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The epistemic fallacy

from Lars Syll

bhaskit is not the fact that science occurs that gives the world a structure such that it can be known by men. Rather, it is the fact that the world has such a structure that makes science, whether or not it actually occurs, possible. That is to say, it is not the character of science that imposes a determinate pattern or order on the world; but the order of the world that, under certain determinate conditions, makes possible the cluster of activities we call ‘science’. It does not follow from the fact that the nature of the world can only be known from (a study of) science, that its nature is determined by (the structure of) science. Propositions in ontology, i.e. about being, can only be established by reference to science. But this does not mean that they are disguised, veiled or otherwise elliptical propositions about science … The ‘epistemic fallacy’ consists in assuming that, or arguing as if, they are.

No philosopher of science has influenced yours truly’s thinking more than Roy did, and in a time when scientific relativism is still on the march, it is important to keep up his claim for not reducing science to a pure discursive level.


Science is made possible by the fact that there exists a reality beyond our theories and concepts of it. It is this reality that our theories in some way deal with. Contrary to positivism, I cannot see that the main task of science is to detect event-regularities between observed facts. Rather, the task must be conceived as identifying the underlying structure and forces that produce the observed events.

The problem with positivist social science is not that it gives the wrong answers, but rather that in a strict sense it does not give answers at all. Its explanatory models presuppose that the social reality is ‘closed,’ and since social reality is fundamentally ‘open,’ models of that kind cannot explain anything about​ what happens in such a universe. Positivist social science has to postulate closed conditions to make its models operational and then – totally unrealistically – impute these closed conditions to society’s real structure.

What makes knowledge in social sciences possible is the fact that society consists of social structures and positions that influence the individuals of society, partly through their being the necessary prerequisite for the actions of individuals but also because they dispose individuals to act (within a given structure) in a certain way. These structures constitute the ‘deep structure’ of society.

Our observations and theories are concept-dependent without therefore necessarily being concept-determined. There is a reality existing independently of our knowledge and theories of it. Although we cannot apprehend it without using our concepts and theories, these are not the same as reality itself. Reality and our concepts of it are not identical. Social science is made possible by existing structures and relations in society that are continually reproduced and transformed by different actors.

Explanations and predictions of social phenomena require theory constructions. Just looking for correlations between events is not enough. One has to get under the surface and see the deeper underlying structures and mechanisms that essentially constitute the social system.

The basic question one has to pose when studying social relations and events are​ what are the fundamental relations without which they would cease to exist. The answer will point to causal mechanisms and tendencies that act in the concrete contexts we study. Whether these mechanisms are activated and what effects they will have in that case it is not possible to predict, since these depend on accidental and variable relations. Every social phenomenon is determined by a host of both necessary and contingent relations, and it is impossible in practice to have complete knowledge of these constantly changing relations. That is also why we can never confidently predict them. What we can do, through learning about the mechanisms of the structures of society, is to identify the driving forces behind them, thereby making it possible to indicate the direction in which things tend to develop.

The world itself should never be conflated with the knowledge we have of it. Science can only produce meaningful, relevant and realist knowledge if it acknowledges its dependence of the​ world out there. Ultimately that also means that the critique yours truly wages against mainstream economics is that it doesn’t take that ontological requirement seriously.

