Category Archives: Economics

Story Telling in Economics

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)

A Universal Science of Man?

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 [1906], 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)

Oracles of Science

[S]cientism“—an exaggerated and ideologically explainable respect for a certain mistaken image of science. Indeed, two of the most remarkable figures in thrall to “scientism” were Freud and Marx themselves. Their own theories must be reinterpreted in order to free them from this incubus.

Alexander Rosenberg, Philosophy of Social Science, 2016, p. 156.

[S]cientism is] an exaggerated and often distorted conception of what science can be expected to do or explain for us. One aspect of scientism is the idea that any question that can be answered at all can best be answered by science. This, in turn, is very often combined with a quite narrow conception of what it is for an answer, or a method of investigation, to be scientific. Specifically, it is supposed that canonical science must work by disclosing the physical or chemical mechanisms that generate phenomena. Together these ideas imply a narrow and homogeneous set of answers to the most diverse imaginable set of questions. Everywhere this implies a restriction of the powers of the human mind; but nowhere is this restriction more disastrous than in the mind’s attempts to answer questions about itself.

John Dupré, Human Nature and the Limits of Science, 2002, p. 2.

Science as Pseudo-Religion

Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, one of the greatest particle physicists of the twentieth century, assured his readers that the universe was “pointless” in his classic The First Three Minutes, still selling briskly a quarter century after its initial publication. We look in vain, says Weinberg, for a purpose for human existence or anything else and must console ourselves selves with the knowledge that science can lift the human experience above its natural level of “farce” and give it the “grace of tragedy.” (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 40-43)

[Oracles of Science argue] that outside science we cannot find respectable truth; this, of course, is scientism, not science…. Scientism is a belief that serves its adherents very well, assuring them that only science provides vides a valid paradigm for assessing knowledge claims. Scientism is, however, an obviously self-defeating ideology. Its claims about its own epistemology are not the consequence of any scientific investigation but rather reach outside itself into the very realm that it claims does not exist. The claim that there is no valuable knowledge outside science certainly cannot be supported from within science. This is an extremely simple philosophical error, akin to a child claiming that because all the people he knows are in his house, that there cannot be any people outside his house. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 565-570)

When we reflect on science—its aims, its values, its limits—we are doing philosophy, not science. This may be bad news for the high priests of scientism, who reject philosophy, but there is no escaping it. Dawkins is a good scientist and a brilliant communicator and certainly would have been an effective lawyer or politician, but he seems strangely unaware that he is an abysmal philosopher and an even worse theologian. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 570-573)

How a scientist becomes a disciple of scientism is mysterious, because science and scientism are incompatible. Science owes its success to its restricted focus—its acknowledged inability to even address questions like those raised by scientism, much less answer them. Scientists concentrate on very particular subjects, generally astonishingly narrow, and use rigorous methods to study them, submitting their hypotheses to careful scrutiny and avoiding extrapolations or unwarranted generalizations. In contrast, scientism is an unsupported generalization, bad philosophy masquerading as science or one of its consequents. This qualifies as a virus of the mind, to use Dawkins’s own terminology. Most of scientism’s disciples are casual and probably not even aware that they hold this philosophy, but when scientism is seriously adopted, it becomes a sort of pseudo-religion, providing a meaning to life, and an ideal for which one will fight. Conversion to this strong form of pseudo-religious scientism often derives from two related factors: a disillusionment with some form of traditional religion, and the discovery that science is wonderful and seems to provide meaning and values, in addition to knowledge. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 573-579)

There are indeed important values associated with scientific work, and the progress of science contributes to their spread. Progress in crucial aspects of contemporary culture reflects the spread of scientific values. But as most practicing scientists have discovered, one can work in science, easily mixing its values with unrelated extra-scientific interests. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 579-580)

Dawkins points, repeatedly and with enthusiasm, to the diversity of religions and concludes that their very diversity proves that no one of them is reliable. Of course, Dawkins’s ideas are themselves much debated among scientists, and serious disputes do indeed exist regarding the very aspects of evolutionary theory that he champions. This, however, hardly constitutes an argument that all these various points of view are equally vacuous and that there can be no serious discussion about them. Dawkins seems strangely unmoved by the large number of thoughtful scholars—including his colleagues leagues at Oxford University, like Keith Ward, Alister McGrath, and Richard Swinburne—whose religious beliefs are accompanied by serious reflection and considerations of evidence. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 580-584)

There is, to be sure, a great difference between the general unanimity of science and the diversity of religions. But there is a considered response to this. We reach the peculiar agreement and intersubjectivity of natural science only when we deal with repeatable patterns in the natural world. Scientists have the luxury of gathering together in laboratories to share common, repeatable, and predictable experiences. It is no surprise that when we pose problems related to meaning and spiritual realities, it is more difficult to reach agreement. When we insist on testability, empirical control, quantification, repeatability, and so on, we should be aware that we are confining our study to those realities that meet these criteria. This study is both wonderful and exciting, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the scientism that would impose its straitjacket on the human mind, denying the value or validity of other explorations. (Giberson and Artigas 2007, Kindle Locations 584-589)

~ ~ ~

The Ideological Uses of Evolutionary Biology in Recent Atheistic Apologetics

Why should we be concerned about biology and ideology? One good reason is that the use of biology for non-biological ends has been the cause of immense human suffering. Biology has been used to justify eugenic programs, enforced sterilization, experimentation on living humans, death camps, and political ambitions based on notions of racial superiority, to name but a few examples. We should also be concerned because biological ideas continue to be used, if not in these specific ways, then in other ways that lie well beyond science. Investigating the past should help us to be more reflective about the science of our own day, hopefully more equipped to discern the ideological abuse of science when it occurs. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

One of the most remarkable developments during the opening years of the twenty-first century has been the appearance of a number of high-profile populist books offering an aggressively atheist critique of religion.’ This “clustering” of prominent works of atheist apologetics in the period 2004-7 is of no small historical interest in its own right, and is widely taken to reflect a cultural reaction against “9/11”-the suicide attacks tacks in New York in September 2001, widely regarded as being motivated by Islamic extremism. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

Yet the appearance of these works is of interest for another reason. A central theme of two of them is that developments in biology, especially evolutionary biology, have significantly negative implications for belief in God. Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, both published in 2006, express the fundamental belief that the Darwinian theory of evolution has such explanatory power that it erodes many traditional metaphysical notions-such as belief in God-through its “universal acid.” This represents an extension of the basic lines of argument found in earlier works, in which an appeal to biological understandings of human origins, subsequently amplified to include accounts of the origins of human understandings of purpose and value based on evolutionary psychology, which was made in order to erode the plausibility of belief in God. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

From its first appearance, some saw Darwinism as a potential challenge to at least some aspects of the traditional Christian view of creation. Yet it is important to appreciate that most early evolutionists, including Charles Darwin himself, did not consider that they were thereby promulgating or promoting atheism. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, serious ous Christian thinkers had come to realize that at least some metaphorical interpretation was demanded in considering the early chapters of Genesis, so that their possible incompatibility with evolution was not the major stumbling block for the intelligentsia that might be expected (see also Harrison, Chapter 1, this volume).’ Nor is there any shortage of later significant evolutionary biologists who held that their science was consistent with their faith, such as Ronald A. Fisher, author of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930), and Theodosius Dobzhansky, author of Genetics and the Origin of Species (193’7).’ The emphasis upon Darwinism as an acid that totally erodes religious belief, though anticipated in earlier periods, appears to have reached a new intensity in the first decade of the twenty-first century. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

