Knowledge and Imagination

Ezra Zuckerman recently pointed me toward a comment he wrote with Catherine Turco on Duncan Watts’s critique of interpretative or “empathetic” (as opposed to explanatory or “causal”) approaches to sociology . We had been exchanging views about the replication crisis in the social sciences, and Ezra suggested that one of the reasons our theorizing has run wild is the assumption that the mechanism we posit to explain phenomena need not be intuited. In the comment, he and Turco put it as follows:

…our lack of intuition for the mechanisms means that the sole basis for acceptance of such research lies in the results that are presented. Empathetic theories do not rely solely on empirical validation but also on how plausible it is that reasonable individuals would act in the manner supposed by the theory; this sets a higher bar for acceptance of the theory independent of empirical results. (p. 6)

I’m not sure people have to be presumed to be “reasonable” in order for their actions to be “plausible”. It’s long been my view that humans are as distinctly passionate as they are reasonable and that their plausibility, therefore, is as bounded by their passions as their reasons. (Note, indeed, that we’re talking about “empathetic theories”.) But the general point that they are making here is a strong and important one: whatever mechanism is proposed must make intuitive sense.

Another way to put this is that we must be able to imagine it. We must be able to “make ourselves pictures of the facts,” as Wittgenstein famously put it, except that these are not the “cold” facts of natural science. They are facts with which we are also intimately familiar. A description of the mechanism must be recognizable to us, as it were, from the inside. It is not merely something that explains certain effects, but resonates within us as that which moves and is moved by things.

Ezra and Turco emphasize that there’s a substantive issue here:

There can be no debating Watts’s premise that the two modes of inquiry and associated standards are distinct. As he points out, the physical sciences operate purely in the causal mode. Physical scientists do not find it productive to imagine what it would be like to be an electron or cell in order to explain its behavior.

This reminded me of Hayek’s suggestion in the The Counter-Revolution of Science:

The physicist who wishes to understand the problems of the social sciences with the help of an analogy from his own field would have to imagine a world in which he knew by direct observation the inside of the atoms and had neither the possibility of making experiments with lumps of matter nor opportunity to observe more than the interactions of a comparatively few atoms during a limited period.

In a certain sense, physicists do imagine “what it would be like” to be an electron or cell. It’s just that they imagine it would be a very simple and utterly causal (stimulus-response-type) experience. They don’t imagine that the cell or electron would make up its mind about its behavior, not even retrospectively, and this would-be act of sensemaking is therefore quite understandably–quite plausibly, if you will–left out of account in the explanation.

But in the case of human behavior we have to imagine people behaving in one way or another with some awareness of what they are doing. They must, at the very least, live with what they have done. They are not merely gears grinding inputs into outputs. They are conscious beings. Moreover, given our (admittedly somewhat intermittent) empathy with them, we aren’t able to throw them together in all manner of “experimental” situations to test their limits. Social experiments are constrained by our ethics, and those ethics are, presumably, also already constraints on the human behavior that our experiments are designed to help us understand.

There is too much to say about all this in a single blog post. I will take up Ezra Pound’s idea that “the arts provide the data for ethics” in another post. What I wanted to emphasize here is that there can be no knowledge of things without imagination. When it comes to a cell or an electron we have no need to imagine its “inner” workings (at least not in the sense of their subjectivity), but when we turn our science on each other we cannot rest until we have proposed a mechanism that makes intuitive sense of our own lives. Otherwise we end up with a social theory that requires us to be nothing more than pigeons or worms or, indeed, cells or electrons. Like I say, that may already be ethically inadequate, but it is certainly counter-intuitive.