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Methodology for Human Science

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Methodology for Human Science[1]

The Introduction to Human Science explains the objectives of this wiki: to identify laws of human science and to subject them to rational and systematic analysis in order to prove their validity. An appropriate methodology for human science must meet basic standards that justify the term scientific. At the same time these methods must be suitable for studying the range of phenomena they are intended to validate. In spite of its widespread adoption by social scientists, we start with the premise that the scientific method as it is currently understood and applied is not fully suitable for the study of human behavior. Before considering the characteristics of a suitable system, it is necessary to examine some fundamental issues regarding what is known as the scientific method.

What constitutes the scientific method?

Most readers will immediately respond that the scientific method is a rational system for testing the validity of hypotheses based on empirical evidence. It sounds simple, logical and uncontroversial. There is a wide range of opinion among scientists and philosophers of science as to what consistutes the scientific method and valid proof of universal laws. The observations made here are drawn from the work of the well-known British philosopher Karl Popper, author of the “The Logic of Scientific Discovery’’. While widely respected, Popper’s conclusions are by no means accepted by all scientists and philosophers of science. Contributors are invited to host other views and expand the discussion of this topic. The purpose here is not to decide issues that have been debated for centuries. It is rather to raise fundamental questions which need to be considered in formulating a valid methodology for Human Science.

Can human behavior be studied scientifically?

The answer to this question depends very much on what we mean by the words ‘behavior’ and ‘scientifically’. Those who believe that science can concern itself only with the study of external objects and events accept the view of the behaviorists that only the external manifestations of human behavior can be studied scientifically, not inner psychological experiences. Thus, the focus of the social sciences has been on studying the external behavioral characteristics of individuals and groups which can be observed and often measured ‘objectively’, as objects, by our senses. In turn the social sciences tend to discount or ignore the inner ‘subjective’ experience of human beings, because psychological events are not directly observable externally and cannot be independently verified by multiple observers.

Limiting the scientific study of humanity to externalities simply because that lends itself more readily to observation has ultimately led many scientists to ignore or even deny the relevance of psychological experience to a proper study of human behavior. The premise of human science is that the study and understanding of the subjective element in human experience is essential for arriving at valid laws of human behavior and that appropriate methodologies can and need to be evolved to make that study scientific. This naturally raises the question of what we mean by the word ‘scientific’.

Role of Experience in Science

Empirical science means science based on experience. Positivists argue that only concepts derived from experience or logically reducible to elements of sense-experience can be accepted as legitimate subjects of scientific investigation. Early positivists claimed that science should concern itself only with the phenomena of the natural physical world. They wanted to limit scientific investigation to subjects and methods that lent themselves to sense-experience. Positivists assert that anything which cannot be perceived in this manner lies outside the purview of science in the realm of metaphysics, implying that it lies altogether outside the purview of knowledge. Some empiricists take the extreme view that anything outside this definition of science is non-sense or illusion. Certainly there is knowledge that lies outside the purview of empirical science. But that does not justify us in concluding that there is anything which lies outside the purview of knowledge.

However, there are many who reject the positivist interpretation of experience. They argue along with Popper that the origin of a concept is not important. It does not matter whether a hypothesis is derived from sense impressions or by intuition. What matters is the method employed to test the hypothesis. They too insist on the importance of experience, but it is experience in the course of testing scientific hypotheses not experience in the form of initial observations. To them science is not about discovering and proving truth. It is about following a particularly system for verifying statements. In other words, while the positivist insists that only experience can serve as a basis for formulating a scientific hypothesis, other scientists believe that any concept can be studied scientifically provided that it is possible to formulate valid tests to demonstrate from experience whether the hypothesis is correct.

Popper goes even further. He rejects the validity of the positivist approach founded on induction from sense observations to draw universal conclusions. No matter how many empirical observations are made, it cannot be proven by observation that any statement is universally true. Elementary courses in logic cite the example of a person who concluded that it is always raining in New York City because each of the seven times he visited the city he found it was raining. Even if he encountered rain on 7000 successive visits, he would not be justified in formulating a universal law from his finite experience. Popper argues that the essence of valid science is not observation, but the capacity to falsify an incorrect hypothesis. He admits within the domain of science only those hypotheses that can be tested by experience. A hypothesis may be considered as valid to the extent that all efforts to demonstrate by experience that it is not true are unsuccessful.

Human Science cannot be founded on the positivist view, because accepting it would eliminate more than half of human experience – the more important subjective half – from the purview of study. But it can be founded on an interpretation of ‘scientific’ that insists on the testing of hypotheses empirically based on their capacity to predict behavioral outcomes and falsify incorrect hypotheses.

