Reductive explanations in social sciences – S.N. Balagangadhara

1. To begin with, there is the feeling that scientific explanations, with their emphasis on rationality and objectivity, are reductive in nature. Wherein lies the root of this feeling? Let us say that some physical theory describes the motion of a snow flake gently floating down to earth or a rose petal lazily spinning in the air. Or that some branch of human genetics computes the probability of a particular human child being born with absolutely dark eyes or ones that are brilliantly blue. Is either of these two explanations reductive in nature? Not quite: their mathematical calculations tell us very little about the laziness of the petal or about the brilliance of blue eyes, it is true, but it is not their ‘job’ to do so. If you want to relish descriptions of an autumn evening or a spring morning, you do not open Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, do you? You go elsewhere. In other words, the theories in the natural sciences are not ‘reductive’ in the sense that they do not reduce the beauty of a particular sunset to the motion of earth around the Sun even if they explain sunrise and sunset.

2. The current crop of the so-called social sciences does precisely the above. While ostensibly about human beings, their psychologies, their societies and their cultures, the tales they tell shine forth in the splendor of a monochromatic dullness. (Most of us know something or the other about explanations from these so-called social sciences, so I will not try to give examples.) Why? Here is the first possible reason: they have to give reductive explanations because they are ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’. Without ‘reducing’ human beings into objects, one cannot do science and the existing social sciences merely follow the scientific ‘method’. This reason does two things simultaneously: (a) it ‘explains’ the fate that has befallen the social sciences and humanities; (b) it justifies the poverty of these theories by blaming it on the nature of human beings and the nature of ‘science’. We have silly sociological theories and stupid psychological ones, because it is in the nature of human beings to defy being objectified; science cannot work any other way. As I say, this is but one way of looking at the so-called social sciences today. Needless to say, this is the dominant mode as well.

3. There is also another way, my way, of looking at the issue. This is how western culture has been studying human beings, their societies, and their cultures all this while. There is nothing remotely ‘scientific’ about either this venture or its results. The justification they provide (see 2b above) is an expression of an empty pretentiousness: because ‘we’ have not been able to study human societies and cultures differently, the intellectuals from the western culture pontificate, no one else can. The limits of our culture are also the epistemological limits of human beings. Surely, they say, if we have not succeeded, that is because no one can! Why do I say that this is the way of the ‘western culture’? What has this culture to do with the monochromatic formalism I spoke of earlier?

4. When Christianity met (or meets) other ‘religions’ (especially ‘the heathen religions’ like ‘Hinduism’, ‘Buddhism’, ‘Sikhism’, ‘Jainism’ and so on), there is only one way it can describe them: these ‘religions’ do not worship ‘God’ but the ‘Devil’. We are the heathens and the pagans, and the differences (subtle or gross), if any, between these religions are at best those that exist within the heathen religions. Of course, there are ‘rays of light’ to be found in the heathen religions too: but that is accounted for by the fact that these religions are the corruptions and degenerations of the ‘primal’ religion that God (of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) gave to Man. (The same story is told by Judaism and Islam as well, but I will not talk about either of them now.) Over the last two thousand years, Christianity has worked out immensely sophisticated notions of Man, society, and so on. These notions have become a part of our daily language-use: whether you speak English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, or whichever other European language. That is not all.

5. These Christian ideas about Man and his psychology, society and culture, have become the presuppositions for what we call ‘social sciences’ and the ‘humanities’ today. (In my book, I describe this process which I call the ‘secularization’ of Christianity in detail.) They are so deep and so pervasive within the western culture that they set limits to the western imagination itself: it is not simply possible for this culture even to imagine that other ways of thinking and going-about the world are possible. The so-called social sciences today, endlessly embroider this theology: all peoples and cultures (except themselves) are heathens. If this is all they tell, it is, one must admit, pretty boring. Indeed so: everyone and everything (excepting the western culture) are the same, and the most ‘interesting’ things are to be found in the western culture. Whether you speak of politics (from ‘dictatorships’ to ‘democracy’), knowledge (‘science’), settling human disputes (‘Law’), welfare of people (from ‘slavery’ to ‘capitalism’), or whatever takes your fancy, it transpires that the western culture has them all. What they do not have at the moment, they say, is what they have lost (i.e. had them ‘once’). All other cultures end up becoming pale or erring variants of the western culture, in exactly the same way our ‘religions’ are pale and erring variants of Christianity.