This chapter sets out to explore the emergence of this focused appeal to evolutionary biology in Dennett’s and Dawkins’ recent works of atheist apologetics, both considering it in its historical context and offering an assessment of its impact on the popular understanding of Darwinism in the early twenty-first century. This appeal to biology in the defense of atheism is complex and nuanced, and there are significant differences of substance and emphasis between atheist writers who adopt such an approach. Nevertheless, some common factors emerge, which suggest that this is an appropriate line of inquiry to pursue, of no small intrinsic intellectual interest to both historians and evolutionary biologists. (Alexander and Numbers 2010, emphasis added)

As my concern in this chapter is specifically with biological issues, I shall not engage with the more general argument, also embedded within some recent atheist writings, that the natural sciences as a whole make faith in God intellectually irresponsible or risible.’ This argument occasionally reflects an implicit presumption, generally not defended by an appeal to historical scholarship, of the permanent validity of a “warfare” or “conflict” model of the historical interaction of science and religion.” It is clear that this model has continuing cultural authority, especially at the popular level. It may have been radically revised, even discredited, by academic historians; it is, however, clear that this development has yet to filter down to popular culture. While this atheist argument merits close attention, as it has relevance for the calibration of traditional Christian approaches to evidence-based apologetics, it is not a topic that I propose to address further here. My main theme is the manner in which Darwinism has been transposed in recent atheist apologetics from a provisional scientific theory to an antitheistic ideology. My focus is on the ideological use of the biological sciences, especially evolutionary biology, in recent atheist apologetics, a topic which I believe is best considered under three broad categories: (1) the elevation of the status of Darwinism from a provisional scientific theory to a worldview; (2) the personal case of Charles Darwin as a role model for scientific atheism; and (3) the use of the concept of the “meme”-a notion that reflects an attempt to extend the Darwinian paradigm from nature to culture-as a means of reductively explaining (and hence criticizing) belief in God. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

Darwinism as an ideology

One of the most interesting developments of the twentieth century has been the growing trend to regard Darwinian theory as transcending the category of provisional scientific theories, and constituting a “world-view.” Darwinism is here regarded as establishing a coherent worldview through its evolutionary narrative, which embraces such issues as the fundamental nature of reality, the physical universe, human origins, human nature, society, psychology, values, and destinies. While being welcomed by some, others have expressed alarm at this apparent failure to distinguish between good, sober, and restrained science on the one hand, and non-empirical metaphysics, fantasy, myth and ideology on the other. In the view of some, this transition has led to Darwinism becoming a religion or atheist faith tradition in its own right. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

~ ~ ~

Science as a Social Activity

Most sociologists and anthropologists agree on the definition and the domain of their disciplines; the same holds true for many psychologists, political scientists, and almost all economists. The same cannot be said for philosophers and philosophy. Philosophy is a difficult subject to define, which makes it difficult to show social scientists why they should care about it—the philosophy of social science in particular…. [T]he subject is inescapable for the social scientist…. [W]hether as an economist or an anthropologist, one has to take sides on philosophical questions. One cannot pursue the agenda of research in any of the social sciences without taking sides on philosophical issues, without committing oneself to answers to philosophical questions. (Rosenberg, Alexander. Philosophy of Social Science. Boulder, CO: Westview Press; 2016; p. 1.) 

(…) Questions about what ought to be the case, what we should do, and what is right or wrong, just and unjust, are called normative. By contrast, questions in science are presumably descriptive or, as sometimes said, positive, not normative. Many of the normative questions have close cousins in the social and behavioral sciences Thus, psychology will interest itself in why individuals hold some actions to be right and others wrong; anthropology will consider the sources of differences among cultures about what is good and bad; political science may study the consequences of various policies established in the name of justice; economics will consider how to maximize welfare, subject to the normative assumption that welfare is what we ought to maximize. But the sciences—social or natural—do not challenge or defend the normative views we may hold. In addition to normative questions that the sciences cannot answer, there are questions about the claims of each of the sciences to provide knowledge, or about the limits of scientific knowledge, that the sciences themselves cannot address. These are among the distinctive questions of philosophy of science, including questions about what counts as knowledge, explanation, evidence, or understanding. (Rosenberg 2016, 2-3)

PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEMS OF SOCIAL SCIENCE

If there are questions the sciences cannot answer and questions about why the sciences cannot answer them, why should a scientist, in particular a behavioral or social scientist, take any interest in them? The positions scientists take on answers to philosophical questions determine questions they consider answerable by science and choose to address, as well as the methods they employ to answer them. Sometimes scientists take sides consciously. More often they take sides on philosophical questions by their very choice of question, and without realizing it. The philosophy of science may be able to vindicate those choices [or undermine them]. At least, it can reveal to scientists that they have made choices, that they have taken sides on philosophical issues. It is crucial for scientists to recognize this, not just because their philosophical positions must be consistent with the theoretical and observational findings of their sciences. Being clear about a discipline’s philosophy is essential at the research frontiers of the disciplines, it is the philosophy of science that guides inquiry…. [T]he unavoidability and importance of philosophical questions are even more significant for the social scientist than for the natural scientist. The natural sciences have a much larger body of well-established, successful answers to questions and well-established methods for answering them. As a result, many of the basic philosophical questions about the limits and the methods of the natural sciences have been set aside in favor of more immediate questions clearly within the limits of each of the natural sciences. (Rosenberg 2016, 3)

The social and behavioral sciences have not been so fortunate. Within these disciplines, there is no consensus on the questions that each of them is to address, or the methods to be employed. This is true between disciplines and even within some of them. Varying schools and groups, movements and camps claim to have developed appropriate methods, identified significant questions, and provided convincing answers to them. But among social scientists, there is certainly nothing like the agreement on such claims that we find in any of the natural sciences. (Rosenberg 2016, 3)

The social and behavioral sciences have not been so fortunate. Within these disciplines, there is no consensus on the questions that each of them is to address, or the methods to be employed. This is true between disciplines and even within some of them. Varying schools and groups, movements and camps claim to have developed appropriate methods, identified significant questions, and provided convincing answers to them. But among social scientists, there is certainly nothing like the agreement on such claims that we find in any of the natural sciences. In the absence of agreement about theories and benchmark methods of inquiry among the social scientists, the only source of guidance for research must come from philosophical theories. Without a well-established theory to guide inquiry, every choice of research question and of method to tackle it is implicitly a gamble with unknown odds. The choice of the social scientist makes it a bet that the question chosen is answerable, that questions not chosen are either less important or unanswerable, that the means used to attack the questions are appropriate, and that other methods are not. (Rosenberg 2016, 4)

