Category Archives: History of Science

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.

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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.

MUST WE SCRAP ECONOMETRICS?

(….) 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)

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)

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.

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DETERMINISM AND FREE WILL IN ECONOMICS

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)

ECONOMIC MODELING: A PSYCHOLOGISTIC EXPLAINATION

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)

Phishing for Phools

Mainstream economics takes the particular features of capitalism a very recent form of economic organisation in human history as if they were universal, timeless and rational. It treats market exchange as if it’s the essential feature of economic behaviour and relegates production or work a necessity of all provisioning to an afterthought. It also focuses primarily on the relationship between people and goods (what determines how many oranges we buy?) and pays little attention to the relationships between people that this presupposes. It values mathematical models based on if-pigs-could-fly assumptions more than it values empirical research; so it pays little attention to real economies, having little to say about money and debt, for example! Predictably, the dismal science failed to predict the crisis. When the UK’s Queen Elizabeth asked why no one saw the crisis coming, the economists’ embarrassment was palpable. (Sayer 2015, 23-24)

Andrew Sayer (2015) Why We Can’t Afford the Rich

[M]any of our problems come from the nature of the economic system itself. If business people behave in the purely selfish and self-serving way that economic theory assumes, our free-market system tends to spawn manipulation and deception. The problem is not that there are a lot of evil people. Most people play by the rules and are just trying to make a good living. But, inevitably, the competitive pressures for businessmen to practice deception and manipulation in free markets lead us to buy, and to pay too much for, products that we do not need; to work at jobs that give us little sense of purpose; and to wonder why our lives have gone amiss. (…) The economic system is filled with trickery and everyone needs to know about it.” (Akerlof & Shiller, 2015, viii)

[F]ree markets do not just deliver this cornucopia that people want. They also create an economic equilibrium that is highly suitable for economic enterprises that manipulate or distort our judgment, using business practices that are analogous to biological cancers that make their home in the normal equilibrium of the human body. (Akerlof and Shiller 2015, x)

George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller (2015) Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation & Deception

Many of the quotes above are from economists, experts in their field, some Nobel Prize-winning economists. One thing is clear; the Great Recession shook the very foundations of economics to its core. Only the blind leading the blind can pretend today that something isn’t amiss within the field of economics. The quotations above only represent a small sampling of the discontent rising to the surface within the field of economics today. There is actually a revolt underway in the younger generation of economic graduate students who lived through the Great Recession and the near melt down of the world’s economy yet witnessed their teachers being confounded by the Queen’s question. And if we value our children’s and our grandchildren’s economic future we can no longer afford to simply leave economics to the expertsthe Econocracy—for as these young graduate students tell us, we do so at our own peril. Amartya Sen in his essay Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory takes us on an intellectual journey back in time to the thoughts and reflections of one of the founders of the field of economics:

In his Mathematical Psychics, published in 1881, Edgeworth asserted that ‘the first principle of Economics is that every agent is actuated only by self-interest’. This view has been a persistent one in economic models, and the nature of economic theory seem to have been much influenced by this basic premise…. I should mention that Edgeworth himself was quite aware that this so-called first principle of Economics was not a particularly realistic one. Indeed, he felt that ‘the concrete nineteenth century man is for the most part an impure egoist, a mixed utilitarian’. This raises the interesting question as to why Edgeworth spent so much of his time and talent in developing a line of inquiry the first principle of which he believed to be false. The issue is not why abstractions should be employed in pursuing economic questionsthe nature of inquiry makes this inevitablebut why would one choose an assumption which he himself believed not merely inaccurate in detail but fundamentally mistaken? (Sen 1982, 84-85)

Amartya Sen (1982) Rational Fools

Free License of Creativity

Our discussion of the nature of physical concepts has shown that a main reason for formulating concepts is to use them in connection with mathematically stated laws. It is tempting to go one step further and to demand that practicing scientists deal only with ideas corresponding to strict measurables, that they formulate only concepts reducible to the least ambiguous of all data: numbers and measurements. The history of science would indeed furnish examples to show the great advances that followed from the formation of strictly quantitative concepts. (Holton and Brush 2001, 170)

(….) The nineteenth-century physicist Lord Kelvin commended this attitude in the famous statement:

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of meagre and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of Science, whatever the matter may be. (“Electrical Units of Measurement”)

Useful though this trend is within its limits, there is an entirely different aspect to scientific concepts: indeed it is probable that science would stop if every scientist were to avoid anything other than strictly quantitative concepts. We shall find that a position like Lord Kelvin’s (which is similar to that held at present by some thinkers in the social sciences) does justice neither to the complexity and fertility of the human mind nor to the needs of contemporary physical science itself—not to scientists nor to science. Quite apart from the practical impossibility of demanding of one’s mind that at all times it identify such concepts as electron only with the measurable aspects of that construct, there are specifically two main objections: First, this position misunderstands how scientists as individuals do their work, and second, it misunderstands how science as a system grows out of the contribution of individuals. (Holton and Brush 2001, 170-171)

(….) While a scientist struggles with a problem, there can be little conscious limitation on his free and at times audacious constructions. Depending on his field, his problem, his training, and his temperament, he may allow himself to be guided by a logical sequence based on more or less provisional hypotheses, or equally likely by “feelings for things,” by likely analogy, by some promising guess, or he may follow a judicious trial-and-error procedure.

