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The Social and Psychological fields - Arts or Sciences?

I would word this a bit differently. Psychology has given us some cool and useful insights that could be (and occasionally even are!) used to help people… not just to manipulate them.

I’d rather say that science is amoral.

Technology doesn’t aim. Psychological insights can be used to fix the foster care system… or to sell us more crap. Genetics can be used to treat diseases… or to justify genocide.

And determinism can be used to justify understanding and forgiveness… or it can be used to justify giving up. Even heady philosophical or metaphysical knowledge is just technology in need of proper aiming.

So, I’d say Buddhism is science agnostic.

As a monk, I don’t care if the universe is deterministic or random. I find it interesting, but I have no stake in the game. What I care about is how people use the knowledge and tools that science provides.

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Imagine that you got a million intelligent, sensitive people of integrity with no scientific training or understanding. Say they’re imported from the 13th century and have never even heard of the methods of science. Give them a single objective to work on for a century: understand the human mind better. They were free to explore by whatever means they felt like, whether running double-blind repeatable experiments or dancing naked among the daisies. They could mine the literature of great novelists for insights, or sit in a cafe people-watching, or stay with uncontacted tribes, study the world’s spiritual teachings, drop some X, do some painting, raise a child, or just sit and observe their own minds. And any insights would be shared and discussed equally among them all, with no concept of a “correct” method. Surely we would expect that such a project would generate some cool and useful insights that could be used to help people.

Of course people applying scientific method have come up with helpful insights. But why? Is that because of scientific method, or because they were intelligent and sincere people trying to understand?

I see no reason to suppose that people just doing whatever they felt like would not come up with equally helpful insights. Perhaps even more so. If the hypothesis that scientific method is a specially useful approach for understanding the human mind turns out to be false, then surely the belief in it is a delusion that will hinder understanding.

I’m influenced in this by Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method, where he argued that even in the material sciences, the role of method was not so much discovery—which happens intuitively—but post facto justification and persuasion. Rigid adherence to method prevents breakthroughs and stops progress in science.

Nevertheless, in the material sciences, the methods of science have undeniably produced results, regardless of their role in the process.

If I was to take the same group of a million people, again with no scientific knowledge or training, from the 13th century and said, “devise a better means of transportation”, they would probably think of some improvements in how carriages run, or improved drainage on roads, or a better bridle for a horse. But they wouldn’t be flying to the moon.

The claims to success of the material sciences is not just “some cool insights”, it is a complete and radical transformation of how we see the world, which has changed everything about our material culture in utterly unprecedented ways within a very short space of time.

There’s nothing even vaguely like that, not within orders of magnitude, in any of the social sciences. The prevailing wisdom, I think, is that social sciences are admittedly less rigorous and less successful than material sciences, but are making steady progress. But honestly I don’t see it, or I don’t see how the progress is because of method. In many cases the advances in psychology seem to be merely undoing the worst excesses of earlier pseudo-“scientific” ideas, like treating homosexuality as a disease, which would never have been a problem if they had simply applied common compassion and humanity.

I think the mantle of “science” is used in the social sciences purely to borrow the halo of prestige from physics and chemistry. Applying scientific method might help discover different insights than other methods, but I don’t see any reason to think that they are better insights.

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Yes, I find it frustrating that the physical sciences are seen as a role model for everything. To me, there are two main issues with this:

  1. It devalues other approaches that, as you say, may be more appropriate and useful in other areas of knowledge.

  2. It causes confusion about how accurate and successful science is in the areas where it does work well (e.g. in the physical sciences — away from the cutting edge of research, of course). There it is not just “an interpretation” or “an opinion”. It works, and we trust out lives to it when we drive a car or operate various other devices.

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Do you really think two Westerners like us could have ordained as Buddhist monks and even be having this conversation without the late 19th and early 20th century advances in comparative religion, psychology, philology, etc?

If by “social sciences” you mean the pseudosciences such as neoliberal economics… sure. That’s basically just apologia for the caste system with a thin veneer of “science.” But I’m shocked to hear the author of several books of history dismiss “the social sciences.” I think you vastly underestimate how much Western (and, subsequently, world) culture changed as a result of the scientific revolution in the social sciences.

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I think that the issue is whether it is helpful to call something “science” just because it involves organising information, or is useful. I’ve spent enough time talking (sometimes arguing…) with Historians, Philosophers, and others to know that they have some excellent ways of thinking and viewing the world. They seem to feel no need to label their approach as “science”.

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Sure they don’t, cause secularism won.

Imagine being able to “just do Philosophy” in medieval Europe with the Inquisition breathing down your neck. How well did that work out for people?

It’s a historical fact that the rhetoric of “science” was pivotal in providing Victorian scholars cover to study Buddhism despite Christian taboos. Max Müller’s Lectures on the Science of Religion; with a Paper on Buddhist Nihilism (1872) for example was one early engagement with Buddhist philosophy in English. He literally had to put “the Science of Religion” first in the title.

