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An Introduction to Human Science[1]


Note: This article is intended as an introduction to the concept of Human Science and a discussion paper to stimulate further development of this discipline. Also see the separate articles discussing the Methodology for Human Science and some fundamental Principles of Human Science. Readers are encouraged to respond in the form of questions and comments on the discussion/talk page or on Human Science Forum or by additions to the draft article.

Astounding technological advances have led humanity to embrace science as the ultimate remedy for all human ills. This attitude is dominant in spite of the fact that science has also been a source of our greatest failures and calamities, most notably those arising out of an inadequate understanding of human behavior. Objectivity is the essence of science in the sense that knowledge must be impersonal, impartial and unbiased. But the double-meaning of the word ‘objective’ has led some to conclude that science can only study external ‘objects’ and external manifestations of behavior which can be perceived with the physical senses. The methods of empirical science are insufficient for the study of human phenomena precisely because empirical science insists on studying only the objective externalities, while human experience is determined laws and processes that do not readily lend themselves to physical observation and statistical measurement. Intangible 'objects' such as ideas, aspirations, attitudes and feelings determine the patterns of our external behavior -- political, economic, social, psychological. Human Science is the study of these laws and processes based on impartial and rational methods that encompass both objective and subjective phenomena.

Achievements and Limitations of Modern Science

For the past century, Science has been humanity’s guiding light and its hope for the future. Our knowledge of the physical world and our capacity to control material processes have been expanding by leaps and bounds. The power of science has been harnessed to prolong the human life span, save millions of lives, produce sufficient food to feed a population that has multiplied 12-fold since 1800, provide us with innumerable comforts and conveniences, abridge space and time almost to the vanishing point for travel and communication, enhance human productivity and fill our leisure hours with endless wonders of entertainment and recreation.

Yet these prodigious achievements have been accompanied by some equally notable failures. Scientific knowledge has generated weapons of incomparable destructive power that are a real and present danger to all humanity. Pollution generated by the machinery of science threatens to catastrophically alter earth’s environment. The disastrous consequences of war may lessen the likelihood of conflicts between nations, but science has been of little help in reducing violence and conflicts between groups and individuals, e.g. crime and terrorism. Nor has it provided us with sufficient knowledge to generate employment opportunities and equitable incomes for everyone or to make our longer lives happier, more harmonious and more fulfilling. Some may argue that these later objectives are not even within the purview of science as we know it, and they would be right. But they must fall within the purview of a true science of humanity that seeks to better all aspects of our individual and social life.

The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin scientia (knowledge). Knowledge is a power of consciousness and consciousness includes both the capacity to understand and the will to express that understanding in action. Knowledge in medicine means not only the understanding of illnesses, but also the power to cure and prevent disease. Knowledge in chemistry means the capacity not only to understand the composition of substances, but also the power to harness and control material reactions for productive purposes. Knowledge in engineering means the capacity to design structures that are stable and enduring. True knowledge has the power to realize what it perceives to be true. Humanity seeks knowledge to make life more comfortable, secure and enjoyable, not to arm present generations for mutual destruction or threaten future ones with total annihilation. True knowledge must carry with it the power to achieve the results it aims for while preventing realization of that which it seeks to avoid. For all the good it has given us, the knowledge of science as we know it today is not even sufficient to ensure humanity’s future survival, let alone its social and psychological fulfillment.

Many are under the mistaken belief that the limitations of modern science arise only because our knowledge is not yet complete and that by further advances they too will be addressed. But the limitations of modern science are not practical, they are conceptual. They arise directly from several fundamental misconceptions. We can only overcome those limitations by identifying and addressing the issue at the conceptual level.

Science vs. Empirical Science

The first of these misconceptions is the confusion between science and empirical science. Empirical science has come to be regarded by many as synonymous with all science or all knowledge, but that is a misconception. Empirical knowledge is derived by testing working hypotheses by the observation of the physical senses and experimentation applying. The term was originally applied to knowledge of the natural world around us in fields such as physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology and physiology.

The methods of empirical science are extremely powerful for uncovering the mechanisms of physical nature, but not suitable for the study of phenomena that are not entirely physical in nature. This limitation applies to the mental or formal sciences as they are called -- mathematics, computer science, information theory and statistics – which form the basis for so many of the wonders of the computer age. These fields readily lend themselves to rational, systematic and impartial analysis. But they do not lend themselves to physical observation or measurement, since their subject matter is concepts, not physical objects.

