The difference between physical and social science

By Dr Graham Little PhD AFNZIM
Copyright March 2003 Graham Little

This paper must be read as part of the overall philosophy located at, and the views expressed are those consequential of the general theories of psychology, cause and knowledge, which form the fundamental underpinnings of the system of thought. At times, with no knowledge of the fundamental ideas on which the views are based, the arguments will not necessarily be easy to follow; no apology is offered, for the issues are complex requiring complex solution, and if science is knowledge, which it clearly is, then no discussion of science can proceed without first developing just such a general theory of knowledge within which the issues of science can then be drawn into clear relief 1. There is not nor has been a very adequate theory of knowledge until the one on which these ideas are based, there has certainly not been a theory that converted epistemology from philosophy, full of moot speculation, to a science, with testable consequences. Under these circumstances, the rules associated with strategy in philosophy have been ignored to the degree of bringing philosophy into disrespect, by this I mean that in the absence of a valid and thorough understanding resulting from a general theory of knowledge, backed up by and supported by an integrated general theories of psychology and cause, since as I have well shown one cannot be solved in isolation, discussions on science can only be prefaced by ‘in the absence of…we speculate that…’ No such preface is required here, for the priority and strategic issues have been resolved, although I admit this is not validated, so yet remains speculative to that degree, the point is that this discussion of science proceeds from within the solution to the broader strategic issues, and so is valid within that framework. If these solutions prove not the correct solutions, then this discussion would need to be reconsidered.

All theories of science both physical and social science are of the same fundamental structure, namely that the theory consists of defined variables and the relations between them, and any actual situation then described by the values adopted by the variables. This relationship between ideas as generalities and a Reality of particulars has been discussed at length in this series of papers, and will not be again reviewed. The proposition stated about theories of science follows in fact from the general theory of knowledge developed in the papers, and is merely expressing the details of the application of this general theory of knowledge to the particular situation of science since any and all science, if knowledge, as it is generally regarded to be, can only be a particular of the more general theory dealing with how all knowledge relates to the universe which lies exposed by and/or behind that knowledge 2.

We can ‘see’ the nature of the relationship in a simple, but actual example. Consider the theory of the pendulum, it is T=2π√L/g where T is the period, L the length, and g the gravitational constant. We can now ask ‘what is the period of the pendulum in Rangiputa, or New York, or London, or Beirut? Of course we have to go to the pendulum, measure the length, and then we can calculate the period, and to be really detailed, we need also take into account any variation of the gravitational constant, for as we know it is not quite ‘constant’, merely near enough so.

We can now explore further and ask: what does the equation mean, what does it grasp, and how can we understand it? The questions on the nature of the equations have also been reviewed in earlier papers, and I will merely summarize the view developed more fully elsewhere.

The first issue is that if we are to understand how some knowledge relates to the universe beyond that knowledge, then any example we use must be selected with a careful view to the rule of relations, this states that if any relation between two objects is to be determined, then each of the objects must be independently discernable, and if they are not then any assessment of any relation is merely conjecture, or theory, since we do not know for sure there are two objects. Considering the case of knowledge and its relation to the objects to which the knowledge relates. Say we see horse, and call it a horse. There can be little argument that what is happening is there are two objects, namely the horse and our image of it. This is clear enough, even non-controversial; now let us take the idea of a photon, we measure it, can ‘see’ it footprints, can track it in certain types of chamber, but can we separate it from the universe of which it is part? We can identify our image and the footprint or bubble chamber track, so we can understand the issue on the same level as the horse. But we do ‘see’ the horse, and we see it distinct from the surroundings, we can separate our knowledge of the horse, from the surrounding of the horse, we see both: Can we do the same with the photon? The question of separating the photon from its environment, of ‘seeing’ the object independent of the universe within which the object is embedded is much more difficult, to the point that I do not think we have successfully separated the photon from its environment, for if we had then we would understand how the photon relates to the environment and would then have a full theory of the photon and would not have to assume it a point particle as we do in quantum electron dynamics.

Trying to ‘see’ the photon and its environment, given our present state of technology, breaks the rule of relations; we cannot separate them to the degree that we are confident of independently discerning both. It follows from this discussion that trying to establish the nature of the relation between knowledge of some object and the object requires selection of an example where the rule of relations holds, and ideally where the issues are in full and clear relief. There is an example, complex enough to be realistic and to bring the issues into relief, but simple enough to be clear and understood. Again, this example is worked through more fully in earlier papers.

