A Question I Once Raised During a Conference
Many years ago, when I was attending a session at an economics conference, I heard a presentation by a professor about the relationship between economic growth and technology change. In his presentation he purported to show a high correlation between the number of new patients (registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office) and economic growth. This enabled him to conclude that there was a causal relationship between technological change (as reflected by patent counts) and economic growth. This finding, by the way, is the kind that is very often hailed by organizations that offer research grants to economic professors and to other scientists. This is because findings serve as evidence for the “social benefits of R&D” which these organizations can, and often do, use to drum up political support for their organizations. It is also highly appealing to many people—admittedly, myself included—who love science and loving thinking about how beneficial scientific and technological advancement can be when it is properly and responsibly managed. So I realized that the paper being presented would be music to many people’s ears, and that it would help him receive praise, perhaps a publication, and perhaps even grant money, for his research. (Payson 2017, 3)
Given my own background on the topic … I had a question about his stated findings, which I politely asked during the question-and-answer session. In asking my question I mentioned that I was familiar with a well-known change in patent laws that occurred at the beginning of the time span that he was analyzing. As many who are familiar with patents know, the vast majority of patents that are issued have no real value and are not in fact used by the company that holds the patent. What generally occurs is that a company acquires a very valuable patent and also createes dozens of other patents that are “close” (in their subject matter) to that valuable one. The reason for their doing this is to protect their valuable patent so that no company can produce a similar patent that competes with theirs. The change in patent laws, which I just referred to, had made it easier for companies to acquire similar patents to ones that already existed, which essentially created a need for companies issuing important patents to “surround” their main patent by more of these other unused “protective patents.” (Payson 2017, 3)
So, in my question to the presenter, I asked whether it might simply be possible that the increase in registered patents that his study observed was attributable to that change in patent laws, which was apparently occurring at the same time that GDP was growing fairly well. GDP was growing at that time due to a general upturn in the economy in which employment was on the rise and inflaction had been brought under control. In other words, perhaps it was simpl a coincidental that both patent counts and real GDP were rising during the same period, but there was no causal relationship between the two. I asked him, essentially, if he thought that such a coincidence might be an alternative explanation for why patents and GDP were rising at the same time. (Payson 2017, 3-4)
The presenter’s reaction, especially in terms of his facial expression, reflected a typical response that I must have seen hundreds of times in my 35 years as an economist. Upon hearing my question he condescendingly smiled from ear-to-ear, while constraining himself from laughing, and he replied in an artificially diplomatic and sarcastic tone, “Oh I know all that [about the patent law change.] But … that’s not my story“—the story that he wanted to tell—and he was thoroughly amused that someone in the audience would be naïve enough to actually think about whether his findings were scientifically valid. Scientific validity of one’s findings is not only rarely discussed during paper presentations at economics conferences, but when it is, it is, more often than not, a source of amusement by the presenters of the papers and their audiences than an actual concern that might lead to improving people’s work. (Payson 2017, 4)
The Profession’s Genuine Arrogance toward Concerns about Scientific Integrity
(….) [M]any academic economists respond with smug, arrogant dismissial or laughter when the topic of scientific integrity or professional ethics is brought before them. It might be surprising to those who are less familiar with the profession that such arrogance and frivolity is as observable as much among some of the most prominent economics professors as among those who are not prominent. In the documentary Inside Job, one can observe this kind of arrogance directly among high-ranking professors as they were being interviewed. (Payson 2017, 4)
As another example, Deirdre McCloskey, a former member of the board of directors of the American Economic Association (AEA) (which consists only of highly ranked professors), has told of how she was there when the board broke into laughter when a letter was read aloud at one of their meetings. The letter was someone who was simply asking whether the AEA would consider adopting a code of ethics for economists. (Payson 2017, 4)
Many economics professors do not laugh or make arrogant statements, but express conceit in an entirely different way, such as feeling sorry for those who are even thinking about scientific integrity or professional ethics—thinking to themselves how pathetically stupid, naïve, or childishly innocent those people must be. There is, in fact a substantial literature on the more scholarly problem of arrogance in the academic economics profession. This literature was written entirely by “insiders”—highly prominent professors themselves, some even Nobel laureates. (Payson 2017, 4-5)
Scientists and historians can cite many cases of scientific and technological claims, hypotheses, and proposals that, viewed in retrospect, have apparently taken an unaccountably long time to be recognized, endorsed, or integrated into accepted knowledge and practice. Indeed, some have had to await independent formulation. (Hook 2002, 3)
(….) One may classify at least five grounds on which scientific claims or hypotheses—even those later achieving widespread recognition or endorsement—may be rejected at first offering. In addition to prematurity …, investigators may reject or choose to not follow up on a scientific report or hypothesis because (1) they are unaware of it, (2) having reviewed it, they judge it to be of no immediate relevance to their current work and therefore ignore it, (3) they harbor inappropriate prejudice against some aspect of the claim or its proponent, or (4) it appears to clash directly with their observation or experience. (Hook 2002, 4)
(….) Less readily overcome obstruction may stem from strong social forces—religious, ideological, political, and economic—that lead to challenge, rejection, or suppression. In practice, the only remedy may be to seek expression and circulation of the unrecognized, inhibited, or suppression ideas, proposals, and interventions in areas and social climates where the prohibitive factors do not reign. But in principle, in an enlightened society one may suggest some goals, some general social solutions to overcome the barriers. As obvious as they may be, I believe it worthwhile to list some of them: limitation of economic suppression of new inventions or useful technology, encouragement of ideological tolerance, opposition to implacable doctrinaire social forces, and most important tactically, attempts to disconnect the apparent implications of scientific discoveries from the feared ideological consequences. (Hook 2002, 6)
