Category Archives: Economics

Machine Dreams

If the emergentist-materialist ontology underlying biology (and, as a matter of fact, all the factual sciences) is correct, the bios constitutes a distinct ontic level the entities in which are characterized by emergent properties. The properties of biotic systems are then not (ontologically) reducible to the properties of their components, although we may be able to partially explain and predict them from the properties of their components… The belief that one has reduced a system by exhibiting [for instance] its components, which is indeed nothing but physical and chemical, is insufficient: physics and chemistry do not account for the structure, in particular the organization, of biosystems and their emergent properties (Mahner and Bunge 1997: 197). (Robert 2004: 132)

Sarkar (1998; Gilbert and Sarkar 2000) makes a helpful distinction between two kinds of reductionism — genetic reductionism and physical reductionism. Physical reductionism sees physics as the most basic of the sciences and holds that all scientific explanations may (and should) eventually be recast in the terms of physics; genetic reductionism holds that ‘genes can explain all phenotypic features of an organism’ (Sarkar 1998: 174). These types of reductionism are not coextensive, though both champions and critics of reductionism tend to conflate these two varieties; but whereas physical reductionism is a thesis about relations between the sciences, genetic reductionism is a thesis about the role of genes in organismal development. Both varieties of reductionism may be problematic, though for different reasons. (Robert 2004, 136)

Robert, Jason Scott (2004) Embryology, Epigenesis, and Evolution: Taking Development Seriously. Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Biology.

If one starts from the axiom-premise organisms are complex machines (which within certain limits I have no problem with) and the economy is merely a network of automata functioning like an automata one can rather easily develop mathematically tractable models. But these models hide the real world political and social dimensions of business and economics. Economies are more like organisms than machines. And more importantly one organism in particular, the human organism, including our ability to create other machines, systems, institutions, political and social structures, norms, and practices which allow us to modify physical, social, and even intellectual reality. Through our intelligent use of our minds and bodies we create other mechanisms, physical and social (living) relationships. These have their own levels of appropriate analysis. Social science, like biology, cannot be reduced to chemistry and physics. Neither can it be reduced to genetic algorithms or computational rules. Social science cannot be reduced to a natural science via some yet-to-be-discovered social mathematics. Human beings are not just more complex social insects. These are machine dreams or more to the point machine delusions rooted in a form of scientism.

THE GENE MYTH is not just a myth about genes. It is a story about the nature of the organism and the character of biological explanation. Inspired by our experience with machines, the story (in one of its versions) is narrated in a language of causal analysis, where some things make other things happen, and our investigation of a collection of parts, one by one, enables us to piece together a knowledge of the integrated whole. The continual elucidation of explanatory “mechanisms” has seemed to vindicate the story, supported further by promises of a better life for humans and a steady stream of stunning technical achievements in data gathering and manipulation of organisms. It is no wonder that the Human Genome Project aroused such high expectations.

But this story has now come to the end of its useful life. The loss of the gene at the head of a chain of causal mechanisms explaining the organism represents more than the loss of the master link in the chain. It exemplifies the failure of every link considered as machinelike. The seeming chaos of causal arrows now being documented under the heading of “gene regulation” repeats itself in every aspect of the cell. Researchers dutifully trying to follow arrows of causation end up chasing hares running in all directions. Is there any subdiscipline of molecular biology today where research has been reducing cellular processes to a more clearly defined set of causal relations instead of rendering them more ambiguous, more plastic and context dependent, and less mechanical? Consider a few examples. (Talbot 2013, 51) [And here the interesting part begins …]

Stephen L. Talbott (2013) The Myth of the Machine-Organism: From Genetic Mechanisms to Living Beings. In Genetic Explanations: Sense and Nonsense.

Epigenetic Algorithms

Mechanical metaphors have appealed to many philosophers who sought materialist explanations of life. The definitive work on this subject is T. S. Hall’s Ideas of Life and Matter (1969). Descartes, though a dualist, thought of animal bodies as automata that obeyed mechanical rules. Julien de la Mettrie applied stricter mechanistic principles to humans in L’Homme machine (1748). Clockwork and heat engine models were popular during the Industrial Revolution. Lamarck proposed hydraulic processes as causes of variation. In the late nineteenth century, the embryologists Wilhelm His and Wilhelm Roux theorized about developmental mechanics. However, as biochemical and then molecular biological information expanded, popular machine models were refuted, but it is not surprising that computers should have filled the gap. Algorithms that systematically provide instructions for a progressive sequence of events seem to be suitable analogues for epigenetic procedures. (Reid 2007: 263)

A common error in applying this analogy is the belief that the genetic code, or at least the total complement of an organism’s DNA contains the program for its own differential expression. In the computer age it is easy to fall into that metaphysical trap. However, in the computer age we should also know that algorithms are the creations of programmers. As Charles Babbage (1838) and Robert Chambers (1844) tried to tell us, the analogy is more relevant to creationism than evolutionism. At the risk of offending the sophisticates who have indulged me so far, I want to state the problems in the most simple terms. To me, that is a major goal of theoretical biology, rather than the conversion of life to mathematics. (Reid 2007: 263)

Reid, Robert G.B. (2007) Biological Emergences: Evolution by Natural Experiment. Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology.

More attention to the history of Science is needed, as much by scientists as by historians, and especially by biologists, and this means a deliberate attempt to understand the thoughts of the great masters of the past, to see in what circumstances or intellectual milieu their ideas were formed, where they took the wrong turning or stopped short on the right track. (R. A. Fisher, 1959)

Wilkins, Adam S. (2002) The Evolution of Developmental Pathways

Because the great controversies of the past often reach into modern science, many current arguments cannot be fully understood unless one understands their history. ERNST MAYR 1982, 1

McCloskey, Deirdre Nansen; Ziliak, Steve. The Cult of Statistical Significance (Economics, Cognition, And Society) (Kindle Locations 2036-2038). University of Michigan Press.

As the relations between development and evolution were explored in the last decades of the twentieth century, mutations in those genes that regulate development also assumed great significance. Regulatory (homeobox) genes were reported that affected whole sets of genes, and some paleontologists [and developmental geneticists, etc.] have emphasized that mutations in such regulatory genes result in large discontinuous evolutionary changes (a reshuffling of parts) and may be a macromechanism of evolution. But symbiosis–the inheritance of acquired genomes, wholes or parts–was trivialized or ignored by paleontologists. Gould himself regarded the symbiotic origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts as “entering the quirky and incidental side” of evolution. (Sapp 2003: 250-251)

Most of the great controversies and conceptual oppositions of the nineteenth century are still present at the beginning of the twenty-first century: religion and vitalism versus evolution and materialism, structuralism versus functionalism, reductionism versus holism, gradualism versus saltationism, selectionism versus nonadaptationism, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and nurture versus nature. What has changed is not so much the nature of the ideas but the evidence supporting them and the intensity of the debates. (Sapp 2003: 267)

Jan Sapp (2003) Genesis: The Evolution of Biology

Conceptualizing Cells

We should all take seriously an assessment of biology made by the physicist David Bohm over 30 years ago (and universally ignored):

“It does seem odd … that just when physics is … moving away from mechanism, biology and psychology are moving closer to it. If the trend continues … scientists will be regarding living and intelligent beings as mechanical, while they suppose that inanimate matter is to complex and subtle to fit into the limited categories of mechanism.” [D. Bohm, “Some Remarks on the Notion of Order,” in C. H. Waddington, ed., Towards a Theoretical Biology: 2 Sketches. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Press 1969), p. 18-40.]

The organism is not a machine! Machines are not made of parts that continually turn over and renew; the cell is. A machine is stable because its parts are strongly built and function reliably. The cell is stable for an entirely different reason: It is homeostatic. Perturbed, the cell automatically seeks to reconstitute its inherent pattern. Homeostasis and homeorhesis are basic to all living things, but not machines.

If not a machine, then what is the cell?

— Carl R. Woese (2005, 100) on Evolving Biological Organization


What is the essence of homo economicus? Homo economicus is a man in search of pleasure. He is man who knows what he wants and how to get it. There are fixed limits on what homo economicus can obtain, but he is a master of getting the best that he can from within those limits. The term was first coined as a criticism. It would seem that when certain people in the nineteenth century read the famous economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill, they did not like what they found. They accused Mill of reducing the human being to nothing but a calculator of his immediate pleasures. They said that Mill had removed anything properly human from Man and replaced him instead with some sort of amoral robot [e.g., automaton]; this robot they called homo economicus (Persky 1995). (Pilkington 2016, 71)

Mill himself was quite explicit about what he was doing. He claimed that economics—which was then called ‘political economy’—was concerned only with certain specific facets of Man’s existence. It did not poach on the preserves of other moral disciplines but rather abstracted from them and reasoned as if they did not exist. Mill wrote:

[Political economy] does not treat of the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging of the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end. It predicts only such phenomena of the social state as take place in consequence of the pursuit of wealth. It makes entire abstraction of every other human passion or motive; except those which may be regarded as perpetually antagonizing principles to the desire of wealth, namely, aversion to labor, and desire of the present enjoyment of costly indulgences … Political economy considers mankind as occupied solely in acquiring and consuming wealth; and aims at showing what is the course of action into which mankind, living in a state of society, would be impelled, if that motive, except in the degree in which it is checked by the two perpetual counter-motives above adverted to, were absolute ruler of all their actions. (Mill 1844) (Pilkington 2016, 71-72)

What concerned those who criticised Mill’s homo economicus was that it highlighted some of what they considered to be the less seemly aspects of Man’s existence. This was the age of high morality, and Mill’s construction seemed to many to be against the morality of the day. This was also an age of mass wealth accumulation, and Mill’s construction probably showed up a certain truth that some were less than pleased to deal with as it ran contrary to what they considered good behavior. (Pilkington 2016, 72)

By the mid- to late twentieth century, mass consumption had become a way of life and contemporary morality was more accommodative to the homo economicus. Indeed, today he seems like a rather natural construction in an age where people constitute their lives through accumulation and consumption. He has also been given more precision. Today, following on from the work of the early marginalists, he is modelled using indifference curves and differential calculus. To a critic of the theory, it is less the morality that stands out as it is the image of Man that is put forward. Man is seen as a sort of automaton with fixed, ordered preferences [or “if-then” rules as envisioned by genetic algorithms], a vast capacity for information that would be the envy of even the most powerful of computers. Whereas yesteryear homo economicus seemed offensively amoral, today he seems offensively unrealistic. (Pilkington 2016, 72, bold added)

The fact of this matter cannot be overstated enough If we turn, for example, to the main macroeconomic model used by the European Central Bank at the time of writing, we find it populated with a plethora of homo economicus. In their key forecasting model which is supposed to represent the Eurozone economy, they write:

Each household h maximises its lifetime utility in a given period t by choosing purchases of the consumption good, Ch,t, purchases of the investment good, Ih,t. (Christoffel et. al. 2008, p. 11)

Thus they turn every household into a homo economicus and then lump these homo economicus together and spell out their exact behaviour in a series of equations. If the assumption that each household acts like a homo economicus can be shown to be nonsense, then the findings of the model will also be nonsense. This cannot be stressed enough: this assumption is at the absolute core of many ‘very serious’ theories; without it they literally cannot function. Yet if the construction can be shown to be false, and by that I mean if it can be shown not to be a reasonable approximation of the real object of study (economic agents), then the theories themselves must also be false and central banks can be shown to be wasting an awful lot of time and resources employing people to build such theories. (Pilkington 2016, 73)

Useful Idiots qua Economists

I think we all agree that solving ethical issues or deciding on values cannot be left to economists. I don’t think many economists would fancy the role. But I’m not sure how it can not be left to politicians. Democracy, as Schumpeter remarked, is rule by politicians. I am struck by how often posts on this blog imply that economists rule the world. They are nowhere near doing so, of course — and that’s a very good thing! But I still can’t see an alternative to politics, unsatisfactory though it often is.

— An Econometician’s Argument, RWER, 5/8/2020

Implicit in the red herring argument that ‘economists don’t rule the world’ is the claim they have no relationship, influence, or role in politics and that there is a nice neat divide between the role of economists in society and the theories they create separate and apart from politics and politicians. History doesn’t bear this claim out on many levels. It assumes economics and economists are innocent of playing any role, for better or worse, through economic theories and their influence upon upon society and politicians. The world is not black and white; economists have had and do now play a role in socio-political outcomes.

