To Rational Causation.

Social science. The social sciences present yet another problem about the nature of the causal connections involved in scientific explanations. By “social sciences,” I mean the various branches of science that attempt to understand human society, from anthropology and sociology, which both claim to be the most basic social science, to economics, political science and even history, though the latter has reservations about calling itself a science at all. The main issue about the nature of causation in these fields has to do with whether explanations of social phenomena are reducible to explanations of the individuals involved in social phenomena. It is basically a dispute between individualism and holism, and what is at issue is the essential nature of the object being studied by these sciences. Whereas holism is the belief that a human society as a whole is something more than the sum of its parts, individualism is the belief that it is just all the individuals that make up society.

Individualism. The roots of individualism go back to Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith. Max Weber stands out as a defender of individualism among advocates of hermeneutical (or interpretive) social science. But in the contemporary era, its main defenders have been F. A. von Hayek and Karl Popper.[1] These philosophers call themselves "methodological" individualists, because they think of individualism as principle about how to practice social science. But it presupposes an ontological position, because a science that follows that methodological principle could not be expected to discover the truth, unless the society were nothing but the behavior and interaction of all its members in the natural world.

Methodological individualist hold that all social phenomena can be explained, in principle, as either the intended or unintended consequences of the (mostly) rationally explicable behavior of the individuals involved in the situations they face. Methodological individualism does not have to take a stand on whether or not such rational explanations can be reduced to explanations in natural science. Its main point is that what makes social phenomena seem to be something more than what the individuals do is that the consequences of all their actions as they add up in space over time are largely unintended.

More recently, a form of individualism has been defended by sociobiologists, at least, implicitly. They attempt to give an evolutionary explanation of the social nature of human beings. Darwin was the first naturalist to defend an evolutionary explanation of human beings was (in his Descent of Man). But he was not an individualist, because he recognized the role of group level selection in human evolution, as well as individual level natural selection. The most recent attempts to establish a science of human society as a branch of evolutionary biology are due to Edward O. Wilson (1975, Ch. 27; 1978; and, with Charles J. Lumsden, 1983). They are individualists, because their project is to explain social phenomena by natural selection working on the individual level.

Holism. Contemporary defenders of holism about society believe that there are irreducible laws about social phenomena. Prominent epistemological philosophers of social science, such as Bhaskar (1979) and Manicas (1987), believe that casual processes throughout nature are stratified. They hold that there are irreducible laws not only at the social level, but also at other levels of organization, such as psychology, physiology, biology, and chemistry. They believe that theories in social science must mention unobservable theoretical entities, such as social structure, and as scientific realists, they believe that those entities exist in some way that is not reducible to the individuals and their behavior.

The roots of social holism can be traced to theorists about human society in the 19th Century. Among those classical defenders of holism, there is a difference between those who took a basically hermeneutical or interpretative approach to explaining individual behavior and those who were naturalists about the explanation of individual behavior (or psychology).

The interpretationalists are represented by Herder and Hegel. Herder used the notion of Das Volk as a way of pointing to the cultural aspect of spiritual animals, but he thought of culture as expressing the nature of society as an irreducible spiritual entity. Thinking of himself as the founder of history, Herder saw human history as the story of the transit though the natural world of a kind of spiritual being whose nature could be understood only from the inside (that is, through its culture). For Hegel, Das Volk became Die Volksgeist, and ultimately the state, as part of his idealist metaphysics. Hegel saw evolution and history as a dialectical progress of the Idea in which it becomes aware of itself in the natural world, and objective spirit was a later moment in that process.

The naturalists who defended holism in the 19th Century accepted the empirical method of science as the only valid way of acquiring knowledge about the world, and thus, they understood holism in terms of the social aspect of spiritual animals, rather than the cultural aspect. They rejected individualism in favor of believing in the existence of irreducible laws and/or entities on the social level. August Comte, for example, thought of science as seeking to discover basic laws of nature on each of several levels of phenomena, including physiological explanations of individuals and laws of social development. Though each branch of science went through a predicable series of stages before it discovered the basic laws (religious, metaphysical and positivist stages), the laws of higher level strata of nature could not be explained in terms of the laws of lower level strata. Emile Durkheim also thought of himself as a naturalist, but his theories turned on the recognition of a conscience collective, which seems to his detractors, at least, as belief in a group mind, though it was probably only a way of talking about the effect of the society, by way of its culture, on the members.