Application to Social Sciences

The methods of empirical science have also proven inadequate for the study of human life and society. The effort to rationally, systematically and impartially analyze human behavior is essential, though more difficult than in the case of the formal science where rational rules are actually defined by the scientist. Understanding the rationale for individual and collective human behavior requires deeper insight into processes that do not readily lend themselves to physical observation and statistical measurement. It is the capacity for conscious thought, feeling, beliefs and values that distinguish human beings from other animals. None of them can be directly observed by the physical senses or measured by physical instruments. They can be known directly to the subject who experiences them, but only be inferred by others from our external behavior, which is very often at variance with our inner sentiments and intentions.

The success and prestige accorded to the empirical sciences and the apparent ease of applying it has resulted in the near total adoption of empirical methods by the social sciences as well. It has prompted the social sciences to apply methods best suited for the study of inanimate objects and unconscious organisms to the field of conscious humanity. The social sciences have attempted unsuccessfully to model themselves after the physical sciences, narrowing the focus on study to the external observable aspects of human behavior -- especially those that lend themselves to statistical analysis -- and ignoring the inner factors that determine external behavior. This approach has produced little real insight into the laws governing human behavior, which accounts for the fact that our power over material processes is not matched by an equal or proportionate power over social processes involved in the political, economic, social and psychological spheres. Science can predict the movement of heavenly bodies millions of years in the future, but could not anticipate the fall of the Berlin Wall or the economic collapse that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, even a few years before they happened.

The tendency to apply the methods of empirical science in fields where they are inappropriate has been aggravated by the mistaken notion that knowledge, science and empirical science are synonymous. The tremendous achievements of the empirical sciences led some scientists to proclaim not only that empirical science is the only legitimate form of science but that it is the only legitimate form of knowledge. Great scientists of the past knew very well the limits of empirical science and insisted on the legitimacy of other ways of knowing, including philosophy and metaphysics. As religion proclaimed a monopoly on truth during the Middle Ages and rejected all other knowledge as false or irrelevant, the rise of the empirical sciences has led to maligning and rejecting other forms of knowledge as either inferior or even ‘non-sense’. This error of generalization has created a powerful bias against any type of knowledge which has not been derived empirically by the scientific method. In spite of its obvious limitations and numerous failures, many still proclaim that empirical science is the only real form of knowledge. Human Science is intended to overcome this error of arrogance by evolving scientific theories and methodologies more appropriate for the study of conscious human beings. One essential step is to clearly define and distinguish knowledge and science from empirical science.

Science of Objective and Subjective Reality

The confusion between science and empirical science has been compounded by confusion regarding the meaning of the words ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’. Everyone will agree that science must be objective in the sense that it should seek to be impartial, logical and rational. Knowledge cannot be held hostage to the subjective whims and fancies of personal beliefs, prejudices and experience.

The problem arises because the words objective and subjective each have two distinctly different but related meanings which are easily confused with one another. The word ‘objective’ was originally used to refer to things that can be observed as ‘objects’ by means of the senses. The word ‘subjective’ was originally used to refers to things that exist psychologically in the mind, but cannot be observed physically.

In the 15th century, modern empirical science began to develop in Europe as an organized body of knowledge and social activity . These early scientists asserted the tangible evidence of the physical senses to counter the insistence of the church on blind acceptance of religious doctrine and social superstition. It was only natural that their study should focus on objects that could be observed by means of the physical senses, i.e. on objective phenomena, rather than trying to study phenomena that could be perceived only by the mind, not the senses. The enormous benefits of modern science and technology can be traced back to this crucial juncture.

Scientific knowledge of the material universe has been greatly aided by the invention of instruments such as the telescope and microscope that have extended the range of human observation and measurement to perceive the characteristics of objects that lie beyond the reach of the physical senses. But they have not enhanced one iota the capacity of our senses to peer into the subjective world of our thoughts and emotions. Therefore, the attempt to apply the methods of modern science to understand the springs of human behavior has been fraught with disappointment.

Objective and Subjective Methods in Science

Had the error stopped here, its only result may have been the failure of the social sciences. But it was further aggravated by confusion arising from the dual meaning of the terms objective and subjective. The second set of meanings has to do with the rationality or impartiality of an observation or a viewpoint. Observations and conclusions that are arrived at impartially by means of logic and reason are referred to as objective. Those that are arrived at by imposing one’s prior beliefs, prejudices, biases arising from past experiences are referred to as subjective.