The well-planned experiment is, of course, by far the most frequent one in modern science and generally has the best chance of success; but some men and women in science have often not even mapped out a tentative plan of attack on the problems, but have instead let their enthusiasms, their hunches, and their sheer joy of discovery suggest the line of work. Sometimes, therefore, the discovery of a new effect or tool or technique is followed by a period of trying out one or the other applications in a manner that superficially almost seems playful. Even the philosophical orientation of scientists is far less rigidly prescribed than might be supposed. (Holton and Brush 2001, 170-171)

Gosse’s Dilemma and Adam’s Navel

‘Tis a dangerous thing to ingage the authority of Scripture in disputes about the Natural World, in opposition to Reason, lest Time, which brings all things to light, should discover that to be false which we had made Scripture to assert.

Thomas Burnet, Archaelogiae Philosophicae, 1692

In the late nineteenth century intellectuals assumed that truth had spiritual, moral, and cognitive dimensions. By 1930, however, intellectuals had abandoned this broad conception of truth. They embraced, instead, a view of knowledge that drew a sharp distinction between “facts” and “values.” They associated cognitive truth with empirically verified knowledge and maintained that by this standard, moral values could not be validated as “true.” In the nomenclature of the twentieth century, only “science” constituted true knowledge. Moral and spiritual values could be “true” in an emotional or nonliteral sense, but not in terms of cognitively verifiable knowledge. The term truth no longer comfortably encompassed factual knowledge and moral values.

Julie A. A. Reuben (1996) The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality

Truth

Certain people have different standards for recognizing “truth.” Given access to the same facts, two individuals can look at an issued and reach utterly different conclusions, to the point where they believe those with a different opinion belong somewhere on a spectrum from stupid to perverse…. (Asher 2012: xiv)

(….) The creationist has something at stake, some worldview or allegiance, that makes a fair, honest view of the data behind Darwinian evolutionary biology impossible. Why?

(….) [T]here is an obvious explanation for antipathy toward Charles Darwin among various anti-evolutionist groups of the last 150 years, groups that are often connected to one kind of intense religious creed or another: they think Darwin threatens their worldview. Contributing to this conviction are those biologists who portray evolution as tied to atheism, who help convince the devout that a natural connection of humanity with other organisms is incompatible with their religion. Compounding things further is the fact that adherence to many religious worldviews is not flexible, and any scientific theory or philosophy that seems to threaten certain beliefs must be wrong, whatever some scientist may say about evidence. (Asher 2012: xvi)

Coyne says there is one way to be rational, and any of this stuff about alternative “truth” is relativist nonsense not worth the flatscreen monitor on which it is written:

What, then, is the nature of “religious truth” that supposedly complements “scientific truth”?… Anything touted as a “truth” must come with a method for being disproved—a method that does not depend on personal revelation. … It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified.

I disagree, and would argue that there are many things in life that deserve the descriptor “truth” but are not amenable to rational disproof. Coyne is absolutely correct to say that coddling the irrational—those for whom “religious truth” means stoning adulterers or drinking poisoned Kool-Aid—is incompatible with science and, more generally, civil society. However, while science is a-religious, it is not anti-religious, at least in the important sense that it does not (indeed, cannot) concern itself with phenomena beyond what we rationally perceive. It is not only possible to portray science as lacking fatal consequences for those religious tenets that concern things we cannot empirically observe (such as purpose or agency in life), but it is precisely what scientists have got to do to make a compelling case to the public. Coyne tosses “religion” into the same dumpster as any passing superstition, and actively encourages the perception that science is corrosive to any religious sentiment. Yes, there are religious claims that are demonstrably wrong in an empirical sense. … However, such specific claims do not do justice to the religion integrally tied into the identity of many lay-people and scientists alike, an identity that by any meaningful definition is worthy of the name “truth.” (Asher 2012: xvii-xviii)

Asher, Robert J. Evolution and Belief [Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2012; p. xiv.

When we reflect on scienceits aims, its values, its limitswe are doing philosophy, not science. This may be bad news for the high priests of scientism, who reject philosophy, but there is no escaping it.

(….) There is a general agreement that science concentrates on aspects of the world that can be studied through theories that can be tested by doing experiments. Those aspects relate to spatiotemporal patterns in nature, for this is what makes experiments possible. If other dimensions of reality exist, they simply cannot be studied using the methods of the empirical sciences.

(….) Modern science is an enormously wonderful and powerful achievement of our species, a culturally transcendent, universal method for studying the natural world. It should never be used as an ideological weapon. Scientific progress demands a respect for truth, rigor, and objectivity, three ethical values implied in the ethos of science. We can nevertheless draw different conclusions from our analyses of science, but we should always present them carefully, distinguishing what can be said in the name of science from personal interpretations that must be supported by independent reasons, or acknowledged simply as personal opinions. Our analysis shows that the Oracles differ in important points and are not consistently fighting for a common cause. When they go beyond their science, they use different arguments and arrive at different conclusions.

