I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been busy with life and essays. However, I can make my work do double duty by posting one of my essays 🙂
Against a Lawful Human Nature
Donald Ryan Workman
Mill believes that human nature is governed by psychological laws. These psychological laws are uniformities common to all human action, and are also the fundamental cause of all social phenomena. I will argue, contra Mill, that there is a theoretical obstacle to lawfully describing human nature, and if this problem cannot be solved then the social sciences cannot be founded on laws of human nature. The twofold problem is that humans are born unique, and that we are developmental entities. Together these two facts create an epistemological catch-22 in that they make it impossible to aggregate human behaviours into uniformities. I believe this catch-22 is actually a symptom of the fact that individual human action is unlawful at the psychological level.
I will begin by elucidating the relevant arguments that Mill makes in A System of Logic. The important sections that I will be examining are: Mill’s definition of a law, his exposition on the laws of human nature, and his explanation of their relevance to the social sciences.
Mill defines a law as a uniformity of events, and he defines a law of nature as a fundamental uniformity. If B always occurs with A, then AB is a law (229). A law of nature is the expression of a particular uniformity at its most fundamental level. The distinction between a law of nature and a non-fundamental law can be illustrated by comparing the rule that all multiples of two are even numbers and all multiples of four are even numbers. That multiples of four are even is contained in the statement that multiples of two are even, so the first rule is more fundamental than the second.
Mill believes that human nature is comprised of a set of laws that, in combination, delineate the entire scope of actual and potential human behaviour. He says,
The laws of mind… compose the universal or abstract portion of the philosophy of human nature; and all the truths of common experience… must… be… consequences of these. (596)
In other words, all human behaviour is a consequent of psychological laws. They govern both our actions and our development. Mill acknowledges that the laws of human psychology may be found to be complexes of more fundamental physical laws. He says that the truth of the laws of human nature ‘may ultimately depend on physical conditions (591).’ That being said, he did not think that the scientific inquiry into the matter was mature enough for us to explain human nature at the physical level.
Mill also believed that we should explain social phenomena at the level of the laws of human nature. He says,
The actions and feelings of human beings in the social state, are… entirely governed by psychological and ethological laws: whatever influence any cause exercises upon the social phenomena, it exercises through those laws. (620)
What Mill is proposing is that the only causes of social phenomena are the laws that govern the people who comprise those phenomena. If we understood all of the rules of human psychology then we could also predict the future movements of societies. It is on this basis that Mill claims the laws of human nature provide a foundation for all of the social sciences. He also thinks that the social sciences should be primarily concerned with a specific category of laws, the laws of human development. He says that these laws produce ‘the whole of the phenomena of human action and feeling (599).’ In other words, the universal laws that differentiate us are the subject of most importance to the social sciences.
Before I begin my argument I want to explicate further the distinction that Mill is making when he draws attention to the laws of human development. There seem to be two kinds of laws that comprise human nature: those that relate to the specific development and actions of individuals, and those pertaining to the mechanics of human functioning. An example of the second kind of law would be ‘every mentalimpression has its idea (591).’ This is not a law pertaining to the individuation, but instead an observation on a universal property of human cognition. An example of the first kind of law is “a greater gain is preferred to a smaller (623).” Though Mill believes that this is a principal of human action, this law can be contested by other similar laws, and its only realization is as one of the many forces that determine individual action.
There is an epistemological catch-22 that Mill needs to address if he wants to make the claim that all human behaviour is governed by psychological laws. Mill asserts that there is initial variation in individuals from birth (605), and he also acknowledges that human behaviour develops over time (though he characterizes this development as lawful) (599). If both of these elements are conceded, however, then describing human nature as lawful becomes highly problematic.
The concession that each individual is slightly different is relatively banal, as there are many examples of laws successfully capturing uniformities across entities. I will use astronomy to illustrate because Mill uses it as his model example of a law-based science. Astronomers use laws to describe and predict the behaviour of an immense diversity of heavenly entities. The fact that all of these entities are unique does not prevent them from being lawfully described. It is not theoretically problematic to lawfully describe categories of unique entities because we can make our law capture how the behaviours of those entities change based on their properties.
