What are the aims of the human sciences?

What are the aims of the human sciences?

The aims of virtually all the human sciences are the same: to explain human behaviour, formulate theories to predict it, and then develop remedies for the problems identified by those predictions. A more cynical way of looking at it would be to say that human scientists try to manipulate the behaviour of others for their own benefit; an even darker outlook – as portrayed in novels such as Brave New World and 1984 – would be the view that human scientists try to modify and control the way we are. Perhaps such views are not always so far fetched: one only needs to watch a presidential election to see how speech writers and political advisors seek to persuade their audiences, and there are many examples from history (if not the contemporary world) of regimes whose laws amount to a set of rules for the way people can and cannot behave and even think.
Perhaps we should try not to be so cynical yet. There are few people who begin a study of sociology with the intention of taking over the world. The first objective is to explain human behaviour, and just as in natural sciences, the first way of doing this is to ask the question why? What causes us to behave in the way we do, and what causes human phenomena to occur?

Causation and Correlation

But figuring out the cause of a thing can be deeply problematic, just as it can be in natural sciences. In particular, how do we discern between factors that actually CAUSE something to occur, and factors that are simply coincidental or CORRELATE? In other words, we need to make sure we aren’t fooled by the fallacies of either cum hoc ergo propter hoc (‘with this, therefore, because of this’) or post hoc ergo propter hoc(‘after this, therefore because of this’). In other words, assuming that one event is caused by another, just because it happened at the same time or afterwards.
Because of the nature of human sciences, the difficulty of discerning correlation from causation can be even trickier than in the natural sciences. This is because of the extra number of variables, and the way correlation is seized on even more eagerly by researchers or the press in order to explain some long-hidden mystery that has always eluded human beings. To give a few examples, all of these statements are true:

  1. The amount of ice cream consumed is correlated to the number of shark attacks
  2. Cigarette smoking amongst young people correlates to poor grades at school
  3. Sleeping with your shoes on correlates to suffering from headaches in the morning
  4. The decline in pirate numbers correlates to the increase in global warming
  5. HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) is correlated to lower levels of heart disease
  6. Myopia (shortsightedness) is correlated to those who have slept with the light on as children

However, there is no causatory link between these two different states. So how can we explain them? Some are obvious; others are not.

  1. Ice consumption rises in the summer, when there are more people on the beach (and in the sea)
  2. Cigarette smoking is most commonly carried out either by children whose parents are less supportive of their studies, or by students who are less willing to study
  3. Those who sleep with their shoes are more-often-than-not suffering from the effects of a ‘heavy night’ – which results in a hangover the next day
  4. Global warming has increased over time, as have pirate attacks
  5. Hormone Replacement Therapy is expensive, and is more affordable by wealthier households. They generally have a healthier diet, and access to better medical care
  6. Parents with myopia are more inclined to leave the light on in their children’s rooms, and also pass on their genes for the condition

The consequence of mistaking causation for correlation can be serious. In the case of example 5, although there is a correlation, it has been demonstrated that HRT actually increases the risk of heart attack, so prescribing the treatment for those with preexisting conditions could lead to disaster.

Further complications

Extra difficulties may arise in our discovery of why things happen when the cause and the effect is hard to distinguish from one another. This is known as the chicken and egg scenario. For example, are you rich because you own lots of shares? Or do you own lots of shares because you are rich? This is relevant in a lot of social issues. Are you a drunk because you are poor, or are you poor because you are a drunk? Is prison one of the answers to crime, or is it one of the reasons it continues? These things are often self-perpetuating, and we must dig deep to find the reason for them occurring in the first place.
Sometimes things simply happen by chance, and no rule can be found to explain them. This is especially the case in human sciences (rather than natural sciences) where people commonly act on a whim, and phenomena occur randomly. Why did you put on that blue shirt today, rather than the red one? Perhaps you have a specific reason (it matches your eyes, and you want to impress the new guy in the office, or you’re wearing it to express your support for a particular football team playing this afternoon), but more likely, you ‘just did’. This is where human sciences differ so greatly from natural sciences – we are so hard to predict.