Empirical science is concerned only with the study of phenomena that can be observed as objects, i.e. the objective. The methods of empirical science are also objective in that they seek to apply logic and reason and try to eliminate the influence of personal bias. Even though empiricism is rooted in experience of objects, that experience must be impartial and unbiased by personal motives or beliefs. Therefore, empirical science strives to be objective in two different ways – in the choice of objects it studies and in the choice of methods it applies to that study.

The problem arises when these two different types of objectivity are confused or regarded as one and the same. The study of physical objects and the employment of objective methods are two different things. But by a subtle slight of mind – a linguistic coup d'é•tat – these two meanings have been combined – or at least confused. This has led to the conclusion that only phenomena that can be studied as objects, i.e. objectively, can be known impartially and rationally without personal prejudice, i.e. objectively.

But what does empirical science have to say about the study of phenomena that are not objective, i.e. tangible objects, and cannot be studied by means of the senses, i.e. that exist only in our minds and psychological experience? Obviously another form of observation is needed to study them. But that does not mean they cannot be studied impartially and rationally. In many instances, thoughts, feelings and sensations can also be examined objectively, even though they cannot be directly observed as objects by other people.

The true essence of science is rationality and impartiality. The essence of rationality and objectivity is absence of ego. To be objective means not to be influenced and prejudiced by one’s prior beliefs, personal preferences, attitudes or expectations. A warrior who has the objectivity to admire the courage and skill of his adversary may be both rational and impartial, regardless of whether those around him agree with his observation or share his admiration. An artist’s inspiration, a lover’s passion, a politician’s ambition, a patriot’s aspiration, as well as anger, frustration, fear, determination and enthusiasm are very real and powerful psychological realities that can and must be studied systematically and impartially if knowledge of human behavior is ever to become a science.

The methods of empirical science are insufficient for the study of human phenomena precisely because empirical science insists on studying only the objective externalities of nature and life, while human experience is determined primarily by factors that cannot be observed externally. Therefore a new set of methods are needed for the study of human experience, both individual and collective. These methods also should insist on impartiality and rationality, but they cannot be limited to the data of external observations.

Standard of Accomplishment

The right standard for judging the validity of any knowledge is the capacity to achieve results. Our knowledge of electricity in valid in so far as we are capable of harnessing that power for constructive purposes. Our knowledge of medicine is valid in so far as it gives us the power to cure. To claim that Chinese or Indian herbal medicine which cures where allopathic medicine has failed is unscientific because the compounds that give it curative power have not been isolated is superstition, not science.

So too, with regard to human beings, the validity of our knowledge must be judged on the basis of by its power to achieve the goals which humanity aims for, not on the basis of the statistical methods applied to generate it. There is a need for Human Science precisely because the present approach lacks that power outside the limited sphere of technology. Technology is an instrument and a convenience, but by itself it can never resolve the challenges confronting humanity in its quest for peace, prosperity, harmony and fulfillment. We need a science that can.

This standard of accomplishment is the heart of the issue. For it implies that science should be judged solely by its results or consequences – not the sanctity of its methodology.

The error of illusionism

Of all the errors and misconceptions concerning science, the most damaging to the pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of human well-being has been the final step in this logical or illogical comedy of errors. Science has repeated the error of the great 8th Century Indian philosopher Shankara – the error of illusionism. Shankara was a man of unparalleled intellect and is almost single-handedly responsible for the intellectual conquest of Buddhism in the land of its birth. He conceived and perhaps realized a state of superconsciousness, brahman, from which the material world and entire universe appears as unreal – as an illusion. In declaring that state to be the true reality underlying the entire world, he also concluded that the world itself is unreal. Brahman alone exists. Everything else is an illusion.

Modern science has come full circle and repeated the same error in the reverse direction. Having pierced into the intricacies of matter and the molecular sequences of DNA, modern science is on the verge of declaring that the physical world of objects which it set out to study five centuries ago – because that was the field most suited to the methods of empirical science -- is in fact the only world and that the subjective does not even exist except as a by-product of physical events. Modern biology seeks to prove that life is nothing but a set of chemical reactions and electrical interactions, though the probability that any mixture of chemicals could ever result in the spontaneous emergence of living organisms is all but non-existent. Neurology seeks to demonstrate that mind and all psychological experience are nothing but a similar set of electrical and chemical events. Matter alone exists. Everything else is illusion. Taken to its logical conclusion, this view assigns greater reality and importance to a stone or a plum-pudding than to thought, love, courage, genius, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Beethoven’s 9th, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, scientific theories and modern science itself, all of which are equally insubstantial.

