Problems in the Philosophy of Social Science: Towards a Defense of Nomological Explanation in the Social Sciences

Dissertation, University of Michigan (1991)

In this dissertation, I defend the role of nomological explanation in the social sciences by showing that the arguments against social scientific laws fail to demonstrate either their impossibility or impracticality, or the irrelevance of laws to the explanation of human behavior. ;The two strongest arguments against social scientific laws--based on such alleged intractability--are the argument from complexity and the argument from open systems. My attack on these has two parts: First, I demonstrate that there are conceptual flaws internal to both of these arguments--that there is no coherent account of them that can justify abandonment of the nomological ideal in social scientific inquiry. Second, I provide reasons for thinking that the project of law-like explanation is worthwhile. Here I support the idea that we want and can have social scientific laws by exploring an analogy with evolutionary biology, in an attempt to show that natural scientific fields have also faced formidable barriers produced by their subject matter, and have yet retained nomological explanations. This analogy has not been fully recognized, I claim, because those who have criticized attempts to formulate social scientific laws are laboring under a naive and highly idealized conception of the role which laws play in the natural sciences, and the conditions under which they have been produced. Upon a proper view of natural scientific practice--which emphasizes the important role of redescription and theory development in aiding the search for laws--we see more continuity across subject matter, and methodology, than has been allowed by the critics of laws in social science. ;Finally, I show that the arguments against the relevance of social scientific laws are based on a narrow view of what it is that we want explained about human behavior, and do not warrant the abandonment of the nomological ideal in social scientific inquiry. I thereby uphold the prospects for lawlike explanation in social science despite the limitations imposed by its subject matter, and give reasons for remaining optimistic about its chances of overcoming them
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