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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boundaries between natural sciences and humanities

A recent book (Claude Grignon and Claude Kardon, Sciences de l'Homme et Sciences de la Nature) discusses the distinction between the two fields of human knowledge. According to the authors, humanistic disciplines (such as history) are characterised by an inductive methodology, whereas natural sciences (such as physics) are deductive. The first start from facts and build theories in order to explain them, whereas the latter deduce what will happen out of their theories. Hence, in the latter time and history have no role (the laws of physics will never change, whereas human behaviour is historically determined), and the kind of causality involved is altogether different (because of the different relation to time and, I would argue, because of the repeatability of the experiments in natural sciences). The authors themselves admit that this distinction is only a matter of degree and that there are indeed major exceptions (the history of natural sciences, I would for instance suggest, is the history of an inductive collection of instances to be explained).
The subject is challenging, since the distinction is not ascertained as such in India, although astronomy and mathematics, to name just two, were highly developed (let us just think at the invention of "zero"). I have argued elsewhere (in Italian) that this non-distinction is possibly due to a different view of epistemology. Indian epistemology is indeed more inclusive and aims at explaining every kind of cognition (including interesting explanations of erroneous or delusive cognitive episodes). Hence, no distinction is drawn between inductive and deductive fields of knowledge (induction is indeed recognised as present in all cases, even in speculative thought). In sum, one wonders whether the above-mentioned distinction inheres in the disciplines or in the epistemological justification of them.


VS said...

The moment I think of the distinction (as explained) , I find the exceptions. Laws of physics when first discovered or expressed mathematically, were based on induction. When Einstein challenged some established facts, it was based on observation and getting the facts and then making the predictions. I am curious to know what purpose such distinction serves.

elisa freschi said...

Well, I suppose part of the purpose of such distinction is to stress the "superiority" of natural sciences and to try to imitate their superior standards of truth.
I just read another scientific journalist (Simona Morini) writing that scientific theories make predictions, not just pure guesses (hence the difference between astronomy and astrology). In this sense, your comment seems also to agree on a 'normative' aspect of Einstein's physics. Do you think there is no difference among sciences? Or that the difference cannot be expressed independently of concrete instances?

VS said...

I think the latter is more applicable. We have to site the instances. Scientists, can predict only up to the level of information available and then the results depend on what can be measured.

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