The Critical Difference (between the Sciences)
Pro-active Explanation and Retrograde Understanding
The difference between the natural sciences on the one hand, and, on the other the social sciences and humanities is in their subject matter. Yet, people’s evaluations of the two groups of sciences is based in a difference in methodologies.
The critical difference then is that one group of methods—the “scientific” ones—explains events in such manner that we can predict without exception the next occurrence of one; whereas the other group of methods—the social sciences or humanities ones—does not include any such capacity. Instead it has to accept the occurrence of certain events and then to look back at what might help us understand their occurrence.
The “scientific” group of methods could be said to be pro-active; the “humanities”-group to be retro-active.
The Retrograde in Physics
If someone drops something, physics can predict how it will drop … if it has a full view of the initial conditions. So, if the thing is a feather and while it is travelling down a sudden wind gushes out to carry the feather upwards, physical theory should be held able to predict how it would proceed, and so on. In experimental situations these initial conditions are controlled and hence prediction can be decisive. In the real world, however, due to complexity and sheer number, the initial conditions can only be controlled up to a point. I would want to conclude that in real-life the predictive powers of said scientific methodologies presuppose an infinite, total insight in all the relevant conditions (and which conditions would be relevant, and for which theoretical reasons?).
Pro-active explanation depends on accessibility of data. This means that in the absence of absolute knowledge these methodologies too must allow for an element of retroactive assembling.
The Pro-active in Humanities
The insights produced by interpretation and other humanities methods help us understand our own stance in life—to co-determine how we conceive of our selves. In this reflexivity humanities methods produce states of affairs, and, understanding such effects might allow us to predict certain events. This provides, both, an explication of how to deal with the relevant initial conditions and an argument for limiting the approach of humanities or social science experiments on ethical grounds.
Leibniz and Voltaire
The explanatory claims of science appeal to Leibniz’s ideal, that our world be the best of possible worlds.
Leibniz argued in his Essais de théodicée (1710) that our world is the best of all possible worlds: God would only have created this world because it is logical—even He has to accommodate logic. Leibniz concluded that this meant that the present is the best of all possible worlds: because everything hangs together with everything and the reality of the world simply assumes that this coherence is supportive. In plain language, this argument boils down to saying that this world is good because it is. The Only One capable of actually seeing this is, of course, God with His infinite understanding. Science has the beautiful task to reach for this divine perspective.
Voltaire thought differently about the goodness of this world, in Candide, ou l’optimisme (1759): everywhere where Candide, the text’s main character, came, he confronted misery and misbehaviour.
We could think of our world as determined by laws of the universe, and in a sense this is unsurmountably true. But knowing what is going to happen next is something different altogether.