~ ~ ~

The reason for the everlasting interaction between science and philosophy transpires clearly. The human mind musters an admirable ability to think up equations for physical systems. But equations need to be interpreted in terms of physical models and mechanisms. Science requires conceptual understanding. This understanding employs fundamental philosophical notions. (….) The scientific enterprise comes with philosophical commitments, whether the scientist likes it or not. The scientist needs philosophical ideas, simply because amongst the experimental and mathematical tools in the toolbox of the scientist there are conceptual tools, like fundamental notions. The despairing scientist may ask: ‘Will we ever get an answer?’ The philosopher replies: ‘Not a definitive answer, but a few tentative answers.’ Recall that the philosopher (and the scientist qua philosopher) works with conceptual models. At any one time only a few of these models are in circulation. They cannot provide the definitive answers of which the scientist is fond. But this is typical of models even in the natural sciences. (Weinert, Friedel. The Scientist as Philosopher: Philosophical Consequences of Great Scientific Discoveries. Berlin: Springer-Verlag; 2004; pp. 278-279. )

~ ~ ~

Science is not above criticism. On the contrary, because of its influence on modern society, science and scientists need careful scrutiny as much as they deserve admiration and support. As Helen Longino eloquently puts it, science is a social process, and one that is far too important to be left in the hands of scientists alone. Perhaps the most dangerous fallacy a scientist can commit, often subconsciously, is to only do science and never think about it. Yet many scientists who I know are not aware of the broad discussion about how science is done (or shouldn’t be done) that permeates the literature in philosophy and sociology of science. Worse yet, when asked, they positively sneer at the idea of doing philosophy or sociology of science. (Pigliucci 2002: 247)

This lack of understanding of philosophy and sociology of science by scientists is, of course, at the root of … scientism … [When] a scientist of the caliber of Noble Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg can even go so far as writing a book chapter entitled “Against Philosophy,” in which he argues that philosophy is not only useless, but positively harmful to the scientific enterprise … [we see a] sort of hubris that offends many [religionists] … (not to mention philosophers), and they have every right to be offended. (Pigliucci 2002: 247)

Golden Rule and Business Ethics

[This extensive publishing of chapter eight of Jeffrey Wattles Golden Rule was done with his permission.]

The Golden Rule of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America were times of great economic expansion and inequality, opportunity and abuse, times of American power and of world war. Early scientific doctrines of evolution were being used to gain understanding of the human species and social life, and the result was a profound challenge to traditional religion. Does religion render a person less fit for the rigors of competition, or does real religion empower a person to deal in a progressive way with those very challenges? As that debate went on, America was a center of a dynamic, religiously motivated golden rule movement, affecting society, politics, economics, business, and interfaith relations. Many enthusiastic individuals chose the rule as their motto; a popular literature on the rule arose; many a store was called “Golden Rule Store”; it was the custom to bestow on exemplars of the rule the nickname “Golden Rule.” Authors expounding the maxims for the exercise of a given craft would dub their principles “golden rules,” and many books carried titles such as Golden Rules of Surgery. A Golden Rule Brotherhood was formed with the intention of unifying all the religions and peoples of the world. During this period the golden rule came to symbolize a wholehearted devotion to the service of humankind. (Wattles 1996, 90)

This movement, which spread beyond the boundaries of Christianity, held the conviction that all men and women are brothers and sisters in the family of God, and they formulated the essentials of religion in the gospel of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. The phrase “brotherhood of man” was used to include, not exclude women. Since the struggle to synthesize religious idealism with scientific realism had become especially urgent, the golden rule became caught up in the debate. Does living by the rule render the individual needlessly vulnerable to rugged, evolutionary competition and conflict, or is the rule itself a vehicle of evolutionary progress? (Wattles 1996, 90)

There had been a growing sense that each individual is akin to every other human being. The fabric of humanity had been torn by religious wars between Christians and Muslims during the Middle Ages and between Protestants and Catholics during the early modern period. Europeans disgusted with the slaughter turned toward tolerance, especially since it was clear that professing a religion was no guarantee of morality and that some atheists lived highly moral lives. In the eighteenth century, Hume had proclaimed that every person has a spark of benevolent sentiment toward humanity, and Kant and others attempted to distill universally acceptable basics of religion and morality. In the nineteenth century, at all levels of culture, religious and secular humanitarianism flourished. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony used Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” which reads, in translation: “Joy, beautiful divine spark. . . . your magic binds together what convention had strictly divided; all men become brothers where your gentle wing rests.” Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) abandoned the life of a Russian nobleman and the privileges of literary success for a life in some ways like that of a peasant. He defined art in terms of its capacity to arouse the feeling of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. His radical application of the Sermon on the Mount and his critique of luxury and oppression stimulated the idealism of many others throughout the world. (Wattles 1996, 90-91)

Among German theologians, Albrecht Ritschl ( 1822-1889) drew on Kant for a conception of the kingdom of heaven as the organization of humanity through moral action inspired by love; Ritschl’s influential student Adolf Harnack ( 1851-1930) used historical study with the aim of separating the kernel of original Christianity from the husk of associated Greek philosophic dogma. Painstaking scholarship enabled Harnack boldly to read between the lines of the New Testament text and to discover afresh Jesus’ persistent tendency to speak of religion in terms of family life. He presented the teachings of Jesus as, in sum, the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of the individual soul. With this conception of religion, the golden rule would find new meaning and historical vitality. In interreligious relations, the new conception of religion reached an historic high-water mark at the World’s Parliament of Religions, organized in Chicago in 1893 by Presbyterian minister Dr. John Henry Barrows in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition. It is not surprising that the most frequently mentioned principle of morality at the parliament was the golden rule. Praise for the rule came from representatives of Confucianism, Judaism, and Christianity. The golden rule was perhaps the most widely shared commitment among all the religions; and it came to symbolize the participants’ commitment to live the warm brotherly and sisterly unity that most of them had experienced together during their days of the parliament. (Wattles 1996, 91)

FROM RELIGIOUS ETHICS TO BUSINESS ETHICS: ARTHUR NASH

Two sides of the American golden rule movement are represented by Arthur Nash ( 1870-1927) and J. C. Penney ( 1875-1971) respectively. Each wrote an autobiography from the perspective of a successful Christian business leader offering advice concerning the practical, moral, and spiritual principles of living that had proven themselves through years of personal experience in the competitive arena. Nash, whose story is recounted here in more detail, participated in the social drama of urban Christianity during the years surrounding World War I, and his application of the rule is religiously motivated from the start. Penney, by contrast, was a traditional, rural and small-town man who followed the golden rule as a moral principle and achieved success in business without religious motivation until his evangelical conversion later in life. (Wattles 1996, 97)

Is religion a sphere apart from business activity, or should there not be continuity between one’s religion and the way one conducts one’s business? As a bridge of continuity between religion and business was being built by those whose primary motivation was religious, it was found that the bridge could be traversed by others whose primary motivation was economic. In some cases, the intertwining of religious and business ideas resulted in an ambiguity that has lent itself to cynical interpretation. If Jesus could be popularly portrayed as the greatest advertiser and salesman in history in Bruce Barton 1924 bestseller The Man Nobody Knows, business writers could also promote religion as a tonic that would inspire an individual to conduct relationships in a way that should conduce to prosperity. Many unwitting secularists painted a veneer of religious idealism on their enterprises. (Wattles 1996, 97)

