Tuesday, July 27, 2004


I don't understand why people all over the world have a tendency to generalise (and this itself could be a generalization). I was reading yesterday, of how Newton's laws, when they were discovered, cast people into a quandary. That is because Newton's laws are essentially deterministic and give rise to what we call the clockwork universe, namely a universe in which, given the initial positions and velocities of all material particles, one can predict their motion forever, at least in theory. This created a lot of consternation for people, because if these laws could govern all the events in the world, then so could they also govern the free will of men, which would then cease to be free will. This was a blasphemous conclusion which went against the teachings of the Bible, and immediately, the entire world was plunged into turmoil...What I cannot understand is why we have to extrapolate conclusions from the domain of natural science to that of social science. In fact, this has been a tendency all throughout history. But thinking about it, I think there a couple of reasons why we like to generalise, and of course I am no exception to that myself:
1. Generalisations solve all our problems easily, or so it seems. Phenomena in natural science are much easier to explain compared to the much more fickle world of human phenomena. It is heartening to think that we can also solve social problems, or at least explain them, if we can borrow what seems like an analogous explanation from the hard sciences. For example, it is very easy to think, even without any 'proof', that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is nothing but a scientific mirroring of the uncertainties of daily life. It is our insecurity and helplessness in tackling social questions that leads us to generalisations of plausible solutions, so that we get a vicarious thrill of having solved those problems.
2. A lot of times, generalisations reflect nothing but a simple ego problem, and a desire for oneupmanship in the art of rhetoric. This is also related to the point above. We would like to think that we understand much more than what we actually do. In doing this, we are very clever in taking advantage of the nonprovability of human affairs. It is very easy to find a social analog of a scientific law or theory. It is quite another thing to 'prove' it. However, since its also equally difficuly to 'disprove' it, we conveniently chuck the ball into the the nonprovers' court, say that the onus of falsifiability is on them and proclaim that we have found a great generalization of a law of nature and human nature. For anyone who would contradict us, we may make an appeal to Karl Popper's theory that the ultimate importance of any theory lies in its falsifiability. Probability is another thing that can supposedly make us immune to criticism. We can generalize and extrapolate a law, with the added caveat that it is only probable, not definite. That way, if we are proved wrong, we can claim that we never said anything for sure, and only talked about probabilities. This represents a tricky position and its sometimes hard to get around it. Probably the only way could be to bring about a common consensus among social and natural scientists as to what properly would constitute a law and its generalization, and that could help resolve matters. But the point is definitely going to be debated for long.
3. Every situation is different. But how its difference could exactly undermine our generalization is not clear. I have a friend who frequently engages in very clever argument with me. His strategy is essentially 'proof by analogy' which is another form of unsubstantiated generalization. If we are debating a point in mathematics, he would refute me with one from philosophy. If the point in question is from physics, he would refute me with one from biology. In doing so, he is crossing great boundaries between diciplines, and making what he thinks are valid generalizations. However, neither he nor I am sure what exactly are the flaws in his argument, because none of us know how the differences between these various fields of thought can exactly affect the generalizations he makes. But as in any good political debate, my friend conveniently pushes his ignorance under the rug, and brings mine to the forefront, when they are not really different at all!
To conclude, I would think that generalizations are basically our attempt to answer all possible questions about ourselves and the world. They frequently arise from emotional insecurity brought about by ignorance, and sometimes from plain ego problems and desires to prove ourselves right. They abound everywhere, and I have probably generalised a lot in this post myself!
However, looking at the bright side, generalizations are also useful, ironically for the very reasons cited above. They give us a feeling of intellectual and emotional security. They sometimes get rid of our inferiority complexes, and they could also possibly win us admirers, if we are skillful enough in hiding our inabilities! Most importantly, generalizations are sometimes invaluable in science. In this age of specialization, it has become imperative to see connections between various fields and phenomena. Even though this technique ('proof by analogy') has not been as successful in the social sciences, it has sometimes brought unexpected rewards, at least temporarily. Given the great uncertainty in the social sciences, I guess even a marginally useful generalisation would be quite valuable.
To generalize is definitely human. But we must realise that it is a two pronged tool, and one which we must use wisely. It is all too easy to be led down a blind alley by generalizing, and we must be aware that that can happen. The last word probably belongs to the indefatigable Oscar Wilde, which presents both a maxim and a paradox:
"No statement is general, even this one!"-Oscar Wilde
P.S: In this post, I have alternately used 'generalization' and 'generalisation'. Can I generalis(z)e about this?...


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