Of course, this didn’t stop the Church from condemning such inquiry as “Buddhist Propaganda” (1890) or even “a crusade” (1891). But by this time “science” had good enough PR that the Church couldn’t censor these (self identified) “social scientists” as they had been able to in previous centuries… and now here we are.

So, sure, nowadays we’re ready for post (post-post?) modernism. We can move on from the narrow formalism of “method” and explore new ways of learning and being. We can and should question the new orthodoxies. It’s especially important that we continue to decolonize the academy and legitimate alternative sources of truth. But this is all a very different thing from saying that “social science” never did much good.

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Yes, very much so.

Indeed, and this is a major source of frustration within the sciences, especially when postmodernists reduce science to a post-truth hermaneutic. A generation ago the assault on truth was an academic debate, now it’s threatening our survival.

People in countless countries all over Asia were being converted to Buddhism and practicing as monastics for 2500 years, a number of whom were “Greeks”. Simple human curiosity would seem to be enough. Also not to forget, if we are to seek for the cultural forces in the West that made it amenable to Buddhism, yes, William James and Max Weber had an impact, but a considerable debt is also owed to such figures as Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists, inheritors of an anti-rational and mystical strain of European thought; the poet Edwin Arnold; and the effective representation by Buddhists such as Anagarika Dharmapala.

Science ≠ rationality. The fact that certain writers worked or appeared to work in a “scientific” way doesn’t mean that they actually relied on scientific method to obtain their insights. Feyerabend’s argument was that scientific method is largely a means of persuading others of the truth of things one already intuits to be true.

Which nicely illustrates Feyerabend’s point. The value of “scientific method” is not as a uniquely effective means of arriving at truth, but as a means of persuading others. We see this all the time in Buddhism, say with neuroscience cited to persuade people that meditation is effective.

The question then becomes, why is “science” such an effective means of persuasion in the social sciences? To a certain extent, I think this can be understood as due to the nature of science, in that it forces a degree of clarity and rationality. But science has no monopoly on these things. The more important purpose, I contend, is to bask in the reflected glory of physics.

And I think this is another really important point. By settling on scientific method as the “one true way to truth” we diminish our capacity for different ways of seeing. As a physicist you engage with Buddhism and other fields out of curiosity, because you learn new ways of seeing. And surely in the long run this is essential for the intellectual creativity of physics itself.

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Yes, and it’s because I work in Physics that I’m skeptical about reducing all forms of knowledge to “science”. We see this here in NZ, and presumably in Australia, in discussions of indigenous knowledge. It’s become common to put a positive spin on the depth of Māori knowledge by saying: “Look, they were actually doing science”. Of course, there’s a germ of truth in some cases, but this approach risks overlooking the truly interesting aspects of other world views. Most here would agree, for example, that focusing just on the health benefits of meditation seriously misses the point of the Dhamma.

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Yeah that’s true. And I love to hear those worthy of honor receiving their due! :heart_eyes:

Please understand that where I come from (the USA, though I understand Britain has this problem as well), this kind of “social sciences aren’t real sciences” argument is a very common conservative attack on the humanities which has been used for decades to justify defunding the liberal arts. The problem is so bad now that in America tenure track jobs in the humanities are basically a thing of the past.

This is why I get a bit upset to hear you say things like: “There’s nothing like that in any of the so-called ‘social sciences.’” Which might as well be a Thatcher quote!

So, by all means, let’s sing the praises of the artists! “Here’s to the crazy ones!” and all that. But to lift them up there’s no need to denigrate those who found the label “social science” expedient.

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It doesn’t, not like it does with physical sciences that have concrete phenomena to measure and describe. The trouble with people is that their behavior is the only thing that lends itself to scientific methods. We can describe it scientifically, but not much else. I suppose it’s somewhat like quantum mechanics and cosmology. When we leave the domain of the human senses, science breaks down. It requires verifiable observations to prove theories, after all.

I would say psychology is essentially applied philosophy of mind. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s very much based on cultural norms. And, yes, I’d say that rabbit hole leads straight to the Achilles heel of modern society. We’ve aggrandized and focused on the technologies derived from physical sciences and let wisdom and social intelligence wither away. Those things are what ancient civilizations excelled at because it was the key to making the transition from barbarism to civilized society.

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I’m not sure what you’re getting at here, so perhaps I’m misreading it. Quantum mechanics is an area where we do have a lot of verifiable observations, which is why we have accurate models that allow us to use calculations to design drugs and engineer semiconductor devices, lasers, and even rudimentary quantum information devices. As indicated in the OP, some of the outcomes are statistical, and that’s something we need to take into account in our measurements and engineering.

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IMHO, this problem arises because in the social and psychological fields of study, things are neither completely random, nor completely deterministic. (Think of Stock prices or medical prescriptions!) Rather, there are general rules according to which things usually happen, but occasionally something completely different will result… and this occurrence can’t be predicted, nor do the fluctuations occur within fixed bounds. The Scientific method rests on independently verifiable, measurable and predictable relationships … none of which are completely true/false of the social and psychological fields.

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Fair enough, I understand. I’m not trying to denigrate the “social sciences”, rather to value them for being a different way of knowing. They should be valued for being “unscientific”, not denigrated.