  1. Jamie
  2. Gerald Holtham
    June 21, 2021 at 2:45 pm

    I don’t believe there are many phenomenalists out there who dispute the existence of a reality independent of our conception of it.
    When it comes to social phenomena things get a bit more complicated because institutions and people’s actions are determined by their conception of social relations. Can we “understand” their actions without sharing or at least knowing their conceptions? Freudian psychology purports to explain people’s behaviour without sharing their conception of what they are doing; indeed it purports to identify the true motives of behaviour and to give those primacy over the stories that people tell themselves. Of course the scientific status of Freud’s work is disputed. Nevertheless attempts to explain people’s actions without consideration of their consciousness are common in social science, though not perhaps in anthropology. Economists in particular are excessively dismissive of people’s testimony about what they are doing, preferring to regard actions as uniquely revealing.
    Another problem is the complexity of the causal web in social situations. There are just lots of things going on. No-one involved in most branches of engineering supposes that a single physical theory is sufficient to deal with a real task or situation. Lots of physical laws are typically involved. None can be abrogated but none is sufficient on its own to explain outcomes. The engineer takes them all into account and then leaves a healthy safety margin for the things she doesn’t know. Why should it be any different in social studies?
    Yet in practice economics suffers from a kind of monocular vision among both its practitioners and its critics. Economic models are derided for not resembling any actual situation and economists sometimes talk and act as if reality is bound to resemble or develop according to some model they favour. The best practitioners are aware of many models and select those they think represent one of the causal influences involved at a given time and place. They have to arrive at a messy synthesis of models, which may be formally incompatible, and examine or simulate it to get an intuitive feeling for likely consequences.
    There is no recognised profession of economic engineer yet no study area is so in need of the activity of using partial insights to manage complex situations. There are no economic models or theories that explain anything on their own. But I would hazard that there are few that have never been found useful at all in contributing to understanding any situation or episode whatsoever. .Sometimes the contribution is inverse: a theory says assumption X is a necessary condition for Y; you don’t believe X holds so you can rule out Y. Serious intellectual work is rarely entirely wasted – but that is not to defend the priorities or resource allocation within economics. It is indeed badly skewed.

    • June 21, 2021 at 6:33 pm

      Thanks. I’ve been interested in your posts. Recently, I read Facts and Values: Studies in Ethical Analysis (1962). This work deals with justification of value beliefs in terms of reasons–reasons that have to do with scientific knowledge. The author, C. L. Stevenson, firmly in the analytical philosophy movement, sought to allay profound skepticism about the ability to ground beliefs like “X is good” or “Y is a great novel within its genre.” He makes does not claim the ability to get all people in a given discussion to agree on such statements. Nonetheless, it is not true that a statement that “X is good in some respect)” reduces to nothing more than “I approve of X.” Stevenson’s dialogic account begins to make it possible to argue or contest claims for example that things are just. Accounts that build on this kind of theory can be found more recently in Charles Taylor’s or Elizabeth Anderson’s work.
      Stevenson’s essays in the book relate to your theme from phenomenology about reasons people consciously have for what they do or believe. I would add that one does not have to take such reasons at face value or that one restricts one’s methodology to questionnaires, interviews, etc. (of course). I feel Behavioral Economics (Kahneman, Tversky, etc.) begins to attack the idea of assuming a psychology and testing at the level of demand curves, etc. Also, some Radical labor economists started a program of structuralist–Post-Keynesian research with unions, immigrant workers, etc. in the 1970s. They sought to develop an understanding of subjective aspirations, etc. driving such movements, how they bargained, etc. It was firmly institutionalist in its rejection of a priori behavioral assumptions. This small group developed empirically grounded theories of inflation and unemployment, building on existing work by Institutionalist labor economists.
      You mention Anthropology as a social science where things go on involving actual meanings to subjects of study. In early-20 century, Max Weber takes up the mantle of “understanding” by human subjects (and attacks economics) in The Methodology of the Social Sciences (1949) (in English trans.), which I recently read. Soc. and Anth are two fields are closely related methodologically.
      I enjoyed your reply, though I think these issues may be orthogonal to much of the discussion so far! Thanks for your stimulating post, Lars.

  3. deshoebox
    June 21, 2021 at 3:35 pm

    For a somewhat broader perspective on this issue I recommend poeple lesten to Rupert Sheldrake on the subject of science and materialism. I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Bhaskar that the world is structured in such a way that science is possible. Sheldrake in particular talks about the aspects of the world that science, because it cannot come up with a reasonable explanation, slimply ignores. This is characteristic of the human mind, not of the world itself. Economics is another basket of worms and should be discussed separately from science, being mostly an elaborate rationalization for capitalism.

