–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Reasons, Causes and Social Science

by | Jun 12, 2024

This is a much-discussed topic in philosophy, and a number of classics inform my views here, including: Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (1949); Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1953); Peter Winch, The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy (1958); Wilfrid Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man” (1962); Jerry Fodor, “Special Sciences (or the disunity of science as a working hypothesis)”(1974); and Hilary Putnam, “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’.” (1975) Also important has been John Greenwood’s paper, “Reasons to Believe,” which was published in 1991.

[1] In the social sciences, we are not interested in understanding human motor movement, per se, but rather human action, which consists of motor movements under various interpretations. In abnormal psychology for example, we are not interested in the movements of peoples’ eyes and the dilations of their pupils, but in the voyeurism in which these ocular processes figure. In social psychology, we are not interested in the tensing and flexing of arms, legs, and hands, but in the mob violence they may constitute. In economics, we are not interested in the making of ink marks or the pressing of buttons, but in the trading practices that involve them. In each case, social science is interested in the meaning and significance of bodily processes and movements to the relevant actors and the social environments in which they operate, not in the material events in and of themselves.

[2] The social sciences inquire into the reasons for human behaviors and inclinations like the ones just described, but reasons in what sense? In natural science, we want to know the causes of natural phenomena, and beyond the pleasure inherent in discovery, our primary motive in these investigations is to be able to exert some degree of control over our material circumstances. Now, ‘cause’ is itself a concept for which there are competing accounts (whether probabilistic, counterfactual, or in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions), but I trust that we all have a sense of what is commonly meant by the term and will be able to contrast the idea of a cause with the very different conception of a reason that is the bread and butter of social scientific accounts.

[3] Imagine that we are told by a clinical psychologist that the reasons for a man’s voyeurism lie in various feelings of sexual shame and beliefs concerning his own inadequacy that he acquired, over the course of his childhood; or that a social psychologist says that the reason for the mob violence we have just observed lies in a list of long standing grievances on the part of the rioting group; or that an economic analyst tells us that the reason for this particular investment firm’s trading practices are due to its senior partners’ shared view that we are about to enter a bear market and a common desire not to lose money.

Do these answers provide us with causes, as understood in the natural sciences? I’m inclined to think not, but more on that in a minute. What they clearly do is render the person’s actions intelligible, by providing us with rationales that show them as being related to some purpose or end; that is, they make it possible for us to understand how those actions are reasonable from a certain point of view. Even when the behavior in question is aberrant or irrational – such as that of the voyeur, which is a form of paraphilia – being provided with reasons enables us to see that it makes a certain kind of sense, from the perspective of the actor and within the context of his action.

[4] Such understanding is necessary if we are to place the behavior of our fellow human beings into the normative frameworks that operate throughout the social world and to a great extent define it. Should it be praised or condemned? Should the people in question be rewarded or sanctioned? Do the norms that their actions represent challenge common mores or reaffirm them? Only when we understand the reasons behind the actions of our friends, neighbors, and compatriots can we answer these kinds of questions. 

[5] Do the causes identified by the natural sciences provide understanding like this? Do they render the material universe intelligible, in the way that knowledge of reasons renders the social world intelligible? I don’t think so, and here is a sketch of why:

(a) Intelligibility, in the sense of fitting into a purposeful account, as I have described it, is teleological, and if anything defines the modern revolutions in the natural sciences, it is that they have abandoned a teleological view of nature in favor of a “mechanical” one. People act for reasons that represent certain ends. Atoms and stars and major muscle groups do not. John may ride his bike to the store, in order to buy a gallon of milk, but his nerves, muscles, and bones do not.

(b) With every new iteration in the natural sciences, we move farther and farther away from a teleological story about the non-human world, rather than closer. Evolutionary biology tells us that the purpose we perceive in nature is illusory, and quantum mechanics casts doubt on whether classical laws of rationality, like bivalence and the excluded middle hold. The natural world makes less sense, teleologically-speaking, as our scientific understanding of it increases, not more.

(c) It is precisely because causal explanations do not render the world intelligible in this sense that so many people seek to embed the causal, scientific picture of the world into a larger, supernaturally infused picture (i.e. religion) that will restore the sense of reason and purpose to the world that modern natural science has removed from it.

(d) It is no accident that so many psychologists and philosophers who have embraced a purely “mechanical” approach to personal and social affairs are skeptical of agency and of norms, wanting to get “beyond freedom and dignity,” as B.F. Skinner did and to replace the idea of retributive justice with a purely medical/remedial one, as Gregg Caruso does. Where there are no reasons, there is no agency; where there is no agency, there is no desert; and where there is no desert, there are no norms, beyond the crudest forms of quantitative utility. The point is not that this is unappealing — though it is that too — but that it fails to make sense of the phenomena; to provide an adequate characterization of social reality.

[6] The theist and the eliminative materialist, consequently, are negative images of one another: the theist detests the thought of a material universe that cannot be construed as reasonable and purposeful, and the eliminative materialist has no use for a human, social world that can be so construed.

[7] Are reasons – in the sense of rationales that we’ve just described – also properly deemed causes? That is, beyond rendering human actions intelligible – beyond helping us see why peoples’ behavior makes sense, for the purpose of evaluating it within the normative frameworks that comprise much of our social reality – are reasons also the causes of human action?