Differences between human and natural sciences

The key difference between human and natural sciences is one of consciousness. Whereas natural scientists study objects and organisms that are unaware of their own existence, human scientists are concerned with organisms that are. Every decision we make, we do so consciously, with purpose. Without knowing that purpose – and how can one ever know that fully about another human being – it is very hard to explain that decision meaningfully.
In natural science, this idea of purpose and motive is simply not there, so it is much easier to come up with a set of rules to explain the behaviour of physical objects or animals. Whereas compiling a set of laws to account for the behaviour of humans is, for the most part, virtually impossible. We all act in a different way, for different reasons.
Take the simple scenario proposed by the British philosopher AJ Ayer of a man with a glass of wine. The man picks up the wine glass, and drinks from it. Why does he do so? There are many, including:

  1. An expression of politeness
  2. A show of honour or loyalty
  3. A religious observation
  4. A gesture of despair
  5. An act of pleasure
  6. A taste test
  7. An attempt to seduce
  8. An attempt to corrupt
  9. An attempt to summon up courage
  10. The act of someone with a serious medical condition

Our man could be in a happy mood when he drinks, he could have just been dumped by his girlfriend, he could simply be thirsty. But there are many variables here, and it is impossible to say at first sight what is involved in this very simple action. As Ayer puts it:

perhaps the action can be explained only in terms of someone’s intention, or by reference to social norms and conventions, or some combination of the two.

Take, in contrast, the scenario of an antelope at a river. The antelope bends her neck, and drinks from the river. Why does she do so? The answer is:

  1. She is thirsty

In other words, there is no conscious decision to be made by the animal; she is simply responding to a physiological need.
Some have said that the only way we can truly turn human sciences into ‘proper’ sciences is by stripping away all the social meaning involved in people’s actions. Only then can we arrive at a point when we can apply rules to human behaviour. But how can we do this? Take the following scenarios, that have been stripped of all social meaning. Do they really constitute an accurate description of what is going on?

  1. 30 men or women on an rectangular patch of grass marked with straight lines of paint are throwing an elliptical object to each other, running as fast as they can, bashing into each other, and kicking the object through very tall wooden posts at each end of the grass. Around them thousands of other people are shouting, cheering, and banging their hands together, and experiencing different emotions raging from ecstasy to fury.
  2. A large crowd of people in a room, dressed in long flowing robes and flat boards of fabric on their heads, are lining up to climb some steps onto a big wooden box. When they do so, a person dressed similarly hands them pieces of paper, and the other people bang their hands together simultaneously.
  3. Groups of people are gathered in a large room where sound is coming out of large black boxes so loudly that they cannot hear each other talking properly. At intervals, one person from each group gets up and goes to a long table where he exchanges small pieces of paper for glasses full of different coloured liquids. These liquids are drunk by the different groups, gradually altering the abilities of the people to control their balance, powers of reason, emotional state, and self-consciousness.
  4. People are sitting in a large room filled with seats that are arranged on a rising slope towards the back of the room. The people sit in silence for about 2 hours as moving images are projected onto a large screen. Occasionally, and without referring to each other, they express emotions of fear, shock, and happiness.

Are we looking at a true account of what is going on here? Or do we need more reference to the meaning of each scenario? Do we need to use different words, and have an understanding of the implicit meaning of these words.
Another difference between the two disciplines is that in the natural sciences, the observer is not the same as what is being observed. The human sciences, of course, involve people observing people. The significance of this is massive, and its implications will be discussed as we look further into the subject.

(1. A rugby match; 2. A degree ceremony; 3. People in a bar; 4. Cinema)


Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. What are the aims of the human sciences? (10th May 2013). theoryofknowledge.net. http://www.theoryofknowledge.net/areas-of-knowledge/the-human-sciences/what-are-the-aims-of-the-human-sciences/ Last accessed: 19th March 2018


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