Telos and Economics

In the organic complex of habits and thought which make up the substance of an individual’s conscious life, the economic interest does not lie isolated and distinct from all other interests.
— Thorstein Veblen

Economics is essentially a moral “science,” and not a natural science. That is to say, it employs introspection and judgment of value.  
— John Maynard Keynes, letter to Roy Harrod in 1938

Consciousness cannot be computable.
— Roger Penrose

It is the “end” that lends “means” its importance, not vice versa … There cannot be any doubt that there is a causal relationship between the importance of the end, and that of the means.
— Eugen Von Böhm-Bawerk

As a matter selective necessity, man is an agent. He is, in his own apprehension, a centre of unfolding, impulsive activity — “teleological” activity. He is an agent seeking in every act the accomplishment of some concrete, objective, impersonal end….
— Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Chapter I

[Humans are seeking subjective and personal ends; Veblen followed the spirit of the age in not recognizing this and his adoption of classical Darwinian bias to impersonal mechanism and depersonalization of social explanations. Social science was to be modeled after physics and impersonal mechanistic classical Darwinian ideas which were also seeking to model themselves after physics.]

Telelogical explanations of action have been largely extruded from the natural sciences, even if we take account of the doctrine of “vitalism” which proved to be the most stubborn and chameleon-like of adversaries. After all, it is no longer a subject of credible speculation to attribute goal-seeking or purpose to bodies (individual or collective) that are considered to lack consciousness. (Roth 2008, 5)

However, such explanations of behavior and their resultant consequences are of crucial relevance in the behavioral sciences and in the forming of judgments in the daily business of life—where the values, preferences, motivational beliefs, and purposes of people and their institutions are of vital operational interest. To circumvent them—or to seek to “rise above” [or below] them (via exalted supra-deterministic forces) … or what is equivalent in practice, to treat them as just “being there” in the form of “given” items on a “menu” of commodities or “unexplained factor endowments” without ontogeny—is to create a self-neutering cordon sanitaire between the entire subject and the real world which is dependent on its historical trajectory. (Roth 2008, 5)

Norman L. Roth (2008) Telos and Technos: The Teleology of Economic Activity and the Origins of Markets

Even such purely academic theories as interpretations of human nature have profound practical consequences if disseminated widely enough. If we impress upon people that science has discovered that human beings are motivated only by the desire for material advantage, they will tend to live up to this expectation, and we shall have undermined their readiness to moved by impersonal ideals. By propagating the opposite view we might succeed in producing a larger number of idealists, but also help cynical exploiters to find easy victims. This specific issue, incidentally, is of immense actual importance, because it seems that the moral disorientation and fanatic nihilism which afflict modern youth have been stimulated by the popular brands of sociology and psychology [and economics] with their bias for overlooking the more inspiring achievements and focusing on the dismal average or even the subnormal. When, fraudulently basking in the glory of the exact sciences, the psychologists [, theoretical economists, etc.,] refuse to study anything but the most mechanical forms of behavior  often so mechanical that even rats have no chance to show their higher faculties  and then present their mostly trivial findings as the true picture of the human mind, they prompt people to regard themselves and others as automata, devoid of responsibility or worth, which can hardly remain without effect upon the tenor of social life.

Andreski 1973, 33-34, in Social Sciences as Sorcery

Stories about Taoism taken out of historical context*, speculations about abiogenesis unrooted in fact** (Geoff 2019); parables about Umwelt (an organism’s ‘world-view’) reduced to a “social insect” with a ganglion for a brain as human proxies devoid of personality and real human behavior (Shiozawa 2019); facile ex cathedra assertions that human minds capable of contemplating “means” and “ends” and  looking before leaping, let alone reflecting on moral and ethical choices — values — are really nothing more than mere Turing Machines and therefore mathematically modellable with genetic computational algorithms (Shiozawa 2019); claims the entire world economy can be modeled after a fitness climbing tick aka “social insects” because human beings behave like them 99% of the time  (Shiozawa 2019) have little to do with understanding “basic economic ideas or of the history of economic thought.” (Norman L. Roth on RWER) Shiozawa claims he has now provided the micro-foundations of an entire world’s macro-economics in his “if-then” algorithmic computations by simply reducing all human behavior to the level of a tick. Evolution is the New Central Dogma of economics according to his theory.

