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Is the integration of natural and human sciences possible?

I have known Evandro Agazzi for almost twenty years.

I think that he is an extra ordinary person: vivid, energetic, open-minded, an excellent organizer.

I appreciate him very much as a philosopher. In my opinion nowadays he is one of the most interesting researchers in the fields of philosophy of science, epistemology, ethics of science and technology. I has been impressed very much by his deep and fruitful approach to urgent problems which arise in the context of contemporary development of scientific-technological  enterprise and which concern the theoretical substantiation of contemporary scientific and technological policy and the direction of this policy. The specific feature of Evandro Agazzi’s research is that he has been discussing different problems, beginning from those of the philosophy and methodology of science and finishing by those of moral philosophy, in their interrelations.

Evandro Agazzi's understanding of the scientific technological enterprise as an open, adaptive, historically changing, social system of human activity is very fruitful from my point of view. Evandro Agazzi has shown that this system changes its inner structure and modes of functioning, reorganizes aims and at the same time preserves main functional qualities. The latter qualities are connected with achieving strict, objective, reliable knowledge. It is a conditio sine qua non of the existence of science and technology. But the context of obtaining and translating knowledge changes as a result of external influences. So in different social and cultural conditions different fields of science and technology have different possibilities for development.

I devote this text to Professor Evandro Agazzi on occasion to his jubilee. I has tried to analyze the historical changes in the relations between natural and human sciences in the spirit of Evandro Agazzi.


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The relations between natural and human sciences were interpreted in different ways at different stages of the development of science. Sometimes heated discussions devoted to this problem arose. I think now it is possible to understand these relations in a new light. It is connected with changes in both natural and human sciences. In my opinion the most important point in this connection is that these changes afford to formulate a new conception of scientific knowledge as a whole. It is possible to speak about a new type of integration of natural and human sciences. I would like to stress that the integration doesn't mean the forming of a certain united science. There will always be great differences not only between natural and human sciences, but also within the region of natural sciences (for example, between physics and geology) and within that of human sciences (for example, between psychology and sociology). The process of the differentiation of scientific knowledge will continue. And new scientific disciplines will appear. When I speak about the integration, I mean only one thing: the principal unity of research methods. But it is very this point that continues to be at the center of serious debates.


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First attempts to study human beings and social relations in a scientific spirit were connected with imitating the methods and ideas of natural sciences. Experimental psychology, which was founded by W.Wundt at the end of the XIX century, was programmed as extending experimental methods of physics and biology. The founder of sociology A.Comte used the metaphors "social statics" and "social dynamics", borrowing ideas and images from mechanics. Another great sociologist E.Durkheim took metaphors from biology.

In the XXth century a situation changed. Another conception arose and began to be more and more popular. According to this conception a specific feature of studying human beings and their interrelations is that it deals with human actions, which use norms and other semiotic means. So human sciences face a problem of interpretation. There is no principal border between human and social sciences (earlier this distinction was made as follows: social sciences study mechanisms of social stability and functioning and mechanisms of development, humanities deal with text interpretation). According to the new conception social institutes are none other than constellations of meanings, and sociology should be an interpretative science. The study of human beings and their interrelations can be understood as belonging to various human sciences. The rise of the interpretative sociology and anthropology, of cultural psychology, the use of hermeneutics in historical studies lead to the wide popularity of the idea that human sciences are principally differ from natural ones. There is even opinion that human studies are not sciences in the strict sense of the word. I will try to summary the main theses of the followers of these opinions and to object them.

1.The goal of natural sciences is finding general regularities, the goal of human sciences - studying unique individual phenomena. The idea is not new, it was formulated by H.Rickert at the beginning of the XXth century. But it continues to be popular, especially among historians.

2.Natural sciences give explanations of facts, human sciences can suggest only interpretations of human actions and their products, including texts and social institutions. The use of hermeneutics is a specific feature of the latter sciences.

3.Natural sciences can predict future events. So their results can be used for producing technologies, which help people to control the environment and to use natural resources. Human sciences can't predict. Their only goal is understanding.

4.Explanations, used in natural sciences, are not only empirical generalizations. The best of such explanations are derived from a theory. It is difficult to make generalizations in human sciences. It is much more difficult to build theories in this field, as human sciences study local phenomena in a definite space and time. There is even an opinion that a theory is in principle impossible in human studies.

5.Natural sciences can give objective representations of a reality that is studied. These sciences can control the objectivity of their results with the help of an experiment. Experiments that are carried out in human sciences (for example, in psychology) are not genuine ones, as during an experiment communicative relations between a researcher and subjects who are studied arise - so facts, obtained in research, are created by an intervention of a researcher. Results of investigations in human sciences are greatly influenced by values of a researcher, including his/her social interests, political positions and a place in a system of power relations. Moreover, people who are subject of a research can accept the results of a research , and this fact can change social and human reality. So it is impossible to speak about objective knowledge (and, may be, about knowledge at all) in human studies, because reality which is studied is created by the process of research itself.