At the same time, we shouldn’t let our understanding be determined by the rank hypocrisy and bad faith of those who have done nothing but undermine true science and knowledge of any form.


I was thinking yesterday about Asimov’s Foundation theory, which was predicated on the “science” of “psycho-history”, which was the idea that human behavior en mass could be measured and predicted with sufficient accuracy to literally foretell the future for thousands of years. This is the kind of fantasy that I am thinking of, the speculation that the humanities will eventually be amenable to the same level of precision and the same kinds of spectacular results that we find in the material sciences.

Our tech gurus today, the Jeff Bezos’ and Elon Musks and Jack Dorseys, all grew up as sci-fi geeks and read these stories. They inhabit our collective consciousness, and inspire tech leaders to build things in the real world. Who wouldn’t want a jet pack or a flying car? Or go to Mars? I think the underlying idea that human decisions, when analyzed with a large enough data set, may be predicted (and controlled?) underlies the idea of “Big Data”, which has been the driving force of technology for the past decade.

And once again to strike a skeptical note, what if Big Data is a crock? Take the recent US election as an example. The polls were not very accurate, nor were they badly wrong, but they were certainly no more accurate than they have been in the past. Why not? How is it that tech companies can claim to predict and analyze behavior on a granular level, yet are clearly unable to improve on legacy forecasting in an area where there is a superabundance of data, and a pressing need for accurate forecasting? What if Big Data is based on a speculation that simply isn’t true?

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Yes. It is what it is. I was attempting to make a metaphor between that kind of problem the mind poses, as a subject that isn’t very measurable, and the troubles the physical sciences have at the extreme scales (small and large). The weird thing about social science to me is that, well, the thing that we’re trying to measure and study is the thing doing the measuring and the studying. We are the mystery that social sciences try to study. So, we all have one, up-close, and firsthand account of it. It’s just hard to make a objective study of it beyond that.

I teach in the social sciences. I often tell my students that in the physical and natural sciences a theory is a statement of regularity, while in the social sciences a theory is a statement of probability.

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This is a fascinating thought experiment. Thank you.

Interestingly, the big data approach does not follow the principles of science. To talk causation in science you need (1) correlation, (2) a model for how the two things are connected, and (3) proof of the directional flow from cause to effect. In big data, the idea is all you need is to find correlations and then you can act on them.

But given extremely large data sets being scanned for patterns you are going to discover a lot of false correlations. The reason why big data might seem to work is the kinds of uses it is put to - deciding what ad to show someone - are ultimately not that important so who cares if a number miss for every one that works.

I share your skepticism that big data is all that.

That said, random thought, on a more sinister interpretation of the so-so poll predictions vs big data claims–the political pollsters were playing by the rules of polite society in terms of acquiring knowledge from people knowingly participating in their polls. Political parties have not begun to fully access the information gathering and influence potential of big data. What would happen if a party hired Facebook to make their election predictions?

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Basically, you can’t increase their accuracy because of the math of random samples and the biases that are created by the way the sample is taken. The reason the polls seem more unreliable in the recent elections is mainly that the elections are turning out to be extremely close, within the margin of error of random samples. People see polling numbers, and they think, “Oh, [candidate A] is winning with 53% of the vote” rather than “Oh, [candidate A] may get something like 49-57% of the vote.” Then they are shocked when the polls end up off by about 2-3%, and it results in the election going differently because its so close. I mean, we have several key states with results with margins less the 1%. It’s looks more like the results of millions of coin flips than it does humans voting in an election.

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Hey @cdpatton, brilliant. I very much agree with what you say here and to me this is not what democracy should be about.
I want to believe this has very much to do with the way views and opinions are shaped in us human beings in this era of social media and for-profit manipulation of our attention and consciousness. :man_shrugging:

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Interesting point. Is it not still the case, though, that having acted, one might assess the consequences of the action, thus leading to a “causal” understanding? At least, as “causal” as anything can be in the social arena, where there is no possibility of excluding extraneous influences or repeating experiments.

And the big shift there, it seems, is in that people who answer polls tend to be those who trust institutions, and trust in institutions has been systematically undermined in one half of the electorate. Why answer a poll if it’s all just a con anyway?

Garbage in, garbage out, I guess.

But that is in effect what happened with Cambridge Analytica in 2016, and it didn’t work.

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What if one had to transfer one dollar by electronic transfer, manual deposit or check into the bank account of your favorite candidate to cast a vote? The Candidate Voting Fund account could easily be set up to accept not more than one dollar from one unique bank account held by one unique individual/ Tax ID/ Social ID number combination…

Special centers could be set up to service those (between 7% Americans to 20% Indians) with no bank accounts, while simultaneously opening a bank account for them.

That might be a useful application of technology to address a social cause. Pollsters could be given access to the realtime money flow to try to predict the final outcome based on trend analysis…

And if its the payment angle that is worrisome, technology can easily be leveraged to automatically refund the dollar a week after the election… the refund process would simply revalidate the pay in process!

I dunno what Theravada monks would do though? :thinking:

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