The terms ‘social’, ‘physical’ and ‘sciences’ are difficult enough to define in themselves, even without attempting to find similarities between the disciplines. Nonetheless, similarities do exist, and arguably the further into the study of the physical sciences one goes, the more links can be made with social science, and vise versa.
Physical sciences can be loosely defined as the three whose constituent parts can basically be boiled down to physics: biology, chemistry, and of course physics itself. ‘Social sciences’ refers probably to psychology, and perhaps to sociology; the latter of which is definitely social, but may not be a science, due to the lack of empirical data available. Nonetheless, for the purpose of this article, the ‘sciences’ shall be divided into the two groups mentioned above.
The scientific community is well aware of the connection between the social and physical sciences; indeed, if they were not, there would be hardly any reason to continue with certain areas of their disciplines. Yet the links between the two are becoming more and more prominent as science progresses. Let us take physics as an example. Perhaps at base the most obvious candidate to be termed a ‘physical science’, it was for a long time believed that physics had no real relation to the inner workings of the human mind; to life on a social level; indeed, to ‘the human experience’ as differentiated from that of any other animal. Within the past two hundred years, however, physics has become gradually more intertwined with its social neighbours, peering suspiciously out from behind the half-closed door of empiricism to regard the welcoming faces of psychology, sociology and their ilk.
How has this happened? The findings and intuitions of quantum physics have ridden roughshod across the homeland of science, leaving such dedicated pioneers as John Gribbin, Erwin Schroedinger, Michael Lockwood and Roger Penrose to follow behind, arranging the scattered debris into the correct categories. And this is where it becomes interesting, for much of the debris left over seemed to belong where much of science had not belonged for a very long time: in the piles of philosophy and psychology.
Roger Penrose, in his excellent work Shadows of the Mind, explains in comprehensible terms the problems quantum physics is posing for the classically accepted view of what the scientific community entails. In a manner explained in more detail elsewhere, he discusses the fact that taking a Goedelian approach to the study of physics may lead us to realise that the mind is, in fact, unable to be reduced to computational simulation. For the pioneers of disciplines such as artificial intelligence (and, to a lesser extent, psychology and neurology), this is a startling and disquieting idea. For those who have always been able to see links between those sciences deemed to be ‘physical’ and those termed ‘social’, it has been something of a victory.Yet the conversation has only just begun. Much of the popular literature – and there is a surprisingly large amount – surrounding quantum physics focusses entirely on its inexplicably capricious aspects, without giving heed to the science involved in arriving at the tentative semi-conclusions at which the scientific community is beginning to find itself. Such literature can hinder, rather than help, the development of science; whilst having an interest in a discipline is undoubtedly praiseworthy, it is vital to understand the history and evolution of the topics being discussed. There is no point, for instance, in writing an article on physical and social sciences if your knowledge of either one of those disciplines lies in the close-to-zero range. Yet people do.
The search for interdisciplinary links has flourished in recent years, with the University of Oxford boasting a School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies, and many other academic institutions devoting more time to a movement towards the synopsis of a Theory of Everything drawn from many areas, not just one. That, however, is a topic for another article. In conclusion of this one, suffice to say that scientists are well aware of the links between their disciplines and those of sociology and psychology; and research into such ‘matter-based’ subjects as physics and so forth are leaning more and more towards the explication of consciousness in a truly scientific light, broaching the intricately complex subject of the human mind in the light of the quantum world.