Although Arthur Nash had some tendency to let the rise and fall of his business affect his confidence in the evident, practical worth of religious principles, he remains one of the most sincere of the exponents of the golden rule as the guide to business relationships. Nash was born in a log cabin in Indiana in 1870, the eldest of nine children of strict Seventh Day Adventist parents. He referred to his parents as having a “stern, rigid, uncompromising” faith and “great and sterling character.” He was educated in Adventist schools and seminary and was sent to Detroit as an instructor in a school for Adventist ministers and missionaries. His refusal to conform to denominational boundaries led to conflict and the first of his two breaks with Christianity. He left Detroit and did not return for years. When he did, however, he was touched by the plight of the unemployed there, and with the help of others was able to open a laundry in which he was able to provide many jobs for poor people. Church people began to send him their business, and he met the Christian woman who would be his wife and the mother of his three children, and who convinced him that his objections to Christianity were not to the religion of Jesus but to the very lack of it. Inspired again, he reentered the ministry with the Disciples of Christ. But when in a funeral service he eulogized a man of considerable character who had no professed religion, he was asked to resign his ministry. He then found work to support his family selling clothing—and did very well at it. In 1909 he moved to Columbus, Ohio, started manufacturing men’s clothing, began to prosper, but lost nearly everything in the flood of 1913. He then moved to Cincinnati and was able to organize the A. Nash Company in 1916 with sixty thousand dollars in capital, making made-to-order suits for individual clients. A short while after the Armistice was concluded, he acquired ownership of the small shop that had been making his garments under contract. (Wattles 1996, 97-98)

Then came the breakthrough, the pivot of this narrative. Nash took over the limping business of a man who had leased floor space in the building of the A. Nash Company. The tenant had run a sweatshop in the depressed clothing manufacturing industry of Cincinnati. When payroll time for his new employees came around, Nash realized that some fine and vulnerable people were only earning four dollars per week. He had recently become impressed with the kind of world that could result if people would only practice the golden rule, and he had been giving speeches to that effect. He thought of raising wages substantially, but his son, freshly disillusioned from having participated in the war in Europe, resisted the idea. They had lost four thousand dollars during the previous fiscal year, but Nash decided he would close up shop rather than exploit people to stay in the clothing business. The stockholders agreed to close the company, and Nash agreed to make up their losses, but he decided to pay a living wage until they went out of business; he would put whatever capital remained as a down payment on a farm where he would at least have the satisfaction of honest earnings. He went in to announce the decision to the small group of workers. The speech is worth quoting in full (Wattles 1996, 98):

“Friends, you have heard no doubt that we have bought this shop, and I have come in to get acquainted with you. No doubt, too, you have heard a great deal about the talks that I have been giving during the War about Brotherhood and the Golden Rule, while pleading the cause of Christianity and its affiliation to my conception of true Democracy. Now I am going to do a bit of talking to you. First, I want you to know that Brotherhood is a reality with me. You are all my brothers and sisters, children of the same great Father that I am, and entitled to all the justice and fair treatment that I want for myself. And so long as we run this shop [which to me meant three or four months longer], God being my helper, I am going to treat you as my brothers and sisters, and the Golden Rule is going to be our only governing law. Which means, that whatever I would like to have you do to me, were I in your place, I am going to do to you. Now,” I went on, “not knowing any of you personally, I would like you to raise your hands as I call your names.”

I read the first name. Under it was written: Sewing on buttons—$4.00 per week. I looked straight before me at the little group, but saw no hand. Then I looked to my right, and there saw the old lady I have referred to holding up her trembling hand. At first I could not speak, because, almost instantly, the face of my own mother came between that old lady and myself. I thought of my mother being in such a situation, and of what, in the circumstances, I would want someone to do for her. I hardly knew what to say, because I was aware that when I went into the shop, that after agreeing to stand all of the loss entailed by the liquidation of the company, I could not go too far in raising wages. It seemed to be my obvious duty to salvage something for the boys who were coming home from military service, and for the daughter just entering the university. But as I looked at that old lady, and saw only my mother, I finally blurted out: “I don’t know what it’s worth to sew on buttons; I never sewed a button on. But your wages, to begin with, will be $12.00 a week. (Wattles 1996, 98-99)

Nash continued through the list, giving equal 300 percent raises for those earning the least, and raising the highest wages from eighteen to twenty-seven dollars. It was not a move made out of ecstasy, but in blunt lucidity about what it would subtract from the money he would have to invest afterward in a farm. For months thereafter he gave little attention to the clothing business, but when he needed to see how it was doing financially, he was surprised: their little business was putting out three times the quantity it had done the previous year. He then learned that after his little speech the Italian presser had concluded that if he were the boss and had just spoken like that to his employees and raised their wages, he would want his employees to “work like hell.” And that is exactly what they did. Soon the shop had more orders than it could handle. Encouraged, Nash turned his business into a laboratory for the application of the golden rule, and the business prospered greatly. (Wattles 1996, 99)

Nash’s leadership with the golden rule led to many changes in his business. He proposed a profit-sharing plan; the workers chose to take their benefits in the form of higher wages. By 1923 the workers owned nearly half of the company stock. The best-paid employees petitioned to extend the distributions based not on the wages but on time worked. “The higher-paid workers, therefore, on their own motion thus relinquished their claim to a considerable sum of money in order that the lower-paid workers, whose need was greater, could be better provided for.” Nash continued to raise wages, limited the profit of capital to 7 percent, and reinvested remaining profits in the extension of the business. He lived simply. When Nash proposed to withhold bonuses from those who had worked less than six months (since an employee had joined for a short time and left right after receiving a bonus), the workers insisted that the golden rule indicated assuming sincere motivation in every employeeand they prevailed. Nash and the workers agreed that the consumer should play a role in the setting of prices, and consequently their prices were drastically cheaper than others’ (sixteen to twenty-nine dollars for a suit instead of fifty to a hundred). They also agreed to return extra profits to the customer in the form of better goods and extra trimmings. And they proposed, during a time of unemployment, to take a wage cut and make additional work for the unemployed in Cincinnati. They had abundant sunshine and fresh air and a healthy vapor heating system, and they remodeled their plant according to a schedule that the group agreed to. The work week was reduced to forty hours, and Nash was resolutely opposed to overtime. Every change was either proposed by one of the workers or thoroughly discussed in a company meeting. Nash supported labor unions; his firm unanimously agreed to make no clothes for a firm fighting a union and looked askance at someone taking a striker’s job; but he thought there was a better way to safeguard the rights of workers, and so he had no union in his plant. An experienced factory observer visited Nash’s workers and concluded that he was watching piecework, so rapid was the labor; but those people were working for an hourly wage. In one room, however, workers were taking such painstaking care with their work, the observer was sure they were on an hourly wage; but they were in fact the only one’s getting paid by the piece. Even during hard economic times they continued to grow from around $132,000 in 1918 to $3,750,000 in 1922. (Wattles 1996, 99-100)