~ ~ ~

The length to which those in the profession go to push their simplistic narrative [on free trade] are nothing short of exasperating. When reading some of the pronouncements and arguments put forward by proponents, you would be hard pushed not to think that you were looking at the words of cult members or conspirators. Consider the words uttered by Paul Krugman—often supposed to be a liberal or left-of-centre economist. Krugman is determined to tell his audience that those who argue that Ricardo’s argument is not relevant to the real world simply do not understand it. He then equates rejection of Ricardo’s theory with rejection of evolutionary theory and equates both with some sort of aversion to mathematics. He writes:

At the deepest level, opposition to comparative advantage—like opposition to the theory of evolution—reflects the aversion of many intellectuals to an essentially mathematical way of understanding the world. Both comparative advantage and natural selection are ideas grounded, at base, in mathematical models—simple models that can be stated without actually writing down any equations, but mathematical models all the same. The hostility that both evolutionary theorists and economists encounter from humanists arises from the fact that both fields lie on the front line of the war between C.P. Snow’s two cultures: territory that humanists feel is rightfully theirs, but which has been invaded by aliens armed with equations and computers. (Krugman 1996)

The patronising tone [2] is manifest here in that Krugman is implicitly invoking what we earlier called the ‘limiting principle’. The naive dupes who reject the economist’s advice on free trade are the cultural theorists and the postmodernists. They are intellectuals that spend more time reading books than they do undertaking the hard work of writing down equations and looking at statistics. Krugman’s speech is dog whistle politics all the way—and we should stress that it is politics because free trade is a highly politicised issue that only economists think can be sanitised in such a crude fashion. (Pilkington 2016, 330-331)

These economists become what Vladimir Lenin in the context of a rather different ideology called ‘useful idiots’. That is, propagandists that are being used by others for motivations that they do not understand. In the 1990s, they were useful idiots for large corporations that wanted to scrap factories in the West and move them overseas. At the time of writing, they are useful idiots for corporations who want to protect intellectual property rights in the face of new technologies under the guise of the free trade ideology. Rather, hilariously dogmatic free traders today have also become the useful idiots of monopolistic forces who use public sector subsidies and technologies to produce products that they then sell to the public at exorbitantly high prices. When this price-gouging activity is threatened by overseas companies making generic knock-offs at a fraction of the cost, the corporations call in the free trade army to defend their so-called ‘property rights’. (Pilkington 2016, 331)

The forces at work behind dogmatic free trade arguments at any given moment in time will never be self-identical. In order to understand the agenda behind any trade policy at a given moment in time, you must examine it in critical detail. What the free trade dogma does is it tricks economists fooled by their own simplistic narratives into becoming propagandists for whatever the powers-that-be want to impose on various countries at any given moment in time. This is not an exaggeration either. In his talk, Krugman closes by laying out a series of propaganda tactics to preach the generally unpopular argument for dogmatic free trade to the general public and, most especially, the soppy ‘cultural’ intellectuals. He says:

I cannot offer any grand strategy for dealing with the aversion of intellectuals to Ricardo’s difficult idea. No matter what economists do, we can be sure that ten years from now the talk shows and the op-ed pages will still be full of men and women who regard themselves as experts on the global economy, but do not know or want to know about comparative advantage. Still, the diagnosis I have offered here provides some tactical hints. (Ibid.)

In this book, I have tried to steer away from direct considerations of policy. But I have laid out a brief discussion about free trade not because I am advocating protectionism but because it is a prime case where we see what function abstract economic theory can play in politics and society. That much economic theory is based on ridiculously narrow assumptions and unrealistic a priori premises should, at this stage, be obvious. But it is worth being clear how the types of people that espouse this sort of thing can be used by political forces that they do not understand and cannot comprehend. (Pilkington 2016, 331-332)

I have always been averse to the idea that economics as it is currently taught is some sort of organic outgrowth of the ideology of the ruling class. I do not find the Marxist story convincing that economics as it is currently taught is a mere reflection of the interests of the ruling class. Rather, I think that the explanation is much simpler: economists have cast such darkness over their own discipline that they can make themselves believe in basically anything that suits them at any given moment in time. All one has to do is feed them a very simple argument that seems internally consistent, and they will mistake this consistency for some Absolute Truth about the real world. Such people are very useful to the powers-that-be. They are the same people who were promoted to positions of power in the Medieval Church. It was not that what they were saying was so much a reflection of the interests of the elite so much as it was that what they were saying was a brilliant distraction from what was really going on. Contemporary mainstream [and some heterodox] economics is less the ideology of the ruling class than it is the opiate for establishment intellectuals who find that their little models and their ridiculously simplistic arguments get them invited to all the rifht places. (Pilkington 2016, 332)

2 It should be noted that Krugman is playing to his audience’s elitism in his rhetoric by calling Ricardo’s idea ‘difficult’ as he does throughout his lecture (entitled ‘Ricardo’s Difficult Idea’). In fact, it is not a remotely difficult idea. Most teenagers understand it perfectly well when laid out in high school economics class. The more reflective ones, however, do not swallow it hook, line and sinker.

To Scrap or Not Scrap?

Concepts like understanding and meaning are usually associated with a particular view of the Social Sciences. Social life produces and reproduces symbolic meaning. Social scientists need to acquire an understanding of the inherent symbolic meaning in social life. They do this, it is said, by adopting the viewpoint of a passive participant observer. In this view, the role of the social scientist is seen as distinctly different from that of the natural scientist. The object of study of the social scientist is society, the network of social interactions. Society does not exist outside the bracket of social interactions. The social sciences deal with the pre-interpreted world of the social participants. The social scientist interprets a social world, which already carries symbolic meaning. The symbolic meaning of the social world is produced and reproduced by the social actors. The study of the social world by social scientists is a matter of human subjects studying other human subjects. It is a matter of symbolic dimensions meeting other symbolic dimensions, a subject-subject relation.

Friedel Weinert (2004, 75) The Scientist as Philosopher. Springer-Verlag.


(….) Keynes, of course, was scathing in his criticism of econometric modelling; a field which first emerged in the late 1930s as his theories were gaining traction. He likened it to ‘those puzzles for children where you write down your age, multiply, add this and that, subtract something else, and eventually end up with the number of the Beast in Revelation’ (Keynes 1939, p. 562). (….) Estimating models, whether to test the models themselves or make predictions about the future, is an awful and embarrassing game, and it is high time that economists gave it up. It is also a desperate waste of time. There is so much real policy work to be done; so many real issues to be examined and studied; but with the current impetus to do macroeconomic modelling, many economists are literally contractually obliged to engage in make-work. The most unfortunate and cynical thing is that many of those who are seasoned from working in this particular field know just how bogus it is. (Pilkington 2016, 300-302)

Does this mean that all econometrics should be scrapped? Not really. Keynes’ pointed criticisms of the field have been roughly felt by the discipline but those that read the paper often miss a comment at the end. Keynes writes:

This does not mean that economic material may not supply more elementary cases where the method will be fruitful. Take, for instance, Prof. Tinbergen’s third example—namely, the influence on net investment in railway rolling-stock of the rate of increase in traffic, the rate of profit earned by the railways, the price of pig iron and the rate of interest. Here there seems a reasonable prima facie case for expecting that some of the necessary conditions are satisfied. (Ibid., pp. 567-568)

Keynes had spent an awful lot of his life putting together statistics. He had done a lot of what would today be considered the ‘dirty work’ of economics. He had also written a great deal on the philosophy and methodology of statistics (Keynes 1921). He knew that there were some relationships within economic statistics that met the criteria required to use them in an econometric study. But these were extremely limited. In order to fit the bill, there had to be an immediate relationship known basically before the fact. Keynes laid this out explicitly in response to a letter from a statistician called Szeliski who worked on the problem of demand for automobiles. (Pilkington 2016, 302)

You have chosen just the sort of problem where multiple correlation methods may be useful. You are dealing with details of a specific problem where the main causes are pretty well known a priori, and where the statistics are definite and precise. The method is always full of danger, but, in my opinion, it is the kind of problem to which you have applied it rather than in those to which Tinbergen has applied it that the method is properly in place. (Cited in Garrone and Marchionatti 2004) (Pilkington 2016, 302)

‘What then’, the reader will ask, ‘is the point of running regressions? If we already know that a very immediate relationship exists, then why use econometrics?’ The answer is: because econometrics should be used less to establish causality and more so to present statistics supporting a causal argument in a clear and concise manner. Thus, econometrics is less a manner of doing empirical work and more so a means of clearly presenting statistical relationships that are basically know in advance. (Pilkington 2016, 302-303)

Take a very simple example. We know for a fact that, at the time of writing, Scotland is heavily reliant on oil exports. We know this because, among other reasons, the oil revenues are included in the Scottish national accounts and make up part of the overall trade statistics (Pilkington 2014c). We can then use regression techniques to estimate how reliant Scottish oil and gas exports are in the price of oil. (…) (Pilkington 2016, 303)

Note that the regression here is not being used to verify or falsify a truth-claim that I am making. Rather, it is used as a means to present statistical data. ‘We know’, I say, ‘that Scotland is heavily reliant on oil revenues for its trade surpluses. Now here is a number showing in a neat way just how dependent it is on the price changes in oil.’ Nor are we making a prediction using the regression techniques. Rather than making concrete numerical predictions, we might say: ‘Now that we are aware of how dependent the country’s trade is on changes in the price of oil we can discuss the dangers that there might be if the price of oil were to decline in the future.’ Again not that we are not making forecasts as to what such a future price decline may be. Nor are we making forecasts about what a given price decline will have on the trade balance (while not completely outlandish, we are already moving into murky territory here). Rather, we are just presenting the statistics and warning the Scottish that they had better keep a close eye on how they are structuring their economy because a shock to the price of oil might lead to a serious deterioration of their trade balance. This is the direction in which the usage of econometric techniques should be moving. Right now, driven by a silly need to give off an air of false precision, the profession is engaged in nothing but what Keynes referred to as ‘black magic’ and ‘statistical alchemy’. And it is far better to be roughly right than precisely talking nonsense. (Pilkington 2016, 303-304)

Postmodernism’s Bunkum

I always love that kind of argument. The contrary of a thing isn’t the contrary; oh, dear me, no! It’s the thing itself, but as it truly is. Ask any die-hard what conservatism is; he’ll tell you that it’s true socialism. And the brewers’ trade papers: they’re full of articles about the beauty of true temperance. Ordinary temperance is just gross refusal to drink; but true temperance, true temperance is something much more refined. True temperance is a bottle of claret with each meal and three double whiskies after dinner.

— Aldous Huxley, Eyeless in Gaza (London: Chatto and Windus, 1936) pp. 122–23. Cited in Hardcastle et. al. 2006.

Science has always had (…) a metaphoric function — that is, it generates an important part of a culture’s symbolic vocabulary and provides some of the metaphysical bases and philosophical orientations of our ideology. As a consequence of methods of argument of science, its conceptions and its models, have permeated first the intellectual life of the time, then the tenets and usages of everyday life. All philosophies share with science the need to work with concepts such as space, time, quantity, matter, order, law, causality, verification, reality.

— G. Holdton, Einstein, History and Other Passions (2000), 43; 137. Cited in The Scientist as Philosopher.

The Threat of Postmodernism

The tradition of philosophy, natural science, and social science as disciplines that aim at objective knowledge of the way the world is and the place of humans in that world, goes back to the beginnings of all three of these enterprises with Plato, Archimedes, and Thucydides. Modern science, which arguably began in the seventeenth century, appeared to be making steady progress in expanding knowledge and its practical application, first in the natural sciences, then in biology and medicine. During the Enlightenment period of the eighteenth century these achievements encouraged the overthrow of nonscientific and antiscientific traditions in religion and in culture more broadly. They held out the hope of successes similar to those of natural science in what became the social sciences. “Modernism” more generally came to describe this trend across the sciences, arts, and humanities that rejects tradition, extols reason, and seeks human improvement. (Rosenberg 2016, 307-308)

Some thinkers, especially those influenced by Continental philosophy, judged modernism to have fared poorly in the twentieth century, undermined by events in the recent past as an approach to understanding the world and our place in it. Modernism failed to provide either the beneficial outcomes many expected or a way to understand what actually happened in culture, politics, and human life. The fundamental problem, according to the late-twentieth-century movement known as postmodernism, was modernism’s philosophy, in particular its epistemology, the very ideas of absolutes in knowledge, meaning, or truth it inherited from Kant and Descartes and ultimately from Plato. Once the fixity of these categories is surrendered, there is no possibility of a final resolution of any intellectual matter. And this, on postmodernist views, is a good thing. (Rosenberg 2016, 308)

Postmodernism is a difficult doctrine to expound. In Chapter 7, it was noted that social facts are constituted by meanings agreed to and coordinated between people. According to John Searle, all social facts, events, states, institutions, rules, and practices exist through acts of interpretation of behavior, including behavior that comes to constitute meaningful speech when speakers address hearers who interpret the noises and marks that constitute speech and writing. But, asks the postmodernist, if human thought confers meaning, what gives the thoughts of humans the meanings they confer on behavior? Searle’s answer is that thoughts just have meaning; this is obvious to conscious introspection. But the philosophers who developed postmodernism reject this claim. Instead, they hold that what gives thought its meaning is the public vocabulary of words in a language that is used to express these thoughts. But since the statements constructed out of this public vocabulary need to be interpreted also, there is in fact nothing to the meaning or interpretation of any text but some other text, world without end. If everything is subject to interpretation (and an infinite regress of interpretations at that), then there is nothing extra linguistic and nothing to fix the independent truth or falsity of statements about anything. Indeed, talk of truth and falsity is just more text, more interpretation, advanced without any hope of being true but only of being accepted by someone else, under some interpretation or other. (Rosenberg 2016, 308)

But what are the implications of this “insight” for philosophy and science? First, we must surrender the “modernist” idea that there is a relationship between statements and facts in the world that confers truth on some statements and falsity on others. If there is nothing but texts and interpretations, there is nothing to compare texts to, nothing for true texts to correspond to, nothing to reveal the falsity of false ones. So, the notion that science—natural or social—is adequate or inadequate owing to the degree of its success in “mirroring” nature has no basis. Along with notions like adequacy and truth, notions like knowledge and method also lose their grip on a reality that could vindicate them. Instead, the way to understand the succession of scientific theories, models, and explanations is to trace the power, mastery, and hegemony over intellectual domains. (Rosenberg 2016, 308-309)

In some respects the postmodern approach is not so different from interpretationalism and constructivism as methods in social science. It treats actions, behaviors, practices, and combinations of them as institutions having meanings. The difference is that the meanings are not given by facts independent of meaning, but by other meaning-laden facts, and these in turn by others and so on. As each layer of interpretation is applied by some other person, class, race, gender, or other social group, meanings change, but none are final and none are right (and not because all are wrong, but because there really is no right and wrong, or at least none that is independent of anyone’s interpretation). (Rosenberg 2016, 309)

