Sociology’s Positivism & Free Will

I must conclude that Comte’s Positivism is the most impactful idea contributing to early sociology. Positivism provides a soundness and reliability to sociology, but also introduces a grave threat to our concept of free will.

The importance of applying the scientific method to sociology through Positivism is that the structure and rigor of the scientific method are now applicable to sociological studies. Using the scientific method to conduct research and gather evidence to back up a theory, ensures that a particular hypothesis has been tested and has failed or passed. The most important aspect of the scientific method, however, is not the actual process. It is the fact that now other scientists can follow the same process used in the original study to try to replicate the experiment and gather their data and results to either backup the original study and therefore the overall idea/law, or show that the hypothesis in question does not hold up.

Positivism provides a path to guide sociologists. It provides validation that there are certain laws society obeys; this is helpful in that it creates some what of a target, an end goal for an area of research. A sociologist’s studies should reveal or reiterate a law, or progress towards finding one. They no longer have to shoot in the dark not knowing when they’ve reached the end of a sociological explanation. Knowing there is a law that must describe what they seek, gives a way point for their studies.

The idea that there are scientific laws, let alone laws at all that “direct” individuals and society through time, is at its core, arguing that society down to the individual must obey forces extraneous to their “will.” This can be reiterated through the popular philosophy of Determinism, which states that “all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes” (source).

Now we have a more explicit definition of sociology! Given the above explanation in conjunction with a positivist outlook, the field of sociology studies and attempts to uncover the laws that govern societies as a whole which are a combined result of (non-free will) decisions made by individuals who are therein controlled by a more particular set of individualistic laws.

It is worth noting these individualistic laws are predominantly the work of psychology and neuroscience as all of our “conscious” decisions are preluded by subconscious decisions and brain chemistry we are never aware of (source).

A helpful video, which is an edit of a much longer talk given by the brilliant Sam Harris, to illustrate the above argument, is provided here: video link