Just because ideas, ideals, values, emotions, attitudes and the like cannot be observed by the senses as physical objects or measured by scientific instruments, does not mean they do not exist or that they are only the by-products of chemistry and physics. Yet this is precisely the conclusion which modern science seeks to impose on us as logical necessity. It is not rational to set conditions of study suitable only for physical objects and then to declare that nothing else exists. Human Science seeks a rational approach to the study of human phenomena.

Challenges of Human Science

In order to justify the name, Human Science must meet two fundamental challenges. First, it must demonstrate that its knowledge has power. As physical science has demonstrated its power to achieve results in the physical plane of science and technology, human science must demonstrate the power to achieve results in the sphere of human society. Second, it should meet a challenge which empirical science has failed to meet thus far. It should demonstrate that the knowledge it generates can only be used positively. It should demonstrate the capacity to control outcomes in such a manner that only positive consequences result from the application of its knowledge.

The key to achieving both of these objectives is to evolve a science that combines and integrates both the objective and subjective dimensions of existence. There is no reality in human affairs that is solely objective. The subjective element always matters and almost always matters most. The immediate physical consequences of an earthquake or a tsunami may be in the hands of Nature, but its ultimate consequences depend almost entirely on how human beings react and respond to the event and alter their future behavior as a result. The future of global warming is not merely an objective fact to be passively accepted. It is the consequence of subjective human understanding, attitudes and actions. The solution lies not in technological means to counter the rising temperature but in social measures to change human attitudes and behavior.

Social Science vs. Human Science

Mind tries to know reality by dividing it into parts and then further subdividing it. To the extent that it acquires specialized knowledge of the constituent parts, it tends to simultaneously lose its perspective of the whole. Academically this has led to the division and subdivision of disciplines into physical, biological and social sciences and the humanities and their further subdivision into increasingly narrow, specialized fields.

Where in this arrangement do we find an organized attempt to understand human society as an integral whole? Clearly this compartmentalization is an abstraction of knowledge from the reality of human experience. Inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary studies arose as an attempt to compensate for the limitations of compartmentalized knowledge. While each discipline views human life from a single aspect, multi-disciplinary approaches attempt to view it from several different vantage points. However welcome, this approach is inadequate because it fails to address the central issue. Human existence, individual and collective, is not a combination of one or several or a great many separate compartments. When we are faced with important decisions about education, career, marriage and personal preference, we do not compartmentalize ourselves and take those decisions based on a single point of view. We consider the impact of all the ideas, beliefs, opinions, values, attitudes, desires, skills, past experiences and future aspirations that govern the totality of our lives. For example, in deciding whether to accept a new job assignment in another city, we may consider not only the nature of the work and compensation, but also the quality of schools for our children, social attitudes toward outsiders or minorities, political attitudes, the weather, traffic, crime rates, the sense of neighborliness and community, the status and prestige of the locale, access to shopping, entertainment and culture, and other factors. Subjective psychological, economic, sociological and even political factors impinge on our decision. Our lives are a single, integrated reality.

The search for impersonal, universal laws of social behavior based purely on objective factors will never succeed. No valid science of human behavior can evolve without fully recognizing and reflecting the reality of the subjective dimension. None of us can neatly segregate our lives into social, psychological, economic, and political parts. The student, entrepreneur and the employee do not cease to be members of their families or communities when they are engaged in study or work. In each individual, psychological attitudes, political ideas, family values, economic aspirations, productive capacities, organizational and managerial skills coexist, combine and interact with one another and express overtly or subtly in all we think, feel and do. There is no such thing as an economic or a political individual. There are only people who carry out acts in each of these fields.