Postmodernism’s critique of social and natural science may be clearest in its attack on “essentialism.” Every discipline taxonomizes its domain, ordering phenomena into kinds, categories, and classes under which it will explain them. Classification is generally viewed as requiring us to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions for falling under a label, for being an instance of a kind, a member of a class. These will together constitute its essential property. The period table of the elements in chemistry is a neat example of apparently successful “essentialism,” the search for essential properties. Postmodernism argues that there are no essential properties, at least none in the social sciences. Essentialism is an error because it mistakenly supposes that there is a binary opposition in nature between things that satisfy the essential properties ordained by a theory, and other things that fail to do so and are therefore defective, disordered, diseased, broken, distorted, and so on. Categorizations and classifications are all arbitrary, matters of (endless) interpretation, and imposed not as a reflection of natural divisions but because their exponents have won some struggle for power in a discipline. So, such distinctions as male/female, right/wrong, democratic/undemocratic, and capitalist/socialist, as well as all other dichotomies (“binary oppositions”) of social sciences, are arbitrary reflections of local and temporary hegemonic interests. There is no fact of the matter about social phenomena for distinctions to get right. Science may claim, with Aristotle, to seek to “cut nature at the joints,” but at least in the sciences of man, there are no joints, no natural divisions, no uniquely correct ways to describe phenomena. (Rosenberg 2016, 309)

This doctrine has a great impact on a naturalistic approach to social science. In the absence of any neat system of classification into types, there can be no regularities, laws, models, or theories about how types are related to one another, and so no macro social science or science of individual behavior. But interpretative disciplines fare no better as purveyors of knowledge, since no single interpretation or narrative about the meanings of human events will turn out to be correct, to be a “totalizing metanarrative” in the postmodernist’s terms. Instead, there is a chaos, disunity, multiplicity, and irregularity in social lives, both because of the meanings, interpretations, and narratives driving, ordering, and directing the lives of social agents in competition with one another, and because any narrative that seeks to accommodate or encompass them all is itself just grist for another interpretation. It will come as no surprise that history is endlessly subject to “revision” and that no revision is more nearly correct than any other. (Rosenberg 2016, 310)

(….) Postmodernists take history seriously. They are especially attracted to the sort of history of concepts, ideas, and meanings developed in the work of Michel Foucault… Following German philosopher Nietzsche, Foucault developed “genealogies” tracing the historical emergence, growing influence, hegemony, and ultimately unraveling and extinction of important ways of thinking about people: reason, prison, pleasure, madness. Tracing genealogies reveals that contingency, arbitrariness, partiality, constructedness of things advertised by science or religion or government as objective, fixed, holy, or legal. Genealogies undermine essentialist metanarratives. But of course these genealogies undermine themselves as well, since genealogy is just another interpretation, itself subject to more interpretation. (Rosenberg 2016, 310)

If we stigmatize this view as anarchistic, skeptical, subjective, arbitrary, antiscientific, the postmodernist will simply note that we are employing essentialist categories to construct a totalizing metanarrative in a vain attempt to gain some political supremacy. They may go on to diagnose our motives, but they will at least have the consistency to accept their diagnoses are simply more interpretations, without special standing. If you are unable to take postmodernism seriously, the postmodernist replies that you are on the right track. The ultimate conclusion of postmodernism is not to take anything seriously. Intellectual, academic, scientific, political debate are all built on false assumptions about truth and its attainability, knowledge versus ignorance, the correctness of some interpretation as opposed to another, the moral rightness of some alternative action, as opposed to another. Once we see that all these binary opposites are essentialist errors, we can recognize that debates in which they figure aren’t really about anything outside of themselves. (Rosenberg 2016, 310-311)

This book and almost all philosophy of social science, indeed, philosophy as a discipline, can no more take postmodernism seriously than it can refute postmodernism in its own terms. In what has gone before and in what follows, we simply assume it is false—a concept postmodernism won’t grant us. (Rosenberg 2016, 311)

Social Science and the enduring Questions of Philosophy

The problems of philosophy of social science are problems for both philosophy and social science. They are problems of philosophy because their ultimate resolution turns on the response to philosophical challenges that have been with us since Plato. They are problems of social science because social scientists inevitably takes sides on them, whether they realize it or not. Moreover, social scientists have defended competing and irreconcilable approaches to their own disciplines by appeal to philosophical theories. As noted in Chapter 2, the claim that philosophical reflection is irrelevant to advancing knowledge in social science is itself a philosophical claim. Social scientists indifferent to philosophy can embrace this view. But unless they argue for it, their view must appear to others to be sheer prejudice. However, an argument for the irrelevance of philosophy is itself philosophy, whether we call it that or not. (Rosenberg 2016, 311)

It should not really be surprising that the social sciences and philosophy are profoundly and indissolubly linked. Like the natural sciences, each one of the social sciences is a discipline that was once part and parcel of philosophy. Indeed, whereas the natural sciences separated themselves from philosophy in the 2,200 years from Euclid to Darwin, the social sciences became independent only during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In separating from philosophy, the natural sciences left questions they could not deal with for the philosophers: What are numbers and points? What are space and time? Is there substance? It has been easy for natural scientists to leave these questions to philosophy. They have been busy, especially in the centuries since Galileo, providing more and more detailed knowledge about large numbers of substances at widely separated points of space and time. As Thomas Kuhn noted, natural scientists have turned to philosophy and taken seriously questions about the foundations of their disciplines only during periods of crisis in the development of physics or chemistry. More often than not, the crises have been surmounted by a new piece of technology or a new nonphilosophical breakthrough. These scientific achievements have themselves had philosophical implications. (Rosenberg 2016, 311-312)

Since Newton, advances in physical theory have had a more profound impact on our view of philosophical problems than advances in philosophy have had on the natural sciences. Natural science has forced philosophy to come to terms with materialism, mechanism, first determinism and then indeterminism, relativity, evolution by natural selection, and so forth. Each revolution in the natural sciences has generated new problems for philosophy. (Rosenberg 2016, 312)

But that is not the case in the relationship between philosophy and social science. There have of course been new and original developments in each of the social sciences. But some of these innovations have not met with the uniform acceptance of social scientists that would force philosophy to take them seriously. And the rest of these innovations have not forced philosophy to address new problems in the way natural science has. The direction of influence between philosophy and social science still seems to be from philosophy instead of toward it. We can trace the leading ideas of almost all the social sciences back to the work of philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is not just a point about intellectual history. It shows that contemporary social science is much more bound up with the philosophical tradition than is contemporary natural science. (Rosenberg 2016, 312)

More than ever today, social scientists seem to be interested in philosophy, especially the philosophy of science. If Kuhn is right, that is a symptom of intellectual crisis. In the heyday of behaviorism after World War II, methodological reflection was out of favor among psychologists, economists, and other social scientists inspired by their optimism. The philosophy of science was treated as the last refuge of a social scientist incapable of making a “real” contribution to the discipline. It is a matter of some irony that confidence about the prospects for scientific progress was based on almost nothing but a philosophical theory—logical positivism, the latest version of empiricism. That doctrine goes back to the Enlightenment and probably to Plato’s contemporaries. (Rosenberg 2016, 312-313)

Pessimism about a thoroughly behavioral approach to human action drew many social scientists back to a preoccupation with philosophy after 1975. They found in the philosophy of science a number of theories ready to explain both why behaviorism failed in social science and why empiricism is inadequate as a philosophy of science. But that is what another tradition in philosophy and social science had been preaching steadily at least since Hegel in the early nineteenth century. (Rosenberg 2016, 313)

The social scientist’s preoccupation with philosophy of science seems to be another reason to identify the distinctive problem of the philosophy of social science as that surrounding the issue of progress and the allegedly invidious comparisons to natural science. But the practical concerns of the individual disciplines also make salient fundamental issues in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and logic. (Rosenberg 2016, 313)

The Unavoidability of Epistemology

The dispute about whether the goal of social science should be predictive improvement or increasing intelligibility is fundamentally a disagreement about the nature, extent, and justification of claims to knowledge. Of course, we’d rather not have to choose between seeking improvement in prediction and making human action more intelligible. Yet insofar as what we seek in social science is knowledge, the choice is forces on us. The demands of predictive improvement rest on a conception of knowledge as justified by its consistency with experience, and not just past experience. It is too easy easy to tailor a theory to be consistent with data that are already in. A theory that can tell us about the actual world must be composed of contingent claims, which the actual world could show to be false. A body of statements that actual events could not disconfirm would be consistent with whatever happens and thus explain nothing. (Rosenberg 2016, 313)

If increasing our understanding of the meaning of human actions improves our predictive powers, then of course there is no conflict. The kind of knowledge that the search for meanings provides will be the same as that which predictively confirmed claims provide. But as we have seen, there are serious obstacles in the way of achieving such predictive improvements in theories that take the search for meanings seriously. We have to decide whether the obstacles are surmountable. If we decide they are not, we face a forced choice between intelligibility and prediction. If we choose intelligibility, we are committed to a fundamentally different epistemology that does not require the same sort of justification for knowledge that prediction provides. Instead, the mark of knowledge that epistemology demands is some sort of certainty or necessity of connections that the mind can grasp. (Rosenberg 2016, 313-314)

Why not simply hold that the house of knowledge has many mansions, that there are many different sorts of knowledge? Social scientists may freely choose among them, for all are equally legitimate ways of expanding our understanding. Some social scientists are interested in knowledge that can be applied to informing social and individual policy and can be used to predict the consequences of planning or its absence. For them, predictions is crucial, and improvements in knowledge are measured by improvements in prediction. Other social scientists have interests to which improvements in prediction are irrelevant. For them, knowledge accumulates by increasing our detailed understanding of a culture or subculture from the inside. Predictive approaches and ones aimed at interpretation are equally valid “ways” of knowing that need not compete with each other. (Rosenberg 2016, 314)

This view sounds like an open-minded attitude of tolerance. But it is just a way of refusing to take seriously the problems social science faces. If there really are many different forms of knowledge, all equally valid, the question must arise: What do they have in common that makes them all knowledge? After all, the term knowledge has to stand for something; it can’t just be an arbitrary label for a heterogeneous collection of intellectual activities that have nothing in common. To suggest that religious knowledge, for instance, rests on revelation, that moral knowledge is justified by intuition, for instance, that scientific knowledge is empirical, that our of human action is based on introspective certainty, and that they are equally legitimate shows not so much tolerance as indifference to the claims of each of these approaches. It is the attitude that anything goes, that knowledge is whatever anyone cares to assert. If a social scientist chooses to seek one of these different kinds of knowledge, there must be a reason given for this choice. Surely it cannot be merely a matter of taste whether improvable generalizations or emphatic insight into intelligibility is the aim of a social scientist’s research program. It cannot be merely a matter of taste what the social scientist will count as good evidence for a theory or explanation advanced in the pursuit of inquiry. And when a social scientist chooses one goal but allows that all other epistemic goals are equally correct, she deprives her own choice of a rational foundation. (Rosenberg 2016, 314)

That does not mean that once we have made a choice, we should not accept or tolerate other choices and other methods as possible alternatives. For our best views of what constitutes knowledge are fallible. Having made our epistemic choice, we could be wrong. But the fallibility of our choice does not entail either that it is the wrong choice or that there is no more evidence for it than for its competitors. (Rosenberg 2016, 314-315)

If we choose to seek predictive improvement or intelligibility of our theories as the mark of knowledge, we must allow others to identify other goals, because for all we know, we might be wrong about what constitutes knowledge. But if we don’t have reasons to support our choice, and perhaps also to oppose theirs, then our choice is not rationally justified. (Rosenberg 2016, 315)

That is what makes epistemology unavoidable for those who hold that the aim of social science is to provide knowledge. Indifference to the issues of epistemology is sometimes a cover for contempt. Some natural scientists, secure in their conviction about what the right methods for attaining scientific knowledge are, express great tolerance about the appropriate methods in social science. They often decline to endorse their own methods as appropriate for the study of human action and social institutions. On their view, “anything goes” in social science. But without good reason to show that human behavior and its consequences are so different from natural phenomena that scientific methods are inappropriate for its study, this attitude is a contemptuous one. It simply disguises the view that the “soft” sciences don’t provide knowledge at all, just the free play of competing speculations, which succeed each other on grounds of fashionableness instead of justification. If social science is to provide knowledge, it cannot be indifferent to what constitutes knowledge. Nor can it accept a permanent agnosticism about claims of incomplete theories of knowledge. (Rosenberg 2016, 315)

Science and Metaphysics

I have argued that the epistemic choice of predictive improvement as a mark of increasing knowledge must make us dissatisfied with intentional approaches to the explanation of human behavior. Similarly, an unswerving commitment to such strategies of explanation will seriously weaken the claims of prediction as an epistemic goal of social science. (Rosenberg 2016, 315)

Either of these alternatives raises fundamental questions about human beings and our place in nature, questions that have always been the special province of metaphysics. For the social scientist, taking sides on these metaphysical questions seems just as unavoidable as it is for matters of epistemology. The interpretative philosophy of social science that exempts the study of humankind from the methods appropriate in the study of the rest of nature must provide an explanation of this exception. And the naturalistic philosophy that absorbs social science into this paradigm must explain away an equally recalcitrant fact about people. (Rosenberg 2016, 315) [See Müller-Kademann 2019 on uncertainty]

Interpretative philosophy of social science teaches that the goals of natural science are inappropriate in the study of human behavior. Another set of aims not recognized in the natural sciences must be substituted. By analyzing the way social science actually proceeds and showing that it cannot proceed in any other way, we may be able to illustrate why the goals of natural science are wrong for the study of humans. But the question is left open of why that is so. Why must the study of humans be different from every other science? It must be because of some fact about us, in particular about our minds, thoughts, consciousness, and the facts of intentionality on which interpretation trades. (Rosenberg 2019, 316) [See Müller-Kademann 2019 on uncertainty]