6. Of course, it does not stop there. Why has the western culture reduced the other cultures to a pale and erring variant of itself? That is because, it is so: it is epistemologically impossible that human cultures are different in any way other than how the western culture has described them! It calls this reduction ‘science’: ‘objective’, ‘value free’, and what not. Philosophers and social scientists endlessly assure us that it cannot be any other way. This is not ‘science’ but bad, baaaaad Christian theology. It has become ‘secularized’, become established in the universities with professorial chairs, grants, and doctorates and what-have-you, but it remains as dully monochromatic as its religious original: Who is Ganesha? The minion of the Devil. Who is Saraswathi? The minion of the Devil. Who is Krishna? The minion of the Devil. Who is Sharada? The minion of the Devil. What do we do? We worship idols, whether made of stone or clay. We are mentally deficient: that is the reason why we worship cycles, cars, the pen (Aayudhapuja), the cow and the crow, the naked fakir and the stone penis. Not only are the Indians guilty as charged: all heathen cultures are that as well. The Egyptians, the Mayans, the Africans, the Thais, the Japanese … The list extends to all cultures and all peoples who are not Jewish and Muslim. (These two are ‘deficient’ in their worship; they might be heretics but not heathens.) If this is the litany, you can have only one reaction: Ho Hum! (A huge Yawn!)

7. The ‘varieties’ and ‘differences’ in human cultures get reduced to the same: they are all versions of worshipping the Devil. The so-called social sciences are on this track. This is not a simple expression of racism, western superiority or Orientalism (even if they are all that). Rather, it has to do with what western culture is, what its ‘social sciences’ are, and what the relation is between these two and the religion that Christianity is.

8. In other words, this is how I ‘explain’ the reduction that the co-called social sciences indulge in: the reduction occurs not because they are objective and scientific explanations, but because they are secularized theological claims. Until recently, I was in the strict minority of one in the republic of ‘learning’ but I do not believe that you need to win two-thirds of the vote to decide about the truth or falsity of scientific theories. So I soldier on, certain that I have good arguments and an exciting research programme; where possible, I try to show that my story is more interesting than any other that exists in the market-place. In the long run, I know that this story will win out; until such stage, there are the words: “Karmanyeevadhikaaraste, Maa Phaleshu Kadaachana”.

9. From all of these, it follows that I am not trying to compare our culture with the western one any more than I want to compare, say, ‘Hinduism’ with Christianity. But what I do want to do is to understand both: our culture and the western one, our traditions and the western Christianity. It is not enough, if it is a ‘true’ understanding that I merely think I am right. You and the others must not only understand what I say, but you must also be sure that it is not merely my personal prejudices that get bundled together as an ‘explanation’. In other words, you should be able to ‘test’ my theory in any number of ways: from checking it against your own experiences to drawing conclusions from my arguments that I am not even aware. That is what knowledge and objectivity all about: am I ranting and raving, or am I saying something worth thinking about and exploring further?

10. As an unrepentant heathen, I do not believe in the truth claims of Christianity that it is ‘the true’ religion. As a member of the Indian culture, I do believe that alternative (more realistic, more factual and more productive) heuristics exist in our culture that will help human cultures to understand each other. As an intellectual, I believe that developing them is my priority. As a scientist, I believe that if what I say is knowledge, it will also be like what scientific knowledge is: tentative, hypothetical, and ‘testable’ (in a broad sense). And, finally, as a human being, I do not believe that knowledge reduces the complexity of the world but teaches us instead to truly appreciate how marvelous we and our worlds, both natural and cultural, really are.