Views of society: natural science, social science and monism

Past views of society

 Historically, civilisation was thought to be the pinnacle of human achievement, humans were thought to have a special place in the universe, and civilisation was thought to be an example of human superiority and its capacity to rise above nature. In the past, anything out of civilisation and closer to nature, like animals or non-civilised societes, were considered to be inferior.

Nowadays we have a better understanding of the universe. Although some old beliefs are still resilient, now we know, or at least we are learning, that humans don’t have a special place in the universe. We know how mistaken and destructive the sense of superiority of the civilised man over the non-civilised man, animals or the natural world is. And we also learning how futile is the pursuit to rise above nature, for we are part of it.

Yet, despite our better understanding of the universe, the nature of human society is hardly understood.

Present views of society

There are currently two views about human society: one is of the social sciences, and the other one is of the natural sciences. The natural sciences emphasizes on the biological origins of society, trying to explain it in evolutionary terms. The social sciences on the other hand, sees  society as shaped by structures like the economy or culture, which are irreducible to human nature or evolution.

One way of looking at the differences between the social and the natural sciences is in terms of the perennial nature-nurture debate. We know that human behaviour is partly inherited and party learnt; although there are always a discrepancies on how much of our behaviour is learnt and how much is inherited. The difference between the natural and the social sciences can be seen in terms of these discrepancies. The natural sciences tend to emphasize on our inherited behaviour. Our social behaviour, according to them, is part of our internal nature. Human behaviour, including social behaviour, is shaped by our genes, therefore it can be explained in evolutionary temrs. The social sciences on the other hand, emphasize on the effects of an external social environment that is independent from genes and evolution.

Conflicts among disciplines are a common occurrence in science. And the tendency has always been that conflictive disciplines eventually converge or become compatible. May be eventually the social sciences will become part of the natural sciences. But for the moment they remain distinct disciplines.

Problems with current views

A common difference  between scientific disciplines (also true between the natural and social sciences) lies in that they study phenomena at different levels of organisation. Each level of organisation is governed by their own principles and laws of nature. And the laws of nature at different levels of organisation are characterised by two things: they are continuous, but also irreducible. They are continuous because nature is the same and compatible at all levels of organisation. And they are irreducible because the laws governing higher levels of organisation cannot be reduced to the laws of lower levels.

Because of the continuity of the laws of nature, each discipline in science can presuppose the validity and compatibility of laws at lower levels of organisation. So for example, despite their differences, there is continuity in the laws governing chemistry, molecular biology and biology. And because of the irreducibility of the laws of nature, laws at higher levels cannot be reduced to the laws at lower levels. So for example, evolution cannot be reduced to the combination of atomic forces.

The main problem with social sciences is the discontinuity between the laws governing society and the laws of the natural world.

the natural & the social – in modern science

In the social sciences, the natural world and the social world are interlinked and mutually related, but they remain essentially different. Their relationship is one of resources, weather, climate, etc. but not of nature. The nature of society, in social sciences, is essentially different from the nature of the world.

And the main problem with the natural sciences, is that they tend to reduce the laws governing social organisation to lower order of organisation, like biological explanations. Just as evolution cannot be reduced to atomic forces, the laws governing social organisation cannot be reduced to biological explanations.

An alternative view of society

In the following we are going to contemplate society from a monist point of view. A monist universe is a natural universe where everything responds to the laws of nature; therefore society, by metaphysical necessity, is a natural phenomena.

the natural & the social – in a monist universe

From a monist point of view the social world, unlike in natural sciences, is governed by irreducible laws; and unlike the social sciences, is governed by laws continuous with the laws of nature. In a monist universe there is no discontinuity between the natural and the social world.

The continuity of society with the natural world can be followed in two ways: On the complexity of society (with complexity as a universal natural phenomena) and on its dependence to human nature. Both aspects are contemplated in what we shall call ‘the system’.


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