not mean that the conflict itself will be settled. What is more likely is that those whom one addresses will go away somewhat disturbed about the prevailing dogma.

Consider, for instance, the main attraction of B.F. Skinner's BEYOND FREEDOM AND DIGNITY. In no respect is it a good book. That much has been shown by all sorts of reviewers, ranging from Rand to Chomsky. What makes the book appeal is its unabashed announcement that its subject matter is being dealt with from within a scientific instead of mystical perspective. The pretensions to such naturalism—viewing man as part of the natural world—can make any doctrine appealing by the hope it offers. After all, science has done a lot. With technology to follow, science has given rise to some of the most cherished goods of people. Skinner promises just that, applied psychological science—and what could be more promising to a culture firmly grounded in pragmatism, in what promises to work, even if only "somehow."

Yet Skinner's work is no more than pretension; it succeeds only in view of the vacuum within which it emerges. I have in mind the most prominent absence of any scientific methodology other than the slip-shod empiricism we inherited from David Hume and buttressed up with a bit of Immanuel Kant—namely logical positivism. This latter view combined two important but basically irrational doctrines; first, the world is chaotic—to the best of our possible knowledge of it—and second, reasoning, logic, theory is at best a product of inborn mental structures and at worst arbitrary impositions (see my article on the A Priori in REASON, Vol. 2, No. 4, December 1969).

Now most of the sciences, including and especially the social sciences, employ the edicts of this outlook to determine what they will accept as meaningful statements, hypotheses, theories or predictions.

It is immediately obvious that if what is construed as possibly meaningful is restricted to what may be asserted with the prospects of sensory verification within the framework of arbitrary theoretical constructs, reality becomes only accidentally related to methodology.

All this does not mean that all of the sciences produce false conclusions—only that most of them do, especially the social sciences, i.e., sciences relating to human action. (The physical sciences are less affected by this due to such factors as simplicity, controllability and a long history of accountability to the applicable. Moreover, physics tends to serve as an example upon which other fields of study, including their methods of inquiry, are modelled. This reductionism is effectively criticized in its relationship to biology by Dr. Robert Efron in "Biology without Consciousness" in PERSPECTIVES IN BIOLOGY AND MEDICINE, Autumn 1967.) What it means is that the criterion of what is a scientifically respectable statement will be seriously distorted. Standards from within one field are applied to statements within another which leads to important and sometimes very consequential statements being dismissed.

The most important thing to do is, of course, to go to work and formulate the appropriate standards for a given field of inquiry. This is a slow process. But it will be slowed down enormously if the reductionistic approach is allowed to inhibit progress.

The suggestion I want to make to those concerned with this issue is that considerable intellectual effort be invested in both, countering the reductionistic thesis advanced by most of the scientist/aspirant-philosophers and formulating the appropriate standards of meaningfulness (for determining truth and falsity) within the various realms of the study of reality. And this must begin by the employment of a contextualist epistemology. Rand, no doubt, has done an immense job of laying out the principles of concept formation, the basic stuff of ascertaining similarities and distinctions in reality. A more general approach is offered by D.W. Hamlyn in THE THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE (Anchor Books, 1970), the best book of its kind to emerge in several decades.

The point is, those who work within the educational/intellectual community would, I believe, facilitate the progress of a rational approach to the social/human sciences by making use of their knowledge of these and other works in an effort to render mechanistic, positivist scientific methodology less pretentious and the philosophy of science more rational.

One final note. Among philosophers the importance of reexamining the philosophy of science has emerged. But contemporary philosophy is meek. Its identification of knowledge with dogma was inherited from Russell and his followers. It is unlikely that many philosophers will submerge themselves in intellectual battles—although some will, witness Chomsky (MIT) and Cavell (Harvard). So while such books as A.R. Louch's EXPLANATION AND HUMAN ACTION have undertaken the challenge, most still prefer the undue caution of detached, uncommitted philosophical nitpicking.

Neither is it without risk to undertake this kind of fight. So anyone who is willing must be careful not to get himself alienated from those with whom the greatest progress can be made. Remember that a revolutionary, a real one, does need to show the goods he has to offer before he can pretend to overturn the status quo. Most, unfortunately, fail in this respect dismally.