Nash became widely known, and in 1923 he published an autobiography, proclaiming the golden rule as his cardinal principle, telling of his path to success, and reproducing two appreciative commentaries. After writing the triumphant account of his spiritual, social, and material success, the former preacher finally had a national pulpit that could not be taken from him. (Wattles 1996, 100)

In a posthumous 1930 edition of his book, completed by an associate, we learn the rest of the story. As a result of his renown, Golden Rule Nash became overcommitted to travel and speechmaking, and during the last four years of his life his business, now grown quite large, began to weaken in sustaining its original spirit. As Nash came to employ not a few hundred but 140,000 employees, the service motive did not permeate as thoroughly as before. Previously he had estimated that 90 percent of his workers identified with the spirit of his undertaking, and the other 10 percent worked alongside them faithfully. But now some people began to take advantage of the looser system of control; some subordinate executives did not keep pace with their leader. Favoritism, discrimination, and poor workmanship became noticeable, and morale slackened as Nash was away much of the time on speaking engagements with dinner clubs, lodge and church conventions, and chambers of commerce. (Wattles 1996, 100)

Nash’s resolution of the problem led to an expansion of his management philosophy. At first he approached a group of ministers and invited them to examine every phase of his operation and to report any situation where the teachings of Jesus could be more truly put to work. They refused, deferring to his greater experience in business. At length he decided to turn to a union. Previously, despite his sympathies with the union movement, Nash had endeavored to treat his workers so well that they would feel no need for a union. The enmity between labor and management, especially in the clothing industry, had been strong during the previous decade; now, however, in December of 1925, he turned to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, on account of its sustained dedication to the skills of the trade and to the welfare of the workers. The union’s technical competence, which Nash had previously rejected as deadening, proved most helpful. New methods accounting, inventory management, and finance were introduced. Thus many techniques of scientific management that he had scorned as mere mechanical substitutes for human cooperation were introduced, and he found that they in fact constituted the very extension and application of the golden rule itself. The business weathered a slump and emerged stronger than ever; sales for 1926 were fourteen million dollars. The workers owned most of the stock. It became evident that the supreme desire to apply the golden rule did not enable Nash to discover by himself every step of forward progress that he needed to take. He needed the union to show him that techniques he had opposed were in fact required by his own purposes. Nonetheless, it was by following the golden rule that he came to the union and thus to accept ideas he had previously rejected in the name of the rule. (Wattles 1996, 100-101)

He founded the Nash Journal as a forum for popular and inspirational tidbits of wisdom, business advice, editorials, news of the company and the world. In one of his rare forays in the direction of philosophy, Nash responded to an article in which his company’s success was explained in terms of the golden rule plus other factors of business judgment. He challenged the separation of the golden rule from good business judgment. (Wattles 1996, 101)

In order to perfectly live the Golden Rule, one in business, to begin with, would be compelled to buy his merchandise in such a way that he would be dealing with the seller on the basis of the Golden Rule, as well as buying for his customers on the basis of the Golden Rule. The thought I want to bring out, is that we have left most things religious and spiritual down in the boggy swamps of sentimentalism. The efforts of the church in the past have not been directed as much as they may be toward educating and equipping men and women to live large and full lives. Whatever success has come to the A. Nash Company in living the Golden Rule has come because there has been enough business knowledge to enable us to live it to just that degree, and whenever we have failed in exercising the very highest and keenest business judgment on a truly ethical basis, it has been because we did not have sufficient insight to understand our obligation measured by the Golden Rule. . . . In other words, perfect and infallible living of the Golden Rule would require infallible mentality and undaunted courage. (Wattles 1996, 101)

Nash’s book argued that religion is needed for the socially effective practice of the golden rule. Any acceptable economic success must be based not upon profit-hungry manipulation but upon good relationships between those involved. Acting in accord with the golden rule is required in order for a business enterprise to flourish in its social relations, since the rule stimulates improved service. The practice of the rule in business should not be regarded as suicidal; often it is an aid to success. Religious motivation is usually necessary to motivate the wholehearted practice of the golden rule. Therefore, religion is essential for the flourishing of business and consequently for the flourishing of society and of civilization. In sum, Nash used the rule as a symbol of his Christian ideals of brotherhood and service and as a method to discover new ways of treating his workers and his customers well. (Wattles 1996, 102)

FROM BUSINESS ETHICS TO RELIGIOUS ETHICS: J. C. PENNEY

J. C. Penney experienced the golden rule during his early years more as a symbol of the rigorous, edifying, and self-denying morality of his “good and dedicated” father rather than as a symbol of the spiritual example of his “unselfish and saintly” mother. The son of a Primitive Baptist preacher (and the grandson of a preacher), the third child of twelve children (six of whom survived to adulthood), growing up on a farm, Penney recalls learning self-reliance by having to earn the money for his clothes beginning at age eight. He ran errands. He raised pigs. But when the neighbors complained about the smell, his father obliged him to stop raising pigs—an early lesson about the unwelcome implications of living by the golden rule. The boy turned to growing watermelons, spending the last nights before harvesting in the field with a dog and a shotgun to protect his crop. He took them to the county fair to sell them, and set up his wagon close to where the crowds were entering. Sales were becoming brisk when his father interrupted and ordered him to close down and go home. The lad had unwittingly broken the norm of selling along with other merchants who had set up inside the fair and had paid for a concession to do so. This was his second hard lesson about the implications of the golden rule. (Wattles 1996, 102)

The next phase of his life with the golden rule were his early years in business. He learned to sell dry goods. “I concentrated on two points: knowing the stock and exactly where everything was, and giving the customer the utmost in service and value, making only a small profit on each sale. I was particularly interested in the idea of keeping the store sold out of old stock.” He learned how “to add service and value from the woman’s point of view.” He stayed away from the cities, feeling that he knew “how to get close to the lives of small town people, learning their needs and preferences and serving them accordingly.” He liked working where he and those who worked with him “understood our neighbors as readily as they could understand us.” In 1902 he opened a store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, with the sign: Golden Rule Store. He and his wife worked together without any help at first, working hard, too hard, as Penney recalls, from early in the morning to late at night seven days a week. They abided strictly by the golden rule, they were extremely frugal, and they made money. As they began to hire people, Penney never hired anyone who did not have a “positive belief in a Supreme Being”; he selected people with “character, enthusiasm, and energy. ” He had large ambitions: “By our service to our customers we would create in them that spring of sparkling good will which would prompt them to want to help us to serve them.” (Wattles 1996, 102-103)

The last period of his life was marked by his religious conversion. Chronically troubled by his merely external engagement with religion, he had not been able to convince himself wholeheartedly that “it was enough for a man to lead a moral and upright life.” At the age of fifty-eight, having financially overextended himself in philanthropy when the Great Depression hit, this wealthy and successful man was brought to bankruptcy, alcoholism, and despair. Through an evangelical mission in New York City, he found God in a radiant and satisfying way and could then speak anew of the golden rule. “From our spiritual wellsprings come our capacities for unselfishness.” Penney proclaimed that the world must be transformed, would be transformed, and could only be transformed by the spiritually motivated practice of the golden rule, service to all people as one’s neighbors. (Wattles 1996, 103)

As civilization grew and horizons widened, the definition of “brotherhood” took on more exact meaning, and people came gradually to understand the golden rule as a basic principle, applicable to all relationships. In former periods business was identified as secular, and service as sacred. In proportion as we have discerned that between secular and sacred no arbitrary line exists, public awareness has grown that the golden rule was meant for business as much as for other human relationships.