The ontological critique of epistemological philosophy of social science will show that individualism and holism are both true and both false. Both are true, because social phenomena are the result of organisms evolving at both the individual and social levels of biological organization at once. And both are false, because each takes the truth of what it is defending to deny the truth of what the other side is defending. Because neither side in this dispute understands the basic nature of the object investigated by the social sciences, each is describing only an aspect of this phenomenon and trying to parlay it into an explanation of the basic nature of society.

The nature of social phenomena has been explained by tracing the course of evolution by reproductive causation from primates (manipulative animals, at stage 7) through primitive and rational spiritual animals (stages 8 and 9) to philosophical spiritual animals (at stage 10, including the individualism-holism dispute). Since evolution is explained as a global regularity, everything that evolves is reduced ontologically to space and matter in a world like ours, including spiritual animals. But that does not make the levels of biological organization any less real. We have seen how levels of part-whole complexity are responsible for stages of evolution. But the three stages at which spiritual animals evolve are unique, because on them, reproductive causation is a work on two levels of biological organization at once. There are, in other words, organisms on both the individual and the social levels of biological organization imposing natural selection on themselves by their own reproduction in space. Thus, at the same time that spiritual animals are changing gradually in the direction of natural perfection for organisms subject to the condition of being made up of language-using multicellular animals as parts, the individuals are changing in the direction of natural perfection for multicellular animals subject to the condition of being parts of spiritual animals.

Since this ontological theory about the essential nature of the object of the social sciences has already been explained, I will invoke it here it to sketch the ontological critique of individualism and holism in social science.

Ontological critique of methodological individualism. What is true about methodological individualism is that the behavior of the members of spiritual animals can be explained rationally in the situations that they face. There are no effects or influences of the spiritual animal on its members that are not mediated by the rationally explicable behavior and interaction of the individuals. That means that there are no group minds nor irreducible spiritual substances that act on rational subjects by means that they cannot observe and explain. But that does not mean that social holism if false, because by means of such transparent processes, the society as a whole has decisive effects on the individuals.

The rational nature of the individuals. The most basic effect of the social level on the individuals is one that lies mainly in the past, namely, the evolution of the spiritual animals of which they are parts. It is the evolution of spiritual animals by group level natural selection through warfare that has made the individuals rational, for that is what explains the evolution of psychological sentences, which enables them to reflect on their psychological states as reasons (that is, as causes of their beliefs and behavior that are represented as such causes as an essential part of the mechanism by which they cause beliefs and behavior).

Methodological individualism takes the rationality of the individuals for granted and tries to explain the society, including their economic cooperation in civil society as well as government, as the result of rational individuals acting in their individual self interest. At one extreme, methodological individualists such as Hobbes explain society itself as a contract among rational subjects. At the other extreme, they admit that the historical origin of economic and political institutions is basically the accumulation of the unintended consequences of the rationally explicable behavior of many individuals over many generations, and so they recommend a conservative attitude about tampering with what has come to exist. But in either case, the basic premise of their explanation — that individuals are rational subjects — is simply taken for granted, and that is to ignore the most basic effect of the social level organism on the individuals, namely, the evolution of spiritual animals at the social level of biological organization by imposing natural selection on themselves through warfare.

Thus, methodological individualism fails to recognize the basic way in which holism is true: Society is not a construct of reason, but rather, reason is an effect of the evolution of spiritual animals. Reason does make it possible for individuals to act together in pursuit of common goals. But the individuals have such a power only because they already pursued common goals before reason evolved, that is, at the primitive stage, when they had only the use of natural sentences and social level behavior depended on a leader to assign tasks to individuals. Furthermore, contracts are just one way in which rational beings are able to act jointly in pursuit of common goals. Institutions themselves are ways of generating social level behavior for the control of relevant conditions on the social level that usually do not depend on contract.

Sociobiology defends a more radical kind of individualism, because it does not recognize much of a role, if any, for reason in guiding behavior. Instead, it proposes to explain individual behavior by the evolution of genes in individuals that disposes them to pursue certain goals, including to learn certain rules (or “epigenetic rules,” as Wilson calls them).

