Social Science and Religion: Epistemology, Metaphysics and Considerations of the Public Good

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Recently there has been much publicised debate over the 'God is dead' issue, featuring Richard Dawkins (2006), Christopher Hitchins (2007), Sam Harris (2007) and others, but at least in the social sciences this is not the nub of the 'science versus religion' issue. While overt discussion of theistic religion does have its relevance to various aspects of social science (see Thomas Friedman, 2005), a more deep-seated methodological relevance can be found in a different conception of 'faith' positions in the form of implicit a prioris or metaphysical positions inescapably embedded in contending social science perspectives. It is dispute over these a prioris that underpins disagreements between contending schools of social science thought, and it is dispute over these a priori or metaphysical positions that represents the core of the relationship between religion and social science.

In economics and other social sciences there are implicit metaphysical assumptions about value relativism, historicism and the nature of man ranged alongside the more readily recognised explicit assumptions about pure competition, constant returns to scale and such like. The argument advanced in this paper is that these implicit assumptions are more important than the explicit assumptions, despite being commonly withheld from critical attention in the teaching of economics and other social sciences. Their importance is recognised, however, by a minority of economists including Myrdal (1968), Schumacher (1974), Sen (1977; 1987; 2000), Etzioni (1988), Cropsey (1955; 1960), and Nevile (1998) (Duhs, 2005; see also Lawson, 2003).

Despite what might therefore be argued to be the fundamental importance of religion in this implicit metaphysical sense, courses in philosophy and economic philosophy nonetheless tend to be marginalised or scorned, rather than celebrated for their central importance in explicating the roots of, and ultimate implications of, contending social science positions. Putatively unambiguous words such as 'man', 'freedom', 'rationality' and 'equality' are used by different writers to mean different things. Social science is about human society, and as such is inescapably informed by some concept of what it is to be human, and thus by some conception of human ontology and teleology. For such reason Myrdal (1968: 26) concluded that there is an 'inevitable a priori' in all social science work, just as Cropsey (1955) concluded that 'every logic presupposes a metaphysic'. These implicit a prioris or metaphysical faith positions constitute a religion or ideological element that needs to be recognised and highlighted if the implications of social science are to be fully understood. In short, there is an inevitability about ongoing debate in the social sciences between proponents of different metaphysical views--and the practical social theories erected on them--and this is the issue on which debate turns in social science. Science has certainly not killed religion in this sense, and indeed cannot do so. The choice is not 'religion or social science', but how to recognise which religion or metaphysic is most properly installed at the root of social scientific understanding of the questions of our time.

Two broad areas of illustration are chosen in this paper. In the first case, illustration is drawn from the economics literature, including from the Myrdal-Bauer dispute and subsequent Washington Consensus-Sen dispute within development economics, and from the economics-as-imperialist-science literature. It will be argued that there is much hidden metaphysics in the supposedly practical or pragmatic development economics literature. Moreover, in the case of the claim that economics is an imperialistic social science--indeed, the imperialistic social science--it will be argued that the reverse is true, since it is economics which has necessarily been colonised by one or another (implicit) political philosophy (Duhs 1982, 2005; Nevile 1998). …