What some of these stories have in common is the desire to impose upon human economic behavior a simplifying story meant to enable mathematical tractability so encompassing it can be called a world-view.  Mirowski’s history of economics “More Heat than Light” eloquently tells the history of the “eternal folly of imitating other more ‘truth-seeking’ {usually physical} sciences, by simply imposing them on economics” and the “farcical ‘physics envy’ & slavish imitation of mid-19th century thermodynamics … [n]ot to mention mathematically trained Irving Fisher’s slavish mimicry of Boyle’s Law of gases, to derive his ‘Quantity theory of Money’.” (Norman L. Roth on RWER)

There are far more proximate causes than the big bang we can study to gain a fuller picture of economics, many of which are amenable to reasonable mathematical modeling within sensible limits. We can learn a lot from behavioral economics and its use of experiments within certain limits; human beings are after all to one degree or another habitual creatures. We can even learn something from our evolving understanding of evolutionary theory if we are careful to distinguish the difference between claims of mechanism vs. metaphor. We learn, for example, that many human behavioral traits are shared with animals; cooperation is as much a part of evolution and life as competition and that too much of the later can be actually self-destructive. But there are also important differences that can not be overlooked or ignored or explained away with scientism’s hand-waving and just-so stories.

* Historical context counts; Taoism (along with Confucianism) was a religion and moral philosophy (metaphysical theory of the universe) that was more about maintaining harmony between heaven and earth, which translated into social context meant harmony between the ruling upper class and the ruled lower-classes aimed at maintaining social harmony and civil and political stability. The real interesting aspect of Taoism was its moral precepts that were meant to guide social and economic behavior so-as to maintain social harmony. The ethical precepts have more relevance to economics than some recent Western reinterpretation of what it means to modern science. The idea that the ruler’s behavior must accord to a moral code of conduct embodied in the Way provided a basis upon which the mandate of heaven could be either considered in operation (i.e., they ruled fairly, justly, and upheld moral standards)  or not in operation (i.e., they ruled unjustly, unethically, and for selfish gain and not for the benevolence of the people). These considerations were the ancient Chinese method of determining if the ruler needed to be removed or remain in place; at least that was the theory.

Chemical self organisation, life

Self-organisation has been observed in chemical systems as well (Prigogine, 1980), and exploration of this has revealed an intriguing path that may lead to life (Kauffman, 1993).

(….) One of the great puzzles about life is that a living cell is an assembly of very special molecules in very particular relationships. Given that much of the universe seems to degenerate into randomness, it seems impossibly unlikely that the components necessary for rudimentary life would ever come together. Catalytic cycles provide a mechanism for generating a particular small group of chemicals, rather than a random soup.

(….) Living organisms are made of carbon molecules of many different kinds. We have known for a long time that carbon was capable of very complicated chemistry and that this must have something to do with the existence of life. Only in the past few decades, however, has growing knowledge of catalytic cycles led to the realisation that they might lead to an accumulation of ever-more complicated carbon chemistry that might ultimately become a living cell. This would involve not just one level of self-organisation and emergence, but probably many levels, each level giving rise to new kinds of emergent behaviour. It is thus possible to conceive how something with the vast complexity of a living cell might have originated from inanimate materials through many levels of self organisation (Kauffman, 1993).

In any case, regardless of how life began, the modern understanding of biochemistry makes it clear that living organisms are vastly sophisticated examples of complex self-organising systems.

