Part 15: Science, Human Action, The Search for “Truth”, and Consequences

Thinking on the Potential Dangers of Science Myopia (Photo: Joao Silas, Unsplash.com)

Ah, You Don’t Believe We’re on the Eve of Destruction? (15/20)

© 2018, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.

Identifying valid methods of human thought in pursuit of life-sustaining human action through sensory perception, observation, reason, and logic is itself a science.

Built into the human mind is the structure and latent capability to identify causality, to value profitable outcomes, and to differentiate success and failure, profit and loss, pain and pleasure, guided by reason and logic.

These built-in capabilities provide the potential and set the stage for human discovery and are necessary for individual survival. They allow us to discover and recognize the utility of and need for peaceful cooperation to advance the development of socially beneficial production and trade to satisfy our needs and desires.

The reason that ideas such as the fundamentals of philosophy and discussion of their truth or falsity is important is that they ground our knowledge and our thinking in facts about the world, giving us confidence in the efficacy of our own thinking and ability to derive knowledge and take purposeful and successful goal directed action. The pursuit of truth requires clear thinking from the ground up, from the simplest perception to the highest abstract concept. Every link in the conceptual chain must be sound; none can be broken or untethered from its ultimate connection to sense perception for the conceptual chain to remain valid. It is important to recognize that if sense perception is purported to be invalid, so too must be concept formation.

There are times when so-called common-sense and opinions divorced from fact and logic and not properly validated as legitimate concepts rise to the level of being dangerous and life threatening if adopted or enacted on a large scale. We live in an age of anti-reason where many people repudiate the idea that there can be any sound basis for assessing the validity and truth of ideas pertaining to human action; where utterances about truth and falsity are a considered to be just a matter of subjective opinion, and where opinion is held to be derived from inexplicable emotion, and thus human emotions are held to be the uncontested, unexplainable and ineffable fountainhead of human action. Such emotionally based actions – which are all actions according to those who reject the validity of self-actuated human motives – are said to reside in infinite darkness and therefore are not under the control of the human mind.

Ensuring the validity of concepts in pursuit of truth is one of the most important roles of philosophy, and more specifically, the branch of philosophy known as epistemology.

Up until the 19thcentury, philosophy and other social sciences were considered to be sciences. Science was still considered to be any systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject and wasn’t defined by the specific method of discovery being applied, such as experimentation, observation, and reduction to mathematic measurement and symbolic representation. Science was the process of the seeking of knowledge by curious minds.

Not any more. The fallacy of scientistic prejudice (see Part 5, Hayek’s Fallacy of Scientistic Prejudice), rooted in the positivism of Auguste Comte and other leading and influential thinkers of the 19thand 20thcentury, has all but destroyed the human sciences, and certainly has been influential in stripping them of their scientific legitimacy.

The maxim of modern positivists is that science is measurement. As such, the output of positivistic science is always quantitative, never qualitative or normative, and therefore the world of the mind, which cannot be observed directly, yet on which human action depends, is held by modern science to lack truth-value with regards to reality. Human action is granted the status of an unexplainable cognitive illusion with no basis in fact. Because science can’t measure the processes of human consciousness, no “scientific” evidence can be put forth to prove its veridicality. That man is conscious and capable of acting is, for much of modern science, just a theory, just a concept, lacking valid experimental evidence and scientific proof.

This is what lies at the root of why so many scientists are professed skeptics and determinists with regards to human consciousness.

It is convenient when trying to hold to the need for only a single scientific method to deny that there is anything that doesn’t fit the paradigm of scientific monism. When you deny volitional consciousness in humans and their ability to make the choices that define human agency, you deny the need for scientific dualism. You deny the need for a second appropriate methodology to study human action as a real phenomenon of volitional consciousness, as postulated by Hayek, Mises, and others who reject the materialism/positivism/empiricism/determinism ideological axis.