These ideas are wide spread nowadays and there are a lot of their followers among philosophers and other specialists. I wish to show that these ideas can't be defended and that real relations between natural and human sciences are other. I will analyze these theses point by point.


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1.It is not true that there is an opposition between studying unique individual phenomena and making generalizations. It is impossible to say anything about a unique phenomenon without using general notions and taking into account general relations. At the time of H.Rickert historians as a rule studied actions of some unique persons. Now the most of them study specific historical situations in which a lot of anonymous people participated. Many of historians are interested in problems of social stratification, in economic relations in a specific region at a certain time. So they use the results of sociology and economic studies, mathematical statistics and other general methods. And they try to find general features of objects that they study. The analysis of historical facts is a rational reconstruction.

On the other hand, now many specialists in natural sciences begin to be interested in more and more degree in the evolution and mechanisms of unique systems, such, as the Universe, the Solar System, the Earth, the ecological world system. It is connected with the spread of new ideas concerning natural processes, in particular, with idea of historicity of natural laws, and with the urgent problems of preservation of the unique natural environment of the Humankind.

2.It is true that in ordinary situations, when one deals with people belonging to his/her own culture, to his/her social surrounding, to his/her "life world", the procedures of explanation and understanding seem to be very different. It is rather easy to understand another person, it is not easy to find an explanation of a strange event. This apparent disparity was used by W.Dilthey for elaborating a conception, according to which human sciences use understanding and natural ones explanations. In Dilthey's opinion it is sufficient to fulfill "empathy" in order to understand another person, another text, or another culture. It is necessary to suggest hypothetical explanations and test them in order to conceive natural phenomena.

But in reality the difference between natural and human sciences at this point is not so drastic. The procedure of understanding human actions and products of people's activity include knowledge of rules if actions and communication, reasons of agents and their representations of specific situations.  In ordinary situations there are no problems in obtaining this knowledge, because the rules to which participants follow are the same for all belonging to a corresponding "life world", their reasons are usually known, their representations of a situation are very similar. If a sociologist, an anthropologist or a historian tries to understand another society, another culture or earlier stages of his/her own culture, the procedure of understanding can be very difficult. Because the rules of an action, the motives of agents and the representations of the reality by agents are not known to a researcher in advance, and he/she has to reconstruct them. It means that a researcher suggests different hypotheses concerning the meaning of actions and products which he/she investigates. Testing these hypotheses can confirm or reject them. So understanding is not a mystical procedure of "empathy", but a rational one. It is possible to consider understanding as a kind of an explanation.

In natural sciences a researcher also deals with several types of interpretations, as facts for testing his/her hypotheses are not "given", but are always interpreted. Explanations in natural sciences are connected with finding causes and causal mechanisms. In human sciences a researcher tries to find not only causes, but also reasons of actions. But reasons can be considered as a specific kind of causes.

3.It seems that if one can explain a certain fact, he/she can predict future ones. This opinion was used in the well known model of explanation as covering facts by a general law. The possibility of predicting future events is considered as a specific feature of natural sciences. In reality the prediction of natural phenomena is rather difficult, and sometimes is impossible. It is easy when one deals with a close system and a limited number of factors. Such situations exist under laboratory conditions and in some natural processes, for example, in the moving of planets around the Sun. Classical mechanics studied this kind of natural processes. Specific features of this discipline were interpreted as necessary features of all natural sciences. But when one deals with an open, complex organized system at a point of its bifurcation, prediction is impossible. A researcher can only elaborate several scenarios of a future development, not knowing which of them will be realized. Nevertheless in many cases it is possible to explain an event, when it has already happened. In this case a researcher knows some facts which he/she could not know earlier. For example, if a complex organized system has selected one of several possible scenarios, it could be conditioned by a certain accident fact, which it was impossible to predict. But when this fact has become known, the behavior of the system in the past can be explained.

But the situation in human sciences is in principle the same. It is impossible to make a strict prediction of large social transformations. But it is possible to elaborate different scenarios of the future and to explain events, when they have already happened (it is the work of historians in particular). It is difficult to predict the behavior of individual person in unusual conditions, in particular in situations of choice (sometimes one can't predict his/her own actions in such a situation). A human being can choose between different possibilities. This specific human feature is often used for opposing natural and human sciences. But one can explain actions of a certain individual, if he/she knows the rules of an action, can reconstruct reasons which influenced the choice and the representation of the situation which the person had. At the same time in usual conditions of every day life it is not a problem to predict actions of many people to a degree in which the rules of interaction and regularities, embodied in social institutes, are accepted by all participants. Human sciences can make predictions of events under certain conditions and can be used for producing social and human technologies (in particular, in the spheres of economy, politics, education, psychological training and so on).