Consider a TV set. If we twiddle the picture knobs or sound we can vary the quality of the picture or sound. If we choose, we could plot the position of the knobs against the quality. Now call the position of the knob P, and the picture quality or sound quality S. What we would find is the relation S=ƒP that is the quality of picture or sound S is a function of the position of the knob. This is almost trite, because of the rule of relations being so obvious. Now imagine we could not see the TV, and imagine all we could see was the sound or picture and all we had was a little thing some way off, and the two seemed to be interconnected, so that when we twiddled one the other changed. We are now in the same state as with photons, blind as to the mechanisms knowing only our twiddle and the result of it, and for which we can develop mathematical relations. Now if the events and the twiddle occurred frequently …

Consider the TV set; we know that the equation S=ƒP is an estimation of the input-output relation across a known mechanism, namely the electrical circuitry. But none-the-less the equation for a given TV holds. So what does the equation represent? What do the terms represent and how can we understand them? We can now understand the equation, our ‘theory of the TV’ as a consistent expression across the mechanism, and the functionality in the equation expressing the mathematical relation between the two variables and via the mechanism. In short, the functionality summarizes the mechanism and systematizes the communication channel 3 between knob position (P) and quality (S). I argue that all knowledge has the same relation with the object represented by that knowledge, such that the insights gained by the analogy are guidelines for understanding of all science and the equations and formulations it uses.

Consider E=mc², it is of the exact same form as the equation for TV, but we cannot readily ‘see’ separately the mass and energy and the details of what happens, the rule of relations is difficult in these limiting situations. I argue that the understanding of this equation is of the exact same form as for the TV, namely that the functionality expresses the mathematics of the communication channel, and mechanism of the relationship whereby mass becomes energy, and that this is a general position we can use to understand what it is we have with any scientific theory.

Proposition: that all theories of science are of the form that they express relations between variables with these relations summing the communication channel and mechanism between the variables, and that all actual situations for which the theory is applicable are described by the inserting of appropriate values of the variables into the theory. Variables (capital V) themselves within science are ideas with coherence, that is they have a single extension or quality, and that variables (lower case v) with multiple extension, are collections of Variables and can in principle be reduced to the fundamental Variables, although not always easily in practice since it requires understanding of what the Variables in fact might be.

All scientific theories are of the same form and same fundamental epistemological structure, there being no difference in principle between social and physical science. Certainly social science lacks some of the precision, but then it lacks clear and well-structured systems of Variables, this I argue is a function of tools 4 and application, not a difference of principle.

We can sum the position for physical science as follows.

Selection of some set of values for any theory then selects and determines one situation among the many possible.

Such a proposition is neither difficult nor contentious. My point is that the exact same proposition applies equally to social science. Few people become emotional over the state in which a photon or electron is located or placed, unless it becomes an issue of having sufficient electrical power on some given day. But we do become emotive and argue when it comes to social choices.

Social theories bear the exact same relationship to the circumstances to which the theory applies as physical theories do to the circumstances for which they apply.

In terms of epistemological structure there is no difference, but there is a profound difference in relation to what theories describe and the significance of the values selected. If for example, the theory is of social systems, then placing values into the theory must give rise to details of what has been called central planning and socialist states, and in the same theory, by selecting different values so is described market/distributed planning economies.

What sets social science apart is the significance of the values afforded any variables, for immediately then is selected one set of social circumstances over others, and it is crucial if the theory were valid, that both are equally probable for it is not the theory that chooses the values of the variables, but humans in actual circumstances that choose. What is described by the variables in social science? A small part of the list includes: all religions and religious practices, so paganism and human sacrifice is summed in some variable that also sums Christianity and Islam; all Laws; ethics; morals; and all political systems. If the variables used are to achieve anything like the intellectual rigor required then they must enable the extremes as indicated, with all potential range of values being equally likely. I repeat the fundamental, it is not the theory that chooses social norms and conduct, it cannot as a matter of principle, the theory merely describes that which is possible and then it is actual people in actual circumstances who make their choices.5

Should the social scientist fail to achieve the level of detachment demanded then their work would as a consequence be at the same level of every politician, political zealot, priest, religious zealot, and social reformer and have no greater validity. Humankind needs achieve greater rationality and understanding in its choices, and greater discipline regarding its conduct in relation to those choices if the level of enjoyment of life is to be raised for all. Social science in particular has the opportunity to lead this process, but where social science fails to achieve the necessary intellectual precision it degenerates to another rabble-rouser on another reforming crusade.


1 See the article ‘All or nothing’ for full elaboration of this argument, it is an appendix to the paper Note on the importance of strategic thinking in philosophical method.

2 I am trying to be careful with the phrase, all understanding of the universe is rooted in ideas abstracted from that universe, but the ideas are not themselves the universe. See earlier papers for more detail on how ideas come to be, and their relationship with Reality.

3 Again, see previous papers for discussion of communication channels, particularly as arising from work of W. Ross Ashby.

4 See previous papers where I argue that Ashby’s ultimate and immediate effects, supported by my analysis of variables, provides a set of tools well suited for analyzing social systems.

5 Neither Popper or Marx, nor the Koran or the Bible have achieved anything even close to the level of intellectual rigor required to build real understanding of a theory of social systems. Again, see previous papers for how these principles are elaborated in the system ‘person in their environment’.