© 2018, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.
In moving beyond “common sense” and trying to understand and make sense of the nature of the world in which we live and function, there is occasionally a clash in perspectives that bubbles to the surface, as happened in a recent conversation between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson in their attempt to identify the meaning of truth in a world centered around human action.
Where a conflict of ideas is encountered, what some people refer to as “academic” or esoteric issues come to the foreground.
How and whether such conflicts of fact, truth, and values are resolved as fundamental philosophic issues can be the difference between the success of human endevours – perhaps even entire civilizations – and the flourishing of humanity on the one hand, and the fall into barbarism and human misery on a grand scale on the other.
The crux of the conflict encountered and raised by Harris and Peterson has to do with the appropriateness of a scientific methodology to its subject matter, and whether there is only a single scientific method or paradigm that is applicable to the effective study of everything as empiricists claim, or whether there are two compatible but different scientific methods required for effective discovery of truth, one for the natural sciences and one for the human sciences (or social sciences).
In other words, the question that arises is: is a separate and distinct methodology of science required for identifying truths when human actors as teleological agents are involved?
Economist Ludwig von Mises thought so. Like so many others, Mises noted that following the success of Sir Isaac Newton, science turned towards positivism, under which the established method for science had to be experimental, mathematical, and quantitative. Science became measurement, and every statement to be validated by science as scientific had to be open to verification by directly observable facts (empiricism). With regards to the fundamental difference between the natural sciences and the social or moral sciences pertaining to human action, Mises writes:
The experience to which the natural sciences owe all their success is the experience of the experiment. In the experiments the different elements of change are observed in isolation. The control of the conditions of change provides the experimenter with the means of assigning to each effects its sufficient cause. Without regard to the philosophical problem involved he proceeds to amass “facts.” These facts are the bricks which the scientist uses in constructing his theories. They constitute the only material at his disposal. His theory must not be in contradiction with these facts. They are the ultimate things.
The social sciences cannot make use of experiments. The experience with which they have to deal is the experience of complex phenomena. … The social sciences never enjoy the advantage of observing the consequences of a change in one element only, other conditions being equal. …
The impossibility of experimenting means concomitantly the impossibility of measurement. The physicist has to deal with magnitudes and numerical relations, because he has the right to assume that certain invariable relations between physical properties subsist. The experiment provides him with the numerical values to be assigned to them. In human behavior there are no such constant relations, there is no standard which could be used as a measure and there are no experiments which could establish uniformities of this type. (Mises, “Social Science and Natural Science,” in Money, Method, and the Market Process: Essays by Ludwig von Mises, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990: 5-6)
Mises noted that the natural sciences deal with the external world and those who study it do so “from without.” Scientists gather their experimental knowledge and formulate it into theories, “proceeding from the special to the more general, from the concrete to the more abstract” (Ibid, 8).
The human sciences are fundamentally different from the natural sciences because in dealing with human actions, rather than relying on the method of experimentation and analysis that is so effective for discovery in the world of nature, scientists have to exclude experimentation and, being human themselves, rely on knowledge of what goes on within acting man:
We know something about the meaning which acting men attach to their actions. We know why men wish to change the conditions of their lives. We know something about that uneasiness which is the ultimate incentive of the changes which they bring about. … Herein lies the radical difference between the social sciences…and the natural sciences. What makes natural science possible is the power of experiment; what makes social science possible is the power to grasp or to comprehend the meaning of human action. …
Economics [as a theoretical science of human action] therefore is not based on or derived (abstracted) from experience. It is a deductive system, starting from the insight into the principles of human reason and conduct. As a matter of fact all our experience in the field of human action is based on and conditioned by the circumstances that we have this insight in our mind. Without this a priori knowledge and the theorems derived from it we could not at all realize what is going on in human activity. Our experience of human action and social life is predicated on praxeological [the science of human action] and economic theory. (Ibid, 8-9)
NEXT: Part 4. A Distinct Methodology for Human Action
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.