We conclude with one final insight. Science is compatible with a broad cross section of very different views on the deepest human problems. Weinberg, an agnostic Jew from New York, shared his Nobel Prize with Abdus Salam, a devout Muslim from Pakistan. They spoke different languages and had very different views on many important topics. But these differences were of no consequence when they came together to do science. Modern science can be embraced by any religion, any culture, any tribe, and brought to bear on whatever problems are considered most urgent, whether it be tracing their origins, curing their diseases, or cleaning up their water. Science should never be fashioned into a weapon for the promotion of an ideological agenda. Nevertheless, as history has shown, science is all too frequently enlisted in the service of propaganda; and, as we have argued in this book, we must be on guard against intellectual nonsense masquerading as science.

Karl Giberson and Mariano Artigas (2007) in Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion.

Darwinism as an ideology

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

Denis R. Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers (2010) in Biology and Ideology: From Descartes to Dawkins.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Darwinian thinking to American economic reform in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Evolutionary thought was American economic reform’s scientific touchstone and a vital source of ideas and conceptual support. The Wharton School’s Simon Nelson Patten, writing in 1894, observed that the century was closing with a bias for biological reasoning and analogy, just as the prior century had closed with a bias for the methods of physics and astronomy. The great scientific victories of the nineteenth century, Patten believed, were “in the field of biology.”

SOMETHING IN DARWIN FOR EVERYONE

To understand the influence of evolutionary thought on American economic reform, we must first appreciate that evolutionary thought in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in no way dictated a conservative, pessimistic, Social Darwinist politics. On the contrary, evolutionary thought was protean, plural, and contested.

It could license, of course, arguments that explained and justified the economic status quo as survival of the fittest, so-called Social Darwinism. But evolutionary thought was no less useful to economic reformers, who found in it justification for optimism rather than pessimism, for intervention rather than fatalism, for vigorous rather than weak government, and for progress rather than drift. Evolution, as Irving Fisher insisted in National Vitality, did not teach a “fatalistic creed.” Evolution, rather, awakened the world to “the fact of its own improvability.”

In the thirty years bracketing 1900, there seems to have been something in Darwin for everyone. Karl Pearson, English eugenicist and founding father of modern statistical theory, found a case for socialism in Darwin, as did the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. Herbert Spencer, in contrast, famously used natural selection, which he called “survival of the fittest,” to defend limited government.

Warmongers borrowed the notion of survival of the fittest to justify imperial conquest, as when Josiah Strong asserted that the Anglo-Saxon race was “divinely commissioned” to conquer the backward races abroad. Opponents of war also found sustenance in evolutionary thought. Pyotr Kropotkin argued that the struggle for existence need not involve conflict, much less violence. Cooperation could well be the fittest strategy. David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford from 1891 to 1913 and a leader of the American Peace Movement during World War I, opposed war because it selected for the unfit. The fittest men died in battle, while the weaklings stayed home to reproduce.

Darwin seems to have been pro-natalist, on the grounds that more births increased the variation available for natural selection. Margaret Sanger argued that restricting births was the best way to select the fittest. Darwin’s self-appointed “bulldog,” T. H. Huxley, thought natural selection justified agnosticism, whereas devout American interpreters, such as botanist Asa Gray, found room in Darwinism for a deity.

It is a tribute to the influence of Darwinism that Darwin inspired exegetes of nearly every ideology: capitalist and socialist, individualist and collectivist, pacifist and militarist, pro-natalist and birth-controlling, as well as agnostic and devout.

Darwinism was itself plural, and Progressive Era evolutionary thought was more plural still. The ideas of other prominent evolutionists (notably, Herbert Spencer and Alfred Russel Wallace) were also influential in the Progressive Era, both when they accorded with Darwin and when they didn’t.

— Thomas C. Leonard (2016) in Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era.

[L]iberal theology reconceptualizes the meaning of Christianity in the light of modern knowledge and ethical values. It is reformist in spirit and substance, not revolutionary. Specifically it is defined by its openness to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially historical criticism and the natural sciences; its commitment to the authority of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life; its advocacy of moral concepts of atonement or reconciliation; and its commitments to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to contemporary people. In the nineteenth century, liberal theologians denied that God created the world in six days, commanded the genocidal extermination of Israel’s ancient enemies, demanded the literal sacrifice of his Son as a substitutionary legal payment for sin [see Laughing Buddha], and verbally inspired the Bible. Most importantly, they denied that religious arguments should be settled by appeals to an infallible text or ecclesial authority. Putting it positively, nineteenth-century liberals accepted Darwinian evolution, biblical criticism, a moral influence view of the cross, an idea of God as the personal and eternal Spirit of love, and a view of Scripture as authoritative only within Christian experience. Nineteenth- teenth- and early-twentieth-century liberals expected these views to prevail in Christianity as a whole, but in the twenty-first century they remain contested beliefs.

Gary Dorrien. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity: 1950-2005 (Kindle Locations 155-157). Kindle Edition.