Penny 1950, 52

Thus Penney joined men like Nash and Jones in holding to a religious conception of brotherhood as the basis for the replete practice of the golden rule. (Wattles 1996, 103)

CONCLUSION

The golden rule has functioned to mobilize sympathies, to sustain human dignity, and to express religious experience on a diverse planet in need of unifying ideals. Despite the follies of some of its champions, the rule, interpreted through the gospel of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, has showed itself a sturdy player in the encounter between religious idealism and scientific realism. (Wattles 1996, 103)

Evolution means progress as well as struggle. Not only does idealism need realism to make its ideals effective, but realism also needs idealism in order to keep pace in a progressive world. The fact that the rule provided a focus for the experience of harmony among members of different religions and the fact that the rhetoric of the golden rule could be an effective lever of reform give hope for the moral sense within the human heart and an incipient spiritual community. How, then, shall the golden rule be applied in practice? There is no formula for finding the proportion of legitimate self-interest in a life dominated by the service motive. There is no formula for determining when a sacrificial deed will have great leverage. Nor is the golden rule a substitute for gifted leadership, though it can contribute the moral focus for inspired leadership and teamwork. (Wattles 1996, 104)

Simply to ridicule the follies of idealism or to expose the scandals of a narrow-minded realism may make people more cynical about the prospect of combining idealism with realism. Pointing beyond cynicism, the biographies summarized here show how some, daring to treat others as they would be treated, found their way. Arthur Nash discovered that his apparently self-sacrificing wage increases won a profitable response from his workers, and they gained national attention for joining religious and moral dynamism with business progress. J. C. Penney respected the rule as a moral constraint on profit seeking and as a guide to service, and in the end also wrote of religiously motivated brotherhood. Samuel Jones, despite relative economic and political success, continued to aim, sometimes unwisely, for social and personal objectives beyond his reach. His sense of the pathos of life’s contradictions was much sharper than that of Penney or Nash. Nash and Penney showed that an individual and a company can flourish with a profound commitment to the rule. Jones, however, also showed that a society transformed by the practice of the rule is a long way off. (Wattles 1996,104)

~ ~ ~

Computability and Economics

My incompleteness theorem makes it likely that mind is not mechanical, or else mind cannot understand its own mechanism. If my result is taken together with the rationalistic attitude which Hilbert had and which was not refuted by my results, then [we can infer] the sharp result that mind is not mechanical. This is so, because, if the mind were a machine, there would, contrary to this rationalistic attitude, exist number-theoretic questions undecidable for the human mind (Gödel in Wang 1996, 186-187)

(….) However, Wang reported that in 1972, in comments at a meeting to honor von Neumann, Gödel said: “The brain is a computing machine connected with a spirit ” (Wang 1996, 189). In discussion with Wang at about that time, Gödel amplified this remark:

Even if the finite brain cannot store an infinite amount of information, the spirit may be able to. The brain is a computing machine connected with a spirit. If the brain is taken to be physical and as a digital computer, from quantum mechanics there are then only a finite number of states. Only by connecting it to a spirit might it work in some other way. (Gödel in Wang 1996, 193)

Some caution is required in interpreting the remarks recorded by Wang, since the context is not always clear. Nevertheless Wang’s reports create the impression that, by the time of his note about Turing, Gödel was again tending toward a negative answer to the question, “Is the human mind replaceable by a machine?” (Copeland et. al. 2013, 21)

(….) The mathematician Jack Good, formally Turing’s colleague at Bletchley Park, Britain’s wartime code-breaking headquarters, gave a succinct statement of the Mathematical Objection in a 1948 letter to Turing:

Can you pin-point the fallacy in the following argument? “No machine can exist for which there are no problems that we can solve and it can’t. But we are machines: a contradiction.”

At the time of Good’s letter Turing was already deeply interested in the Mathematical Objection. More than eighteen months previously he had given a lecture in London, in which he expounded and criticized an argument flowing from his negative result concerning Entsheidungsproblem and concluding that “there is a fundamental contradiction in the idea of a machine with intelligence” (1947, 393).

At the time of Good’s letter Turing was already deeply interested in the Mathematical Objection. More than eighteen months previously he had given a lecture, in London, in which he expounded and criticized an argument flowing from his negative result concerning the Entsheidungsproblem and concluding that “there is a fundamental contradiction in the idea of a machine with intelligence” (1947, 393). (Copeland et. al. 2013, 21)

Copeland et. al.. (2013, 5; 21) Computability: Turing, Gödel, Church, and Beyond. MIT Press.

If the economy is driven by one individual choice after another in response to prices, this should be capable of being modelled on a computer. In the words of an eminent economist, consumer choice can be likened to a computer ‘into whom we “feed” a sequence of market prices and from whom we obtain a corresponding sequence of “solutions” in the form of specified optimum positions’. The ranking of preferences determines the market choices of economic man. Arriving at this ranking can be modelled as a sequence of pairwise comparisons, for example, making a choice between strawberry and vanilla flavours (taking price into account), and comparing likewise all other options in sequence until the budget is exhausted. Such choices can be embodied in an algorithm (a calculation procedure) to run sequentially on a computer and provide a numerical result.  (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 263)

But there is a snag: some algorithmic problems cannot be solved by a digital computer. They either take too long to compute, are impossible to compute (that is, are ‘non-computable’), or it is unknown whether they can be computed. For example, the variable of interest may increase exponentially as the algorithm moves sequentially through time. A generic computer (known after its originator as a ‘Turing machine’, which can mimic any computer) fails to complete the algorithm and never comes to a halt. Such problems can arise in deceptively simple tasks, for example, the ‘travelling salesman problem’, which involves calculating the shortest route through several given locations, or designing efficient networks more generally. For every incremental move, the time required by the computer rises by a power: there may be a solution, but it requires an impossible length of time to compute. In a more familiar example, encryption relying on the multiplication of two unknown prime numbers can be broken, but relies on solutions taking too long to complete. (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 263-264)

The clockwork consumer maximizes her innate preferences in response to market prices. But there is a flaw in the design: the clockwork may not deliver a result. It may have to run forever before making a single choice. This has been demonstrated formally several times. The ordering of individual preferences has been claimed to be ‘non-computable’, and Walrasian general equilibrium may be non-computable as well. Non-computability in economics is little cited by mainstream scholars. On the face of it, it makes a mockery of the neoclassical notions of rationality and rigour, both of which imply finality. Economics however averts its gaze. In practice, since standard microeconomics has never aspired to realism, it may be a reasonable response to say that it has formalisms that work, and that they constitute ‘horses for courses’. But what cannot be claimed for such formalisms is a unique and binding authority in a theoretical, empirical, policy-normative sense, in the way that scientific consensus is binding. (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 264-265)