Their best example of such genes are attitudes toward incest, such as the way in which children raised together tend not to find one another sexually attractive at puberty. But sociobiologists suggest that there are similar genes for warfare, religion, male domination of women, as well as the disposition to learn certain skills and rules. And the cooperation among individuals is explained as a result of the evolution of altruistic genes as a result of what they call “kin selection.” Wilson (1975, pp. 563-564), for example, insists that ethics “reduces” to inherited emotions, and he betrays little doubt about his denail of a universal moral standard.

Though sociobiology is on the right track in looking for an evolutionary explanation of human society, their project is crippled by the accidentalism of contemporary Darwinism and its failure to recognize that levels of part-whole complexity in evolving organisms cause stages of evolution. The basic defects are its inability to explain why the evolution of language is inevitable and its failure to recognize the role of reason comes to play in guiding their behavior. Thus, sociobiology is rightly dismissed as “reductionism” in the pejorative sense, of debunking belief in the phenomena to be explained by arguing that what seems to be irreducible is not real in the first place.

The inadequacy of sociobiology’s way of explaining evolution can been seen in its attempt to reduce cultural evolution to biological evolution. Sociobiologists take human culture to be continuous with primate culture, and they explain both the diversity of cultures and why culture can change so much more quickly than biological evolution by the increased reliance on rule-governed behavior. That change is supposed to have given humans more power to change their environment than other animals. But Wilson (1975, p. 574) explains the rapidity of the “social evolution” that has given humans this power by postulating a “motor” that responds “more to internal reorganization” in society and “less on direct responses to features in the surrounding environment.” When challenged to explain what he means, he and Lumsden (1983) offered their theory of “gene-culture co-evolution,” in which culture is not only shaped by genes, but the culture that develops from those “epigenetic rules” also imposes a natural selection on genes. The rapid change is apparently supposed to come from a positive feedback between genes and culture. But if that is all there is to it, there is nothing to guide the co-evolution in one direction rather than another. Hence, it would be surprising if it made humans more powerful. The theory of gene-culture co-evolution is the accidentalist theory of evolution taken to the extreme, for the direction of evolutionary change, having been freed even of having to track changes in an external environment, can take off in any direction. It apparently just happened to take off in the direction of technological control.

The rationality of the individuals is an effect of the social level on the parts in the long past, however, and so we can set aside those earlier stages in human evolution and assume, as methodological individualists do, that the individual are rational. But even when we start with individuals as rational subjects, there are other ways in which the spiritual animal affects its members that also go unrecognized by methodological individualism.

Cultural evolution. One way in which the social level organism affects the individuals as rational subjects is by way of cultural evolution. The individual internalizes the culture of his spiritual animal as a normal part of his development after birth, including not only the language and the capacity to generate arguments (that is, the evolution of behavioral schemata in rational imagination), but also the arguments and conclusions that have accumulated as the culture (that is, all the belief based on the mammalian map of its territory as a way of representing the whole world, including rational subjects who have bodies). That indebtedness to earlier generations is recognized, of course, by methodological individualists, but what they do not see so clearly is that the exchange of arguments, including the education of new members into the culture, is a form of evolution by reproductive causation that has been contained within the spiritual animal for many generations.

Individualists tend to assume that contributions to culture come from individual geniuses who bestow their insights on the rest of us. But that is merely to focus on the random variations rather than the natural selection. The random variations that can be tried out depend on the point that has been reached in the gradual evolutionary change toward natural perfection at any stage, for it is just a recombination of already evolved structures, and thus, it is inevitable in a large enough population, if it is possible at all. But it becomes part of the culture only because others judge that accepting such arguments gives them a more coherent world view, often including a more coherent set of general intentions (or values). That is, the culture evolves by the rational selection of arguments by the individual rational subjects in the spiritual animal, and that is a social level process.

Cultural evolution is an effect of the social level on the individual, because it is a change that depends on the spiritual animal also having a social aspect. The social aspect is a structure of the spiritual animal as a whole, the aspect that has to do with how the members are related and interact as objects in space. At a minimum, they are in continual linguistic interaction, and in rational spiritual animals, that means that arguments are evolving by rational selection. But the culture is also an aspect of the spiritual animal. Though culture is potentially complete in each individual brain (when it has mastery of all the arguments that have accumulated), the culture is a structure of the spiritual animal as a whole, because it also exists in the brains of all the other members and it is exchanged by linguistic interactions.