Factors related to but distinct from more global social forces concern resistance at the individual level. New scientific and technical discoveries may threaten not one’s economic welfare or ideological persuasion but rather the “psychic capital” invested in current scientific views—some involving one’s own work—challenged implicitly or explicitly by a new report. Of course the longer one has held views and invested energy in them, the more reluctant one may be to alter them. This inevitably results in conceptual inertia that some have associated with aging. And ranker reasons than those produced by hardening of cerebral arteries or of scientific beliefs may arise from prejudices of culture, nation, gender, ethnicity, or race. (Hook 2002, 6-7)
All these sources of resistance to discovery originate in what some have termed the “externalist” factors influencing science. And for all the above factors, one may, in principle, suggest some types of science policies to address them. For instance, the review of work by referees without knowledge of its authors, as currently practiced by some journals, clearly diminishes effects of some types of prejudices that inappropriately inhibit publication. Editors close scrutiny of reviewers’ judgements may enable them to distinguish opinions based on wounded psychic capital from legitimate methodological objections. (Hook 2002, 7)
 For those not familiar with the term, it refers to factors extrinsic to the putative value-free application of the scientific method. Economic and/or social factors influencing scientific inquiry are externalist. This is opposed to an “internalist approach,” which focuses on those aspects of scientific inquiry seen traditionally as free of values except for the search for truth. The image most scientists have of the ideal working of science is of course the latter. Concern with issues of acceptance of a theory based on replication, falsification, and so on may be regarded as primarily internalist, and concern with those of class and economic factors as primarily externalist. But as has been pointed out on many occasions, it is really not possible to separate those absolutely. See, for example, Nagel 1950, esp. p. 22.
The medieval Roman Catholic priesthood conducted its religious preaching and other discussions in Latin, a language no more understandable to ordinary people then are than the mathematical and statistical formulations of economists today. Latin served as a universal language that had the great practical advantage of allowing easy communication within a priestly class transcending national boundaries across Europe. Yet that was not the full story. The use of Latin also separated the priesthood from the ordinary people, one of a number of devices through which the Roman Catholic Church maintained such a separation in the medieval era. It all served to convey an aura of majesty and religious authority—as does the Supreme Court in the United States, still sitting in priestly robes. In employing an arcane language of mathematics and statistics, Samuelson and fellow economists today seek a similar authority in society.— Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond by Robert H. Nelson
This is a book about economics. But it is also a book about human limitations and the difficulty of gaining true insight into the world around us. There is, in truth, no way of separating these two things from one other. To try to discuss economics without understanding the difficulty of applying it to the real world is to consign oneself to dealing with pure makings of our own imaginations. Much of economics at the time of writing is of this sort, although it is unclear such modes of thought should be called ‘economics’ and whether future generations will see them as such. There is every chance that the backward-looking eye of posterity will see much of what today’s economic departments produce in the same way as we now see phrenology: a highly technical, but ultimately ridiculous pseudoscience constructed rather unconsciously to serve the political needs of the era. In the era when men claiming to be scientists felt the skull for bumps and used this to determine a man’s character and his disposition, the political discourse of the day needed a justification for the racial superiority of the white man; today our present political discourse needs a Panglossian doctrine that promotes general ignorance, a technocratic language that can be deployed to cover up certain political aspects of govenmance and tells us that so long as we trust in those in charge everything will work itself out in the long-run. (Pilkington 2016, 1-2)
But the personal motivations of the individual economist today is not primarily political—although it may well be secondarily political, whether that politics turns right or left—the primary motivation of the individual economist today is in search to answers to questions that they can barely forumulate. These men and women, perhaps more than any other, are chasing a shadow that has been taunting mankind since the early days of the Enlightenment. This is the shadow of the mathesis universalis, the Universal Science expressed in the abstract language of mathematics. They want to capture Man’s essence and understand what he will do today, tomorrow and the day after that. To some of us more humble human beings that fell once upon a time onto this strange path, this may seem altogether too much to ask of our capacities for knowledge…. Is it a nobel cause, this Universal Science of Man? Some might say that if it were not so fanciful, it might be. Others might say that it has roots in extreme totalitarian thinking and were it ever taken truly seriously, it would lead to a tyranny with those who espouse it conveniently at the helm. These are moral and political questions that will not be explored in too much detail in the present book. (Pilkington 2016, 2)
What we seek to do here is more humble again. There is a sense today, nearly six years after an economic catastrophe that few still understand and only a few saw coming, that there is something rotten in economics. Something stinks and people are less inclined than ever to trust the funny little man standing next to the blackboard with his equations and his seemingly otherworldly answers to every social and economic problem that one can imagine. This is a healthy feeling and we as a society should promote and embrace it. A similar movement began over half a millennia ago questioning the men of mystery who dictated how people should live their lives from ivory towers; it was called the Reformation and it changed the world…. We are not so much interested in the practices of the economists themselves, as to whether they engage in simony, in nepotism and—could it ever be thought?—the sale of indulgences to those countries that had or were in the process of committing grave sins. Rather we are interested in how we gotten to where we are and how we can fix it. (Pilkington 2016, 2-3)
The roots of the problems with contemporary economics run very deep indeed. In order to comprehend them, we must run the gamut from political motivation to questions of philosophy and methodology to the foundations of the underlying structure itself. When these roots have been exposed, we can then begin the process of digging them up so we can plant a new tree. In doing this, we do not hope to provide all the answers but merely a firm grounding, a shrub that can, given time, grow into something far more robust. (Pilkington 2016, 3)
Down with Mathematics?