This question is most commonly taken up in the debate over whether Folk Psychology should be thought of as a science and whether folk-psychological explanations are properly causal and thus, properly scientific explanations. This is unsurprising, given that psychology is fundamental to the social sciences, just as physics is fundamental to the natural sciences.

Reason-action causation is supposed to be analogous to neurological-motor movement causation. We understand what it means to say that a particular series of neurological events caused the fingers of my left hand to curl up into a fist. The neurological causes are clearly identifiable as discrete, localizable events in the brain that make certain other discrete, localizable events in the hand occur, and we understand the underlying mechanisms by which this is accomplished. The trouble is that there is no analogous story that we might tell about a reason and an action. A reason, whether the conviction that one is sexually inadequate or the belief that a bear market is coming is not a discrete, localizable event. Reasons are not things inside a person’s head, to which one can, at least in principle, point. 

One problem is that folk psychological “mental” states are not reducible to neurological ones, as Jerry Fodor observed in his 1974 paper, “Special Sciences.” Just as the state of “being worth five dollars” is not identifiable with any particular material substrate (paper, metal, and electrical signals can all be worth five dollars), the state of “wanting to run away” is not identifiable with any determinate physical state, being perhaps one thing in a human being, another in an octopus, and yet another in a hypothetical alien. And so whatever alleged causal relationship we are supposed to imagine between reasons and actions is not one that we will be able to cash out, one to one, in terms of physiological, biological, or chemical relationships.

[8] Another problem has to do with the nature of reasons and actions themselves. Reasons involve representations: of things; of states of affairs; and of means and ends. The partners of our hypothetical investment firm represent certain activities as “trades”; certain monetary outcomes as “profits”; and represent the two as related to one another as means to end, the end being represented as a good. The people participating in the mob violence represent certain states of affairs in the polity as “being to our detriment”; as “outrageous”; and as “a blow to our dignity.” They represent the physical violence and property destruction they engage in as “just deserts”; “retribution”; and the like; and represent them as goods. 

Representations are identified and individuated by their content, and content is referential: i.e. what determines the content of an expression or concept is its referent. For a reason to have content, then – to represent something – is for it to refer to something else, and if that reason is a thought, that something else is “outside” the thought. (As Hilary Putnam put it in his paper, “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’,” which is devoted to this issue, “Meanings ain’t in the head.”) So whatever “thinking of a monetary outcome as a profit” is, it’s not a discrete, localizable brain event, although it involves one.

Actions also are not properly identifiable as discrete objects or events, for they too are as much a matter of interpretation – of how things are represented in the public language – as they are a matter of motor movements, per se. In the Investigations, Wittgenstein famously asked what is “left over,” when I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm, and the answer that tempts us is that what is left over is a prior, mental event: i.e. the intent to raise my arm. We’ve seen, however, that this must be a mistake – that we cannot construe intentional states like “wanting to ask a question” or “seeking permission to go to the bathroom” as discrete, localizable, internal events – so there must be something else that makes the same motor movements (i.e. hand-raising) count as asking a question, requesting permission to go to the bathroom, hailing a cab, and the like. That “something else” has to do with which interpretations of the relevant motor movements are warranted and that depends on relevant features of the context and the linguistic rules and conventions of the speaking community. A raised hand while standing on a street corner in New York City is not a request to go to the bathroom, and a raised hand in a third grade class is not an effort to hail a cab, and so on, despite the fact that they involve identical motor movements.

[9] Peter Hacker has called this causal-explanatory dualism (the idea that there are two things, a mental event and a behavioral event that are related as cause and effect) “Crypto-Cartesianism,” and as we’ve seen, it is a kind of Newtonianism applied to social science. Just as one body colliding with another causes the latter to move, so believing, hoping, wanting, hating, fearing, and other “mental states” are supposed to cause us to attest, pursue, attack, flee, and the like. Gilbert Ryle described this whole way of thinking about human action as involving a “category mistake,” in which we “represent the facts of mental life as if they belonged to one logical type or category, when they actually belong to another,” which has been the general legacy of the “reasons as causes” view in the philosophies of action and mind, neither of which are in a healthy state.

[10] Rejecting the identification of reasons with causes and the notion that folk psychological explanations are a species of causal explanation does not require any spooky metaphysics or strange entities: spirits or souls or Cartesian minds or what have you. It does require that we recognize a fundamental explanatory plurality, along the lines of Sellars’ Manifest and Scientific Images, something I addressed in some detail in my “Prolegomena to a Pluralist Metaphysics.” To offer a reason for something someone has done is a very different thing than identifying a cause of some material or bodily event, and the two should not be confused. An interesting question that remains is whether the two types of accounts – the causal and the teleological – ever come together and if so, how? But that will have to wait for another occasion. 

[11] Finally, what of predictions in the social sciences? If reasons aren’t the causes of actions, but rather their rationales, then how can social scientists’ understanding of reasons enable them to predict peoples’ actions? To put the matter briefly, it can’t. The game of predicting actions in the social sciences – which again, is not equivalent to predicting motor movements – is one entirely of enumerative induction, based on prior observed actions. And given the lack of anything like the underlying causal mechanisms available in natural science explanations, it is unsurprising that predictions in the social sciences have enjoyed meager success.