An Essay in the Philosophy of Social Science
1. A predictive capability is not necessary to a science. For example, the classification of plants and animals introduced by Carolus Linneaus in 1735 was purely descriptive yet still a science because it brought order into the observed phenomena and was widely regarded as doing so. Whether his classification corresponded to "reality" was less important than the fact that those who used his classification in their observation of plants and animals believed that they understood the phenomena better for doing so, and this belief has not been invalidated since then.
2. As shown by Imre Lakatos in his work in the 1960s in the philosophy of mathematics.
3. There is a related sense of "objectivity" pertaining to the attitude of a scientist to his or her work. A scientist who is "objective" is neutral concerning the results to which his or her enquiries will lead, and follows his investigations wherever they lead. He does not begin with preconceived ideas as to what results he intends to arrive at. For example, a person with racist prejudices who sets out to show that IQ test scores demonstrate the intellectual inferiority of black people is not being objective. Also a person who criticised those results on the basis of a belief that one ethnic group should never be shown to be inferior to another also would not be objective in his evaluation.
4. Society is normally considered to consist of human individuals, but the term as defined above may apply to other kinds of assemblies of individuals, e.g., ants, bees, etc. Thus we can speak non-metaphorically of a termite society, although the study of such a society is not normally considered as part of social science but as part of biological science. There may also exist societies of advanced non-human forms of life. However, in this essay, we shall confine our attention to human societies.
5. A crystal is an assembly of atoms; an animal is an assembly of cells. A physicist or a zoologist describes and attempts to explain aspects of crystals and animals as if atoms and cells were totally lacking in autonomy and awareness (as, indeed, is generally believed to be the case). A social scientist attempting to describe social phenomena in this way would in effect be describing the interactions of robots or automata acting mechanically. This could at best be regarded as a (somewhat artificial) intellectual exercise, rather like a strict behaviourist's attemping to describe and explain humans as if they were machines, with no awareness. It is, rather, an essential part of the idea of human society that the individuals within a society are aware of it to some extent, and act within it with some degree of freedom.
6. In quantum mechanics this assumption is untenable because at the quantum level what is measured is either a product of, or greatly influenced by, the process of measurement.
7. Those who espouse "new age" beliefs are fond of saying "You create your own reality" (as if this were some profound insight). This is false because "reality" is not "reality" unless more than one person agrees regarding what qualities it possesses, so there is no such thing as "one's own reality" (different from that of others). If I see dancing elves I may be hallucinating. If I and my friend both see them then maybe we are having a common hallucination. But if I, my friend and half-a-dozen others see them then they begin to qualify as "real", unless it can be shown that we are all being deceived in some way. If dancing elves appear all over the place, and this happens everyday, then anyone who denies they are real is likely to be considered insane.
8. Yet one has to wonder whether this training is such as to suppress the ability to perceive and to think about natural phenomena other than as stated in the textbooks. Might there be a scientific "orthodoxy", maintained by the exclusion of any would-be scientist who dared to challenge its dogmas (this being accomplished by the denial of academic degrees, the ridicule of other scientists and, especially, the denial of funding for research)?
9. However we may note in passing that this tendency to reify an overarching aspect of society can sometimes be done with some plausibility, as exemplified by a book by Alan J. Schwartz [Sch]. In the Preface to this book we read: "This book warns of how an energy system greater than the individual, a Greater System, has come into existence and threatens our freedom and the energy of our spirit. This Greater System was created and is nourished by greed. — Awareness of its power and being able to struggle against it is our hope for the future. — [In Part 2 of the book] we meet the Greater System, my identifying name for a death force that we have created from the aggregation of greed. It is a force that rules all of us, which actually recreates our personalities."
10. To the extent that we, his readers, know the world from our own experience and can think and imagine, we can understand Weber's description of the world as seen by people in societies other than our own and in our own society in the past.
11. All quotations of Weber in this essay are from this book, [Web].
12. This is not a question of interest only to historians, since we (Westerners) live in an "advanced" capitalist society, and the consequences of advanced capitalism shape and restrict our lives. Thus an understanding of how modern capitalism arose contributes significantly to our understanding of ourselves, including an understanding of the limitations placed upon our freedom.
13. This view, however, ignores an alternative interpretation of predestination, according to which the elect may behave in any way they wish, since whatever they do cannot change the fact that they are saved. According to some Gnostics of the early Christian centuries the person who has attained salvation may do as he wishes, in fact, may even be expected to do so as a sign of freedom from all worldly constraints. This "libertine" tradition was continued in the Middle Ages by such sects as the Brethren of the Free Spirit, and in 17th Century England by the Ranters, as documented in [Coh].