(….) Economics needs more people who distrust mathematics when applying thought to the social and economic world, not less. Indeed, … the major problems with economics today arose out of the mathematization of the discipline, especially as it proceeded after the Second World War. Mathematics become to economics what Latin was to the stagnant priest-caste that Luther and other reformers attacked during the Reformation: a means not to clarify, but to obscure through intellectual intimidation. It ensured that the common man could not read the Bible and had to consult the priest and, perhaps, pay him alms. (Pilkington 2016, 3)
(….) [M]athematics can, in certain very limited circumstances, be an opportune way of focusing the debate. It can give us a rather clear and precise conception of what we are talking about. Some aspects—by no means all aspects—of macroeconomics are quantifiable. Investments, profits, the interest rate—we can look the statistics for these things up and use this information to promote economic understanding. That these are quantifiable also means that, to a limited extent, we can conceive of them in mathematical form. It cannot be stressed enough, however, the limited extent to which this is the case. There are always … non-quantifiable elements that play absolutely key roles in how the economy works. (Pilkington 2016, 3-4)
(….) The mathematisation of the discipline was perhaps the crucial turning point when economics began to become something entirely other to the study of the actual economy. It started in the late nineteenth century, but at the time many of those who pioneered the approach became ever more distrustful of doing so. They began to think that it would only lead to obscurity of argument and an inability to communicate properly either with other people or with the real world. Formulae would become synonymous with truth and the interrelation between ideas would become foggy and unclear. A false sense of clarity in the form of pristine equations would be substituted for clarity of thought. Alfred Marshall, a pioneer of mathematics in economics who nevertheless always hid it in footnotes, wrote of his distress in his later years in a letter to his friend. (Pilkington 2016, 4)
[I had] a growing feeling in the later years of my work at the subject that a good mathematical theorem dealing with economic hypotheses was very unlikely to be good economics: and I went more and more on the rules—(1) Use mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than an engine of inquiry. (2) Keep to them till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life. (5) Burn the mathematics. (6) If you can’t succeed in (4), burn (3). This last I did often. (Pigou ed. 1966 , pp. 427-428)
The controversy around mathematics appears to have broken out in full force surrounding the issue of econometric estimation in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Econometric estimation … is the practice of putting economic theories into mathematical form and then using them to make predictions based on available statistics…. [I]t is a desperately silly practice. Those who championed the econometric and mathematical approach were men whose names are not known today by anyone who is not deeply interested in the field. The were men like Jan Tinbergen, Oskar Lange, Jacob Marschak and Ragnar Frisch (Louçā 2007). Most of these men were social engineers of one form or another; all of them left-wing and some of them communist. The mood of the time, one reflected in the tendency to try to model the economy itself, was that society and the economy should be planned by men in lab coats. By this they often meant not simply broad government intervention but something more like micro-management of the institutions that people inhabit day-to-day from the top down. Despite the fact that many mathematical economic models today seem outwardly to be concerned with ‘free markets’, they all share this streak, especially in how they conceive that people (should?) act. (Pilkington 2016, 4-5)
Most of the economists at the time were vehemently opposed to this. This was not a particularly left-wing or right-wing issue. On the left, John Maynard Keynes was horrified by what he was seeing develop, while, on the right, Friedrich von Hayek was warning that this was not the way forward. But it was probably Keynes who was the most coherent belligerent of the new approach. This is because before he began to write books on economics, Keynes had worked on the philosophy of probability theory, and probability theory was becoming a key component of the mathematical approach (Keynes 1921). Keynes’ extensive investigations into probability theory allowed him to perceive to what extent mathematical formalism could be applied for understanding society and the economy. He found that it was extremely limited in its ability to illuminate social problems. Keynes was not against statistics or anything like that—he was an early champion and expert—but he was very, very cautious about people who claimed that just because economics produces statistics these can be used in the same as numerical observations form experiments were used in the hard sciences. He was also keenly aware that cetain tendencies towards mathematisation lead to a fogging of the mind. In a more diplomatic letter to one of the new mathematical economists (Keynes, as shall see … could be scathing about these new approaches), he wrote: (Pilkington 2016, 5-6)
Mathematical economics is such risky stuff as compared with nonmathematical economics, because one is deprived of one’s intuition on the one hand, yet there are all kinds of unexpressed unavowed assumptions on the other. Thus I never put much trust in it unless it falls in with my own intuitions; and I am therefore grateful for an author who makes it easier for me to apply this check without too much hard work. (Keynes cited in Louçā 2007, p. 186)
(….) Mathematics, like the high Latin of Luther’s time, is a language. It is a language that facilitates greater precision in some instances and greater obscurity in others. For most issues economic, it promotes obscurity. When a language is used to obscure, it is used as a weapon by those who speak it to repress the voices of those who do not. A good deal of the history of the relationship between mathematics and the other social sciences in the latter half of the twentieth century can be read under this light. If there is anything that this book seeks to do, it is to help people realise that this is not what economics need be or should be. Frankly, we need more of those who speak the languages of the humanities—of philosophy, sociology and psychology—than we do people who speak the language of the engineers but lack the pragmatic spirit of the engineer who can see clearly that his method cannot be deployed to understand those around him. (Pilkington 2016, 6)
If we suppose that the action of the human brain, conscious or otherwise, is merely the acting out of some very complicated algorithm, then we must ask how such an extraordinary effective algorithm actually came about. The standard answer, of course, would be ‘natural selection’. as creatures with brains evolved, those with more effective algorithms would have a better tendency to survive and therefore, on the whole, had more progeny. These progeny also tended to carry more effective algorithms than their cousins, since they inherited the ingredients of these better algorithms from their parents; so gradually the algorithms improved — not necessarily steadily, since there could have been considerable fits and starts in their evolution — until they reached the remarkable status that we (would apparently) find in the human brain. (Compare Dawkins 1986). (Penrose 1990: 414)
