Merits and Limits of applying the Scientific Method to Human Society Herbert Pietschmann

Herbert Pietschmann

Institut für Theoretische Physik

der Universität Wien







Modern science has developed a method based on a “frame of thinking” which has proven to be so fruitful that it is applied in all possible fields including human society and the notion of health and illness. However, this “frame of thinking” is based on several prerequisites, which lead to limits of scientific knowledge often not duly recognized. It is most successful for the description of matter in space and time, but aspects which may be essential for the human individual have to be taken in a reductionist view. (For example only causal, no final reasoning). Therefore, modern health systems are in a dilemma: they have to base their notion on science because of its obvious success but they cannot reduce themselves to science because of obvious needs of the human existence.





  1. The Scientific Frame of Thinking


Before we address the more difficult problem of applying the scientific method to human society, let us recall the basis and the origin of this method which was completed in the 17th century (1). Scientific method is based on three roots: The first is Aristotelian logic, one of the founding stones of our culture. It is based in turn on the famous three axioms of logic (axiom of identity, axiom of contradiction and axiom of the excluded third – tertium non datur). In short, it requires the uniqueness of notions and the absence of contradictions between all statements.


The second root stems from the first half of the 17th century, it is the “experiment” as founded by Galileo Galilei. We recognize an experiment by three requirements: reproducability, quantification and analysis. The third requirement, analysis, requests, that experimental results must refer to phenomena which are simple enough to be elements for theoretical descriptions. In other words, the Aristotelian physics, which referred to the motion of bodies within the atmosphere, was too complicated to give a quantitative description. The success of Galileo Galilei was the analysis of such a motion into the two elements: motion in the vacuum plus disturbance of this motion by atmospheric resistence. Only this analysis led to simple enough laws for the motion under the influence of gravity. It is what we may call “atomistic thinking”, which is the result of analysis. This applies not only to the elements of matter (the true atoms and their constituent particles), but to all fields of science.


The third root of the scientific method was formulated in the second half of the 17th century and I will call it “scientific reasoning”. It states, that only causal reasoning (as opposed to final reasoning) is adequate for the scientific method. In other words each effect is based on a cause and we have the relation of cause and effect as the third root of our thinking. We should recall, that the two contemporates (who also exchanged letters), Kepler and Galilei, can be associated with final and causal thinking. Though Kepler had the correct laws for planetary motion, Galilei is considered the father of scientific method. Galilei did not have the correct laws (he was still using circles instead of ellipses), but he used the causal argumentation, whereas Kepler explained the ellipses by the will of God to express the harmony of the world in the planetary system (2).


These three roots of the scientific method (logic, experiment and causal reasoning) form what I call “the scientific frame of thinking”. In a way, this frame is a limit to scientific knowledge, which I call the ontological limit (3). Let us now ask the question, what lies beyond this limit, i.e. what lies outside the frame of scientific thinking. In order to find this out, let us simply list the essential axioms of the scientific method and confront them with their opposites.


Ontological Limit


            Science                                                                    Non scientific entities

Reproducable                                                           Unique

Quantification                                                          Qualities

Analysis                                                                    Holistic

Uniqueness                                                               Vague, colourful

No Contradictions                                                   “LIFE”

Causal Reasoning                                                    Final Reasoning, Interweaving



It is clearly due to the success of the scientific method, that what lies within the frame, i.e. within the ontological limit, is well defined, whereas everything else is only vague and loose. However, we should acknowledge that there is an essential part of our world, which cannot be reached by scientific investigation as a matter of principle. An example is the uniqueness of the individual, which can never be replaced as a whole, even if transplantations of part of the body (including the heart and maybe even including the brain) may be possible.


I should explain why I used the term “LIFE” as opposite of contradictionfree descriptions. It is obviously not “life” in the biological sense, which is of course defined within the scientific method, and therefore free from contradictions. But if we speak of a “lively person” or “alive in his mind”, we refer to a state, which we can all recognize, but which we probably could not define accurately within the frame of logic and experiment.


I mean “LIFE” in the sense of Hegel, who claimed that “something is alive only insofar as it contains contradictions”. (But I also mean it in the sense of the great religious teachers of all cultures who insisted in a similar distinction).