Geoff Davies () Society, Nature: An introduction to the new systems-based, life-friendly economics

** Interestingly enough abiogenesis is not part of Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory and it is careless history and misleading story-telling to imply it is. If such speculation could become fact then it would finally be possible to reduce biology to physics, but at this point in time the only way we know how to successfully accomplish that is murder. One doesn’t need to tell highly speculative and misleading stories about abiogenesis to recognize the complexity and emergent nature of human individual and social interactions. Abiogenesis is no more relevant in understanding economics than is the big bang. The real irony is that the lessons from quantum physicsi.e., fundamental physics cannot exclude ‘the observer’are more applicable to economics than either the big bang or abiogenesis. Such speculation is more akin to Shiozawa’s effort to reduce human economics to econophysics by reducing complex human mind and behavior to the level of brainless “social insect” and then modeling bio-mechanical stimulus-response behavior with genetic algorithms. Shiozawa correctly calls out the mainstream economic assumption of a Homo economicus with unlimited information and “farsightedness in time” as “conspicuous,” but it is as equally conspicuous to assume humans know nothing more than than a brainless insect. Unfortunately for Shiozawa human beings transcend mere stimulus-response behavior far more than 1% of the time. Slow and fast are not the full story of human thinking. The invention of financial instruments of mass destruction transcend the thinking capacity of ants and ticks, even dogs, no matter how “social” some think they are. The fatal flaw of Yoshinori Shiozawa’s new Central Dogma—Microfoundations of Evolutionary Economics—is succinctly stated in Stanislav Andreski’s quote above.

Since this historical [Miller-Urey] experiment, the field has veritably exploded. In the last three decades, the origin of life has been the subject of dozens of books, scores of essays, thousands of articles, relating an enormous amount of experimental and theoretical work. Periodicals devoted exclusively to the subject have been founded. Textbooks dedicate whole chapters to it. The reason for this upsurge of interest is simple. As I have attempted to show …, we have come to know enough about life to draw the basic blueprint according to which all extant living organisms are constructed. Scientists faced with the blueprint (or, rather, with their own version of the blueprint, because they tend to see life through different glasses, depending on their fields of specialization) find the problem of how the plan materialized almost inescapable. This turned out to be my case as well. (de Duve 1991: 110)

But I must add a warning. If not considered totally outlandish any more, the field still remains largely confined to speculation. When it comes to events that happened several billion years ago, hard data are scarce and, perforce, are supplemented by reasoning and imagination, if not blind faith. Yet, life did start somewhere, sometime, somehow. Trying to reconstruct the events that led to its birth holds almost irresistible fascination, especially now that we have available so much new knowledge on the nature of life and so many new tools for digging into the past and approaching the problem. (de Duve 1991: 110)

The tale is told in simple historical style, without any of the probability weightings, plausibility assessments, and other precautionary periphrases that it requires.[2] These will come in due course. According to my reconstruction, emerging life went through four main successive stagesor “worlds,” to use a popular expression: the primeval prebiotic world, the thioester world, the RNA world, and the DNA world. This version of the script differs from the current favorite mainly by the insertion of a thioester world. I consider this insertion essential because I cannot accept the view of an RNA world arising through purely random chemistry. (de Duve 1991: 112-113)

[2] The readers’ attention is called to this point, lest they be misled by the apparently dogmatic style of the script. All statements should be read as conditional and hypothetical. (112)

I have quoted Monod’s declaration “The Universe was not pregnant with life,” to which he added “nor the biosphere with man.” I have made it clear that I disagree with his first statement. Life belongs to the very fabric of the universe. Were it not an obligatory manifestation of the combinatorial properties of matter, it could not possibly have arisen naturally. By ascribing to chance an event of such unimaginable complexity and improbabilityremember Hoyle’s allegory of the Boeing 747 emerging from a junk yardMonod does, in fact, invoke a miracle. Much as he would have refused this description, he sides with the creationists. (de Duve 1991: 217)

Christian de Duve (Nobel Laureate) Blueprint for a Cell: The Nature and Origin of Life. Neil Patterson Publishers. 1991.

[T]here are a couple of important things that evolution is not, misleading claims by creationists [and materialists] notwithstanding. For example, evolution is not a theory of the origin of life, for the simple reason that evolution deals with changes in living organisms induced by a combination of random (mutation) and nonrandom (natural selection) forces. By definition, before life originated there were not mutations, and therefore there was no variation; hence, natural selection could not possibly have acted. This means that the origin of life is a (rather tough) problem for physics and chemistry to deal with, but not a proper area of inquiry for evolutionary biology. (Pigliucci 2002: 76)