Computation rears its head several times in Nobel economics. In the second Nobel Lecture, Ragnar Frisch described the task of the economist as validating and executing policy preferences by feeding them into computer models of the economy, and Milton Friedman expressed a similar idea in his Nobel Lecture of 1976. Hayek (NPW, 1974) made his mark in the ‘socialist calculation debate’. Defenders of socialist planning (and of neoclassical economics) in the 1920s and 1930s argued that private ownership was not crucial: socialism could make use of markets, and that the requirements for socialist calculation were no more onerous than the ones assumed for neoclassical general equilibrium. From then onwards, the debate should really be called ‘the neoclassical calculation debate’. Joseph Stiglitz (NPW, 2001) perversely framed a devastating demolition of general equilibrium economics as a criticism of market socialism. Kenneth Arrow (NPW, 1972), an architect of general equilibrium, pointed out (against general equilibrium) that in terms of computability, every person is her own ‘socialist planner’—the task of rationally ordering even private preferences and choices (which Hayek and economics more generally takes for granted) looks too demanding. Under general equilibrium, if even a single person is in a position to set a price (as opposed to taking it as given), ‘the superiority of the market over centralized planning disappears. Each individual agent is in effect using as much information as would be required by a central planner.’ (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 265)

In response to the socialist neoclassical defence, Hayek and his supporters questioned the very possibility of rational calculation. Hayek acknowledged the interdependence of all prices. But the consumer and entrepreneur did not need to be omniscient, just to make use of local price signals and local knowledge to price their goods and choices. The problem was not the static once-and-for-all efficiency of general equilibrium, but coping with change. The prices obtained fell well short of optimality (in the Pareto general equilibrium sense).29 Hayek implied that this was the best that could be achieved. But how would we know? Joseph Stiglitz (NPW, 2001) does not think it is. Regulation can improve it. Hayek’s position fails as an argument against socialism: if capitalism can do without omniscience, why not a Hayekian market socialism without omniscience? A key part of Mises’s original argument against socialism in 1920 was that that entrepreneurs require the motivation of profit, and that private ownership of the means of production was indispensable. But advanced economies are mixed economies: they have large public sectors, in which central banking, social insurance, and infrastructure, typically more than a third of the economy, are managed by governments or not-for-profit. They would be much less efficient to manage any other way. In Britain, for example, with its privatized railways, the biggest investment decisions are still reserved for government: the rails are publicly owned, the trains are commissioned and purchased by government, and a major high speed line project (HS2) can only be undertaken by government. Despite Hayek, smaller public sectors are not associated with more affluent economies: The expensive Nordic Social Democratic societies demonstrate this. (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 265-266)

Herbert Simon (NPW, 1978) pointed out that individuals could not cope with the computational challenges they faced. They did the best they could with what they had, which he called ‘bounded rationality’. The problem also appears in behavioural economics, where NPWs Allais, Selten, Kahneman, Smith, and Roth have all shown that real people diverge from the norms of rational choice, and that outcomes are therefore unlikely to scale up to ‘efficient’ equilibria. In a letter to the non-computability advocate Vela Velupillai, Simon spelled out the different degrees of cognitive capacity: There are many levels of complexity in problems, and corresponding boundaries between them. Turing computability is an outer boundary, and as you show, any theory that requires more power than that surely is irrelevant to any useful definition of human rationality. A slightly stricter boundary is posed by computational complexity, especially in its common ‘worst case’ form. We cannot expect people (and/or computers) to find exact solutions for large problems in computationally complex domains. This still leaves us far beyond what people and computers actually CAN do. The next boundary, but one for which we have few results … is computational complexity for the ‘average case’, sometimes with an ‘almost everywhere’ loophole [that is, procedures that do not apply in all cases]. That begins to bring us closer to the realities of real-world and real-time computation. Finally, we get to the empirical boundary, measured by laboratory experiments on humans and by observation, of the level of complexity that humans actually can handle, with and without their computers, and—perhaps more important—what they actually do to solve problems that lie beyond this strict boundary even though they are within some of the broader limits. The latter is an important point for economics, because we humans spend most of our lives making decisions that are far beyond any of the levels of complexity we can handle exactly; and this is where … good-enough decisions take over. (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 266-267)

This problem was also acknowledged by Milton Friedman (NPW, 1976). Surprisingly for a Chicago economist, he conceded that optimizing was difficult. His solution was to proceed ‘as if’ the choice had been optimized, without specifying how (the example he gives is of the billiards player, who implicitly solves complicated problems in physics every time he makes a successful shot). Asymmetric information, at the core of bad faith economics, is partly a matter of inability to monitor even the moves of a collaborator or a counter-party. The new classical NPW economists (Lucas, Prescott, and Sargent) avoid the problem of computational complexity (and the difficulty of scaling up from heterogeneous individuals) by using a ‘representative agent’ to stand for the whole of the demand or supply side of the economy. Going back to where we started, ‘imaginary machines’, the reliance on models (that is, radically simplified mechanisms) arises from the difficulty of dealing with anything more complicated. (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 267)

All this is just another way of saying that on plausible assumptions, the market-clearing procedures at the heart of normative economics (that is, its quest for ‘efficiency’) cannot work like computers. Having failed in the test of classic analysis, theory fails the test of computability as well. This suggests that actual human choices are not modelled correctly by economic theory, but are made some other way, with as much calculation as can be mustered, but also with short-cuts, intuitions, and other strategies. This is not far-fetched. Humans do things beyond the reach of computers, like carry out an everyday conversation. Policy is not made by computers, not by economists, but by imperfect politicians. Perhaps it is wrong to start with the individual—maybe equilibrium (such as it is) comes from the outside, from the relative stability of social conventions and institutions. This indeterminacy provides an analytical reason why understanding the economy needs to be pragmatic, pluralistic, and open to argument and evidence; an economic historian would say that we should embrace empirical complexity. Policy problems may be intractable to calculation, but most of them get resolved one way or another by the passage of time. History shows how. This may be taken as endorsing the pragmatism of Social Democracy, and of institutional and historical approaches which resemble the actual decision processes.  (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 267-268)

If economics is not science, what should we make of it? Economics has to be regarded as being one voice among many, not superior to other sources of authority, but not inferior to them either. In that respect, it is like Social Democracy. It commands an array of techniques, the proverbial ‘toolkit’ which economists use to perform concrete evaluations, including many varieties of cost-benefit analysis. It has other large assets as well: a belief system that commands allegiance, passion, commitment, groupthink, and rhetoric. Its amorality attracts the powerful in business, finance, and politics. It indoctrinates millions every year in universities, and its graduates find ready work in think tanks, in government, and in business. The press is full of its advocates. As an ideology, economics may be resistant to argument and evidence, but it is not entirely immune to them. Its nominal allegiance to scientific procedure ensures that the discipline responds to empirical anomalies, albeit slowly, embracing new approaches and discarding some of those that don’t seem to work. (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 268, emphasis added)

How Economics Lost Sight of Its Goal

Back in Ancient Greece, when Xenophon first came up with the term economics, he described the practice of household management as an art. Following his lead, Aristotle distinguished economics from chrematistics, the art of acquiring wealth—in a distinction that seems to have been all but lost today. The idea of economics, and even chrematistics, as an art may have suited Xenophon, Aristotle and their time, but two thousand years later, when Isaac Newton discovered the laws of motion, the allure of scientific status became far greater. Perhaps this is why, in 1767—just 40 years after Newton’s death—when the Scottish lawyer James Steuart first proposed the concept of ‘political economy’, he defined it no longer as an art but as ‘the science of domestic policy in free nations’. But naming it as a science still didn’t stop him from spelling out its purpose (Raworth 2017, 28-29, Kindle Edition):

The principal object of this science is to secure a certain fund of subsistence for all the inhabitants, to obviate every circumstance which may render it precarious; to provide every thing necessary for supplying the wants of the society, and to employ the inhabitants (supposing them to be free-men) in such a manner as naturally to create reciprocal relations and dependencies between them, so as to make their several interests lead them to supply one another with their reciprocal wants (Raworth 2017, 29, Kindle Edition).