Even according to my own viewpoint, there would have to be some truth in this picture, since I envisage that much of the brain’s action is indeed algorithmic, and — as the reader will have inferred from the above discussion — I am a strong believer in the power of natural selection. But I do not see how natural selection, in itself, can evolve algorithms which could have the kind of conscious judgements of the validity of other algorithms that we seem to have. (Penrose 1990: 414)
Imagine an ordinary computer program. How would it have come into being? Clearly not (directly) by natural selection! Some human computer programmer would have conceived of it and would have ascertained that it correctly carries out the actions that it is supposed to. (Actually, most complicated computer programs contain errors — usually minor, but often subtle ones that do not come to light except under unusual circumstances. The presence of such errors does not substantially affect my argument.) Sometimes a computer program might itself have been ‘written’ by another, say a ‘master’ computer program, but then the master program itself would have been the product of human ingenuity and insight; or the program itself might well be pieced together from ingredients some of which were the products of other computer programs. But in all cases the validity and the very conception of the program would have ultimately been the responsibility of (at least) one human consciousness. (Penrose 1990: 414)
One can imagine, of course, that this need not have been the case, and that, given enough time, the computer programs might somehow have evolved spontaneously by some process of natural selection. If one believes that the actions of the computer programmers’ consciousness are themselves simply algorithms, then one must, in effect, believe algorithms have evolved in just this way. However, what worries me about this is that the decision as to the validity of an algorithm is not itself an algorithmic process! … (The question of whether or not a Turing machine will actually stop is not something that can be decided algorithmically.) In order to decide whether or not an algorithm will actually work, one needs insights, not just another algorithm. (Penrose 414-415)
Nevertheless, one still might imagine some kind of natural selection process being effective for producing approximately valid algorithms. Personally, I find this very difficult to believe, however. Any selection process of this kind could act only on the output of the algorithms and not directly on the ideas underlying the actions of the algorithms. This is not simply extremely inefficient; I believe that it would be totally unworkable. In the first place, it is not easy to ascertain what an algorithm actually is, simply by examining its output. (It would be an easy matter to construct two quite different simple Turing machine actions for which the output tapes did not differ until, say, the 2^65536th place — and this difference could never be spotted in the entire history of the universe!) Moreover, the slightest ‘mutation’ of an algorithm (say a slight change in a Turing machine specification, or in its input tape) would tend to render it totally useless, and it is hard to see how actual improvements in algorithms could ever arise in this random way. (Even deliberate improvements are difficult without ‘meanings’ being available. This inadequately documented and complicated computer program needs to be altered or corrected; and the original programmer has departed or perhaps died. Rather than try to disentangle all the various meanings and intentions that the program implicitly depended upon, it is probably easier just to scrap it and start all over again!) (Penrose 1990: 415)
Perhaps some much more ‘robust’ way of specifying algorithms could be devised, which would not be subject to the above criticisms. In a way, this is what I am saying myself. The ‘robust’ specifications are the ideas that underlie the algorithms. But ideas are things that, as far as we know, need conscious minds for their manifestation. We are back with the problem of what consciousness actually is, and what it can actually do that unconscious objects are incapable of — and how on earth natural selection has been clever enough to evolve that most remarkable of qualities. (Penrose 1990: 415)
(….) To my way of thinking, there is still something mysterious about evolution, with its apparent ‘groping’ towards some future purpose. Things at least seem to organize themselves somewhat better than they ‘ought’ to, just on the basis of blind-chance evolution and natural selection…. There seems to be something about the way that the laws of physics work, which allows natural selection to be much more effective process than it would be with just arbitrary laws. The resulting apparently ‘intelligent groping’ is an interesting issue. (Penrose 1990: 416)
The non-algorithmic nature of mathematical insight
… [A] good part of the reason for believing that consciousness is able to influence truth-judgements in a non-algorithmic way stems from consideration of Gödel’s theorem. If we can see that the role of consciousness is non-algorithmic when forming mathematical judgements, where calculation and rigorous proof constitute such an important factor, then surely we may be persuaded that such a non-algorithmic ingredient could be crucial also for the role of consciousness in more general (non-mathematical) circumstances. (Penrose 1990: 416)
… Gödel’s theorem and its relation to computability … [has] shown that whatever (sufficiently extensive) algorithm a mathematician might use to establish mathematical truth — or, what amounts to the same thing, whatever formal system he might adopt as providing his criterion of truth — there will always be mathematical propositions, such as the explicit Gödel proposition P(K) of the system …, that his algorithm cannot provide an answer for. If the workings of the mathematician’s mind are entirely algorithmic, then the algorithm (or formal system) that he actually uses to form his judgements is not capable of dealing with the proposition P(K) constructed from his personal algorithm. Nevertheless, we can (in principle) see that P(K) is actually true! This would seem to provide him with a contradiction, since he ought to be able to see that also. Perhaps this indicates that the mathematician was not using an algorithm at all! (Penrose 1990: 416-417)
(….) The message should be clear. Mathematical truth is not something that we ascertain merely by use of an algorithm. I believe, also, that our consciousness is a crucial ingredient in our comprehension of mathematical truth. We must ‘see’ the truth of a mathematical argument to be convinced of its validity. This ‘seeing’ is the very essence of consciousness. It must be present whenever we directly perceive mathematical truth. When we conceive ourselves of the validity of Gödel’s theorem we not only ‘see’ it, but by so doing we reveal the very non-algorithmic nature of the ‘seeing’ process itself. (Penrose 1990: 418)
[William] James argued at length for a certain conception of what it means for an idea to be true. This conception was, in brief, that an idea is true if it works. (Stapp 2009, 60)
James’s proposal was at first scorned and ridiculed by most philosophers, as might be expected. For most people can plainly see a big difference between whether an idea is true and whether it works. Yet James stoutly defended his idea, claiming that he was misunderstood by his critics.