The same is true for the collective. The factors determining activities in society cannot be divided neatly into separate departments and they certainly cannot be divorced from the subjective aspirations, opinions, attitudes and values of the collective. Political ideals, social attitudes, economic aspirations, religious beliefs, ethnic preferences and generational experiences influence and find expression in every aspect of social activity. Blacks in America continue to suffer discrimination 150 years after the Civil War abolished slavery. Americans who grew up and struggled during the Great Depression still cannot fully outlive the sense of insecurity they felt during the 1930s. German attitudes toward inflation, even among those who were not yet born at the time, are still influenced by the hyperinflation that hit Germany after the first world war. Indians born before Indian Independence can never fully give up the sense of subordination to authority. Even after India’s banking system has reached out to serve the entire rural population, traditional agrarian families prefer to hold their savings in the form of gold. While India seeks to attract $10 or 20 billion a year in foreign investment for infrastructure development, at least 30 times this amount of domestic resources is tied up unproductively in gold. Political and economic theories that do not take into account these subjective social realities will lack the power for effective action.

Theoretical Foundations for Human Science

All science is based on the premise that there are universal laws and processes of nature. Human Science is based on the premise that there are universal principles and processes common to all fields of social activity and all levels of human existence from the individual to the global. It includes all those activities which are covered by the social sciences as well as the humanities. But instead of focusing on their superficial differences in expression, it seeks to understand their common underlying processes.

What do political science, economics, management, psychology, sociology, education literature, and other disciplines have in common? What possible commonalty could there be between the behavior of an individual, management of a multinational corporation, governance of a nation, creation of a literary work and performance of a musical concert? They all concern the conscious efforts of human beings to survive, grow, develop and enjoy, individually and collectively, through various types of organized activities. All these fields of activities involve--

  • Awareness: Ideas, values, beliefs, opinions, and sentiments that determine the level of mental awareness and powerfully influence both the nature of the action and its outcome.
  • Will: Conscious intention directed toward accomplishment of specific goals.
  • Energy: Attitudes, emotions, feelings, desires and urges that determine the quality and quantity of psychological energy that motivates the action.
  • Skills: Physical, social, technical and managerial skills and capacities that determine how rapidly, efficiently and perfectly the action is executed.
  • Organization: In addition, all human action involves organized patterns of behavior and interaction between individuals and groups of individuals working in concert with one another to fulfill the aspirations of the social collective.

Mental awareness, conscious will, psychological energy, skills and capacities, and organization are common to every field of human activity, individual and collective. Regardless of whether we are concerned with the founding of a nation, the creation of a family, waging war or manufacturing industrial products, negotiating international treaties or leisure interactions among friends, formulation of laws or execution of marketing strategies, individual survival or global prosperity, commercial expansion or social revolution, the common denominator of human social behavior is conscious, organized action. The number of people, the nature of the action, the types of organizational relationships and the character of the results achieved may vary enormously, but all of these involve more or less conscious and systematic efforts by human beings joining forces to carry out actions in an organized manner to achieve specific objectives.

The aim of Human Science is to identify and understand the universal principles and processes that govern human survival, growth, development and evolution. The expressions of these principles and processes may vary significantly, depending on whether we are examining the actions of a single individual, an organization, a nation or the global community. They assume varying character depending on whether the action involves a violent struggle for survival, a quest for adventure or search for romance, execution of business strategy or execution of a creative work. Nevertheless, all these actions share common characteristics. They all involve the formulation of a conscious intention, the release of a motivating human energy and the expression of that energy is skilled action designed to accomplish results. ‘’Human Science is the science of human accomplishment.’’

Given the complexity of human motivations, the magnitude of the challenge is very great. But that difficulty cannot serve as a rational justification for refusing the attempt and persisting on a path that has produced benefit to few and mix for all the dedicated efforts that have been made to follow it.

Methodology of Human Science

Methodological issues are discussed in a separate article Methodology for Human Science.

Principles of Human Science

In order to derive fundamental laws of human science that will be valid for all fields of individual and social activity we must first identify that which is common to human behavior in all these fields. The article Principles of Human Science is intended to illustrate some basic laws of human science that can be applied universally. A much greater number will be found under the Category:Principles. But a mere enumeration of laws does not constitute science. The true value and veracity of these principles must be explained, illustrated and validated by their application to the study of a wide range of human activities, which is the central objective of the Human Science wiki.

See Also Human Science and the Role of Sri Aurobindo

Source: This core article was prepared by The Mother's Service Society, Pondicherry, India (Introduction to Human Science)

  1. Authors - Garry Jacobs is Vice President of The Mother’s Service Society & Ashok Natarajan is Secretary of The Mother’s Service Society.
    The Mother's Service Society is a Social Science Research Institute based in Pondicherry, India. Website:mssresearch.org

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