A secure living and jobs for all in a mutually thriving community: not bad for a first stab at defining the goal (despite the tacit disregard of women and slaves that came with the times). A decade later, Adam Smith had a go at his own definition but followed Steuart’s lead in considering political economy to be a goal-oriented science. It had, he wrote, ‘two distinct objects: to supply a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or, more properly, to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public services’. This definition not only defies Smith’s ill-deserved modern reputation as a free-marketeer but also keeps its eyes firmly on the prize by articulating a goal for economic thought. But it was an approach that would not last (Raworth 2017, 29, Kindle Edition).

Seventy years after Smith, John Stuart Mill’s definition of political economy started the shift in focus by recasting it as ‘a science which traces the laws of such of the phenomena of society as arise from the combined operations of mankind for the production of wealth’. With this, Mill began a trend that others would further: turning attention away from naming the economy’s goals and towards discovering its apparent laws. Mill’s definition came to be used widely but by no means exclusively. In fact for nearly a century, the emerging science of economics was defined rather imprecisely, leading the early Chicago School economist Jacob Viner, in the 1930s, to quip simply that ‘Economics is what economists do.’ (Raworth 2017, 29, Kindle Edition)

Not everyone found that a satisfactory answer. In 1932, Lionel Robbins of the London School of Economics stepped in with intent to clarify the matter, clearly irritated that ‘We all talk about the same things, but we have not yet agreed what it is we are talking about.’ He claimed to have a definitive answer. ‘Economics,’ he declared, ‘is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.’ Despite its contortions, that definition seemed to close the debate, and it stuck: many mainstream textbooks still start with something very similar today. But although it frames economics as a science of human behaviour, it spends little time enquiring into those ends, let alone into the nature of the scarce means involved. In Gregory Mankiw’s widely used contemporary textbook, Principles of Economics, the definition has become even more concise. ‘Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources,’ it declares—erasing the question of ends or goals from the page altogether (Raworth 2017, 29-30, Kindle Edition).

It is more than a little ironic that twentieth-century economics decided to define itself as a science of human behaviour and then adopted a theory of behaviour—summed up in rational economic man—which, for decades, eclipsed any real study of humans, as we will see in Chapter 3. But, more crucially, during that process, the discussion of the economy’s goals simply disappeared from view. Some influential economists, led by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, claimed this was an important step forwards, a demonstration that economics had become a value-free zone, shaking off any normative claims of what ought to be and emerging at last as a ‘positive’ science focused on describing simply what is. But this created a vacuum of goals and values, leaving an unguarded nest at the heart of the economic project. And, as every cuckoo knows, such a nest must be filled (Raworth 2017, 30, Kindle Edition).

Dumuzid and Enkimdu

This is a debate between Dumuzid, the shepherd, and Enkimdu, a minor deity associated with cultivation and here representing the interests of the farmer…. Shepherds and farmers coexisted in the Mesopotamian economy and, while they may have had their differences, in many ways their interests were complementary. (Black 2004, 40)

Here the debate is out in a dramatic context, since Inana’s brother the sun-god Utu is urging her to marry Dumuzid the shepherd (11-19), whereas Inana is more inclined to marry Enkimdu the farmer (7-10, 20-34). The shepherd insists that nothing which the farmer can offer—woven garments, bear, bread, or beans—is superior to the sheep, milk, curds, cheeses or butter that he, the shepherd, can produce. (Black 2004, 40-64)

But just at the point when the debate might have become heated, following provocation from the shepherd, the farmer declines to argue, and good-naturedly allows the shepherd to graze his sheep on the stubble of the fields, and to water his flocks in the farmer’s canal. The two end up friends, and the farmer will provide the shepherd with wheat, beans, and barley. He will also continue to bring presents for Inana, even when she is married to Dumuzid. (Black 2004)

Translation

20-34 ‘The shepherd shall not marry me! He shall not make me carry his garments of new wool. His brand new wool will not influence me. Let the farmer marry me, the maiden. With the farmer who grows colourful flax, with the farmer who grows dappled grain ….’

35-9 These words … the shepherd, Dumuzid … to say …:

40-54  ‘In what is the farmer superior to me …? Enkimdu, the man of the dykes and canals—in what is that farmer superior to me? Let him give me his black garment, and I will give the farmer my black ewe for it. Let him give me his white garment, and I will give the farmer my white ewe for it. Let him pour me his best beer, and I will pour the farmer my yellow milk for it. Let him pour me his fine beer, and I will pour the farmer my soured (?) milk for it. Let him pour me his brewed bear, and I will pour the farmer my whipped milk for it. Let him pour me his beer shandy, and I will pour the farmer my … milk for it.

55-64 ‘Let him give me his best filtered beer, and I will give the farmer my curds (?). Let him give me his best bread, and I will give the farmer my … milk for it. Let him give me his little beans, and I will give the farmer my small cheeses for them. After letting him eat and letting him drink, I will even leave extra butter for him, and I will leave extra milk for him. In what is the farmer superior to me?

65-73  He was chearful, he was chearful, at the edge of the river bank, he was chearful. On the riverbank, the shepherd on the riverbank, now the shepherd was even pasturing the sheep on the riverbank. The farmer approached the shepherd there, the shepherd pasturing the sheep on the riverbank; the farmer Enkimdu approached him there, Dumuzid … the farmer, the king of dyke and canal. From the plain where he was, the shepherd from the plain where he was provoked a quarrel with him; the shepherd Dumuzid from the plain where he was provoked a quarell with him.

74-9 ‘Why should I compete against you, shepherd, I against you, shepherd, I against you? Let your sheep eat the grass of the riverbank, let your sheep graze on my stubble. Let them eat grain in the jewelled (?) fields of Unug, let you kids and lambs drink water from my Surungal canal.’

80-3 ‘As for me, the shepherd: when I am married, farmer, you are going to be counted as my friend. Farmer Enkimdu, you are going to be counted as my friend, farmer, as my friend.’

84-7 ‘I will bring you wheat, and I will bring you beans; I will bring you two-row barley from the threshing-floor. And you, maiden, I will bring you whatever you please, maiden Inana, … barley or … beans.’

88-9 The debate between the shepherd and the farmer: maiden Inana, it is sweet to praise you! (Black, Jeremy et. al., eds. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2004.)