If, as Descartes held, the mind is a substance quite different from the rest of nature, operating in accordance with different principles, then we have the beginnings of an explanation of why the human sciences cannot proceed in the way the study of matter does. Metaphysical differences dictate scientific differences. Descartes argued that mind is distinct from the body on the grounds that it has properties no chunk of matter could possibly have. His most famous argument was that our minds have the property of of our not being able to doubt their existence, whereas no part of our bodies, including our brains, has this feature. I can well imagine what it would be like to wake up discovering I was missing a limb or even that my skull was empty. But I cannot imagine discovering that I have no mind, for who would make this discovery if I had none? Thus my mind has a property my body lacks: indubitable existence. Accordingly, the mind cannot be part of the body. (Rosenberg 2016, 315)

But this dualism runs into the gravest difficulty with the evident fact that our mental states have both physical causes and physical effects. It is hard to see how something nonphysical can have such relations. [See Stapp 2017] For causation is preeminently a physical relation that involves pushes and pulls. [not on the quantum level, things become far less ‘physical’] It requires the transfer of kinetic energy, which is a function of mass and velocity—that is, matter in motion. But the interpretationalist can turn this mystery to advantage. The impossibility of causal relations between mind and matter explains why a predictive science of human behavior modeled on natural science is impossible: no causation, no laws; no laws, no prediction. [See Stapp 2007, 2017 and Müller-Kademann 2019]

Some will find that such an argument proves too much, for it seems to them beyond doubt that our desires and beliefs have environmental causes and behavioral effects. They may adapt Descartes’s argument to a less controversial but still sufficiently strong argument against naturalism. We may grant that mental states have causes and effects, but the sort of causation involved is not physical and does not consist in generalizations we may improve in the direction of laws. Indeed, the causal relations between mind and matter are singular and irregular. But they reflect logical or conceptual relations between the intentional content of the mind, the statements describing what we believe and want, and descriptions of action. It is these conceptual connections that force a study of meanings on us as the only way to come to grips with the mind and action. (Rosenberg 2016, 316-317)

The explanatory power of such a doctrine rests in large measure on its initial metaphysical assumption that mind is distinct from the body and not a part of the physical world. Unless interpretationalists are content to leave unexplained the distinctiveness of social scientific method, they must face the challenge of substantiating the metaphysical view. (Rosenberg 2016, 317)

The naturalist has the same problem in reverse. Naturalism holds that the mind is a natural object, thus explaining the appropriateness of methods drawn from the natural sciences to its study. As we saw in Chapter 4, that is no easy matter. We have yet no plausible explanation for the most basic naturalism rests on: how physical matter can have intentional content, how one arrangement of matter—the brain—can represent other arrangements of physical matter. Yet if the mind is the brain, that is what our beliefs and desires will be: my belief that Paris is the capital of France must be an arrangement of neurotransmitters at the synapses of a particular part of my cerebrum. Without invoking someone or something to interpret this physical arrangement, it seems impossible to explain how it could represent some state of affairs obtaining in France, thousands of miles from my brain, involving large areas of space and complex legal facts about them. This mystery is just as great as the dualist’s mystery of how nonphysical events in the mind can have physical causes and effects. (Rosenberg 2016, 317)

Merely announcing that the mind is the brain will not make it so. And even if the mind is the brain, we need to understand exactly how it can be, if we are to employ this bit of metaphysics in the explanation of why some methods will be more appropriate than others in the study of the mind and its effects. (Rosenberg 2016, 317)

It would be understandable if impatience with these matters leads some to say that how the brain represents is a matter of science, not metaphysics, and is therefore better left to scientists than philosophers. But his response fails to recognize that science is in fact continuous with metaphysics. Our fundamental conception of the nature of reality and our substantive study of it are on a continuum, and each heavily influences the other. Consider the impact of Newtonian mechanics on metaphysics—determinism, materialism, corpuscularism. Consider the way in which commitment to such metaphysical views led to the expansion of the domain of Newtonian science in the absence of factual evidence of determinism, materialism, corpuscularism. The explanation of the nature of reality that Newtonian metaphysics provided underwrote its scientific strategy long before the evidence for its predictive powers became overwhelming. And finally, reflect on the fact that the overthrow of Newtonian physics had equally strong ramifications for metaphysics and indeed for epistemology. The situation is the same in social science. (Rosenberg 2016, 317-318)

The role of metaphysics may be, in fact, more critical here. For if the social sciences do not have much at present to show in the way of predictive success, then we need an explanation of why they don’t—and perhaps cannot—or we need an explanation of why they will ultimately provide such knowledge. Either sort of explanation so greatly transcends narrow factual matters that it must be metaphysical. (Rosenberg 2016, 318)

Moreover, solving the problem of how the brain actually represents requires first a solution to the puzzle of how it could possibly represent. For without a solution to the conceptual problems of intentionality, we have no hint of where to begin in searching for a solution to the factual problem of connecting psychology and neuroscience. What is more, naturalism needs to solve the metaphysical problem of representation if it is to take our intentional explanations seriously here and now, not in some happy future time when neuroscience has established itself. For in the absence of such solutions, naturalism loses out to interpretative social science as the approach most suited to the study of intentional creatures like us. (Rosenberg 2016, 318)

Of course, one can always opt for the view of Skinner and other materialists who refuse to take intentional states seriously in the first place. Among philosophers, this view has had some currency. Though they hold no brief for the explanatory variables Skinner adopted, they agree that intentional states have no role in adequate scientific explanations and will, in the long run, suffer the fate of notions like “phlogiston,” or “demonic possession.” They will simply disappear from the best explanations of behavior. Such eliminative materialists have their own metaphysical problems, distinct from those of naturalists hoping to accommodate intentional phenomena to, instead of eliminate from, the natural sciences. Perhaps the most serious of these problems is the sheer implausibility of saying our actions are not caused by our desires and beliefs, and that we don’t have sensations or thoughts. This view is so implausible that its denial is often viewed as close to an a priori truth and the most basic premise of interpretative social science (see Chapters 8 and 15). In fact, eliminative materialists have tried hard to render consistent their view that such concepts will disappear from scientific explanations with our first-person convictions that we do have such intentional states. The details need not concern us here [see Dupré 2001, 5-6]. But the argument is as much a piece of fundamental philosophy as that required to justify naturalism or interpretationalism as a method in social science. (Rosenberg 2016, 318)

So, all sides of the dispute about social science and their goals and methods have a metaphysical mystery to deal with. Naturally, social scientists cannot be expected to cease their work and turn to the philosophy of mind. But they have taken sides on these questions by choosing methods that are underwritten by answers to these questions. They cannot pretend that the issues do not concern them and will not in the long run have an impact on the direction of research in the social disciplines. (Rosenberg 2016, 318-319)

Individualism and Instrumentalism

Those who hope to skirt metaphysical issues about the mind fix the agenda of the social sciences to macrosocial facts free from psychology and individual action. They must face equally fundamental questions addressed initially in the philosophy of science and eventually in metaphysics and epistemology. (Rosenberg 2016, 318-319)

Reductionists and methodological individualists face the problem that at least some large-scale social phenomena, their descriptions and their explanations, resist explanation and description in terms of the components that make them up. This fact is hard to reconcile with the reductionism characteristic of the physical sciences. Moreover, the obvious explanation, that such phenomena somehow reflect supra-individual agencies, is difficult to accept or even make sense of if society is composed of individuals and nothing else. Therefore, individualists must search for another way to explain the resistance of social facts to reduction. One strategy is to explain away reference to irreducible wholes as a mistake. That is, however, unconvincing to those not already wedded to individualism. Another tactic is to treat macrosocial theories, not as true or false claims about the world, but as useful instruments, tools for systematizing data, and not to be taken seriously. (Rosenberg 2016, 319)

This approach, however, raises questions that instrumentalism has always faced in philosophy: If these instruments are so good, what is the explanation for their usefulness? And more important, why can we not produce theories that are both good as instruments and true? Are there computational or cognitive limitations on us that prevent us from producing theories in social science that seem, like theories in natural sciences, to be more than just good instruments? Or are all theories natural and social merely tools for systematizing observations? Whichever move the individualist makes leads straight into the philosophy of science and thence into epistemology and metaphysics. (Rosenberg 2016, 319)

The holist is no better off. Holism may justify its extravagant ontology by the instrumental success of holistic theories. But it cannot rest with such justification. It too must explain how social facts, made up of the behavior of individuals, can nevertheless be distinct from individuals. Such explanations are plainly a part of metaphysics. And holism must explain how we can have knowledge of such facts when all that ever meets our eyes is the behavior of individuals. Unless holism takes such questions seriously, its position collapses into the individualist’s instrumentalism and faces the same questions it does. (Rosenberg 2016, 319-320)

Philosophy and the Moral Sciences

Probably little needs to be said to convince us that moral philosophy has a profound bearing on the social sciences and vice vesa. The social sciences were, in fact, at one time known as the moral sciences, and they remain the disciplines that help us decide matters of policy, private and public. The twentieth-century trend, evinced in economics and other disciplines, of divesting the social sciences of a moral voice has never met with general agreement, and through the vicissitudes of the century, the plea for value neutrality has sometimes been reduced to the opinion of a small minority. The majority view that social science cannot be morally neutral is faced directly with the matter of what moral and social prescriptions ought to be offered. (Rosenberg 2016, 320)

In recent years, moral philosophy has been as much a consumer or importer of theories and findings from social science as it has been a producer of and exporter to the social sciences of moral theories about what is right, good, required, prohibited, or permitted. This tendency has reflected the same doubts about a distinction between facts and values that has animated the opponents of value-free social science. There now seems little difference between the language of arguments in political philosophy and welfare economics, for instance. But the philosopher seems less constrained by economic orthodoxy. Political philosophers are prepared to consider the possibility of interpersonal comparisons and perhaps even cardinal utility, notions that have no place among modern mathematical economists. But for those theories to gain acceptance, the arguments that economics has mounted against them must be disposed of. This is certainly a task to be faced by social scientists as well as philosophers who reject the constraints of Pareto optimality. (Rosenberg 2016, 320)

So here the situation is reversed. Social scientists need to concern themselves with moral philosophy both because they cannot avoid ethical issues and because they may have more to say about them than we might expect. In fact, they may be able to provide the kind of information philosophy needs in order to advance and improve its own moral theories. It is, accordingly, an intellectual duty to provide this kind of help. The duty comes with the claim that social science provides, inseparably, normative and factual knowledge. (Rosenberg 2016, 320)

In a way, the moral responsibilities of a normatively committed social science make the classical problems of epistemology and metaphysics even more compelling. As we have seen, choosing between competing methods of pursuing social science heavily tilts our choices about moral theories. Naturalism makes a consequential theory more inviting. Antinaturalism is more sympathetic to a theory of rights and duties than to one of general welfare. So choosing between these moral points of view makes the epistemological and metaphysical problems behind the competing methods even more pressing than their purely intellectual or academic fascination might make them. (Rosenberg 2016, 321)

But even those who hold that social science is at its best free from value judgments and subjective impurities must face moral problems distinctive of social science. These problems are the constraints that ethics places on our research methods, the steps we take to communicate them and their impact on others, as well as the very questions we decide to pursue as social scientists. The moral neutrality of our theories, methods, and epistemic goals, if they are indeed neutral, does not extend to us, the social scientists who pursue these goals. We make choices either self-consciously or by default. The choices seem better made as a result of serious reflection than sheer inadvertence. And such reflection takes the form of moral philosophy and applied ethics. (Rosenberg 2016, 321)

The first thing one learns about moral philosophy is that, like the other divisions of the subject, it too is wracked with controversy and disagreements both fundamental and derivative. Yet in contrast to the case with other areas of philosophy, we cannot remain agnostic for long about these disagreements because they have an immediate bearing on our conduct and its effects on others and ourselves. (Rosenberg 2016, 321)


This introduction is meant largely for social scientists. Its aims have been three: to introduce the traditional problems of the philosophy of social science; to connect these problems with the methodological, factual, and moral choices that social scientists themselves make; and to show how the problems bring together the day-to-day research agenda of the social scientist with the most central, deepest problems of philosophy. (Rosenberg 2016, 321)

The first aim reflects my belief that current controversies in the philosophy of social science are almost always new versions of traditional debates. Sometimes it is difficult to recognize this fact because the jargon has changed and the participants themselves often mistakenly think they have discovered a new issue. Today’s argument between interpretational social science and naturalistic social science reflects the same issues that were debated among Weber and Durkheim, Dilthey and Comte, Mill and Marx, Hegel and Hobbes. That does not mean that current disputes are condemned to perpetual gridlock. Rather, it means that traditional insights bear a continuing relevance. (Rosenberg 2016, 321-322)

The third aim, of making the social scientist see the seriousness and the relevance of questions that daunted Plato, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and their discipline, reflects the conviction that the search for knowledge is all of one piece. But this conviction is also the basis of another aim, which could animate an introduction to the philosophy of social science. This is the aim of encouraging philosophers to recognize the bearing of work in the social sciences to their traditional concerns. If social scientists take sides on philosophical issues in their work, then the findings, theories, and methods of these disciplines must test, and eventually inform, the thinking of philosophers. (Rosenberg 2016, 322)

