Summary of Discussion on Sunday 11/13

1. It is not implausible that one might give explanations of social phenomena that conform to the requirement that there be no reference to social entities and to the psychological, generality, and cardinality constraints that Sensat lists. It seems inconceivable that social phenomena could be explained in a way that conforms to the asocialism constraint.

Note, by the way, that if one seeks to derive a social explanandum from an explanans (in conformity with the deductive-nomological model), then social terms have got to be in the explanans somewhere.

2. With respect to the issue of "regulative authority" – why should one be unsatisfied with explanations that are not individualistic (as specified above)?

a. Micro-explanations – explanations that fill in details along causal chains and talk about smaller parts are always preferable. This seems dubious. cf. Putnam's example of a square peg and a round hole.
b. Explanations are not satisfactory unless they elaborate the mechanisms, and even though there are social mechanisms, they are not fine-grained enough to satisfy this demand.
c. It is important to know whether correlations are causal or not and without descending to the level of individuals we will not know (example of the Phillip's Curve in economics)
d. Social phenomena exert causal influences only via the activities of individuals, and so if we want to understand causal relations, we should prefer individualistic accounts.

3. A "reasonable" version of methodological individualism is, however, weak. It does not allege that non-individualist explanations are faulty; instead it expresses an aspiration for individualistic explanations.

4. "Mother Cow" Harris explains the taboo on killing cows by pointing out the good effects that the taboo has. One might paraphrase: "There is a taboo on killing cows, because the taboo helps people resist the temptation to kill cows in times of famine (which would be a fatal mistake)."

a. This is a functional explanation: what explains the taboo are the functions of the taboo.

b. Functions are causal consequences that are beneficial to the society.

c. How could the beneficial consequences of some phenomenon explain it? In explanations we cite causes, not effects. The fact that the falling tree branch broke my toe does not explain why the tree branch fell; it explains why my toe is broken.

d. three answers:

i. Individuals recognize that killing cows destroys their livelihoods and so do not kill cows. This doesn't explain why there is a taboo, though it could explain why people don't kill cows. This explanation is causal. What explains not killing cows is not the subsequent effect but individual's prior beliefs about the effect.

ii. Priests recognized the beneficial effects of not killing cows and made up religious stories and taboos in order to realize those effects. This explanation is also causal. The priest's beliefs caused them to propagate the taboo.

iii. Groups have lots of different religious doctrines that occur for lots of non-functionalist reasons. Those groups in India who had a cow taboo were least likely to kill their cows in times of famine. So they thrived and reproduced, and other peoples (possibly without understanding the mechanism) saw them thrive, believed them favored of the gods and imitated their religion. Selection provides a mechanism whereby the causal tendency of the cow taboo explains the persistence and spread of that taboo.