Unless the moral insight and the spiritual attainment of mankind are proportionately augmented, the unlimited advancement of a purely materialistic culture may eventually become a menace to civilization. A purely materialistic science harbors within itself the potential seed of the destruction of all scientific striving, for this very attitude presages the ultimate collapse of a civilization which has abandoned its sense of moral values and has repudiated its spiritual goal of attainment.

The materialistic scientist and the extreme idealist are destined always to be at loggerheads. This is not true of those scientists and idealists who are in possession of a common standard of high moral values and spiritual test levels. In every age scientists and religionists must recognize that they are on trial before the bar of human need. They must eschew all warfare between themselves while they strive valiantly to justify their continued survival by enhanced devotion to the service of human progress. If the so-called science or religion of any age is false, then must it either purify its activities or pass away before the emergence of a material science or spiritual religion of a truer and more worthy order.

What both developing science and religion need is more searching and fearless self-criticism, a greater awareness of incompleteness in evolutionary status. The teachers of both science and religion are often altogether too self-confident and dogmatic. Science and religion can only be self-critical of their facts. The moment departure is made from the stage of facts, reason abdicates or else rapidly degenerates into a consort of false logic.

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By the mid-nineteenth century, there were really only three ways in which natural theologians could deal with the growing evidence that the earth was very old, that it was recycling inexorably beneath their feet, and that life on earth had constantly changed over millions of years. They could ignore it, they could accommodate it to the biblical accounts of history by more or less denying the literal truth of Genesis, or they could explain it all away. The later natural theologians largely ignored it. The sacred theorists tried unsuccessfully to reconcile geology with the Bible. And one man above all others tried to explain it away. He was Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888), a writer on natural history whose books caught the imagination of generations of Victorians and whose life became a tortured tale of religion contesting with science…. (Thomson 2007: 223)

Gosse’s dilemma was that of all natural theologians, especially after the publication in 1844 of an anonymously authored, thrillingly dangerous, and wildly successful book on evolution…. The book’s title, with an allusion to James Hutton that nobody could miss, was Vestiges of Creation. Chambers’ theory was largely derived from Lamarck’s which, like Erasmus Darwin’s, depended upon organisms being subject to change as a direct result of environmental pressures and exigencies [which today is know to be possible via epigentics]. Chambers probably set Charles Darwin back fifteen years — much to the benefit of all. In many ways he blazed the trail that Darwin could more cautiously follow with an even more convincing theory in hand. Darwin must have realized, with the example of Chambers in front of him (and approval of the political left and censure from both the religious and scientific right) that he would have to ensure his theory would have a better reception. (Thomson 2007: 224)

Gosse knew that various versions of what we now call evolution had been around for more than a hundred years. By the mid-1850s, most scientists in Britain knew which way the wind was blowing. Darwin had been hard at work in private since 1842, preparing the ground for his idea of natural selection, and knowing how popular a scientist Gosse was, he tried to enlist him to support his theory. Darwin’s self-designated ‘bull dogs’, including Thomas Huxley, were steadily persuading the sceptics Huxley had been lecturing formally on an evolutionary relationship between men and apes as early as 1858. This growing movement evolutionary movement offered a new way of explaining the evidence of organic changes, but only at the expense of much accepted religious belief. It threatened to change radically the whole frame of intellectual reference and to produce a new explanation of cause. For a huge number of theologians, clerics, philosophers and ordinary people, evolution was changing the metaphysical balance of power. Among those who felt this most keenly was Gosse. (Thomson 2007: 224)

One’s heart has to ache for Gosse, one of the most sympathetic characters of the evolutionary saga, a man weighed down by the burdens of fundamentalist Christianity and at the same time a brilliant naturalist…. He was the first to introduce to a popular audience the life of the seashore, the fragile world of exquisite beauty and strength that lies just a few inches beneath the surface of the sea and in the rocky pools of the coast. Before Gosse, all this was largely unseen. Gosse single-handedly created marine biology and home aquaria, and became one of the great chroniclers of the intricate worlds revealed by the microscope. (Thomson 2007: 225)

(….) Once Lamarck and Chambers had made it possible (even necessary) to take evolution seriously, and after his meeting with Charles Darwin had shown how powerful was the extent of the challenge to his fundamentalist beliefs, Gosse felt called to respond; as a Plymouth Brother and as a scientist, it was his responsibility, just as it had been Paley’s and before Paley John Ray’s or Thomas Burnet’s. Gosse’s dilemma was to try to find a way to reconcile his science and his faith. He chose to challenge the rapidly growing support for evolutionists from the geological record. (Thomson 2007: 226)

(….) Huxley had a favourite lecture a “Lay Sermon’ entitled Essay on a Piece of Chalk. He would stand before an eager crowd and take a piece of common chalk from his pocket, asking the audience what it could possibly tell them about the history of the cosmos and of life on earth. The answer is that chalk (in those days, before blackboard chalk was an artificial, hypo-allergenic substance) represents the accumulation on an ancient sea bottom of the skeletons of countless billions of microscopic planktonic organisms that once inhabited vast tropical oceans that extended across the earth, from Europe and the Middle East to Australia and North America. (Thomson 2007: 227)