    • John Jensen
      June 21, 2021 at 4:09 pm

      I agree with your comment on capitalism – it obviously works primarily for a rich group with a large megaphone and gullible followers. But, nature does appear to have enough order to it that experimental guessing sometimes works pretty well. Otherwise we wouldn’t get s = 1/2at^2 from dropping cannon balls.

  4. Craig
    June 21, 2021 at 6:08 pm

    All realities are real, it’s just that some realities are more complete and less delusional than others. The science of self awareness/consciousness of that science’s highest concept and experience, namely the natural philosophical concept and experience of grace, is the highest, most integrative, most unitary, most complete and most RELEVANT epistemological AND temporal reality.

    If you want a humane, well functioning and sane economics, align it with policies based on the aspects of grace.

  5. Gerald Holtham
    June 21, 2021 at 7:36 pm

    While I agree with Lars realist position he makes certain statements that I find incomprehensible. I am not saying they are wrong but I just cannot attach any clear meaning to them. I think they are points where he shows the influence of Tony Lawson. For example the the statement that reality is open but positivist science regards it as closed. Open or closed to what? Any theoretical system is open to the extent that it does not seek to explain everything at a given level of analysis. Since the economy is an abstraction, all economic theories or models are open in the sense that they rely on ceteris paribus assumptions because they cannot explain social phenomena which nonetheless bear on economic outcomes. Does closed mean fixed or unchanging? No social phenomena are truly fixed but if we are to understand them they cannot be evanescent. Some stability is required for understanding, never mind modelling. Of course that has the implication that a theory that is serviceable today may be useless in future.
    Lars sometimes uses the word atomistic pejoratively too. But any theory or analysis has to have elements, ie entities with boundaries that make them distinct from other entities. The elements can be evolving and interdependent and in the social world they generally are. They are nonetheless “atoms” if you like. The key is to pick atoms relevant to the phenomena under study. Atoms are not atoms to a quantum theorist, they are systems of more elementary particles. The atoms to someone studying canine behaviour are individual dogs. The analyst does not have to assume they are “independent”. Dogs are pack animals and highly interdependent, operating within changing social hierarchies. Nonetheless the analyst is not making an ontological error by starting with dogs.
    Words like closed, atomistic, ontological, used loosely and without definition, obscure rather than elucidate discussion, at least to plain souls like me. There is a great deal wrong with academic economics but I believe the primary reasons are sociological and ideological not the result of making mistakes in philosophy.

  6. Ken Zimmerman
    June 23, 2021 at 6:57 am

    A narrow and generally not useful vision of science. I’ll offer this alternative.

    Within an expanded conception of scientific culture, however-one that goes beyond science-as-knowledge, to include the material, social, and temporal dimensions of science-it becomes possible to imagine that science is not just about representation. And working through the studies discussed later in this book has convinced me that it is both pos-sible and necessary to escape from the representational idiom if we are to get to grips with scientific practice. The point is this: Within the representational idiom, people and things tend to appear as shadows of themselves. Scientists figure as disembodied intellects making knowledge in a field of facts and observations (and language, as the reflexivists remind us). But there is quite another way of thinking about science. One can start from the idea that the world is filled not, in the first instance, with facts and observations, but with agency. The world, I want to say, is continually doing things, things that bear upon us not as observation statements upon disembodied intellects but as forces upon material beings. Think of the weather. Winds, storms, droughts, floods, heat and cold-all of these engage with our bodies as well as our minds, often in life-threatening ways. The parts of the world that I know best are ones where one could not survive for any length of time without responding in a very direct way to such material agency-even in an English sum-mer (never mind a midwestern winter) one would die quite quickly of exposure to the elements in the absence of clothing, buildings, heating, and whatever. Much of everyday life, I would say, has this character of coping with material agency, agency that comes at us from outside the human realm and that cannot be reduced to anything within that realm.

    My suggestion is that we should see science (and, of course, technology) as a continuation and extension of this business of coping with material agency.
    (Andrew Pickering, ‘The Mangle of Practice.’)

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