Concepts and Controversies

Granted that, as de Duve says, we are compelled by our calling to insist at all times on strictly naturalistic explanations; life must, therefore, have emerged from chemistry. Granted also that simple organic molecules were present at the beginning, in uncertain locations, diversity and abundance. Leave room for contingency, some rare chemical fluctuation that may have played a seminal role in the inception of living systems; and remember that you may be mistaken. With all that, I still cannot bring myself to believe that rudimentary organisms of any kind came about by the association of prefabricated organic molecules, born of purely chemical processes in their environment. Did life begin as a molecular collage? To my taste, that idea smacks of the reconstitution of life as we know it rather than its genesis ab initio. It overestimates what Harold Morowitz called the munificence of nature, her generosity in providing building blocks for free. It makes cellular organization an afterthought to molecular structure, and offers no foothold to autopoiesis. And it largely omits what I believe to be the ultimate wellspring of life, the thermodynamic drive of energy dissipation, creating mounting levels of structural order for natural selection to winnow. If it is true that life resides in organization rather than in substance, than what is left out of account is the heart of the mystery: the origin of biological order. (Harold 2001: 250)

(….) It would be agreeable to conclude this book with a cheery fanfare about science closing in, slowly but surely, on the ultimate mystery; but the time for rosy rhetoric is not yet at hand. The origin of life appears to me as incomprehensible as ever, a matter for wonder but not for explication. Even the principles of biopoiesis still elude us, for reasons that are as much conceptual as technical. The physical sciences have been exceedingly successful in formulating universal laws on the basis of reproducible experiments, accurate measurements, and theories explicitly designed to be falsifiable. These commendable practices cannot be fully extrapolated to any historical subject, in which general laws constrain what is possible but do not determine the outcome. Here knowledge must be drawn from observation of what actually happened, and seldom can theory be directly confronted with reality. The origin of life is where these two ways of knowing collide. The approach from hard science starts with the supposition that physical laws exercise strong constraints on what was historically possible; therefore, even though one can never exclude the intervention of some unlikely but crucial happenstance, one should be able to arrive at a plausible account of how it could have happened. This, however, is not how matters have turned out. The range of permissible options is to broad, the constraints so loose, that few scenarios can be firmly rejected; and when neither theory nor experiment set effective boundaries, hard science is stymied. The tools of “soft,” historical science unfortunately offer no recourse: the trail is too cold, the traces too faint. (Harold 2001: 251-252)

The tell a story of Max Delbrück, one of the pioneers of molecular genetics and the ironic inventor of DNA, whom I was privileged to meet during his later years at the California Institute of Technology. He had stopped reading papers on the origin of life, Max once observed; he would wait for someone to produce a recipe for the fabrication of life. So are we all waiting, not necessarily for a recipe but for new techniques of apprehending the utterly remote past. Without such a breakthrough, we can continue to reason, speculate and argue, but we cannot know. Unless we acquire novel and powerful methods of historical inquiry, science will effectively have reached a limit. (Harold 2001: 252)

Franklin M. Harold (2001) The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms and the Order of Life. Oxford University Press.

[T]he origin of life is not what Darwin’s mechanism for evolutionary biology is about, as he himself wrote in the Origin of Species. Complaining that Darwinian evolution can’t explain life’s origin is like complaining that your Mercedes can’t fly. It wasn’t supposed to do that in the first place…. In the case of Darwin’s theory of evolutionary biology, this is providing a causal mechanism by which organisms like newts, monkeys, tuna, spiders, and ostriches attained their current diversity…. [I]t is very important to realize that studies of abiogenesis comprise a distinct field of science, one that does not draw on the same mechanisms relevant to Darwinian evolutionary biology. (Asher 2012: 184)

Robert J. Asher (2012) Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist. Cambridge University Press.

Conceptualizing Cells

We should all take seriously an assessment of biology made by the physicist David Bohm over 30 years ago (and universally ignored):

“It does seem odd … that just when physics is … moving away from mechanism, biology and psychology are moving closer to it. If the trend continues … scientists will be regarding living and intelligent beings as mechanical, while they suppose that inanimate matter is to complex and subtle to fit into the limited categories of mechanism.” [D. Bohm, “Some Remarks on the Notion of Order,” in C. H. Waddington, ed., Towards a Theoretical Biology: 2 Sketches. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Press 1969), p. 18-40.]

The organism is not a machine! Machines are not made of parts that continually turn over and renew; the cell is. A machine is stable because its parts are strongly built and function reliably. The cell is stable for an entirely different reason: It is homeostatic. Perturbed, the cell automatically seeks to reconstitute its inherent pattern. Homeostasis and homeorhesis are basic to all living things, but not machines.

If not a machine, then what is the cell?

Woese, Carl R. (2005) Evolving Biological Organization. In Microbial Phylogeny and Evolution: Concepts and Controversies (Jan Sapp, ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 100.

The science of biology enters the twenty-first century in turmoil, in a state of conceptual disarray, although at first glance this is far from apparent. When has biology ever been in a more powerful position to study living systems? The sequencing juggernaut has still to reach full steam, and it is constantly spewing forth all manner of powerful new approaches to biological systems, many of which were previously unimaginable: a revolutionized medicine that reaches beyond diagnosis and cure of disease into defining states of the organism in general; revolutionary agricultural technology built on genomic understanding and manipulation of animals and plants; the age-old foundation of biology, taxonomy, made rock solid, greatly extended, and become far more useful in its new genomic setting; a microbial ecology that is finally able to contribute to our understanding of the biosphere; and the list goes on. (Woese 2005: 99)

All this is an expression of the power inherent in the methodology of molecular biology, especially the sequencing of genomes. Methodology is one thing, however, and understanding and direction another. The fact is that the understanding of biology emerging from the mass of data that flows from the genome sequencing machines brings into question the classical concepts of organism, lineage, and evolution as the same time it gainsays the molecular perspective that spawned the enterprise. The fact is that the molecular perspective, which so successfully guided and shaped twentieth-century biology, has effectively run its course (as all paradigms do) and no longer provides a focus, a vision of the biology of the future, with the result that biology is wandering will-nilly into that future. This is a prescription for revolutionconceptual revolution. One can be confident that the new paradigm will soon emerge to guide biology in this new century…. Molecular biology has ceased to be a genuine paradigm, and it is now only a body of (very powerful) technique…. The time has come to shift biology’s focus from trying to understand organisms solely by dissecting them into their parts to trying to understand the fundamental nature of biological organization, of biological form. (Woese 2005: 99-100)

(….) When one has worked one’s entire career within the framework of a powerful paradigm, it is almost impossible to look at that paradigm as anything but the proper, if not the only possible, perspective one can have on (in this case) biology. Yet despite its great accomplishments, molecular biology is far from the “perfect paradigm” most biologists take it to be. This child of reductionist materialism has nearly driven the biology out of biology. Molecular biology’s reductionism is fundamentalist, unwavering, and procrustean. It strips the organism from its environment, shears it of its history (evolution), and shreds it into parts. A sense of the whole, of the whole cell, of the whole multicellular organism, of the biosphere, of the emergent quality of biological organization, all have been lost or sidelined. (Woese 2005: 101)

Our thinking is fettered by classical evolutionary notions as well. The deepest and most subtle of these is the concept of variation and selection. How we view the evolution of cellular design or organization is heavily colored by how we view variation and selection. From Darwin’s day onward, evolutionists have debated the nature of the concept, and particularly whether evolutionary change is gradual, salutatory, or of some other nature. However, another aspect of the concept concerns us here more. In the terms I prefer, it is the nature of the phase (or propensity) space in which evolution operates. Looked at one way, variation and selection are all there is to evolution: The evolutionary phase space is wide open, and all manner of things are possible. From this “anything goes” perspective, a given biological form (pattern) has no meaning outside of itself, and the route by which it arises is one out of an enormous number of possible paths, which makes the evolution completely idiosyncratic and, thus, uninteresting (molecular biology holds this position: the molecular biologist sees evolution as merely a series of meaningless historical accidents). (Woese 2005: 101)

The alternative viewpoint is that the evolutionary propensity space is highly constrained, being more like a mountainous terrain than a wide open prairie: Only certain paths are possible, and they lead to particular (a relatively small set of) outcomes. Generic biological form preexists in the same sense that form in the inanimate world does. It is not the case that “anything goes” in the world of biological evolution. In other words, biological form (pattern) is important: It has meaning beyond itself; a deeper, more general significance. Understanding of biology lies, then, in understanding the evolution and nature of biological form (pattern). Explaining biological form by variation and selection hand-waving argumentation is far from sufficient: The motor does not explain where the car goes. (Woese 2005: 101-102)

(….) Evolutionary limitations imposed by a primitive translation mechanism. One cannot look at the cellular translation apparatus without being overwhelmed by its complexity, by the number of parts and their possible interactions. It is even more daunting to contemplate the evolution of such a mechanism. In a very real sense the evolution of translation is the evolution of the cell: Translation is the heart of the evolving cell design. Cellular evolution requires entire suites of novel proteins never before seen on Earth, and it is the performance characteristics of the primitive apparatus that determine what general types of proteins can and cannot evolve. (Woese 2005: 107)

A translation apparatus today must do two main things: accurately match codons with corresponding amino acids across an entire message RNA (perhaps thousands of nucleotides in length) and maintain the correct reading frame throughout the process. It seems impossible that a simple primitive translation mechanism could perform with the requisite precision to accurately produce a large (modern) protein. (The point here is not only common sense but can be inferred from the fact that the structure of the genetic code appears to have been optimized to reduce the phenotypic consequences of codon recognition error.) Primitive cells, then, would comprise only small proteins, which, of course, has broad implications as to the nature of the evolving cells. In almost cases the primitive version of a particular function would be less sophisticated and precise than its modern counterpart…. A name has been given to cells that have primitive translation capacities. The name, “progenote,” signifies that the genotype-phenotype link has yet to complete its evolution. (Woese 2005: 107)

(….) How translation might have began. If we know how modern translation worked, we would be on far safer grounds in conjecturing how it began. (….) The progenote model sees organisms as genetically communal and the community as evolving as a whole, not the individual cell lines therein…. The real mystery, however, is how this incredibly simple, unsophisticated, imprecise communal progenote—cells with only ephemeral genealogical traces—evolved to become complex, precise, integrated, individualized modern cells, which have stable organismal genealogical records. This shift from a primitive genetic free-for-all to modern organisms must by all accounts have been one of the most profound happenings in the whole of evolutionary history. Although we do not yet understand it, the transition needs to be appropriately marked and named. “Darwinian threshold” (or “Darwinian Transition”) seems appropriate: crossing the threshold means entering a new stage, where organismal lineages and genealogies have meaning, where evolutionary descent is largely vertical, and where the evolutionary course can begin to be described by tree representation. (Woese 2005: 109)

The most important, if not the only, thing that can be said right now about the progression from pre-Darwinian progenote to cells typical of the Darwin era (i.e., modern cells), is that in the process the cell design becomes more integrated. Connectivity, coupling (among componentry) is key to the nature of that transition. The cell is a complex dynamic system. Complex dynamic systems characteristically undergo saltations at “critical points.” Drastic changes in the system result. An increase in the connectivity of a system is one factor that can bring it to such a critical point. Does the Darwinian Threshold, then, denote a critical point in the evolutionary process? I say it does. We can be confident in any case that in the full evolutionary course, from an abiotic earth to modern cells and organisms, evolutionary saltations must have occurred. The transition from the nondescript, horizontally [non-Darwinian] intermeshed, and simple progenote to the complex individual cell lineages (with stable genealogical traces and vertical descent) that we know surely has the feel of a saltation. (Woese 2005: 109)

Death by Despair

If the rich could hire other people to die for them, the poor could make a wonderful living.

— Yiddish Proverb

It is queer enough to see an author who certainly is unaware of the dialectic of repentance in the direction of sympathy but yet is aware of something resembling it, an expression of sympathy—to see such an author cure this suffering by making the sickness even worse. Börne, in all seriousness and not without some emotion at the thought of how easy it is for people in small towns to become misanthropes or even blasphemers and mutineers against the wise governance of providence, explains that in Paris the statistics on miseries and crimes contribute to curing the impression to which they probably have contributed—and contribute to Börne’s becoming a philanthropist. Well, well, what a priceless invention statistics are, what a glorious fruit of culture, what a characteristic counterpart to the de te narratur fabula of antiquity. Schleiermacher so enthusiastically declares that knowledge does not perturb religiousness, and that the religious person does not sit safeguarded by a lightning rod and scoff at God; yet with the help of statistical tables one laughs at all of life. And just as Archimedes was absorbed in his calculations and did not notice that he was being put to death, so, in my opinion, Börne is absorbed in collecting statistics and does not notice—but what am I saying! Oh, a person who is far from being as sensitive as B. will surely discover when life becomes too difficult for him, but as long as a person is himself saved from misfortune (for B. surely can easily save himself from sin by means of a non-Socratic ignorance) he certainly owes it to his good living to have means with which to keep horror away. After all, a person can shut his door on the poor, and if someone should starve to death, then he can just look at a collection of statistical tables, see how many die every year of hunger—and he is comforted.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Kierkegaard’s Writings, XI, Volume 11 . Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Just like Jesus said, “The poor will always be with us.” There is a group of people [the poor] that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves Morally, spiritually, socially, [the poor, including the homeless,] just don’t wan’t healthcare.

Rep. Roger Marshall, Republican of Kansas, NPR caption above.

