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Is Psychology a Science?

All theories - scientific or not - start with a problem. They aim to solve it by proving that what appears to be "problematic" is not. They re-state the conundrum, or introduce new data, new variables, a new classification, or new organizing principles. They incorporate the problem in a larger body of knowledge, or in a conjecture ("solution"). They explain why we thought we had an issue on our hands - and how it can be avoided, vitiated, or resolved. Scientific theories invite constant criticism and revision.

They yield new problems. They are proven erroneous and are replaced by new models which offer better explanations and a more profound sense of understanding - often by solving these new problems. From time to time, the successor theories constitute a break with everything known and done till then. These seismic convulsions are known as "paradigm shifts". Contrary to widespread opinion - even among scientists - science is not only about "facts".

It is not merely about quantifying, measuring, describing, classifying, and organizing "things" (entities). It is not even concerned with finding out the "truth". Science is about providing us with concepts, explanations, and predictions (collectively known as "theories") and thus endowing us with a sense of understanding of our world. Scientific theories are allegorical or metaphoric. They revolve around symbols and theoretical constructs, concepts and substantive assumptions, axioms and hypotheses - most of which can never, even in principle, be computed, observed, quantified, measured, or correlated with the world "out there". By appealing to our imagination, scientific theories reveal what David Deutsch calls "the fabric of reality". Like any other system of knowledge, science has its fanatics, heretics, and deviants. Instrumentalists, for instance, insist that scientific theories should be concerned exclusively with predicting the outcomes of appropriately designed experiments. Their explanatory powers are of no consequence. Positivists ascribe meaning only to statements that deal with observables and observations.

Instrumentalists and positivists ignore the fact that predictions are derived from models, narratives, and organizing principles. In short: it is the theory's explanatory dimensions that determine which experiments are relevant and which are not. Forecasts - and experiments - that are not embedded in an understanding of the world (in an explanation) do not constitute science. Granted, predictions and experiments are crucial to the growth of scientific knowledge and the winnowing out of erroneous or inadequate theories. But they are not the only mechanisms of natural selection. There are other criteria that help us decide whether to adopt and place confidence in a scientific theory or not. Is the theory aesthetic (parsimonious), logical, does it provide a reasonable explanation and, thus, does it further our understanding of the world? David Deutsch in "The Fabric of Reality" (p. 11): ". (I)t is hard to give a precise definition of 'explanation' or 'understanding'. Roughly speaking, they are about 'why' rather than 'what'; about the inner workings of things; about how things really are, not just how they appear to be; about what must be so, rather than what merely happens to be so; about laws of nature rather than rules of thumb.

They are also about coherence, elegance, and simplicity, as opposed to arbitrariness and complexity ." Reductionists and emergentists ignore the existence of a hierarchy of scientific theories and meta-languages. They believe - and it is an article of faith, not of science - that complex phenomena (such as the human mind) can be reduced to simple ones (such as the physics and chemistry of the brain). Furthermore, to them the act of reduction is, in itself, an explanation and a form of pertinent understanding. Human thought, fantasy, imagination, and emotions are nothing but electric currents and spurts of chemicals in the brain, they say. Holists, on the other hand, refuse to consider the possibility that some higher-level phenomena can, indeed, be fully reduced to base components and primitive interactions. They ignore the fact that reductionism sometimes does provide explanations and understanding. The properties of water, for instance, do spring forth from its chemical and physical composition and from the interactions between its constituent atoms and subatomic particles. Still, there is a general agreement that scientific theories must be abstract (independent of specific time or place), intersubjectively explicit (contain detailed descriptions of the subject matter in unambiguous terms), logically rigorous (make use of logical systems shared and accepted by the practitioners in the field), empirically relevant (correspond to results of empirical research), useful (in describing and/or explaining the world), and provide typologies and predictions. A scientific theory should resort to primitive (atomic) terminology and all its complex (derived) terms and concepts should be defined in these indivisible terms.

It should offer a map unequivocally and consistently connecting operational definitions to theoretical concepts. Operational definitions that connect to the same theoretical concept should not contradict each other (be negatively correlated). They should yield agreement on measurement conducted independently by trained experimenters. But investigation of the theory of its implication can proceed even without quantification. Theoretical concepts need not necessarily be measurable or quantifiable or observable. But a scientific theory should afford at least four levels of quantification of its operational and theoretical definitions of concepts: nominal (labeling), ordinal (ranking), interval and ratio. As we said, scientific theories are not confined to quantified definitions or to a classificatory apparatus. To qualify as scientific they must contain statements about relationships (mostly causal) between concepts - empirically-supported laws and/or propositions (statements derived from axioms). Philosophers like Carl Hempel and Ernest Nagel regard a theory as scientific if it is hypothetico-deductive.


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