i think everyone is a scientist: the poverty of stimulus argument
There is a disconnect between how some social scientists see themselves versus how they see their subjects. Scientists theorize about the world — they develop hypotheses, models, they reason, imagine, simulate, then test and revise, etc — and regular folks, well, learn more myopically via observation and experience. Behaviorism of course represented an extreme case of the latter – a stimulus-driven, passive view of human behavior.
But I’ll go on a limb and say that I think that the “scientist model” is a far better conception of all human activity. Everyday living and interaction is scientific activity of a sort: we have models of the world that we constantly update and revise. Importantly, these models have an a priori nature, decoupled from experience. Does experience matter? Sure. But, I think the a priori factors matter just as much, even more. How one conceptualizes the a priori depends on one’s field and purposes, but it includes the following types of things – human nature, choice, reason, imagination, intention, conjectures, hypotheses and theories and so forth.
Readers will of course recognize the above dichotomy as the rationalism versus empiricism debate: reason versus experience. Empiricism, very often, looks deceptively scientific. After all, it’s easy to count things that we can observe. Experience and history are master mechanisms behind gobs of theories — tracing, counting what happened in the past appears scientific. In some cases it is. But, the stuff that we observe and perceive is heavily theory-laden (no, not in that sense), and observations and perceptions might simply be epiphenomena of a priori “stuff.” And, experience might simply “trigger” rather than cause outcomes. Furthermore, experience and history are only one of many, possible worlds.
The “poverty of stimulus” argument relates to this. Varieties of the poverty of stimulus argument show up in developmental psychology, linguistics, philosophy, ethology and other areas. In short, the upshot of the poverty of stimulus argument is that outputs and capabilities manifest by organisms far outstrip inputs such as experiences and stimuli. The work on infants, by folks like Elizabeth Spelke and Alison Gopnik, highlights this point: children have clear, a priori conceptions of their surroundings. Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s notion of language capabilities as the “infinite use of finite means” relates to the poverty of stimulus argument. Some varieties of decision-making models (depending on what types of “priors” they allow) also fit. Ned Block’s “productivity argument” fits into this. As does, perhaps, Charles Peirce’s notion of “abduction.” Etc.
The above discussion of course is a very Chomskyan view of human nature and science. But, this tradition goes back much further (well, to Plato). In my mind, one of the best, historical primers on some of these issues is Chomsky’s Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (be sure to get the 2003 edition, with McGilvray’s excellent introduction). A very, very under-rated book.
Overall — I’ll go out on a limb, again (no one reads the last paragraph of loose, jargon-laden rants/posts like this anyways) — I don’t think the social sciences have come to terms with the scientific problems associated with experience-heavy arguments and the crucial importance of the a priori (however conceived). I think there are lots of research opportunities in this space.