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Social Sciences and the Soul: How idealizations can (and can't) give facts

haksayngOct 2, 2018, 12:34:36 AM

The notion of the soul can be used to say quite a lot. Supposing each person has a soul, we easily arrive 'human rights'; having a soul is like having citizenship in the nation of Humanity. Language can likewise be described as a function of the soul. Just as  computers with different hardware may run the same software, we can conceive of language as a kind of software protocol or code transmitted between souls.

Most people at universities these days, however, are averse to talking about souls. Or, if they do, they make it clear that they are speaking metaphorically, invoking the language of the super-natural for literary flare. The soul, the Fedora-tipping atheist maintains, is fiction. Religion is the opiate for the masses. Etc. Etc. *takes sip of diet coke*

"GIVE ME THE FACTS!" cry the angry materialists [2]. These are the same people that believe they can socially engineer utopia, asserting they are right using consequentialist 'arguments' (and prolific handwaving). They may claim that 'Democratic Socialism' is different from socialism, without defining what either mean.

The school of life

This past summer, I taught a linguistics class [1]. It was an upper-division class, so it was attended mostly by linguistics majors.

I compared the way some social scientists (in this case, linguists) explain things to soul-based explanations. This irritated some students.

Will there be questions about SOULS on the final?

*Scoff scoff* go the 'fact' oriented students.

I could tell that many of my students appreciated my (1) respect for religion and more traditional explanations and (2) the willingness to question 'established' findings in my field. Yet others seemed quite offended by what I consider to be only a very small dose of academic red pills. 

Look bucko, you can't just read 'non-fiction' books and understand reality by parroting the shit-shooting of so-called pundits.

(I didn't actually say this, but you get the idea, I hope.)

Being committed to giving my students more than just lists of stuff to memorize, I was deeply disturbed to witness the shallowness and epistemological arrogance of many of my students. Are you really that certain that there are easy facts ready for the memorizing in social science textbooks?

Reflecting on my own experience plunging into the social sciences head first humbled me. I had taken on faith that what I was being told was just as much 'fact' as gravity, syntax of the C programming language, evolution, and everything in between.

What is it that separates 'facts' from mere academic rambling only studied by other academics?


The late Roy Harris (1990: 36-37), a highly underrated scholar, summarizes what idealizations are in the quote below [3]:

Broadly speaking, two different types of intellectual idealization may be distinguished. In the exact sciences, and also in applied sciences such as architecture and economics, idealizations play an important role in processes of calculation. Any such idealization which was in practice found to be misleading or ineffectual when put to the test by being used as a basis for calculation would very soon be abandoned. In the humanities, by contrast, idealization plays an entirely different role. The ideal monarch, the ideal state, and the ideal mother are abstractions not set up in order to be used as a basis for calculation, but as prescriptive stereotypes on which to focus the discussion of controversial issues concerning how human beings should conduct themselves and how human affairs should be managed.

Harris (1990) makes a distinction between idealizations as they are used in the sciences and as they are used in the humanities. In the sciences, idealizations MUST have predictive value, or they are flushed down the toilet. Engineers don't waste their times learning overly theoretical frameworks that can't be applied to the glorious art of making awesome stuff.

On the other hand, idealizations in the humanities are made so we can talk about stuff. What does it take to make a good person? A benevolent government (or, are governments inherently immoral)?

Idealizations in the humanities aren't the same as idealizations in the sciences. This doesn't mean they are useless; they just aren't 'factual' in the same way. We don't burn great novels and delete good music because these things aren't non-fiction.

Social sciences, the bastard child

Harris (1990) continues, criticizing certain concepts created by linguists:

But the ideal speech community, the ideal language, and the ideal speaker-hearer turn out to be neither one thing nor the other. They are neither abstractions to which items and processes in the real world may be regarded as approximating for purposes of calculation; nor are they models held up for purposes of exemplification or emulation. In fact they are, more mundanely, steps in a process of explanation; and as such subject to the usual criticisms which explanatory moves may incur (including, for instance, that they fail to explain what they purport to explain).

The 'ideal speech community', 'the ideal language', and the 'ideal speaker-hearer' are concepts in linguistics. The specifics of what are meant by these terms isn't important for this discussion. What is important is to consider how constructs such as these fit into the scientific vs humanistic idealization paradigm.

Do concepts in the social sciences map to reality and permit us to make more accurate predictions than we otherwise would be able to make? Or, do they aid us in discussing prescriptive norms, i.e. what people should do?

Suppose they don't do either of these jobs. One bleak alternative is that many concepts in the social sciences are mere theoretical chaff, providing no improvement over 'traditional' explanations (such as those that can be found in art and literature) while being simultaneously more boring and enraging to study.

Hundreds of thousands of students around the world spend millions of hours uncritically studying these things.

The language of facts, the facts of language

What is good literature should be called as such. What is good science should be called as such. What is neither good literature nor good science should likewise be called as such.

The notion of the soul is quite useful for prescribing humanitarian norms. We should recognize the dignity of individuals; individuals have souls. The soul is a useful concept which I believe will endure as long as the human race continues.

However, scientifically (in the sense of empirical tests), there is little to say about 'the soul'.

Failure to distinguish between testable claims about reality (e.g. scientific facts) and interesting interpretations of reality is the root of frustration about facts about all things human. There is nothing wrong with making prescriptive claims (e.g. people should act like this) nor is there anything wrong with making descriptive claims about how people act. What is wrong is to confound these things and then push 'facts' on malleable young minds paying thousands of dollars each academic quarter for the chance at a better life.

Austrian Economic thoughts for non-robots

Notes and references

[1] See my blog posts "Class participation, nap time, and power" (08/07/2018), "How do you lecture for two hours straight? (you don't)" (08/07/2018) and "The parable of the underwater basket weaver" (08/09/2018) for more thoughts on formal education and teaching.

[2] For more on "fact dispensers", see my blog post "Dispenser of THE FACTS" (07/24/2018)

[3] Harris, Roy. Language, Saussure and Wittgenstein: How to play games with words. Psychology Press, 1990.