Monday, October 31, 2005

Revisiting Predictability

Tibor R. Machan

When in the 15th century the sciences really took off and technology started to flourish, many intelligent people became convinced that understanding people and human affairs along the same lines of classical physics is just around the corner. Today that’s still the mainstream view—we will eventually figure out this complicated machine, the human organism, and then we can predict its behavior and, maybe, control it for the best.

This impulse, to apply the principles of the natural sciences to human affairs is not unreasonable since we are, after all, an aspect of the natural world. Surely what applies to the rest of it applies to us as well.

Trouble is that even the rest of it offers up a great variety of things and their principles—that’s one reason for having different scientific disciplines, such as physics, chemistry, biology, botany, zoology, psychology, economics, and all the subdivisions within these. While some think that in time all of it will be combined into a single science, such as physics, this has always been more of a hope than a rational expectation.

When it comes to people, there is plenty that can be understood along lines that understanding is attained about other things—after all, people have mass just as rocks do, breathe like dogs, digest and so on like the other living things in the world. But then other things aren’t all alike either—some swim, some fly, some sting, some scratch, and so on and so forth.

So when it comes to people, there is likely to be something unique about them, and one such thing is their self-determination—they have free will, they choose. Unique but not weird, it seems to me. The evidence is all around us and much of what interests us about people seems to imply just this, that we are choosing animals, we can think for ourselves and guide (or misguide) ourselves by how we do all kinds of routine, strange, and novel things.

One thing that encourages so many to seek for a science of human affairs which will yield predictions of the kind we find in astronomy is that when people do choose to take up tasks—make commitments, set out to do things, determine to pursue goals, etc.—the consequences of their conduct is predictable enough. Say, you go shopping for groceries, so you will be seen walking around picking stuff off shelves, checking prices, filling up the cart, etc., etc. Pretty much predictable. Only if a friend shows up, you will also stop and chat and abandon the commercial but take up the fraternal mode. Then, after a while, you will return to shopping. So a kind of “predictable you” is available for observation and study by, for example, economists. And when you think about large numbers, some pretty serious and reliable predictions can be made simply from knowing that people mostly want to live and flourish in their lives.

But instead if giving a distinctive account of this, too many social scientists will escape into the "Well, we never know quite enough to be certain of what people will do" way of thinking about us. As if the same problem faced them as does the weatherman! Yet consider, our ordinary way of thinking treats weather as an impersonal force, however difficult to predict, however chaotic at times; whereas when it comes to people, our thinking rests on the understanding that they make their own choices and can be held liable for bad ones or given credit for good ones. And with all the variety of kinds and types of human living evident in history and around the globe, this assumption seems quite warranted. (Moreover, without it, one has a hard time with criticizing others even for their faulty thinking about this very issue!)

So, for my money it makes more sense to see the social sciences as trying to understand something in the world that can make choices, that can take up tasks of its own free will, that can initiate some of its conduct. As I like to say to my economist friends, we have the following good enough approach to understanding people in their economic mode: "If one decides to go to market, one is likely to try to make a deal." And that's all the prediction we can get!

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