4.Human actions not only produce and reproduce social structure, but are at the same time determined by such a structure. A researcher in human sciences not only describes human actions, he/she tries to analyze social and cultural structures, including social institutions and their interrelations. Participants of human interactions follow certain rules. But it not necessary that they know these rules and especially a structure of social institutes and their interrelations. One of the goals of a specialist in human sciences is to analyze these structures. Only constructing a theory can make it. It is true that regularities of human actions are changing, have specific local features, as they are culturally and historically conditioned. If it is possible to say about finding laws in human studies, these laws are local. But in any case understanding and explanation of these regularities (laws) is possible only with the help of a theory.

At the same time, as I have already said, many scientists begin to consider natural laws as historical and changing, in other words, as local as well.

So there is no principal difference between natural and human sciences also at this point.

5. Specialists in natural sciences study reality which is independent of the process of research. But their research is possible only owing to creating different conceptual frameworks and using artificial things: instruments, laboratory devices and so on. Followers of different conceptual frameworks (theories, paradigms, research programs, research traditions and so on) enter into communication with each other, struggle with each other. This struggle includes the defense of not only of a system of ideas, but also of certain social interests, in particular, a place in science as a social institute. But as Evandro Agazzi has excellently shown, these interhuman relations don't preclude from obtaining knowledge about natural phenomena. One can even say that only in a system of these human relations the development of natural sciences is possible, as these conditions afford to formulate different hypotheses, only some of which happen to be fruitful.

But the situation in human sciences is rather similar. Different systems of values enable researchers to find different aspects of social reality. At the same time researchers, belonging to the same social and cultural group, share certain common mode of interpreting human phenomena and so can communicate with each other and can compare and test their hypotheses. It is true that social reality (unlike natural one) can't exist without human activity: it is produced and reproduced by the latter. But there is an objective structure, which determines human activity itself.. The results of a research are assessed from the point of view of obtaining knowledge. A researcher can't create a reality that he/she studies. Other thing is that a situation can arise when the results of research are accepted by a human community as recommending a transformation of the system of human relations. In such a case knowledge, obtained in research, can change human reality. But this is possible only if people accept the results of research and use them for changes. Process of research itself can't influence a reality that is studied and can't create a new reality. In many cases the knowledge of a real situation can't change it: a slave who knows about his/her slavery can't change his/her social position only with the help of this knowledge.

It is true that it is difficult and in many cases impossible to carry out experiments in human studies. A researcher can influence actions of people who are subjects of an experiment. Communication between a researcher and subjects can change the interpretation of a situation by the latter ones. The followers of the communicative approach in psychology stress that a researcher (in particular, an experimenter) and subjects under investigation do not discover something that completely existed before their communication, but in the process of a dialogue jointly create, construct new social reality. But it important to stress that as a rule a researcher can't change rules and norms of actions of subjects under investigation. At the same time it is possible to use definite ways that prevent an experiment from the influence of a researcher.

The most interesting thing is that in many cases it is impossible to make experiments with complex organized systems. The experiment deals with closed systems. But, as it clear now, most natural systems are open and non-stable ones

So although there are differences between natural and human sciences at this point, they are not principal as well.


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I would like to make some conclusions.

Science didn’t arise in the Modern Time. I think there are reasons to speak about ancient and medieval sciences, which are distinguished from the modern one in some essential respects, as they developed within other cognitive and value attitudes.

The modern science is a product of a definite cultural and historical situation. A theory in ancient science is understood and practiced as revealing certain content, which is primordially given, which can be contemplated, intuitively comprehended. The modern experimental natural science became possible as a result of the arise of a certain system of values and ideals which meant such relations of human being with nature which were very specific and had not existed earlier. There are some relations between these values and ideals and the arise of a civilization which can be called technological. Thus what we consider the modern scientific thinking has as a condition of its possibility a set of assumptions. Among these there is an idea of the nature as a simple resource of human activity, as a plastic material, which admits a human interference, transforming it to interests of human being. The latter can in principal completely control natural processes. In the process of experiment there is a violent influence on natural processes, which enables a scientist to prepare phenomena, uncover their hidden parts and produce facts, which are empirical base of science. But if one can predict some processes one can regulate and control them, and take possession of them. "To cognize for prediction, to predict for rule" - these words rather well express some features of the attitude which underlies the modern science.

In such a context the study of human meaningful actions appears as something alien to the spirit of science. As a result the idea of the principal difference between natural and human sciences became popular.

I tried to show that contemporary changes in natural and human sciences afford to understand their relations in a new light and to understand their principal unity. The most important thing is that a new situation in relation between these kinds of science afford to formulate a new understanding of the goals of science as whole. Predicting and control are not only goals of science. In many cases when a scientific investigation can't realize these goals, it has a value as a unique means of explaining and understanding reality.


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