The Role of Objectivity

Confusion regarding use of the term ‘objectivity’ in science has been discussed in Human Science -- An Introduction. To summarize, science must be objective in the sense that it is rational, logical and free of personal bias. But that does not mean science must limit itself to the study of external objects that can only be viewed ‘objectively’, i.e. by means of the senses and measuring instruments.

The demand for empirical evidence arising from external observations in the physical world is well suited to the study of gross material forms, inanimate or animate, no matter how large or small. However, physics has long since penetrated into realms, such as zero-point energy and black holes, which cannot be observed. Their existence is only a postulate that can be utilized to explain observable results. Even in the plane of the gross, observable world, there are many phenomena which can be studied only in terms of their result and not in terms of the mechanism by which they occur. The lever and pulley are simple examples. It is common knowledge that either of these instruments can be applied to lift a weight many times greater than the external force that is applied to the system. We know the principle, we know how to construct the apparatus and we know how to precisely calculate the result, but we are unable to perceive the actual process by which the force is multiplied, because that process is subtle, not material.

The rational study of inner psychological experience is no doubt difficult because it requires an extreme effort at impartiality on the part of the scientist observing the inner workings of his own mind and personality. But even the study of external objects and the evidence of the senses is subject to bias and illusion. The great achievements of science have not been based on the evidence of the senses, but rather on the application of the rational mind to overcome the limitation of those senses. We perceive with our senses that the sun is traveling through the sky, but rational analysis has led us to understand that the earth is moving relative to the sun and not vice versa. We perceive with our eyes that a stick immersed in a bucket of water is bent, but logic has enabled us to understand the this perception is an illusion created by the diffraction of light in water.

When it comes to human behavior, most of the determinative factors are subtle, rather than gross. Idea, understanding, attitude, values, opinions, beliefs, feelings, desires, urges and impulses are of central importance. Each of them can be observed subjectively by the person experiencing them – subjectively in the sense of psychologically, not in the sense of biased or prejudice – but none of them can be directly observed externally by other people. Are we to ignore the evidence of an individual when he says he is hungry or angry because we can only observe the expressions of that feeling but not its actual occurrence? When Winston Churchill proclaimed to the world that Britain would never surrender to Nazi Germany, he gave expression to a real conviction and determination – in himself and in the British people – which can be verified from their subsequent actions, but that determination could not and cannot be subject to sense observation. We know how skills are formed and we can measure precisely the magnitude of skill, but the existence of a skill cannot be directly observed. We know the central role of organization in human affairs, how to create organizations and how to measure their effectiveness, but organization is not a material object that can be observed. It is a concept that exists in the human mind and determines how individuals and groups behave. Society, culture, language, money and Internet are also phenomena of this type. Society is not merely a group of people. It is people with a shared identity who think, feel, aspire and act in relationship to one another. We can see its manifestations but we cannot see the thing itself. Just because we cannot observe them with our senses, we cannot deny their existence.

Rejecting the view of the positivists, Human Science cannot avoid a study of the subjective realms of human experience merely because they are difficult to observe without bias. Instead it needs to formulate methods for testing the validity of subjective observations by their capacity to predict objective behavior and events. As Popper said, it is not the source of observations or concepts that is important, but the manner in which they are tested. Theories in Human Science as well as those in the social sciences should be impartially evaluated based on their capacity to predict and explain external outcomes according to an internally cohesive and consistent conceptual framework.

The Role of Chance in Human Science

The concept of chance occupies an important place in the physical sciences. Chemistry assumes that molecular interactions are governed by chance. Genetics assumes that mutations of the DNA sequence occur randomly. Logically speaking, it is impossible to prove that any phenomenon is the result of chance rather than the operation of universal laws, regardless of the statistical results. We can only state with certainty that the factors determining some phenomena are so complex or that the precise initial conditions under which they operate are so difficult to determine that we are unable to predict the outcomes from known factors and therefore it appears there is no underlying causality.

Methodology of Human Science

What would constitute the characteristics of a valid methodology for human science and how might it differ from the methodology of empirical science?

Formulation of Universal Principles

In so far as it has been derived from experience, empirical science has involved the piecemeal identification of universal laws, like individual pieces of a puzzle, and gradually assembled a picture of the physical universe by juxtaposing these separate pieces. According to the fallacy of induction which Popper described, no matter how many pieces are discovered and how well they fit together, logically speaking one cannot be sure that the general view of the universe derived from these pieces is valid or is the only valid explanation. This explains why, as Popper points out, that historically metaphysics has played an important role in the formulation of scientific principles. The social sciences have endeavored for decades to evolve a consistent and cohesive science of human beings inductively. Yet it has been unable to arrive at even a modicum of principles that can be consistently applied for more than brief spans of time, in limited areas confined to a single field of activity.