Positivistic science seeks to apply the experimental methods of the natural sciences to the study of the problems of human action. The result is that the entire realm of purposeful human social interaction and the recognition that ideas subject to our own conscious control motivate our actions are no longer accepted as a valid concern within the realm of monistic science.

The full human experience embedded in the natural construct of the human mind to undertake action and seek ends is severed and discarded, leaving for legitimate scientific study only that which can be measured and quantified. Anything pertaining to purposeful, rational, individual human action is discarded as unsuitable and unworthy of scientific study; as an area in which there are no truths to be found.

The contention is that beyond science is mere opinion or perhaps mere human utterance and meaningless physical action, and it is the study of facts through experimental techniques to ascertain knowledge about causal relationships (including revealed brain functions) that is held to be the proper domain of science and “pragmatic” truth, not discoveries pertaining to teleological and motivating causes in the realm of human action.

A consequence of adherence to a positivistic and scientistic paradigm is the attempt to redefine and interpret human reality by quantitative methods. Whether rent control is an efficacious policy to help alleviate a shortage of rental units in comparison to an alternative method is dismissed as a meaningless question for science. Whether tariffs and trade wars are beneficial or harmful is similarly dismissed as an area inappropriate for scientific study or concern. Such inquiries are deemed to be part of the economic realm for which positivist science proclaims it has nothing to contribute, and therefore such concerns with human values are outside of its scope and not considered to be relevant questions of scientific interest.

What is considered to be science, however, are the results of a survey to determine the number of people for and against rent control because the results can be quantified and measured over time, even though the survey results provide no opportunity for science to indicate what motivates these ideas or to weigh in on the efficacy of such a policy with regards to the desired goal of producing housing.

This is an example of science applied to non-science to allegedly produce scientific findings and scientific truths. The concern about norms appears to disappear when scientists interpret their research findings in the form of recommendations, for example, about how to deal with climate change or how best to increase bicycle ridership in cities.

It takes considerable intellectual effort to avoid and evade the available epistemological evidence and reasoning that human thought, motives and actions defining the human sciences are different in kind from the appropriate methodology to study the world of non-conscious, non-teleological natural sciences. In fact, the former is required to discover and validate the latter. Scientific monism cannot stand alone as a valid tool of human discovery without a sound epistemological foundation grounded in the discovery and validation of the human sciences.

Modern positivistic and empirical science operating under the dogma and skepticism of modern nihilistic science and post-modernist ideology cannot validate and has no purpose for human thoughts, motives, and action. And that’s the problem.

At an existential level, without a valid philosophy guiding mankind’s choices and actions, the benefits we gain through the division of labor and peaceful cooperative production and trade will be undermined and destroyed. The rise and fall of civilizations and the economic and biological welfare of human beings depends on the valid ideas, concepts, principles and methods we have at our disposal to discover, validate, embrace, and follow.

If humans can seek truth and follow reality, we can flourish. If we deny the possibility of discovering truth, or deny that knowledge of reality is available to us in human form by purely human means endowed to us by the evolutionary mechanisms of nature, if we deny in the face of irrefutable evidence the efficacy of individual human thought and action to guide human survival and discover effective means to remove human uneasiness to replace it with something better and of higher value, then we will cease to successfully pursue such life affirming and enhancing ends.

If we fail to structure our social interactions and institutions in ways consistent with what reality requires based on the discovery and application of knowledge applicable to the human condition, then we are in peril.

NEXT: Part 16. Goodbye Mind, Hello Mindless

Mises: The A Priori Nature of Human Action (pdf)

Barry Linetsky has learned a considerable amount from the writings of Mises and Hayek. Barry makes his living specializing in value-driven strategic management, and is the author of the acclaimed business biography The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press, 2017) and Free Will: Sam Harris Has It (Wrong), both available from amazon. He frequently blogs at www.BarryLinetsky.com and has been published in the Ivey Business Journal and Rotman Magazine. Twitter @BizPhilosopher.

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