(….) Philip Gosse knew only too well what a piece of chalk looked like under a microscope and that the earth’s crust consisted of thousands of feet of different rocks, some bearing fossils, others the remains of ancient lava flows, dust storms, water-borne sediments, and even ancient coral reefs just like those he had seen in Jamaica…. How could Gosse explain away this all-too-solid evidence of the ancient history of the earth and its denizens? What did it have to say about the biblical account of creation in six days? (Thomson 2007: 228)

(….) Gosse’s answer cost him dearly. The dilemma figuratively tore him scientist and fundamentalist Christian in half. In a classic example of ad hoc reasoning, he explained away all this appearance of change in a book entitled Omphalos, the Greek for ‘navel’, and in that one word is contained the core of Gosse’s argument. It is the old conundrum: did Adam have a navel? If God created Adam as the first man out of nothing, Adam would have no need for a navel, since he had never been connected by an umbilical cord to a mother. Nor indeed had Eve, of whose origin Genesis gives two accounts. Nor indeed (remembering that the Bible tells us that God made man in his own image) would God physiologically have needed navel. (Thomson 2007: 229)

Gosse simply asserted that at the moment of creation, just as God made Adam with a navel, he also made the earth with all its complex layers, its faults, every one of its fossils, volcanoes in mid-eruption and rivers in full spate carrying a load of sediment that had never been eroded from mountains that had never been uplifted. Similarly, at that instant, every tree that had never grown nevertheless had internal growth rings; every mammal already had partially worn teeth. He created rotting logs on the forest floor, the rain in mid-fall, the light from distant stars in mid-stream, the planets part-way around their orbits … the whole universe up and running at the moment of creation no further assembly required. (Thomson 2007: 229)

Such an argument, of course, can never be beaten. It says that God has created all the evidence that supports his existence and (shades of Hume) all the evidence that appears to cast doubt on it. Equally, of course, a theory that explains everything explains nothing. Omphalos is untestable and therefore one cannot concur rationally with its argument; you must simply close your eyes and believe. Or smile. (Thomson 2007: 229-230)

Over the years, Gosse’s argument has been bowdlerised to the slightly unworthy proposition that God set out the geological record, with all its evidence of change, in order to test man’s faith. It was, therefore, the ultimate celestial jest and cruel hoax. This was about as far from Gosse’s pious intention as Darwin’s impious theory. As for what Paley would have made of Omphalos I like to think he would have rejected it, but kindly, for he was a kind man. Victorian England not only rejected it, they laughed at it cruelly. Gosse became overnight a broken man, his reputation as a scientist in shatters. (Thomson 2007: 230)

But nothing is as simple as it ought to be. A community that mocked Omphalos and had no problem in coming to terms with the even more difficult issue of cosmology, still could not come to terms with geology. In fact, whether in Paley’s time or in Darwin’s, or indeed our own, one of the oddities in the history of interplay between science and religion is that cosmology never seems to have become as serious a threat to revealed religion as natural science. When pressed, people often revert to believing two things at once. The evidence that the universe is huge and ancient can be assimilated seemingly without shaking the conviction that the earth itself is 6,000 years old and that all living creatures were created over a two-day period. For example: ‘The school books of the present day, while they teach the child that the earth moves, yet assure him that that it is a little less than six thousand years old, and that it was made in six days. On the other hand, geologists of all religious creeds are agreed that the earth has existed for an immense series of years.’ These last words were written in 1860 and appear in a work that arguably presented a greater threat to the Established Church than the evolutionism of Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, Robert Chambers or even Charles Darwin. Essays and Reviews was an example of the enemy within, a compilation of extremely liberal theological views by noted churchman and academics. Among their targets was the unnecessary and outmoded belief in miracles and the biblical account of the days of creation. The battle is still being fought. (Thomson 2007: 230-231)

Imaginary Empty Balls

The answer, therefore, which the seventeenth century gave to the ancient question … “What is the world made of?” was that the world is a succession of instantaneous configurations of matter — or material, if you wish to include stuff more subtle than ordinary matter…. Thus the configurations determined there own changes, so that the circle of scientific thought was completely closed. This is the famous mechanistic theory of nature, which has reigned supreme ever since the seventeenth century. It is the orthodox creed of physical science…. There is an error; but it is merely the accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete. It is an example of what I will call the ‘Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.’ This fallacy is the occasion of great confusion in philosophy. (Whitehead 1967: 50-51)

(….) This conception of the universe is surely framed in terms of high abstractions, and the paradox only arises because we have mistaken our abstractions for concrete realities…. The seventeenth century had finally produced a scheme of scientific thought framed by mathematics, for the use of mathematics. The great characteristic of the mathematical mind is its capacity for dealing with abstractions; and for eliciting from them clear-cut demonstrative trains of reasoning, entirely satisfactory so long as it is those abstractions which you want to think about. The enormous success of the scientific abstractions, yielding on the one hand matter with its simple location in space and time, on the other hand mind, perceiving, suffering, reasoning, but not interfering, has foisted onto philosophy the task of accepting them as the most concrete rendering of fact. (Whitehead 1967: 54-55)

Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined. It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. These are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on an equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century. (Whitehead 1967: 55)

Alfred North Whitehead in Science and the Modern World

In the UK, for example, 97 percent of money is created by commercial banks and its character takes the form of debt-based, interest-bearing loans. As for its intended use? In the 10 years running up to the 2008 financial crash, over 75 percent of those loans were granted for buying stocks or houses—so fuelling the house-price bubble—while a mere 13 percent went to small businesses engaged in productive enterprise.47 When such debt increases, a growing share of a nation’s income is siphoned off as payments to those with interest-earning investments and as profit for the banking sector, leaving less income available for spending on products and services made by people working in the productive economy. ‘Just as landlords were the archetypal rentiers of their agricultural societies,’ writes economist Michael Hudson, ‘so investors, financiers and bankers are in the largest rentier sector of today’s financialized economies.’ (Raworth 2017, 155)

Once the current design of money is spelled out this way—its creation, its character and its use—it becomes clear that there are many options for redesigning it, involving the state and the commons along with the market. What’s more, many different kinds of money can coexist, with the potential to turn a monetary monoculture into a financial ecosystem. (Raworth 2017, 155)

Imagine, for starters, if central banks were to take back the power to create money and then issue it to commercial banks, while simultaneously requiring them to hold 100 percent reserves for the loans that they make—meaning that every loan would be backed by someone else’s savings, or the bank’s own capital. It would certainly separate the role of providing money from the role of providing credit, so helping to prevent the build-up of debt-fuelled credit bubbles that burst with such deep social costs. That idea may sound outlandish, but it is neither a new nor a fringe suggestion. First proposed during the 1930s Great Depression by influential economists of the day such as Irving Fisher and Milton Friedman, it gained renewed support after the 2008 crash, gaining the backing of mainstream financial experts at the International Monetary Fund and Martin Wolf of the UK’s Financial Times. (Raworth 2017, 155-156)

Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics

Suggestions are anchored in neoclassical theory

Despite growing diversity in research, the theory flow of economics, often referred to as neoclassical, continues to dominate teaching and politics. It developed in the 19th century as an attempt to apply the methods of the natural sciences and especially physics to social phenomena, In the search for an “exact” social science, social relationships are abstracted to such an extent that calculations are possible. The neoclassical economics department primarily asks one question: How do rational actors optimize under certain circumstances? This approach is nothing bad in and of itself. However, in view of the ecological crisis, we have to ask ourselves completely different questions in society: How can the planetary collapse be prevented? What can an economic system look like that is social, fair and ecological?

Katharina Keil and Max Wilken

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The dematerialization of the value concept boded ill for the tangible world of stable time and concrete motion (Kern 1983). Again, the writer Jorge Luis Borges (1962, p. 159) captured the mood of the metaphor: (Mirowski 1989, 134. Kindle Location 2875-2877)

I reflected there is nothing less material than money, since any coin whatsoever (let us say a coin worth twenty centavos) is, strictly speaking, a repertory of possible futures. Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time . . . (Mirowski 1989, 134-135. Kindle Location 2877-2881)

It was not solely in art that the reconceptualization of value gripped the imagination. Because the energy concept depended upon the value metaphor in part for its credibility, physics was prodded to reinterpret the meaning of its conservation principles. In an earlier, simpler era Clerk Maxwell could say that conservation principles gave the physical molecules “the stamp of the manufactured article” (Barrow and Tipler 1986, p. 88), but as manufacture gave way to finance, seeing conservation principles in nature gave way to seeing them more as contingencies, imposed by our accountants in order to keep confusion at bay. Nowhere is this more evident than in the popular writings of the physicist Arthur Eddington, the Stephen Jay Gould of early twentieth century physics: (Mirowski 1989, 135. Kindle Location 2881-2887)

The famous laws of conservation and energy . . . are mathematical identities. Violation of them is unthinkable. Perhaps I can best indicate their nature by an analogy. An aged college Bursar once dwelt secluded in his rooms devoting himself entirely to accounts. He realised the intellectual and other activities of the college only as they presented themselves in the bills. He vaguely conjectured an objective reality at the back of it all some sort of parallel to the real college though he could only picture it in terms of the pounds, shillings and pence which made up what he would call “the commonsense college of everyday experience.” The method of account-keeping had become inveterate habit handed down from generations of hermit-like bursars; he accepted the form of the accounts as being part of the nature of things. But he was of a scientific turn and he wanted to learn more about the college. One day in looking over the books he discovered a remarkable law. For every item on the credit side an equal item appeared somewhere else on the debit side. “Ha!” said the Bursar, “I have discovered one of the great laws controlling the college. It is a perfect and exact law of the real world. Credit must be called plus and debit minus; and so we have the law of conservation of £. s. d. This is the true way to find out things, and there is no limit to what may ultimately be discovered by this scientific method . . .” (Mirowski 1989, 135. Kindle Location 2887-2898)