It is worthwhile to try and see things from James’s point of view.
James accepts, as a matter of course, that the truth of an idea means its agreement with reality. The questions are: What is the “reality” with which a true idea agrees? And what is the relationship “agreement with reality” by virtue of which that idea becomes true?
All human ideas lie, by definition, in the realm of experience. Reality, on the other hand, is usually considered to have parts lying outside this realm. The question thus arises: How can an idea lying inside the realm of experience agree with something that lies outside? How does one conceive of a relationship between an idea, on the one hand, and something of such a fundamentally different sort? What is the structural form of that connection between an idea and a transexperiential reality that goes by the name of “agreement”? How can such a relationship be comprehended by thoughts forever confined to the realm of experience?
So if we want to know what it means for an idea to agree with a reality we must first accept that this reality lies in the realm of experience.
This viewpoint is not in accord with the usual idea of truth. Certain of our ideas are ideas about what lies outside the realm of experience. For example, I may have the idea that the world is made up of tiny objects called particles. According to the usual notion of truth this idea is true or false according to whether or not the world really is made up of such particles. The truth of the idea depends on whether it agrees with something that lies outside the realm of experience. (Stapp 2009, 61)
Now the notion of “agreement” seems to suggest some sort of similarity or congruence of the things that agree. But things that are similar or congruent are generally things of the same kind. Two triangles can be similar or congruent because they are of the same kind. Two triangles can be similar or congruent because they are the same kind of thing: the relationships that inhere in one can be mapped in a direct and simple way into the relationships that inhere in the other.
But ideas and external realities are presumably very different kinds of things. Our ideas are intimately associated with certain complex, macroscopic, biological entities—our brains—and the structural forms that can inhere in our ideas would naturally be expected to depend on the structural forms of our brains. External realities, on the other hand, could be structurally very different from human ideas. Hence there is no a priori reason to expect that the relationships that constitute or characterize the essence of external reality can be mapped in any simple or direct fashion into the world of human ideas. Yet if no such mapping exists then the whole idea of “agreement” between ideas and external realities becomes obscure.
The only evidence we have on the question of whether human ideas can be brought into exact correspondence with the essences of the external realites is the success of our ideas in bringing order to our physical experience. Yet success of ideas in this sphere does not ensure the exact correspondence of our ideas to external reality.
On the other hand, the question of whether ideas “agree” with external essences is of no practical importance. What is important is precisely the success of the ideas—if the ideas are successful in bringing order to our experience, then they are useful even if they do not “agree”, in some absolute sense, with the external essences. Moreover, if they are successful in bringing order into our experience, then they do “agree” at least with the aspects of our experience that they successfully order. Furthermore, it is only this agreement with aspects of our experience that can ever really be comprehended by man. That which is not an idea is intrinsically incomprehensible, and so are its relationships to other things. This leads to the pragmatic [critical realist?] viewpoint that ideas must be judged by their success and utility in the world of ideas and experience, rather than on the basis of some intrinsically incomprehensible “agreement” with nonideas.
The significance of this viewpoint for science is its negation of the idea that the aim of science is to construct a mental or mathematical image of the world itself. According to the pragmatic view, the proper goal of science is to augment and order our experience. A scientific theory should be judged on how well it serves to extend the range of our experience and reduce it to order. It need not provide a mental or mathematical image of the world itself, for the structural form of the world itself may be such that it cannot be placed in simple correspondence with the types of structures that our mental processes can form. (Stapp 2009, 62)
James was accused of subjectivism—of denying the existence of objective reality. In defending himself against this charge, which he termed slanderous, he introduced an interesting ontology consisting of three things: (1) private concepts, (2) sense objects, (3) hypersensible realities. The private concepts are subjective experiences. The sense objects are public sense realities, i.e., sense realities that are independent of the individual. The hypersensible realities are realities that exist independently of all human thinkers.
Of hypersensible realities James can talk only obliquely, since he recognizes both that our knowledge of such things is forever uncertain and that we can moreover never even think of such things without replacing them by mental substitutes that lack the defining characteristics of that which they replace, namely the property of existing independetly of all human thinkers.
James’s sense objects are courious things. They are sense realities and hence belong to the realm of experience. Yet they are public: they are indepedent of the individual. They are, in short, objective experiences. The usual idea about experiences is that they are personal or subjective, not public or objective.
This idea of experienced sense objects as public or objective realities runs through James’s writings. The experience “tiger” can appear in the mental histories of many different individuals. “That desk” is something that I can grasp and shake, and you also can grasp and shake. About this desk James says:
But you and I are commutable here; we can exchange places; and as you go bail for my desk, so I can bail yours. This notion of a reality independent of either of us, taken from ordinary experiences, lies at the base of the pragmatic definition of truth.