In The Great Escape, published in 2013, one of us told a positive story about human progress over the last two hundred and fifty years. The story there was one of previously unimaginable material progress, a decline in poverty and deprivation, and extensions in the length of human life. The generation and application of useful knowledge made this progress possible. A star of the show was capitalism, which freed millions from dire poverty, supported by the positive forces of globalization. Democracy spread around the planet, allowing more and more people to participate in shaping their communities and societies. (Case and Deaton 2020, Preface)

This book is much less upbeat. It documents despair and death, it critiques aspects of capitalism, and it questions how globalization and technical change are working in America today. Yet we remain optimistic. We believe in capitalism, and we continue to believe that globalization and technical change can be managed to the general benefit. Capitalism does not have to work as it does in America today. It does not need to be abolished, but it should be redirected to work in the public interest. Free market competition can do many things, but there are also many areas where it cannot work well, including in the provision of healthcare, the exorbitant cost of which is doing immense harm to the health and wellbeing of America. If governments are unwilling to exercise compulsion over health insurance and to take the power to control costs—as other rich countries have done—tragedies are inevitable. Deaths of despair have much to do with the failure—the unique failure—of America to learn this lesson. (Case and Deaton 2020, Preface)

There have been previous periods when capitalism failed most people, as the Industrial Revolution got under way at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and again after the Great Depression. But the beast was tamed, not slain, and it brought the great benefits laid out in The Great Escape. If we can get the policies right, we can ensure that what is happening today is not a prelude to another great disaster but rather a temporary setback from which we can return to rising prosperity and better health. We hope this book, while not as heartening as The Great Escape, will help put us back on track to make the progress in this century that we have generally made in the past. The future of capitalism should be a future of hope and not of despair. (Case and Deaton 2020, Preface)

~ ~ ~

Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), a member of the GOP Doctors Caucus (comments made in interview with Stat News). He further said, “The Medicaid population, which is a free credit card as a group, do probably the least preventative medicine and taking care of themselves and eating healthy and exercising. And I’m not judging; I’m just saying socially that’s where they are,” he told Stat News, a website focused on healthcare coverage. “So, there’s a group of people that even with unlimited access to healthcare are only going to use the emergency room when their arm is chopped off or when their pneumonia is so bad they get brought to the ER.”

The poor; when will they every learn! Going to the ER when you chop-off your arm! Sheesh, put a band-aid on it and take an aspirin such little faith! It will get better soon like a miracle. Of course, the real solution is education and early and easy and affordable access to preventative healthcare. What the GOP and ilk like Roger Marshall are doing is scapegoating the poor while ignoring the bigger issues in American healthcare, such as insurance companies seeking to deny coverage based upon pre-existing conditions or drug companies charging predatory prices for life saving drugs.

In reality, this is the twisted anti-gospel of the GOP’s evangelical fundamentalist idolatry libertarian unprincipled conservatism and its worship of wealth qua the prosperity gospel qua the gospel of greed the monstrous abomination of a hybrid twisted gospel of evangelical fundamentalism and market fundamentalism, to wit:

Of course, anyone who knows THE ONE TRUE Biblicist gospel, Jesus instructed the poor to feed the rich, for the poor shall fill their empty bellies with good tidings preached to them by the rich they don’t need (or want) good healthcare for their treasures are in heaven. Have you not heard, “Happy are the poor and sick, for their treasures are in heaven waiting for them, and the sooner they get there the better for the rich.” Jesus had a firm sense of justice for the poor, but it was always Trumped by fiscal conservatism and his love for his favorite apostle Ayn Rand. The elderly, widowed, and disabled poor who would receive Medicaid must work or die quickly! What do they expect, mercy? Where do they think they are, heaven on earth? Have they not read, “Whoso stops his ear to the cry of the rich, he also will someday cry for help and no one will hear him.” Jesus also said to the rich man who invited him to dinner, “When you give a dinner or banquet serve caviar and champagne; invite your friends, your GOP fellows and political allies, all your rich republican neighbors, for they also will invite you in return and you’ll be repaid. But when you give a feast, leave some for the poor birds, and you’ll be blessed, for they cannot repay you they are, after all, just sparrows. But not one of these little birdies falls to the ground without the Father knowing. Just don’t leave anything outside the gated community for the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and sick human beings or they’ll start dumpster diving and then their goes the neighborhood!

Does Capitalism Have a Future?

Coming decades will deliver surprising shocks and huge challenges. Some of them will look new and some quite old. Many will bring unprecedented political dilemmas and difficult choices. This may well begin to happen soon and will certainly shape the adult lives of those who are young at present. But that, we contend, is not necessarily or only bad. Opportunities to do things differently from the past generations will also be arising in the decades ahead…. At bottom, most troubling is that with the end of the Cold War almost three decades ago it has become unfashionable–even embarrassing–to discuss possible world futures and especially the prospects of capitalism. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 1)

[S]omething big looms on the horizon: a structural crisis much bigger than the recent Great Recession, which might in retrospect seem only a prologue to a period of deeper troubles and transformations…. Over the next three or four decades capitalists of the world, overcrowding the global markets and hard pressed on all sides by the social and ecological costs of doing business, may find it simply impossible to make their usual investment decisions. In the last five centuries capitalism has been the cosmopolitan and explicitly hierarchical world-market economy where the elite operators, favorably located at its geographical core, were in a position to reap large and reasonably secure profits. But, Wallerstein argues, this historical situation, however dynamic, will ultimately reach its systemic limitations, as do all historical systems. In this hypothesis, capitalism would end in the frustration of capitalists themselves. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 1-2)

Randall Collins focuses on a more specific mechanism challenging the future of capitalism: the political and social repercussions of as many as two-thirds of the educated middle classes, both in the West and globally, becoming structurally unemployed because their jobs are displaced by new information technology. Economic commentators recently discovered the downsizing of the middle class, but they tend to leave the matter with a vague call for policy solutions. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 2)

(….) Craig Calhoun argues to the contrary that a reformed capitalism might be saved. Calhoun elaborates on the point, recognized by all of us, that capitalism is not merely a market economy, but a political economy. Its institutional framework is shaped by a political choice. Structural contradictions may be inherent in the operation of complex markets but it is in the realms of politics that they may be remedied, or left to go unchecked to destruction. Put differently either a sufficiently enlightened faction of capitalists will face their systemic costs and responsibilities, or they will continue to behave as careless free riders, which they have been able to do since the waning of liberal/left challenges a generation ago. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 2)

(….) Michael Mann favors a social democratic solution for the problems of capitalism, but he also highlights even deeper problems that arise from the multicausal sources of power. Besides capitalism, these include politics, military geopolitics, ideology, and multiplicity of world regions. Such complexity, in Mann’s view, renders the future of capitalism unpredictable. The overriding threat, which is entirely predictable, is the ecological crisis that will grow throughout the twenty-first century. This could likely spill over into struggles over water and food, and result in pollution and massive population migrations, thus raising the prospect of totalitarian reactions and even warfare using nuclear weapons. Mann connects this to the central concern of this book: the future of capitalism. In Mann’s analysis, the crisis of climate change is so hard to stop because it derives from all of today’s dominant institutions gone global—capitalism as unbridled pursuit of profit, autonomous nation-states insisting on their sovereignty, and individual consumer rights legitimating both modern states and markets. Solving the ecological crisis thus will have to involve a major change in the institutional conditions of today’s life. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 3)

All these are structural projections akin to “stress tests” in civil engineering or, as we have all now heard, in banking. None of us bases our prognoses of capitalism in terms of condemnation or praise. We have our own moral and political convictions. But as historical sociologists, we recognize that the fortunes of human societies, at least in the last ten thousand years beyond the elementary level of hunter-gatherer bands, have not turned on how much good or evil they produced. Our debate is not whether capitalism is better or worse than any hitherto existing society. The question is: Does it have a future? (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 3)

This question echoes an old prediction. The expectation of capitalism’s collapse was central to the official ideology of the Soviet Union that itself collapsed. Yet does this fact ensure the prospects of capitalism? Georgi Derluguian shows the actual place of the Soviet experiment in the larger picture of world geopolitics, which in the end caused its self-destruction. He also explains how China avoided the collapse of communism while becoming the latest miracle of capitalist growth. Communism was not a viable alternative to capitalism. Yet the way in which the Soviet bloc suddenly ended after 1989 in broad mobilizations from below and blinding panic among the elites may suggest something important about the political future of capitalism. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 3-4)

(….) We find hope against doom exactly in the degree to which our future is politically underdetermined. Systemic crisis loosens and shatters the structural constraints that are themselves the inheritance of past dilemmas and the institutional decisions of prior generations. Business as usual becomes untenable and divergent pathways emerge at such historical junctures. Capitalism, along with its creative destruction of older technologies and forms of production, has also been a source of inequality and environmental degradation. Deep capitalist crisis may be an opportunity to reorganize the planetary affairs of humanity in a way that promotes more social justice and a more livable planet. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 4)

Our big contention is that historical systems can have more or less destructive ways of going extinct while morphing into something else. The history of human societies has passed through bursts of revolution, moments of expansive development, and painfully long periods of stagnation or even involution. However unwanted by anybody, the latter remains among the possible outcomes of global crisis in the future. The political and economic structures of present-day capitalism could simply lose their dynamism in the face of rising costs and social pressures. Structurally, this could lead to the world’s fragmentation into defensive, internally oppressive, and xenophobic blocs. Some might see it as the clash of civilizations, others as the realization of an Orwellian “1984” anti-utopia enforced by the newest technologies of electronic surveillance. Ways of reestablishing social order in the midst of extreme conflict might include those reminiscent of fascism, but also the possibility of a much broader democracy. It is what we wanted to stress above all in this book. (Wallerstein et. al. 2013, 4-5)

Manslaughter by Fireworks

Two fires in unincorporated King County that killed or critically wounded residents following Fourth of July celebrations have been linked to fireworks, according to fire officials.

A fire near Seattle’s Highline neighborhood left one man dead the night of the Fourth and two homes engulfed in flames, according to a tweet from King County Fire District 20.

Roland Kennedy, 70, died from smoke inhalation, according to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. His death was ruled an accident.

Fireworks to blame for deadly Highline house fire …, Seattle Times

On July 4th, 2018, I witnessed a neighbor shooting off powerful fireworks equal in concussion producing noise of modern battlefield artilleryrattling windows for a blockphysically threaten another homeowner pleading with him to cease and desist because his home had just caught fire due to fireworks landing on his roof. And if that was not enough, the neighbor who made the threat went over to the victim of fireworks house the next day and threatened him again for good measure. I think the words and deeds of those who cackle, laugh and ridicule even threaten reveals exactly who and what their motives really are all about.

True satire requires both wit and moral purpose. Without the first, it is mere condemnation; without the second, it is mere venting of the spleen. The employers of the former are the carpers and faultfinders who inhabit any university faculty, sucking laughter out of any fruit. They do not realize that taking something seriously does not mean taking it solemnly. The latter are the sophomores, those who take it all flippantly. They joke but have no purpose beyond cackling laughter.

Terry Lindvall, God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert
@Nextdoor Post sarcastically calling for ol’ fashioned 1950’s brawl in our neighborhood streets . . . threats meant to intimidate are already a reality.

Dave Baun’s caustic and belligerent fantasy is closer to reality than many realize. It is only a matter of time before neighbors start shooting neighbors as the incivility and abusive rhetoric displayed on Nextdoor continues to be tolerated and escalates. It is said that satire to be effective must have both wit and a moral purpose; Dave Baun’s malicious sarcasm has neither wit nor a moral purpose, but is merely an example the kind of flippant sophomoric cackling laughter that passes as civil discourse on Nextdoor.

Some Nextdoor bullies (e.g., Frank Iacolucci) tell other homeowners who live in completely different HOAs (i.e., Woodside) that have passed rules to completely ban all fireworks to “move somewhere” else when illegal fireworks are shot off at all hours day and night outside the their homes. Frank is regular annual abuser and bully on Nextdoor around the issue of firing off illegal fireworks after Seattle Seahawks games. He likes to brag about shooting them off after Seahawks games mockingly posting after bragging, “kidding” when we know well he is not. And yet Nextdoor pretends this is somehow being “helpful” and civil to taunt, ridicule, and tell his neighbors to leave if they don’t like it. Frank even advocates for others (to join him one can assume) in firing off illegal fireworks after Seahawks games, thereby using Nextdoor as a platform to agitate for neighbors breaking the law and directly or indirectly harming their neighbors. Frank Iacolucci likes to bully his neighbors sitting behind his computer screen and Nextdoor enables his bullying:

Sorry I was cleaning up my firework mess! [illegally shot off after Seahawks game] I kid! I kid! [no he doesn’t, just a man without the courage of his convictions] Have a wonderful night everyone! This thread was almost as entertaining as the Seahawks win. I guess you do know they won Shawna since the fireworks went off! Night. Hahahaha!!! My wife said someone would complain [about illegal fireworks shot off after Seahawks game] and I thought she was joking! Man I’m glad I’m not your neighbor! Go to bed! I can give Officer Shirley contact info. He’s the sheriff up here and I’ve know him for 20+ years. [information passed on to King County Sheriff’s department] He lives up here. Actually … maybe he was the one who lit the fireworks off! He is a huge Hawks fan…. [libeling an officer of the law?] Cops have more important things to worry about than people complaining in “unincorporated” king county [they are illegal there too but Frank doesn’t care] about fireworks going off after a Seahawks win! Do us all a favor and deal with it. (November 2018)

I’ve been lighting fireworks in this neighborhood for 40 years so stop complaining [they have been illegal except for designated times for decades]. This is my neighborhood and people like you have made it comical! So move somewhere they are illegal [they are were she lives already and have been illegal for decades outside of very limited times, like around the Fourth of July, but this bullying belligerent doesn’t care] and stop complaining [making legitimate statements about illegal fireworks]. (June 2020)

Sample of Frank Iacolucci’s hateful posting towards his neighbors on Nextdoor
Frank brags on Nextdoor how he shoots off fireworks after Seahawks games (it’s illegal) and then tells a homeowner of Asian descent in an HOA that has banned all fireworks to leave her own home and neighborhood. @StopTheHate on @Nextdoor

It is not enough that each year several homes burn down, but for some on Nextdoor apparently it’s all just giggles and laughs even when our elderly neighbors, unable to escape, burn to death in house fires set by Fourth of July fireworks. They mock, ridicule, and laugh while their neighbors homes burn and some burn to death in Fourth of July fires. So much for Nextdoor’s Be Helpful, Not Hurtful policies. A few years back for a reason unrelated to July 4th fireworks I knocked on hundreds of doors on our HAO which has almost 1000 densely packed fir tree ringed homes. In the process I met many homeowners and among those many homeowners were more than a few who were elderly couples or singles who would find it very difficult to evacuate quickly should their house catch on fire. In more than one case I met elderly couples where one was caring for a spouse who having suffered a stroke or other debilitating illness would never be able to evacuate them in an emergency. And I was told by the firemen who came to house near our home to put out a fire caused by Fourth of July fireworks that they cannot respond to them all any longer, and that eventually one will cause multiple houses to go up on flames as nearby trees spread the conflagration faster than their resources can respond. We are known as the neighborhoods that burn. I wonder if those who minimize, excuse, ignore, and engage in mocking giggles and laughs knock on their neighbors doors to find out if they have any elderly couples living nearby who might not be able to evacuate in a fire emergency? Or they just assume it never happens; out of sight out of mind and all giggles and laughs?