  1. Advantages of Scientific Rationality


As a matter of fact, the scientific frame of thinking (scientific rationality) is so much dominant in western societies, that any other way of argueing or thinking is usually considered “exotic”. This is simply a consequence of the overwhelming advantage in using the scientific method because of its obvious success. We have already pointed out in the last section, that one of the reasons is that it is well-defined and free from contradictions. As a consequence, one can define “right or wrong” by a set of laws and hence no responsibility (in the true sense of the word) rests on the decision-maker. Rather, he or she has to be very careful to avoid errors, whereas genuine responsibility has to be taken only in the domain of “LIFE”, where not all contradictions can be eliminated in an intersubjective way and the consequences of a decision cannot be predicted from any kind of “theory”.


Scientific rationality is universal and generally applicable in the following sense: its primary goal is to formulate laws of nature which “hold” at all times in all space and for everybody. This is the reason, why modern technology was so successfully based on scientific rationality. Based on this universality, we can for instance build complicated machines like airplanes or computers which can be operated by virtually everyone who is willing to learn the relatively simple rules. The behaviour of these machines (in the absence of defects or faults) can be predicted precisely from the laws of nature.


Aristotelian logic is one of the roots of scientific rationality; since it defines all upcoming contradictions to be mistakes or errors, it functions smoothly and – ordinarily – there should be no conflict which cannot be resolved by reason. As Werner Heisenberg once put it (4): Physics deals with those statements about the world, with which everybody must necessarily agree! If unanimous agreement cannot be achieved eventually, it is simply not physics. (Quantum Mechanics may be an exception!). Consequently, problems can be delegated to experts because a solution is either right or wrong and does not depend on personal or subjective preferences. (It is obvious, that all this is oversimplified for brevity, but the essence should be acceptable).


To avoid contradictions and to assure uniqueness in definitions, Aristotelian logic orders notions in hierarchies. On top of the hierarchy is “being” as the most general term and at the very bottom are the individual notions (for instance propernames designing a specific individual or colours, pitches and the like). The definition is made by reference to the next level in the hierarchy and the specific difference to the other notions on the same level. (Notice in passing, that this kind of definition is restricted to pure logic, even in science we have to utilize a different kind of definition, we define a notion by the method to measure it and by its units). As a consequence, it is also one of the advantages of scientific rationality, that it suggests large hierarchical structures as the best means to organize a multitude of elements.


The object of the scientific method is matter in space and time. It is in this part of “reality”, that it has produced its astounding success. Therefore, we have to raise the question can scientific rationality be applied to social structures? (i.e. human beings rather than matter in space and time).


It is imperative, to recognize, that this is not a question of reality, but a decision of acceptance!


History has proven, that it is possible to apply scientific rationality also to social structures, in other words, to organize human beings in hierarchical structures, to con-sider conflicts as errors of communication and to try to consider human beings as ex-changeable. The advantages in particular for building large industrial complexes has been considerable. However, there is a price. The question we have to ask at this particular point in history, is whether we are willing to pay this price also in the future. In other words, do the advantages of applying the scientific rationality to social structures warrant the price we have to pay for it.


In order to approach this question, we have to go back to the roots of scientific rationality and contemplate the distinction between mind and matter.


  1. Descartes Division of the World


The distinction between res cogitans and res extensa (mind and matter), which is the basis of Descartes description of the world (5), can well be considered as a prerequisite for the success of the scientific method. For science allows us to find the “laws of nature”, which refer only to matter in space and time. Therefore, Descartes division corresponds also to the ontological limit (see section 1), because the scientific method applies to res extensa exclusively.


Just as we have given both sides of the ontological limit with typical notions in section 1, we shall now try to design typical notions to both sides of Decartes’ division, i.e. to res extensa and res cogitans.









Descartes Division


Res Extensa (Matter)                                    Res Cogitans (Mind)

Scientific World View (“Weltbild”)                      Communication (“Understanding”)

Action                                                                       Meaning

Description                                                              Understanding

Predictions                                                               Decisions

(based on knowledge)                                             (based on values)


This scheme hardly needs any further elaboration. However, in view of our central topic, let me explain a little bit the distinction between “description” and “understanding”. Matter in space and time is described by the laws of nature given by the scientific method. These laws allow for predictions, they may even “explain” parts of our material world, but we should not call it “understanding” in the true sense. I shall reserve the term “understanding” for human communication. I can understand the decision or the action of a person to whom I am close, I cannot understand the law of gravitation in the sense that I have emotional response to the need of a falling rock. Understanding does not even require consense. If I see a father or a mother with a large number of children in a bus, say, getting out of control and hitting one of the children, I will strongly disagree with the action, but I may still understand the behaviour, for it may remind me on similar feelings which I have had myself (hopefully not leading to the same action!).