The social whole has, therefore, an effect on the part, because the continual linguistic interaction among members of a rational spiritual animal is a contained form of reproductive causation in which culture evolves in the direction of discovering the true, the good and the beautiful. But methodological individualists have no need to deny this kind of holism, because it does not compromise the autonomy of the individual. Cultural evolution does not require anything to be true of the social whole that cannot be explained individualistically except the basic fact that the rational individuals are in continual linguistic interaction as parts of a spiritual animal (and we have seen how that is explained by reproductive causation).

The invisible hand. Methodological individualists point to the market as their prime example of how the rationally explicable behavior of many individuals in the situations they face has consequences that none of them may intend. But even this phenomenon depends on a kind of holism that they do not recognize.

Adam Smith is an individualist hero because he showed how the tendency to “truck and barter” leads to a division of labor which makes the production of goods more efficient. Though each individual is pursuing his own self interest, the result of their market interactions is an economic system from which they all benefit. That is the prime example of the “invisible hand” at work

What methodological individualism overlooks, however, is how the market system is a form of class structure, that is, a later stage in the evolution of the social aspect of spiritual animals. As we have seen, there is an inevitable series of stages of social evolution, from nomadic bands through agricultural villages to civilized societies, which are based on a class structure, such as feudalism or slavery. Agriculture introduces the institution of the private ownership of land and other property. Class structure evolves because random variations in the institution of property that give one group of members power over another make it possible to coordinate the behavior of many more members, and since the increased population gives civilized societies an advantage in war, they tend to be naturally selected. It is possible for capitalism to evolve from feudalism in philosophical spiritual animal, because as we has seen, they have a culture that expects rules of morality and justice to be justified on basic principle that recognize the rational autonomy of individuals and they can have a natural science that can develop techniques for controlling what happens by using mathematics to see beneath the observable surface of physical processes.

Capitalism involves, as we have seen, a class relation. There is a basic difference between the role of the capitalist and the worker in the process of production. The worker sells his labor power on the market for a wage, while the capitalist buys labor power and other capital goods to produce commodities for sale on the market and takes the profit. To be sure, it is a class relation that is quite different from feudalism, because the social roles are not necessarily inherited. Besides mobility between the classes, it is possible for the capitalist class relation to evolve into a more abstract form, in which everyone, or nearly everyone, plays both roles, as capitalist and worker. But the class structure is still essential, because it is the mechanism that puts some members in a position of power over other members so that the behavior of many individual can be coordinated to carry out the productive activity of the spiritual animal. .

Methodological individualism does not recognize class structure as a basic trait of spiritual animals. They see only the individuals, each owning different kinds of property, exchanging them on the market. But that is just how the institution of property is used to sustain the class relation in a capitalist society. There must be some members, at least, with sufficient money to start up processes of production, and there must be other members who are willing to sell their labor power for a wage. Historically, these roles come from individual owning different quantities of property, and that is sufficient to serve the function of a class structure.

The work of the invisible hand. A consequence of failing to recognize that the invisible hand of the market is actually a form of the class relation by which large civilized societies are possible is that methodological individualists also fail to recognize its long term effect. Adam Smith argued that market exchanges make production more efficient by leading to a division of labor. But the more important effect of the market in the long run is the way in which capitalism is a contained form of evolution by reproductive causation.

We have seen how the competition among capitalists for a profit involves capitalist selection. What evolves are the processes of production. They reproduce in time as capitalists reinvest in them for another period, and they reproduce in space as well when capitalists invest in new processes of production. But there is a limit on the processes of production that can go through such reproductive cycles, because the commodities must be sold on a finite market, and those producers that offer better commodities at lower prices are the ones who succeed in selling their commodities and, thus, make a profit. It is not just chance which processes of production continue to go through reproductive cycles, because capitalists prefer to make a profit, and they will invest only in production processes that do. Thus, the efficient production of commodities is the non-reproductive work, and since reproduction is by investment in production processes, there is gradual evolution by capitalist selection. There is change gradually in the direction of natural perfection for production processes of their kind, that is, in which commodities are produced as efficiently as possible -- or as Marxians would say, with the least labor time.