I have no quarrel with the Bursar for believing that scientific investigation of the accounts is a road to exact (though necessarily partial) knowledge of the reality behind them . . . But I would point out to him that a discovery of the overlapping of the different aspects in which the realities of the college present themselves in the world of accounts, is not a discovery of the laws controlling the college; that he has not even begun to find the controlling laws. The college may totter but the Bursar’s accounts still balance . . . (Mirowski 1989, 135-136. Kindle Location 2898-2902)

Perhaps a better way of expressing this selective influence of the mind on the laws of Nature is to say that values are created by the mind [Eddington 1930, pp. 237–8, 243]. (Mirowski 1989, 136. Kindle Location 2903-2904)

Once physicists had become inured to entertaining the idea that value is not natural, then it was a foregone conclusion that the stable Laplacean dreamworld of a fixed and conserved energy and a single super-variational principle was doomed. Again, Eddington stated it better than I could hope to: (Mirowski 1989, 136. Kindle Location 2904-2907)

[Classical determinism] was the gold standard in the vaults; [statistical laws were] the paper currency actually used. But everyone still adhered to the traditional view that paper currency needs to be backed by gold. As physics progressed the occasions when the gold was actually produced became career until they ceased altogether. Then it occurred to some of us to question whether there still was a hoard of gold in the vaults or whether its existence was a mythical tradition. The dramatic ending of the story would be that the vaults were opened and found to be empty. The actual ending is not quite so simple. It turns out that the key has been lost, and no one can say for certain whether there is any gold in the vaults or not. But I think it is clear that, with either termination, present-day physics is off the gold standard [Eddington 1935, p. 81]. (Mirowski 1989, 136. Kindle Location 2907-2913)

The denaturalization of value presaged the dissolution of the energy concept into a mere set of accounts, which, like national currencies, were not convertable at any naturally fixed rates of exchange. Quantum mechanical energy was not exactly the same thing as relativistic energy or thermodynamic energy. Yet this did not mean that physics had regressed to a state of fragmented autarkies. Trade was still conducted between nations; mathematical structure could bridge subdisciplines of physics. It was just that everyone was coming to acknowledge that money was provisional, and that symmetries expressed by conservatiori principles were contingent upon the purposes of the theory in which they were embedded. (Mirowski 1989, 136. Kindle Location 2913-2918)

Increasingly, this contingent status was expressed by recourse to economic metaphors. The variability of metrics of space-time in general relativity were compared to the habit of describing inflation in such torturous language as: “The pound is now only worth seven and sixpence” (Eddington 1930, p. 26). The fundamentally stochastic character of the energy quantum was said to allow nuclear particles to “borrow” sufficient energy so that they could “tunnel” their way out of the nucleus. And, inevitably, if we live with a banking system wherein money is created by means of loans granted on the basis of near-zero fractional reserves, then this process of borrowing energy could cascade, building upon itself until the entire universe is conceptualized as a “free lunch.” The nineteenth century would have recoiled in horror from this idea, they who believed that banks merely ratified the underlying real transactions with their loans. (Mirowski 1989, 136-137. Kindle Location 2918-2925)

Goldman Sachs and Flash Boys

I suppose this book started when I first heard the story of Sergey Aleynikov, the Russian computer programmer who had worked for Goldman Sachs and then, in the summer of 2009, after he’d quit his job, was arrested by the FBI and charged by the United States government with stealing Goldman Sachs’s computer code. I’d thought it strange, after the financial crisis, in which Goldman had played such an important role, that the only Goldman Sachs employee who had been charged with any sort of crime was the employee who had taken something from Goldman Sachs. I’d thought it even stranger that government prosecutors had argued that the Russian shouldn’t be freed on bail because the Goldman Sachs computer code, in the wrong hands, could be used to “manipulate markets in unfair ways.” (Goldman’s were the right hands? If Goldman Sachs was able to manipulate markets, could other banks do it, too?) But maybe the strangest aspect of the case was how difficult it appeared to be—for the few who attempted—to explain what the Russian had done. I don’t mean only what he had done wrong: I mean what he had done. His job. He was usually described as a “high-frequency trading programmer,” but that wasn’t an explanation. That was a term of art that, in the summer of 2009, most people, even on Wall Street, had never before heard. What was high-frequency trading? Why was the code that enabled Goldman Sachs to do it so important that, when it was discovered to have been copied by some employee, Goldman Sachs needed to call the FBI? If this code was at once so incredibly valuable and so dangerous to financial markets, how did a Russian who had worked for Goldman Sachs for a mere two years get his hands on it? (Lewis 2014, 40-53)

[I]n a room looking out at the World Trade Center site, at One Liberty Plaza … gathered a small army of shockingly well-informed people from every corner of Wall Street—big banks, the major stock exchanges, and high-frequency trading firms. Many of them had left high-paying jobs to declare war on Wall Street, which meant, among other things, attacking the very problem that the Russian computer programmer had been hired by Goldman Sachs to create. (Lewis 2014, 53-56)