The second concession that human properties develop over time is mostly particular to complex organisms that can store information. As humans, our behaviours are composite products of conflicting internal forces that change over time in response internal and external pressures. I believe that it is theoretically possible to lawfully describe a collection of entities with this property as long as they have consistent initial properties. Imagine that we found a series of A.I. that developed and changed through experience but all started from the same base state. It seems that through experimentation and given enough A.I. we could, at least in theory, discern all of the internal forces that generated action and development in these artificial intelligences.
Unlike entities possessing only one of the two traits, an entity that combines unique initial conditions and continuous development is not susceptible to lawful description. Since laws are aggregations of phenomena, the derivation of a law requires that we can, at least in theory, identify the commonality that we are aggregating. However, each of the properties that I’ve identified prohibits the investigative method that could at least theoretically allow lawful description of an entity with only the opposite property. Lawfully describing unique entities requires observing how the unique properties of that entity cause variation in behaviour, but to lawfully describe developmental entities requires that we can repeatedly observe them in their base state. This traps us in an epistemological circle. We cannot learn the rules of human development without first understanding our initial state. But we cannot grasp our initial state without first understanding the rules of our internal forces. If my argument holds, then I have grounds for disputing Mill’s claim that the foundational goal of the social sciences is trying to understand invariable laws of human behaviour.
An argument Mill may have made in response is that his theory does not require that the laws of human nature be epistemologically accessible, only that they metaphysically exist. He then may have argued further that if I contest the metaphysical existence of laws of human nature then I am committing myself to a notion of freedom unbound by physical reality. Mill says, very clearly and in numerous instances, that we cannot ever fully grasp a lawful regularity. As an example he writes, ‘[it is] impossible to trace any regularity whatever completely through [any class of phenomena] (598).’ He believes that this epistemological barrier exists even for the most direct law based sciences, such as astrology, and he considers the laws of human nature to be of considerably greater complexity. But even though the sciences have not grasped the laws of nature, they are still capable of generating insight of immense practical value. He might point out, for example, that though political science only has a tentative grasp on the motives of humans, those involved can still make generalizations and predictions with some degree of accuracy. Mill would likely speculate that the power of these observations support the lawful and uniform nature of human behaviour. Following this, he would potentially find the consequences of my metaphysical scepticism absurd. He might propose, for example, that to maintain my scepticism of a lawful human nature I must hold that we have some kind of radically free human nature. Mill’s duel critique, then, is that for my argument to be persuasive I must demonstrate that it is a metaphysical one, but making that metaphysical critique commits me to archaic conceptions of human nature.
I concede to Mill that, for my argument to have proper force, it needs to be a metaphysical critique. I believe that I can make this critique without being required to bite the bullet by declaring humans to be possessing unbounded freedom. By proposing that all humans are regulated by the same laws of human nature, Mill is proposing that humans are of a kind, on the psychological level. Based on the two properties that I have just ascribed to human beings, it seems to me that humans are only of a metaphysical kind in terms of mechanics, not individual action. In other words, we all operate within the same scope of perception and potential action, but there are no laws that direct our action within this space. We are still all similar entities, which can explain why there are patterns that we can observe and general predictions we can make about human behaviour. However, I can characterize human behaviour in this way without appealing to a notion of unbound human freedom. My recourse is to say that human nature remains ultimately grounded in physical laws, though like Mill I do not think that we have advanced enough in that domain for it to be a practical way of actually understanding or predicting social phenomena. My conception of human nature can be grounded in evolutionary theory. According to the theory of evolution there is not a universal human ‘kind’. Instead each human is a unique organism that is categorized into the human species based on our ability to produce viable offspring.
I have argued that, since humans have unique initial states and are developmental entities, individual human action is not lawful. Though we are all constrained to essentially the same scope of potential action by our mechanical properties, within this field of potential action our behaviour cannot be fully grasped on the psychological level. Mill wanted to ground the social sciences on the notion that all human behaviour stems from psychological laws, but if my arguments hold then these psychological laws do not exist. This does not mean that the social sciences cannot observe regularities in human behaviour (they obviously can), but it does mean that psychological laws are a flawed conceptual foundation that could generate error or confusion in some form.
MMill, John Stuart. A System of Logic, Rationcinative and Inductive. Eighth. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882. Project Gutenburg. Web. November 9, 2014
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