As in biological evolution, however, there is also a change at the ecological level. As reproducing organisms (production processes) are changing in the direction of increasing power to control all the conditions that affect their reproduction, the organisms in the region of space tend to diversity to tap all the sources of free energy (to supply all the commodities that people will buy at the price that they must charge to make an average profit). Thus, although production processes start out simple, uniform and not very efficient, they gradually become more complex, more diverse and more efficient. The increase in diversity means that technology, made possible by natural science, is continually being used not only to make the same products more efficiently, but also to produce new and better commodities.

Capitalist evolution is an form of reproductive causation that is contained within spiritual animals, and thus, it is a social level process, or an effect of the spiritual animal as a whole on its members. This is the longest range unintended consequence of the “invisible hand,” but methodological individualism tends to overlook it, because they think of the efficiency as an equilibrium toward which the market economy tends. But far from being an equilibrium, it is an evolutionary process, with the same creative powers of biological evolution.

Methodological individualism is basically correct in its insistence that nothing happens in social processes except the rationally guided behavior and interaction of the members. But its failure to recognize how reproductive causation has shaped individuals to have capacities that work together as a whole means that it overlooks ways in which such individually explicable behavior has added up, and continues to add up, in space over time to social level regularities that affect the individuals.

Ontological critique of social holism. The truth of social holism is aso, therefore, not quite what social holists have imagined.

Contemporary social holists, like Manicas and Bhaskar, who believe that there are irreducible social laws are correct in denying that social laws can be reduced to the basic laws of physics. But that irreducibility comes from not taking into account global regularities, namely, the reproductive global regularities. Reproductive causation is the source of all the ways in which ontological philosophy disagrees with methodological individualism.

The evolution of spiritual animals that makes individuals rational is by natural selection, or reproductive causation on the social level of biological organization.

The evolution of culture is by the rational selection of arguments, or a form of reproductive causation contained within spiritual animals.

The evolution of social structure, including capitalist class structure, is by natural selection of spiritual animals, or reproductive causation on the social level of biological organization.

The evolution of processes of production is by capitalist selection, or a form of reproductive causation contained within spiritual animals.

These are regularities on the social level which social science is trying to explain, and though they are not reducible to the laws of physics, they are ontologically reducible. There is no reason to believe that social laws will refer to unobservable theoretical entities that cannot be explained as being constituted by space and matter as substances enduring though time.

Ontological philosophy must, however, deny traditional forms of social holism that postulate entities that are not constituted by space and matter.

Thus, ontological philosophy must deny the existence of Hegel’s Geist and Herder’s Das Volk, if holists insist that spiritual animals be explained as by the kinds of entities whose existence is affirmed by epistemological philosophy. But the more interesting aspect of this critique is that what Hegel and Herder were referring to is spiritual animals. They portrayed spiritual animals as idealist entities, because they recognized that they have a cultural aspect. But ontological philosophy offers a more complete explanation of what they were referring to by explaining the nature of spiritual animals as a product of evolution by reproductive causation, that is, in which spiritual animals have both a social and a cultural aspect.

Ontological philosophy must deny the positivism that made Comte so confident that laws describing the behavior of societies would be irreducible. There is a deeper explanation, and it is an explanation of the metaphysical kind that Comte dismisses as the “metaphysical stage” preceding positivism in the evolution of science. It is the ontological explanation of evolution on the foundation of spatiomaterialism.

Finally, the social holism of Durkheim must also be rejected, because there is no irreducible tendency of the conscience collective to generate institutions that increase social solidarity. The social solidarity comes from the basic nature of the spiritual animal and, thus, stems from its evolution. And the functionality of the institutions of society is also explained by their capacity to sustain populations that make them better able to win at war, though it is as often mediated by the recognition of that advantage as it is by actual natural selection by warfare. There is no direct, irreducible connection between something contributing to social solidarity and what individuals are constraned to do.

 To What Ought to Be




[1] Methodological individualism was originally defended by Karl Popper (1950, 1957), F. A. Hayek (1952), and J. W. N. Watkins (1952, 1955, 1958 and 1959). It has been criticized by Maurice Mandelbaum (1959), and more recently by David-Hillel Ruben (1985) and Margaret Gilbert (1989).