These words should, I think, be linked with Bohr’s words about classical concepts as the basis of communication between scientists. In both cases the focus is on the concretely experienced sense realities—such as the shaking of the desk—as the foundation of social reality. From this point of view the objective world is not built basically out of such airy abstractions as electrons and protons and “space”. It is founded on the concrete sense realities of social experience, such as a block of concrete held in the hand, a sword forged by a blacksmith, a Geiger counter prepared according to specifications by laboratory technicians and placed in a specified position by experimental physicists. (Stapp 2009, 62-63)
We do have minds, we are conscious, and we can reflect upon our private experiences because we have them. Unlike phlogiston … these phenomena exist and are the most common in human experience.— Daniel Robinson, cited in Edward Fullbrook’s (2016, 33) Narrative Fixation in Economics
Valuations are always with us. Disinterested research there has never been and can never be. Prior to answers there must be questions. There can be no view except from a viewpoint. In the questions raised and the viewpoint chosen, valuations are implied. Our valuations determine our approaches to a problem, the definition of our concepts, the choice of models, the selection of observations, the presentations of our conclusions — in fact the whole pursuit of a study from beginning to end.— Gunnar Myrdal (1978, 778-779), cited in Söderbaum (2018, 8)
Philosophers have tried doggedly for three centuries to understand the role of mind in the workings of a brain conceived to function according to principles of classical physics. We now know no such brain exists: no brain, body, or anything else in the real world is composed of those tiny bits of matter that Newton imagined the universe to be made of. Hence it is hardly surprising that those philosophical endeavors were beset by enormous difficulties, which led to such positions as that of the ‘eliminative materialists’, who hold that our conscious thoughts must be eliminated from our scientific understanding of nature; or of the ‘epiphenomenalists’, who admit that human experiences do exist, but claim that they play no role in how we behave; or of the ‘identity theorists’, who claim that each conscious feeling is exactly the same thing as a motion of particles that nineteenth century science thought our brains, and everything else in the universe, were made of, but that twentieth century science has found not to exist, at least as they were formerly conceived. The tremendous difficulty in reconciling consciousness, as we know it, with the older physics is dramatized by the fact that for many years the mere mention of ‘consciousness’ was considered evidence of backwardness and bad taste in most of academia, including, incredibly, even psychology and the philosophy of mind. (Stapp 2007, 139)
What you are, and will become, depends largely upon your values. Values arise from self-image: from what you believe yourself to be. Generally one is led by training, teaching, propaganda, or other forms of indoctrination, to expand one’s conception of the self: one is encouraged to perceive oneself as an integral part of some social unit such as family, ethnic or religious group, or nation, and to enlarge one’s self-interest to include the interests of this unit. If this training is successful your enlarged conception of yourself as good parent, or good son or daughter, or good Christian, Muslim, Jew, or whatever, will cause you to give weight to the welfare of the unit as you would your own. In fact, if well conditioned you may give more weight to the interests of the group than to the well-being of your bodily self. (Stapp 2007, 139)
In the present context it is not relevant whether this human tendency to enlarge one’s self-image is a consequence of natural malleability, instinctual tendency, spiritual insight, or something else. What is important is that we human beings do in fact have the capacity to expand our image of ‘self’, and that this enlarged concept can become the basis of a drive so powerful that it becomes the dominant determinant of human conduct, overwhelming every other factor, including even the instinct for bodily survival. (Stapp 2007, 140)
But where reason is honored, belief must be reconciled with empirical evidence. If you seek evidence for your beliefs about what you are, and how you fit into Nature, then science claims jurisdiction, or at least relevance. Physics presents itself as the basic science, and it is to physics that you are told to turn. Thus a radical shift in the physics-based conception of man from that of an isolated mechanical automaton to that of an integral participant in a non-local holistic process that gives form and meaning to the evolving universe is a seismic event of potentially momentous proportions. (Stapp 2007, 140)
The quantum concept of man, being based on objective science equally available to all, rather than arising from special personal circumstances, has the potential to undergird a universal system of basic values suitable to all people, without regard to the accidents of their origins. With the diffusion of this quantum understanding of human beings, science may fulfill itself by adding to the material benefits it has already provided a philosophical insight of perhaps even greater ultimate value. (Stapp 2007, 140)
This issue of the connection of science to values can be put into perspective by seeing it in the context of a thumb-nail sketch of history that stresses the role of science. For this purpose let human intellectual history be divided into five periods: traditional, modern, transitional, post-modern, and contemporary. (Stapp 2007, 140)
During the ‘traditional’ era our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to Nature was based on ‘ancient traditions’ handed down from generation to generation: ‘Traditions’ were the chief source of wisdom about our connection to Nature. The ‘modern’ era began in the seventeenth century with the rise of what is still called ‘modern science’. That approach was based on the ideas of Bacon, Descartes, Galileo and Newton, and it provided a new source of knowledge that came to be regarded by many thinkers as more reliable than tradition. (Stapp 2007, 140)
The basic idea of ‘modern’ science was ‘materialism’: the idea that the physical world is composed basically of tiny bits of matter whose contact interactions with adjacent bits completely control everything that is now happening, and that ever will happen. According to these laws, as they existed in the late nineteenth century, a person’s conscious thoughts and efforts can make no difference at all to what his body/brain does: whatever you do was deemed to be completely fixed by local interactions between tiny mechanical elements, with your thoughts, ideas, feelings, and efforts, being simply locally determined high-level consequences or re-expressions of the low-level mechanical process, and hence basically just elements of a reorganized way of describing the effects of the absolutely and totally controlling microscopic material causes. (Stapp 2007, 140-141)