(….) Evolution is also most definitely not a theory of the origin of the universe. As interesting as this question is, it is rather the realm of physics and cosmology. Mutation and natural selection, the mechanisms of evolution, do not have anything to do with stars and galaxies. It is true that some people, even astronomers, refer to the “evolution” of the universe, but this is meant in the general sense of change through time, not the technical sense of the Darwinian theory….. The origin of the universe, like the origin of life, is of course a perfectly valid scientific question, even though it is outside the realm of evolutionary biology. (Pigliucci 2002: 77)

(….) Is the fact that evolutionary theory can explain neither the origin of life nor the formation of the universe a “failure” of Darwinian evolution? Of course not. To apply evolutionary biology to those problems is like mixing apples and oranges, or like trying to understand a basketball play by applying the rules of baseball. Creationists [and materialists] often do this, but their doing so betrays either a fundamental misunderstanding of science or a good dose of intellectual dishonesty—neither of which should be condoned. (Pigliucci 2002: 78)

(….) [Creationists often claim “It’s a debate about origins.”] This is … a recurring fallacy in debates on creation-evolution…. Briefly, the problem is that creationists do not make a distinction between different origins debates. For them the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin of species are all one and the same. (Pigliucci 2002: 175)

Of course, they are not. Evolutionary biology deals only with the origin of species, and even that is only a relatively minor part of what interests evolutionary biologists. Darwinian theories have absolutely nothing to say about either the origin of life or the origin of the universe—the first one being a problem for biochemistry and biophysics, the second a problem for physics and cosmology. Again, therefore, this fallacy reflects a deep misunderstanding of the nature of science, one that scientists themselves need to correct [or not perpetuate themselves] on every possible occasion. (Pigliucci 2002: 175)

Massimo Pigliucci (2002) Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science


Whether the proponents of hell or heaven theories finally convince their rivals of the most plausible scenario of the origin of the first replicating structures, it is clear that the origin of life is not a simple issue. One problem is the definition of life itself. From the ancient Greeks up through the early nineteenth century, people from European cultures believed that living things possessed an élan vital, or vital spirit—a quality that sets them apart from dead things and nonliving things such as minerals or water. Organic molecules, in fact, were thought to differ from other molecules because of the presence of this spirit. This view was gradually abandoned in science when more detailed study of the structure and functioning of living things repeatedly failed to discover any evidence for such an élan vital, and when it was realized that organic molecules could be synthesized from inorganic chemicals. Vitalistic ways of thinking persist in some East Asian philosophies, such as the concept of chi, but they have been abandoned in Western science for lack of evidence and because they do not lead to a better understanding of nature. (Scott 2009: 25-26)

How, then, can we define life? According to one commonly used scientific definition, if something is living, it is able to acquire and use energy, and to reproduce. The simplest living things today are primitive bacteria, enclosed by a membrane and not containing very many moving parts. But they can take in and use energy, and they can reproduce by division. Even this definition is fuzzy, though: what about viruses? Viruses, microscopic entities dwarfed by tiny bacteria, are hardly more than hereditary material in a packet—a protein shell. Are they alive? Well, they reproduce. They sort of use energy, in the sense that they take over a cell’s machinery to duplicate their own hereditary material. But they can also form crystals, which no living thing can do, so biologists are divided over whether viruses are living or not. They tend to be treated as a separate special category. (Scott 2009: 26)

(….) The origin of life is a complex but active research area with many interesting avenues being investigation, though there is not yet consensus among researchers on the sequence of events that led to living things. But at some point in Earth’s early history, perhaps as early as 3.8 billion years ago but definitely by 3.5 billion years ago, life in the form of simple single-celled organisms appeared. Once life evolved, biological evolution became possible. (Scott 2009: 26-27)

This is a point worth elaborating on. Although some people confuse the origin of life itself with evolution, the two are conceptually separate. Biological evolution is defined as decent of living things from ancestors from which they differ. Evolution kicks in after there is something, like a replicating structure, to evolve. So the origin of life preceded evolution, and is conceptually distinct from it. Regardless of how the first replicating molecule appeared, we see in the subsequent historical record the gradual appearance of more complex living things, and many variations on the many themes of life. Predictably, we know much more about evolution than about the origin of life. (Scott 2009: 27)

— Eugenie C. Scott (2009) Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction

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