Our family has owned a home and lived in the Renton Fairwood area for over twenty years now. Over those twenty plus years we have observed the study increase in the volume and lethal power of dangerous fireworks[1] being shot off in our closely packed neighborhood. As the volume of fireworks being shot off in our neighborhood continued to substantially increased so too did the danger of deadly house fires increase over time, until on the Fourth of July 2018, while our daughter and future son-in-law were practicing their wedding dance in our backyard as we all enjoyed the evening dinner amidst a increasing volume of explosions we heard firetruck sirens come roaring into our block in response to a neighbor’s home set on fire by a firework that landed on his roof and set it ablaze. Luckily, it was caught in time and fire fighters were able to get there soon enough to put it out. But not everyone, as we see in the opening Seattle Times quote above, was so lucky.

Our Neighbor’s Home with shake roof set on fire on Fourth of July 2018 Loss of property & life foreseen …

Later that same Fourth of July evening I observed a neighbor on my block putting on a rather big firework show of clearly illegal fireworks purchased from the Indian Reservation. When I directly asked him if these were legal fireworks or the illegal ones purchased from the Reservation he rather coyly avoided the question. They were clearly not purchased from the local fireworks stand. Among this large display was a plate of mortars that shot into the air and rattled windows with huge explosions. I note that early that evening while speaking with one of the fireman who responded to our neighbors fire (above), remarked as the explosions were going off around us, “[boom!] That’s a felony, [boom!] that’s a felony!” and told me to contact Governor Jay Inslee and ask him why the ban on illegal fireworks is not being enforced? Illegal fireworks

I note that earlier I had attempted to get some clarification on which fireworks were legal and which were illegal, but found the existing laws vague despite the clear prohibition of fireworks purchased on the Reservations. The problem is that some fireworks (the so-called legal ones) are being sold in local firework stands that rent space in our local Safeway parking lots. And indeed, these stands sold mortars which are difficult to differentiate from the ones purchased on the Reservation vs. local fireworks stands. Even though there are statements from the various King County sites claiming that “If it has a stick or fins and goes up, or if it blows up, it is illegal in Washington State,” the laws as currently written make it virtually impossible for King County Sheriffs to effectively enforce the law.

To make matters worse, that same evening I witnessed the distraught homeowner whose home had been set on fire by fireworks drive by the neighbor’s illegal firework show and ask him to stop. This neighbor, rather than seeing the gravity of the situation and having any empathy, chose instead to attempt to minimize and intimidate the distraught homeowner telling him to “Move on, mind his own business” etc., finally threatening him saying, “I can find out where you live.” As I stood there and watched this, the demeanor and manner in which this statement was delivered, it was obviously delivered as a threat. I was told by the homeowner whose house caught fire that the next day this belligerent individual walked over to his block and told him, “You just made an enemy.” This kind of attitude raises serious concerns about the safety of our neighborhood when some are willing to ignore the existing laws and then resort to threats and intimidation when confronted with the consequences of illegal fireworks being shot off in our neighborhoods.[2]

That same Fourth of July evening as I walked throughout our neighborhood to observe the celebrations and what kind of fireworks were being shot off. I observed just a few houses away in a rental home the renters shooting off mortars and bottle rockets into the air amidst homes right across the street with shake roofs (know to be highly flammable). I was told by one fireman that bottle rockets are notorious for causing house fires as they often land on roofs still burning and ignite leaves and other debris. Mortars and bottle spent bottle rockets were clearly visible all throughout the neighborhood.

In one case I observed what appeared to be an adult and their children holding Roman Candle fireworks in their hands shooting them up into the air aiming down the street. It does not take much of an imagination to foresee the danger in such irresponsible behavior. Roman candles caused roughly 400 injuries in 2018. Just around the corner from where I observed this lives a family of five with three small children and a house with a shake roof. I dread thinking what might happen to them in terms of loss of property and potentially even life if some stray Roman candle flame should land on their roof and set their home ablaze.

As I continued to walk through the neighborhood I came across a home with a number of children shooting off bottle rockets with absolutely no adult supervision not a single adult in sight and right across the street were several homes with highly flammable shake roofs over the top of which they were shooting these flaming bottle rockets. The day after the Fourth of July I walked over and filmed the remains of the fireworks these kids and been shooting off:

The death of Roland Kennedy due to the use of Fourth of July fireworks being shot off in our closely packed neighborhoods that have many older homes with shake roofs was not unforeseeable. Over the previous years many discussion threads have arisen on Social Media site regarding the danger of the use of fireworks in our neighborhoods. I searched the going back several years and observed a pattern of communication taking place. Whenever a poster would raise a legitimate concern regarding the firing of fireworks which happens not just on the Fourth of July but frequently in association with Seahawks’ football games a predictable cast of characters would post condescending and/or ridiculing responses arguing they have every right to shoot off any kind of fireworks they like while ignoring the fact that not all fireworks were legal, often telling concerned homeowners to just drug their pets, ignore the fireworks, hose down your roof, etc.[3]

Some would even boast that they would be putting on “big” firework shows, always excusing their behavior and shifting blame onto the anonymous “other” guy who wasn’t practicing safe fireworks protocol or using “legal” fireworks for the increasing house fires occurring on the Fourth of July. They may well be taking all the recommended precautions and only using legal fireworks (i.e., no bottle rockets, etc.) but this ignores the reality that people’s homes are burning down and lives have been and will continue to be lost because of many who don’t abide by safe practices. The simple fact as told me by numerous firemen is that even legal fireworks cause house fires and our own experience in our densely packed neighborhoods tell us the many are not the few. Some even went so far as to film the fireworks being shot off in our neighborhoods and then congratulating themselves about another great year of neighborhood firework shows:

The interesting thing about the video above is that I was able to use public King County Parcel data and geographic information systems mapping (GIS) and google maps to overlay King County Parcel Maps onto the video and identify the actual parcel data of the homeowner firing off the fireworks.

Click to enlarge image

The video was clear enough to trace the firework tracer right back to the ground and observe the homeowner get off his/her porch, walk out into the cul-de-sac and setup the next mortar and fire it off. For example, at 0:18 you can trace the location of a firework being fired from the ground up into the air-burst that follows. At 1:21 and 2:24 you are looking at the following Woodside HOA area (image right). If one observes the video carefully it is not difficult to see where fireworks are being fired from. I note that Woodside’s HOA has already banned fireworks in its neighborhoods.

If one looks carefully at the King County Parcel maps below the image of Woodside, which matches the video one can identify the exact parcel in front of which fireworks are being fired. If one combines the fact that a simple inexpensive drone can capture the digital forensics evidence good enough to watch an individual leave their front yard and setup and fire a firework and follow each shot firework’s tracer back to the location from where it was fired it becomes quickly clear that there already exists technologies that would allow law enforcement a cost-effective way to identify offenders and deal with them appropriately in real-time.

King County Parcel Map of Woodside Neighborhood

It is time those who want to see this abuse of illegal fireworks reigned in and stopped to do something about it by organizing a letter/email campaign in support of Jim McDermott’s proposed legislation to ban all fireworks in Unincorporated King County.

Dear Friend,

You are receiving this message because you have previously contacted my office regarding the dangers of fireworks.

Today at the Council, I introduced legislation that would ban the sale and discharge of consumer fireworks in unincorporated King County. The tragic death of an elderly man in White Center in house fire caused by fireworks, as well as the increasing risk of wildfire due to climate change, demonstrates the danger posed by fireworks, and the need to act.

As the proposal moves through the legislative process, I would encourage to you share your thoughts with my Council colleagues in support of the proposal. This can be done via email or in-person at a public hearing, once the ordinance is scheduled to be heard in the Council’s Local Services committee.

Please see the press release below for more details or click here.

Thank you for your support.

Joe McDermott, King County Concilmember, District 8 (Joe.McDermott at

Take action now. Find out who your King County Executive is and email them and tell them you support the proposed firework ban in unincorporated King County.[4]

~ ~ ~

[1] The majority of the most dangerous fireworks are already illegal. They are purchased on the surrounding Indian Reservations by our neighbors and then brought into our neighborhood and and fired off as part of their Fourth of July celebrations. But the existing laws are difficult to enforce due to vague definitions of what is legal and illegal and inability of law enforcement to determine the difference between legal and illegal fireworks with the degree of evidence required to make the law enforceable. By banning and making ALL fireworks illegal there will no longer be an difficulty in determining who in our neighborhood is firing off illegal fireworks.

[2] I shared what I witnessed (the statement I interpreted as a threat) with two police officers that are neighbors and both characterized the statement(s) as threats and suggested a report to log the incident be made.

[3] This kind of bullying, intimidating, ridiculing, or even threatening behavior indicates a certain attitude that I observed repeatedly on the Social Media site whenever anyone would raise legitimate concerns about the danger of shooting off fireworks (legal and illegal) in our neighborhoods.

[4] Determine which district you are in here and who your representative is and join in supporting the proposed firework ban in unincorporated King County by communicating your support that the proposed ban of fireworks above be passed.

Chimeras and Holy Grails

Because the great controversies of the past often reach into modern science, many current arguments cannot be fully understood unless one understands their history.

ERNST MAYR 1982, 1, in McCloskey, Deirdre Nansen; Ziliak, Steve. The Cult of Statistical Significance (Economics, Cognition, And Society)

Too large a proportion of recent ‘mathematical’ economics are mere concoctions, as imprecise as the initial assumptions they rest on, which allow the author to lose sight of the complexities and interdependencies of the real world in a maze or pretentious and unhelpful symbols.

John Maynard Keynes

One of its central tenets is that the “real” nature of the social world imposes restrictions on individuals’ knowledge. (Marqués 2016, 2)

(….) If theoretical practice in economics is going to have authentic epistemic relevance, it is necessary to shift the attention from standard models developed within the current bookish tradition to the solution of those concrete problems which result from open ended, intervenible and conflictive economic processes, dominated by radical uncertainty. (Marqués 2016, 3)

A processes oriented economics would have to provide a different kind of theoretical practice adequate for examining sequences of feasible economic events (i.e., the main developments that those processes could plausibly adopt). This kind of practice offers points of intervention to those skills, qualifications, common sense and political abilities that are needed to manage these processes. (Marqués 2016, 3)

Science and economics

Let me advance a brief comment about the relation between science and economics. This book does not take an irrational or anti-scientific stance. On the contrary, in the domain of natural phenomena modern science has shown extraordinary successful results. But the same cannot be said when social processes are at stake, and I have tried to offer some of the reasons (ultimately, ontological) for this failure. So, I do not share the idea of those authors who think that economics can be scientific (as much as natural sciences), and that such an economic theory, once found, would solve those economic problems that the best theoretical tradition assigned to economics a long time ago (growth, employment and development with fairness and equality). (Marqués 2016, 5)

Particularly, I think that the dream of having a successful theory of expectation formation is largely a chimera, and indeed I dismiss the necessity of having such a theory. Neither governmental authorities nor any other economic actor may count on being able in a sure (scientific) way to intervene and make people entertain “correct” expectations. But as we try to show in this book economic actors (including the state) do not need a scientific theory able to guarantee their goals in order to intervene systematically upon the economy. Instead they can apply feasible sequences as well as direct (practical) knowledge and skills to cope with the situation and push the process in the desired direction. (Marqués 2016, 5)

It is also important to examine the relation between science and economics from another perspective. Theoretical physics has been successfully applied to a wide range of circumstances of our world. This could be done thanks to the development of associated technologies (different kinds of engineering founded on physical theory). Some may think that nowadays economics is at a pre-technological stage (like physics was sometime ago), and that what is needed is more time (and more knowledge, mainly mathematical knowledge) to develop a sort of economic engineering. Popper was confident in the benefits of fragmentary social engineering. The call to elaborate an alternative economics oriented to solve practical problems of our world could be interpreted this way. (Marqués 2016, 6)

Our analysis of deliberate mechanisms like Prospect Theory and Decision Making Models gives testimony of the kind of practical results that can be obtained by this road. But I suspect that in reference to more traditional economic problems like those mentioned at the beginning of this section, a similar expectation is unfounded and doomed to failure. As far as economic phenomena result from open ended processes as we have described them there is no possibility of shaping and controlling them by means of social engineering similar to what happens in the case of natural sciences. The specific domains where neither uncertainty nor conflicts between lobbyists that defend different and opposite interests exist. These technologies are designed for “leading” in a scientific way the economic processes. And I suspect that it is not possible to hope that we may count on similar tools in the near future. (Marqués 2016, 6)

Gustavo Marqués (2016) A Philosophical Framework for Rethinking Theoretical Economics and Philosophy of Economics

This book is set against the assumption that humans’ unique feature is their infinite creativity, their ability to reflect on their deeds and to control their actions. These skills give rise to genuine uncertainty in society and hence in the economy. Here, the author sets out that uncertainty must take centre stage in all analyses of human decision making and therefore in economics. (2019, i)

Economic cycles and economic crises belong to the defining moments in economic history because they affect our sense of economic security and level of welfare at large. They also serve, at least implicitly, as tests of our understanding of the economy as well as our ability to draw the right policy conclusions from our economic theories. No wonder, therefore, that economists have long sought to understand severe economic fluctuations with the ultimate goal of steering the economy clear of their troubled waters. (Müller-Kademann 2019, 1)

To that aim, economists, not least due to John Stuart Mill’s ingenious work, have long ago boarded a particular ontological train with the ambitious goal of keeping up with the natural scientists’ positive-deductive race to uncovering the truth about the world around us. If we only had sufficient knowledge of the machinery we would know how to stop crises from recurring, or so the logic goes. Alas, the financial crisis that started to unfold in 2007 once again reminded us that economists are still a long way from safeguarding the economy from severe difficulties. (Müller-Kademann 2019, 1)

[G]enuine randomness also exists. This genuine randomness occurs at the micro scale, for example, when matter seemingly assumes two states at the same time. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, matter’s actual state can only be pinned down by actual observation, with the striking implication that mere observation affects the state of the matter. What might seem very odd and irrelevant for daily life is actually relevant when it comes to secure data transmission or calculating the costs of nuclear waste disposal because random decay determines the time the waste has to be stored in safe (and hence expensive) conditions. (Müller-Kademann 2019, 7, emphasis added)

Christian Müller-Kademann (2019) Uncertainty and Economics. Routledge. Emphasis added.