This materialist conception of reality began to crumble at the beginning of the twentieth century with Max Planck’s discovery of the quantum of action. Planck announced to his son that he had, on that day, made a discovery as important as Newton’s. That assessment was certainly correct: the ramifications of Planck’s discovery were eventually to cause Newton’s materialist conception of physical reality to come crashing down. Planck’s discovery marks the beginning of the `transitional’ period. (Stapp 2007, 141)
A second important transitional development soon followed. In 1905 Einstein announced his special theory of relativity. This theory denied the validity of our intuitive idea of the instant of time ‘now’, and promulgated the thesis that even the most basic quantities of physics, such as the length of a steel rod, and the temporal order of two events, had no objective ‘true values’, but were well defined only ‘relative’ to some observer’s point of view. (Stapp 2007, 141)
Planck’s discovery led by the mid-1920s to a complete breakdown, at the fundamental level, of the classical material conception of nature. A new basic physical theory, developed principally by Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, and Max Born, brought ‘the observer’ explicitly into physics. The earlier idea that the physical world is composed of tiny particles (and electromagnetic and gravitational fields) was abandoned in favor of a theory of natural phenomena in which the consciousness of the human observer is ascribed an essential role. This successor to classical physical theory is called Copenhagen quantum theory. (Stapp 2007, 141)
This turning away by science itself from the tenets of the objective materialist philosophy gave impetus to, and lent support to, post-modernism. That view, which emerged during the second half of the twentieth century, promulgated, in essence, the idea that all ‘truths’ were relative to one’s point of view, and were mere artifacts of some particular social group’s struggle for power over competing groups. Thus each social movement was entitled to its own ‘truth’, which was viewed simply as a socially created pawn in the power game. (Stapp 2007, 141-142)
The connection of post-modern thought to science is that both Copenhagen quantum theory and relativity theory had retreated from the idea of observer-independent objective truth. Science in the first quarter of the twentieth century had not only eliminated materialism as a possible foundation for objective truth, but seemed to have discredited the very idea of objective truth in science. But if the community of scientists has renounced the idea of objective truth in favor of the pragmatic idea that ‘what is true for us is what works for us’, then every group becomes licensed to do the same, and the hope evaporates that science might provide objective criteria for resolving contentious social issues. (Stapp 2007, 142)
This philosophical shift has had profound social and intellectual ramifications. But the physicists who initiated this mischief were generally too interested in practical developments in their own field to get involved in these philosophical issues. Thus they failed to broadcast an important fact: already by mid-century, a further development in physics had occurred that provides an effective antidote to both the ‘materialism’ of the modern era, and the ‘relativism’ and ‘social constructionism’ of the post-modern period. In particular, John von Neumann developed, during the early thirties, a form of quantum theory that brought the physical and mental aspects of nature back together as two aspects of a rationally coherent whole. This theory was elevated, during the forties — by the work of Tomonaga and Schwinger — to a form compatible with the physical requirements of the theory of relativity. (Stapp 2007, 142)
Von Neumann’s theory, unlike the transitional ones, provides a framework for integrating into one coherent idea of reality the empirical data residing in subjective experience with the basic mathematical structure of theoretical physics. Von Neumann’s formulation of quantum theory is the starting point of all efforts by physicists to go beyond the pragmatically satisfactory but ontologically incomplete Copenhagen form of quantum theory. (Stapp 2007, 142)
Von Neumann capitalized upon the key Copenhagen move of bringing human choices into the theory of physical reality. But, whereas the Copenhagen approach excluded the bodies and brains of the human observers from the physical world that they sought to describe, von Neumann demanded logical cohesion and mathematical precision, and was willing to follow where this rational approach led. Being a mathematician, fortified by the rigor and precision of his thought, he seemed less intimidated than his physicist brethren by the sharp contrast between the nature of the world called for by the new mathematics and the nature of the world that the genius of Isaac Newton had concocted. (Stapp 2007, 142-143)
A common core feature of the orthodox (Copenhagen and von Neumann) quantum theory is the incorporation of efficacious conscious human choices into the structure of basic physical theory. How this is done, and how the conception of the human person is thereby radically altered, has been spelled out in lay terms in this book, and is something every well informed person who values the findings of science ought to know about. The conception of self is the basis of values and thence of behavior, and it controls the entire fabric of one’s life. It is irrational, from a scientific perspective, to cling today to false and inadequate adequate nineteenth century concepts about your basic nature, while ignoring the profound impact upon these concepts of the twentieth century revolution in science. (Stapp 2007, 143)
It is curious that some physicists want to improve upon orthodox quantum theory by excluding ‘the observer’, who, by virtue of his subjective nature, must, in their opinion, be excluded from science. That stance is maintained in direct opposition to what would seem to be the most profound advance in physics in three hundred years, namely the overcoming of the most glaring failure of classical physics, its inability to accommodate us, its creators. The most salient philosophical feature of quantum theory is that the mathematics has a causal gap that, by virtue of its intrinsic form, provides a perfect place for Homo sapiens as we know and experience ourselves. (Stapp 2007, 143)
One of the most important tasks of social sciences is to explain the events, processes, and structures that take place and act in society. In a time when scientific relativism (social constructivism, postmodernism, de-constructivism etc.) is expanding, it’s important to guard against reducing science to a pure discursive level [cf. Pålsson Syll 2005]. We have to maintain the Enlightenment tradition of thinking of reality as principally independent of our views of it and of the main task of science as studying the structure of this reality. Perhaps the most important contribution a researcher can make is to reveal what this reality actually looks like. This is after all the object of science.— Lars Pålsson Syll. On the use and misuse of theories and models in economics (Kindle Locations 113-118). WEA. Kindle Edition.