If Human Science is to succeed, it must start as the first step – rather than the final goal -- with the formulation of universal principles that are rationally explainable, logically consistent and derived from a comprehensive and consistent perspective of human personality, society and evolution. A considerable number of such principles are already listed on this site.

Unless we accept the positivist view that human consciousness, mental and psychological experience are purely the result of chemical and electric events, we can only hope to discover such perspectives in the wider fields of philosophy, metaphysics and spiritual experience. These perspectives must be rational and logical in the sense that they are internally consistent – but they cannot be subjected to the positivist’s demand that they are derived empirically from sense observations, since a many of the greatest scientific discoveries including the laws of Thermodynamics, Relativity and Quantum theory would be inadmissible according to that very same criterion.

Once formulated, Human Science must subject the validity of these perspectives to rigorous scientific analysis. One initial objective of this site it to identify alternative cosmological perspectives that can be then subjected to systematic study.

Extension of Universal Principles to Specific Fields

Human existence cannot be studied in its totality. It can only be studied in and through its various expressions. This means that universal principles cannot be validated universally. They can only be validated by studying their extensions and applications in different fields or specific situations. Therefore, the second step must be to translate these universal principles into field-specific principles.

To illustrate, take the universal principle that human energy is the central determinant of accomplishment. As in physics, the results of an action depend on the amount of force applied. In physics the force is physical. In human affairs the force expresses as the intensity of human determination. This principle translates in psychology into the concept of motivation. In management, it refers to the strength of the organization’s will to accomplish. In sociology, it refers to the aspiration and will of the collective. In education, it expresses as the interest of the teacher and the curiosity of the student. Each of these terms requires definition, description, explanation and testing, but it is evident that the same basic principle is being extended to different applications.

Here too, we are not permitted to insist on empirical evidence to justify the formulation of a principle. It is sufficient that each principle is rationally derived from a set of more universal concepts and that it is logically consistent with other principles applicable to each particular field.

Formulation of Hypotheses from Specific Principles

The principles of Human Science can be applied to generate specific hypotheses that can be tested and critically evaluated in actual life contexts.

Testing of Hypotheses

Hypotheses are to be evaluated by application to actual life situations, past, present or future. The criteria for evaluation include

1. The capacity to explain past events in a rational and consistent manner: Contributors to HS are invited to analyze the applicability of the general principles and their derivatives to actual events drawn from history, biography, literature or contemporary life to determine whether known facts concerning the events are in consonance with the principles described on this site. New articles can be created to analyze and discuss any event from this perspective. Impartiality requires the selection of events for which sufficient information is available to make a rational determination. Some will no doubt question the inclusion of events from literature. The premise for doing so is that no matter how imaginary the story may be, the characters and events in great literature always reflects truths of life. For a fuller discussion of this viewpoint, please see the Life Portal and the Pride & Prejudice project.

2. The capacity to accomplish results: Knowledge is power. The quest of Human Science is for knowledge that has power for accomplishment. Therefore, the ultimate test of knowledge is not its verification in a laboratory or controlled environment, but rather its capacity to achieve results in real life situations. A further premise is that if that knowledge is complete, the results of applying it for the betterment of humankind will only yield positive outcomes, free of undesirable consequences. Contributors to the site are invited to raise questions as to how these principles may be applied individually and socially, to test the principles in their own lives and report the results. Rationality requires that the application of principles must meet all the stipulated conditions for accomplishment and that the assessment and reporting be objective and impartial. New articles can be created to report and discuss the application of Human Science to accomplish any type of results.

3. The capacity to solve problems: As former German Chancellor Willy Brandt wrote in his foreword to the Brandt Commission report, ‘’ the problems created by men can be solved by men.’’ According to this view, problems are the result of incomplete or unbalanced knowledge or failure to fully adhere to principles in applying that knowledge. Therefore, it should be possible to resolve existing problems arising from a partial approach by actions based on a comprehensive approach. We invite contributors to identify, study and discuss real-life problems from the perspective of the principles of human science and to raise questions regarding specific applications of this knowledge. New articles can be created to focus on any type of problem.

4. The capacity to predict future outcomes: Human Science will achieve maturity when the application of its principles enables us to accurately predict outcomes. Here we do not refer to outcomes of controlled experiments in the artificial environment of a laboratory, but rather outcomes in the life of individuals and society. Obviously the capacity for prediction will depend on the extent of knowledge available regarding the circumstances and conditions that apply to actual life situations.

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


See Also Human Science and the Role of Sri Aurobindo

  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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