You may imagine that your mind — your stream of conscious thoughts, ideals, and feelings — influences your actions. You may believe that what you think affects what you do. You could be right. However, the scientific ideas that prevailed from the time of Isaac Newton to the beginning of the twentieth century proclaimed your physical actions to be completely determined by processes that are describable in physical terms alone. Any notion that your conscious choices make a difference in how you behave was branded an illusion: you were asserted to be causally equivalent to a mindless automaton. (Stapp 2009: vii)

We now know that that earlier form of science is fundamentally incorrect. During the first part of the twentieth century, that classically-based conception of nature was replaced by a new theory that reproduces all of the successful predictions of its predecessor, while providing also valid predictions about a host of phenomena that are strictly incompatible with the precepts of eighteenth and nineteenth century physics. No prediction of the new theory has been shown to be false. (Stapp 2009: vii)

The new theory departs from the old in many important ways, but none is more significant in the realm of human affairs than the role it assigns to your conscious choices. These choices are not fixed by the laws of the new physics, yet these choices are asserted by those laws to have important causal effects in the physical world. Thus contemporary physical theory annuls the claim of mechanical determinism. In a profound reversal of the classical physical principles, its laws make your conscious choices causally effective in the physical world, while failing to determine, even statistically, what those choices will be. (Stapp 2009: vii)

More than three quarters of a century have passed since the overturning of the classical laws, yet the notion of mechanical determinism still dominates the general intellectual milieu. The inertia of that superceded physical theory continues to affect your life in important ways. It still drives the decisions of governments, schools, courts, and medical institutions, and even your own choices, to the extent that you are influenced by what you are told by pundits who expound as scientific truth a mechanical idea of the universe that contravenes the precepts of contemporary physics. (Stapp 2009: viii)

The aim of this book is to explain to educated lay readers these twentieth century developments in science, and to touch upon the social consequences of the misrepresentations of contemporary scientific knowledge that continue to hold sway, particularly in the minds of our highly educated and influential thinkers. (Stapp 2009: vii)

Henry P. Stapp (2007) Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer. Springer.

~ ~ ~


Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom invovles responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.

— Sigmund Freud

Most of the really fundamental debates in economics today are very old debates indeed. But economists—and not just the economists of the post-war period—have been scrupulous in avoiding many of them. Other social sciences do not suffer the same defect, and one wonders why this might be the case in economics. The key philosophical difference between the view of economics put forward by the marginalists and the one championed in this book is that the former believe that all human action is pre-determined while the author of the present book believes in a large amount of freedom in human affair. (Pilkington 2016, 341)

(….) Economists today instinctively sign on to a sort of vulgar Newtonian view of the world. That is, they instinctively think in terms of a space in which a variety of forces play themselves out—often, in the case of the marginalists, at a given instant in time. But this sort of philosophy was long dead in the humanities at the time Keynes was writing. Rather, the philosophies of Moore and Keynes start from the seat of consciousness. We do not start from the vulgar assumption that reality ‘is’ in some sense a space with deterministic forces playing themselves out. This schema, thought construction or model is fully recognized in Keynes to be something cooked up by consciousness. (Pilkington 2016, 345)

This, I think, accounts for why many economists find Keynes’ writings so obscure. It also accounts for why those with training in philosophy or psychology will find them far more accessible than those with training in mainstream economics, physics or engineering. Keynes’ works are written from the point-of-view of the reasoning subject. This is the natural starting point for Keynes. Consciousness comes first; models and metaphors are adopted later. This is why in Keynes’ work we are from time to time put in the shoes of the investor trying to make decisions about the future. In mainstream economics, agents making investment and consumption decisions are reduced to little objects that reason in a pre-determined manner. In Keynes, by contrast, economic agents making investment and consumption decisions are full subjects endowed with a consciousness that is identically structured to the one that we ourselves possess. Thus in order to understand the choices made by these agents, we do not simply reduce them to little puppets that behave how we assume them to behave but rather we must try to get ‘inside their heads’. (Pilkington 2016, 345)


Can anything be imagined so ridiculous, that this miserable and wretched creature, who is not so much as master of himself, but subject to the injuries of all things, should call himself master and emperor of the world, of which he has not power to know the least part, much less to command the whole?

— Michel de Montaigne

Throughout this book, we have been rather harsh on economists. We have accused them of engaging in all sorts of silly behaviour, of constructing irrelevant theories and of being a key force darkening the doorway of knowledge and spreading ideology. But so far we have not really sought out motivation. Are we to assume that most economists working today are nefarious crooks and scoundrels? I should think not. Most economists working today are well-meaning people who genuinely want to make the world a better place. They are men and women who truly believe that they are constructing useful knowledge that will help humanity progress as a species in the future. That they typically make the world a worse place and cloud the judgments of people is not altogether their fault. (Pilkington 2016, 353)

What is it then that drives these people to Bedlam and back? This is something that the present writer has thought about quite a lot. I have come to this conclusion: these men and women are chasing after a Holy Grail, one that has been sought since time immemorial. At first it was sought in the sphere of religion, but after this it was sought in the field of philosophy and, finally, science. Today the sphere in which this Holy Grail is most aggressively sought is in the field of economics. What then characterises this Holy Grail? Well, it is the Holy Grail of perfect knowledge. It is the drive that exists in many intellectually minded men and women to find a sort of perfection, a total and pristine knowledge that would make them, in a very real sense, omnipotent or, at least, omniscient. This Holy Grail was first formulated in the modern age by the French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace: (Pilkington 2016, 353-354)

We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it — an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit this data to analysis — it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present in its eyes. (Laplace 1902, p. 4)

For some rather odd reason, this thought experiment has become known as ‘Laplace’s Demon’ today. In fact, readers of older philosophers will recognise that this is identical to how many philosophers conceived of an image of God. For many writers, God is an omniscient being that has total knowledge of all causes and effects and has a sort of ‘single formula’ in His immediate consciousness that explains everything across time and space. He is, in this conception, outside of time and space and thus merely observes everything happening at once in the form of this timeless, perfect formula. (Pilkington 2016, 354)

When economists try to build totalizing models, they are doing something similar. They are trying to figure out all the mechanisms — the causes and effects — that pertain in the economy at all times, and then they are trying to reduce these to a single model. If they could ever find their Holy Grail, they would then, in the words of Laplace, have ‘the future, as the past, present in their eyes’. They are reaching for perfection. In a strange psychological sense, they are seeking to become like the old conceptions of God that many philosophers and theologians held. Again, they are not the only ones that do this. Many physicists reach for the same Holy Grail and try to generate ‘theories of everything’. But it is in economics, which is not only a far more inexact discipline but also a far more ambitious one, that this fantasy has done the most damage. (Pilkington 2016, 354)

The psychological roots of this tendency are inherently narcissistic. By that, I do not mean that economists are all pathologically narcissistic. No, psychologists have long recognised that all of us have narcissistic tendencies buried within our minds. Somewhere buried within our minds, we all have an image of perfection that haunts us…. On occasion, such a narcissistic image can become an obsession and do serious psychological and physical damage to a person [and society]…. There is no such thing as true perfection just as there is no such thing as a unified theory of how the economy works that will be valid across time and space. These are fantasies and illusions that, if we do not understand them to be illusions, can lead us down wayward paths. (Pilkington 2016, 354-355)

We have argued throughout the book that economics today is predominantly ideology. But just as certain forms of religious discourses were the key ideologies of the past, economics too activates these deep psychological structures within its practitioners to ensure that they remain stuck on the treadmill, chasing ghosts rather than engaging with the real world. Certain religious discourses offered its adherents a sort of union with God if they studied sacred texts hard enough. This kept these conduits of ideology away from the real world and ensured that they engaged in largely useless activity in their fruitless search for omniscience by connecting with God. Economics today does something similar in that it encourages its adherents to build models that are supposed to be true across time and space. The adherents are then encouraged to test these models against data using highly problematic econometric techniques, after which the whole discipline starts to ruminate if they stop yielding accurate results. (Pilkington 2016, 355)

The result is a stagnant discipline. Every few years, economic theory will go into crisis as some real world event calls into question the predominant models. Economists will then go back and reconstruct the doctrines in light of recent events only to have them fall apart once more when something changes in the economic world. It is a bit like watching an unfortunate though well-meaning man build and rebuild his house along an earthquake fault line always insisting that this time the house will survive. Or a cult devotee that continuously says that the end of the world is coming on a given date only to push this date back every time the end of the world does not arrive. (Pilkington 2016, 355-356)

It is in the tendency to model itself — which has deep psychological roots — that leads economics down this dead end and makes it a sort of clown science. If economists would just drop the silly image of timeless truths and recognise that in economics we deal with contingent historical events, we would all be better off. But his cannot happen unless the economics profession as a whole reorients its narcissistic image away from trying to search out Holy Grails and towards trying to manage as best they can in a highly complex and changing world. If this were ever achieved the manner in which argument and debate take place within the discipline would completely and utterly change. This would be wonderful but it would also mean that economics would have to stop being an ideology. This would, in turn, mean that economists would have to stop projecting the image that they hold crystal balls and can see the future. That might not only be a blow to their egos but it might, in a strong sense, also diminish the standing that they hold as ideologues in the political and social arena. Whether economics can ever exist as a non-ideology is an open question. Personally, I believe that it can. But, given I do not pretend to have a crystal ball, only posterity can pass absolute judgement on the matter. (Pilkington 2016, 356)

Telos and Economics

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

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

Consciousness cannot be computable.
— Roger Penrose

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

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

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

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

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

(….) In Norbert Wiener’s “God and Golem” 1964, the following trenchant comment appeared which sums up the mindset of the neoclassical straight-jacket.

“The success of mathematical physics led the social scientists to be jealous of its power without quite understanding the intellectual attitudes that had contributed to the power.” As Wiener explains further: “The mathematical physics of 1850” (this early date may be especially unkind cut on his part) became “the mode of the social sciences.” Wiener goes on to say that “very few econometricians are aware that, if they are to imitate the procedure of modern physics, and not its mere appearances (perhaps the unkindest cut of all), a mathematical economics must begin with a critical account (i.e., rigorous definitions?) of these quantitative notions and the means adopted for collecting and measuring them.” Since Wiener spent many years on the same premises as the most prominent “imitators” he must have been keenly aware of just how the problem of defining key economic variables to a point where they could be meaningfully manipulated as homogeneous “technical” units had, in effect, defeated their best efforts to attain the “scientific” respectability that only “quantifiability” can bestow. With this perhaps definitive limiting principle on the subject as a subliminal guideline we can, in a humbler vein, pose the following question: Is there at least some procedure that accepts implicitly the subject’s inherent limitations or, more to the point, its own unique nature by actually searching for the boundaries within which some degree of “quantifiability” is feasible, and beyond which this aspiration is merely spurious or being deliberately or unwittingly abused? This is the same as asking how far we can go with many of the traditional operations of economic estimation, calculation, and comparative valuation … or at what point do they cease to convey ordinal meaning? (Roth 2008, 80-81)

(….) There cannot be any “iron laws” that determine the “path” of economic history. Such “prophecy” is more in the nature of proclamation, disguised as “Science” that was so typical of 19th Century crack-pot determinists, from Gobineau to Marx to Houston Stuart Chamberlain and their disciples in the twentieth century. Their “predictive power” was closer to Nostradamus than to Darwin. Their powers of explanation were closer to those who can explain “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Economic behavior is contingent and value-loaded and has a gestalt relationship to the consequences of its own interactions. Therefore no strictly “determined” rest point or steady-state, whatever we choose to call it, can be the result of a process which originates in human behavior at the individual level, or that of their institutions which are governed by “rules” crafted by groups of individuals. (….) The evolution of markets is the active (institutional) expression of human teleologies. (Roth 2008, 119-120)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chemical self organisation, life

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

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

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

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

Geoff Davies (2019, 118-121) Society, Nature: An introduction to the new systems-based, life-friendly economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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