How can our world of billions of thinkers ever come into general concordance on fundamental issues? How do you, yourself, form opinions on such issues? Do you simply accept the message of some ‘authority’, such as a church, a state, or a social or political group? All of these entities promote concepts about how you as an individual fit into the reality that supports your being. And each has an agenda of its own, and hence its own internal biases. But where can you find an unvarnished truth about your nature, and your place in Nature? (Stapp 2007, 145)
Science rests, in the end, on an authority that lies beyond the pettiness of human ambition. It rests, finally, on stubborn facts. The founders of quantum theory certainly had no desire to bring down the grand structure of classical physics of which they were the inheritors, beneficiaries, and torch bearers. It was stubborn facts that forced their hand, and made them reluctantly abandon the two-hundred-year-old old classical ideal of a mechanical universe, and turn to what perhaps should have been seen from the start as a more reasonable endeavor: the creation an understanding of nature that includes in a rationally coherent way the thoughts by which we know and influence the world around us. The labors of scientists endeavoring merely to understand our inanimate environment produced, from its own internal logic, a rationally coherent framework into which we ourselves fit neatly. What was falsified by twentieth-century science was not the core traditions and intuitions that have sustained societies and civilizations since the dawn of mankind, but rather an historical aberration, an impoverished world view within which philosophers of the past few centuries have tried relentlessly but fruitlessly to find ourselves. The falseness of that deviation of science must be made known, and heralded, because human beings are not likely to endure in a society ruled by a conception of themselves that denies the essence of their being. (Stapp 2007, 145)
Einstein’s principle is relativity, not relativism. The historian of science Gerald Holton reports that Einstein was unhappy with the label ‘relativity theory’ and in his correspondence referred to it as Invariantentheorie…. Consider temporal and spatial measurements. Even if temporal and spatial measurements become frame-dependent, the observers who are attached to their different clock-carrying frames, like the respective observer on the platform and the train, can communicate their results to each other. They can even predict what the other observer will measure. The transparency between the reference frames and the mutual predictability of the measurement is due [to] a mathematical relationship, called the Lorentz transformations. The Lorentz transformations state the mathematical rules, which allow an observer to translate his/her coordinates into those of a different observer.
(….) The appropriate criterion for what is fundamentally real will (…) be what is invariant across all points of view…. The invariant is the real. This is a hypothesis about physical reality: what is frame-dependent is apparently real, what is frame-independent may be fundamentally real. To claim that the invariant is the real is to make an inference from the structure of scientific theories to the structure of the natural world.— Weinert (2004, 66, 70-71) The Scientist as Philosopher: Philosophical Consequences of Great Scientific Discoveries
Reply to Sam Harris on Free Will
Sam Harris’s book “Free Will” is an instructive example of how a spokesman dedicated to being reasonable and rational can have his arguments derailed by a reliance on prejudices and false presuppositions so deep-seated that they block seeing science-based possibilities that lie outside the confines of an outmoded world view that is now known to be incompatible with the empirical facts. (Stapp 2017, 97)
A particular logical error appears repeatedly throughout Harris’s book. Early on, he describes the deeds of two psychopaths who have committed some horrible acts. He asserts: “I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: There is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or to resist the impulse to victimize other people.” (Stapp 2017, 97)
Harris asserts, here, that there is “no extra part of me” that could decide differently. But that assertion, which he calls an admission, begs the question. What evidence rationally justifies that claim? Clearly it is not empirical evidence. It is, rather, a prejudicial and anti-scientific commitment to the precepts of a known-to-be-false conception of the world called classical mechanics. That older scientific understanding of reality was found during the first decades of the twentieth century to be incompatible with empirical findings, and was replaced during the 1920s, and early 1930s, by an adequate and successful revised understanding called quantum mechanics. This newer theory, in the rationally coherent and mathematically rigorous formulation offered by John von Neumann, features a separation of the world process into (1), a physically described part composed of atoms and closely connected physical fields; (2), some psychologically described parts lying outside the atom-based part, and identified as our thinking ego’s; and (3), some psycho-physical actions attributed to nature. Within this empirically adequate conception of reality there is an extra (non-atom-based) part of a person (his thinking ego) that can resist (successfully, if willed with sufficient intensity) the impulse to victimize other people. Harris’s example thus illustrates the fundamental errors that can be caused by identifying honored science with nineteenth century classical mechanics. (Stapp 2017, 97)
Harris goes on to defend “compatibilism”, the view that claims both that every physical event is determined by what came before in the physical world and also that we possess “free will”. Harris says that “Today the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will is to be a compatibilist—because we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true”. (Stapp 2017, 97-98)
But what Harris claims that “We know” to be true is, according to quantum mechanics, not known to be true. (Stapp 2017, 98)
The final clause “in every sense relevant to human behavior” is presumably meant to discount the relevance of quantum mechanical indeterminism, by asserting that quantum indeterminism is not relevant to human behavior—presumably because it washes out at the level of macroscopic brain dynamics. But that idea of what the shift to quantum mechanics achieves is grossly deficient. The quantum indeterminism merely opens the door to a complex dynamical process that not only violates determinism (the condition that the physical past determines the future) at the level of human behavior, but allows mental intentions that are not controlled by the physical past to influence human behavior in the intended way. Thus the shift to quantum mechanics opens the door to a causal efficacy of free will that is ruled out by Harris’s effective embrace of false nineteenth science. But what Harris claims that “We know” to be true is, according to quantum mechanics, not known to be true. (Stapp 2017, 98)