Let me try to put this difference between description and understanding again in a scheme:


Description: Explanation                                                           Understanding

Logical                                                                                 May be contradictoy

Rational                                                                                ambivalent

(You can even understand,

what you detest)

Static                                                                                     Dynamic (ever changing)

Parmenides                                                                         Heraclit


Let me try to clarify my view by quoting from the great psychotherapist and educator Carl Rogers, who – from a different starting point, arrives at very similar conclusions (6): “If we choose to utilize our scientific knowledge for free men, then it will demand that we live openly and frankly with the great paradox of the behavioral sciences. We will recognize that behavior, when examined scientifically, is surely best understood as determined by prior causation. This is the great fact of science. But responsible personal choice, which is the most essential element in being a person, which is the core experience in psychotherapy, which exists prior to any scientific endeavor, is an equally prominent fact in our lives. We will have to live with the realization that to deny the reality of the experience of responsible personal choice is as stultifying, as closed-minded, as to deny the possibility of a behavioral science. That these two important elements of our experience appear to be in contradiction has perhaps the same significance as the contradiction between the wave theory and the corpuscular theory of light, both of which can be shown to be true, even though incompatible. We cannot profitably deny our subjective life, any more than we can deny the objective description of that life”.


  1. On Human Dignity


It should be clear by now, that the application of scientific rationality to human society means its reduction to matter in space and time. This can be of benefit also to human beings, if we think of the great achievements of surgery and the like. Since every human being is the unity of body, soul and mind, any help to the body (matter in space and time) is at the same time a help to the human being.


In summarizing the above developments, let us now ask the specific question what we lose, if we apply this reduction. In so doing, I would like to follow Immanuel Kant (7), who pointed out very clearly, that there is something very special in the human realm (“Reich der Zwecke”). It is the uniqueness of the individual human being, the “ego” (or I), which cannot be replaced, which is not reproducible. Again, it should be admitted, that there is also a reproducible part in any human individual; otherwise large hierarchical structures in the industry, say, would not work. As far as the “working force” of human individuals is concerned, there is exchangeability. However, insofar a human being can be the “object of love”, it is unique and not replaceable.


Immanuel Kant has pointed out, that in the human realm everything has either a price or dignity. What is exchangeable has a price, what is unique, constitutes dignity. Although this may be a philosophical differentiation, it has immediate and far-reaching consequences in everyday life. Take for example sexuality. If in a sexual act your partner is exchangeable, you have to pay a price. If in the same situation, which may be identical as far as matter in space and time (that is to say the scientific description) is concerned, the partner is meant as an individual, it has dignity.


We can now conclude our considerations by observing, that any health system has to take into account the great achievements of scientific rationality, otherwise it violates the right of human society for the best possible treatment of illnesses. On the other hand, if this health system restricts itself to the frame of scientific thinking (to scientific rationality), it violates human dignity! Therefore we reach the conclusion, that a health system, which sets out to be of benefit for human beings in their totality has to find a synthesis (or at least a balance) of these two seemingly contradictory poles.




  1. H. Pietschmann:Phänomenologie der Naturwissenschaft, Springer Verl., Berlin


  1. e.g. R. Haase: Keplers Weltharmonik heute, Param Verl., Ahlerstedt (1989)
  2. H. Pietschmann: Three Limits of Scientific Knowledge, Univ. Vienna preprint

UWThPh-1995-25, to be published

  1. W. Heisenberg: Collected Works, Philosophical and Popular Writings

(eds. W. Blum et al.) Piper Verl., München (1984)

  1. R. Descartes: Discours de la méthod, Meiner Verl., Hamburg (1990)
  2. C. Rogers: On Becoming a Person, Constable Ltd., London (1961) p. 400
  3. I. Kant: Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten.Phil. Bibl. Bd. 41, Hamburg (1965)


This article first appeared in: Achtung vor Anthropologie (Hrs. J. Rupitz, E. Schőnberger, C. Zehetner) Verl. Turia u. Kant, Wien, 1998, p177-182.