(….) One moment all is well; the next, the value of the entire U.S. stock market has fallen 22.61 percent, and no one knows why. During the crash, some Wall Street brokers, to avoid the orders their customers wanted to place to sell stocks, simply declined to pick up their phones. It wasn’t the first time that Wall Street people had discredited themselves, but this time the authorities responded by changing the rules—making it easier for computers to do the jobs done by those imperfect people. The 1987 stock market crash set in motion a process—weak at first, stronger over the years—that has ended with computers entirely replacing the people. (Lewis 2014, 62-67)

Over the past decade, the financial markets have changed too rapidly for our mental picture of them to remain true to life. (Lewis 2014, 67)

(….) The U.S. stock market now trades inside black boxes, in heavily guarded buildings in New Jersey and Chicago. What goes on inside those black boxes is hard to say—the ticker tape that runs across the bottom of cable TV screens captures only the tiniest fraction of what occurs in the stock markets. The public reports of what happens inside the black boxes are fuzzy and unreliable—even an expert cannot say what exactly happens inside them, or when it happens, or why. The average investor has no hope of knowing, of course, even the little he needs to know. He logs onto his TD Ameritrade or E*Trade or Schwab account, enters a ticker symbol of some stock, and clicks an icon that says “Buy”: Then what? He may think he knows what happens after he presses the key on his computer keyboard, but, trust me, he does not. If he did, he’d think twice before he pressed it. (Lewis 2014, 72-78)

The world clings to its old mental picture of the stock market because it’s comforting; because it’s so hard to draw a picture of what has replaced it; and because the few people able to draw it for you have no [economic] interest in doing so. (Lewis 2014, 78-80)

Spotting the Spoof

According to this view, individuals within an economy follow simple rules of thumb to determine their course of action. However, they adapt to their environment by changing the rules they use when these prove to be less successful. They are not irrational in that they do not act against their own interests, but they have neither the information nor the calculating capacity to ‘optimise’. Indeed, they are assumed to have limited and largely local information, and they modify their behaviour to improve their situation. Individuals in complexity models are neither assumed to understand how the economy works nor to consciously look for the ‘best choice’. The main preoccupation is not whether aggregate outcomes are efficient or not but rather with how all of these different individuals interacting with each other come to coordinate their behaviour. Giving individuals in a model simple rules to follow and allowing them to change them as they interact with others means thinking of them much more like particles or social insects. Mainstream economists often object to this approach, arguing that humans have intentions and aims which cannot be found in either inanimate particles or lower forms of life.

Kirman et. al. (2018, 95) in Rethinking Economics: An Introduction to Pluralist Economics, Routledge.

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. (….) Abstrusiveness need not impair a doctrine’s aptness for inducing or fortifying certain attitudes, as it may in fact help to inspire awe and obedience by ‘blinding people with science’.

— Andreski (1973, 33-35) in Social Sciences as Sorcery. Emphasis added.

Complexity theory comes with its own problems of over-reach and tractability. Context counts; any theory taken to far stretches credulity. The art is in spotting the spoof. It is true irony to watch the pot calling the kettle black! To wit, mainstream economists questioning the validity of complexity theories use of greedy reductionism — often for the sole purpose of mathematical tractability — when applied to human beings; just because mainstream economists also have unrealistic assumptions (i.e., homo economicus) that overly simplify human behavior and capabilities doesn’t invalidate such a critique. Just because the pot calls the kettle black doesn’t mean the kettle and the pot are not black. Building models of human behavior solely on rational expectations and/or “social insects” qua fitness climbing ticks means we are either Gods or Idiots. Neither Gödel nor Turing reduced creatively thinking human beings to mere Turing machines.

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The best dialogues take place when each interlocutor speaks from her best self, without pretending to be something she is not. In their recent book Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception, Nobel Prize–winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller expand the standard definition of “phishing.” In their usage, it goes beyond committing fraud on the Internet to indicate something older and more general: “getting people to do things that are in the interest of the phisherman” rather than their own. In much the same spirit, we would like to expand the meaning of another recent computer term, “spoofing,” which normally means impersonating someone else’s email name and address to deceive the recipient—a friend or family member of the person whose name is stolen—into doing something no one would do at the behest of a stranger. Spoofing in our usage also means something more general: pretending to represent one discipline or school when actually acting according to the norms of another. Like phishing, spoofing is meant to deceive, and so it is always useful to spot the spoof.

Students who take an English course under the impression they will be taught literature, and wind up being given lessons in politics that a political scientist would scoff at or in sociology that would mystify a sociologist, are being spoofed. Other forms of the humanities—or dehumanities, as we prefer to call them—spoof various scientific disciplines, from computer science to evolutionary biology and neurology. The longer the spoof deceives, the more disillusioned the student will be with what she takes to be the “humanities.” (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (pp. 1-2). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

By the same token, when economists pretend to solve problems in ethics, culture, and social values in purely economic terms, they are spoofing other disciplines, although in this case the people most readily deceived are the economists themselves. We will examine various ways in which this happens and how, understandably enough, it earns economists a bad name among those who spot the spoof.

But many do not spot it. Gary Becker won a Nobel Prize largely for extending economics to the furthest reaches of human behavior, and the best-selling Freakonomics series popularizes this approach. What seems to many an economist to be a sincere effort to reach out to other disciplines strikes many practitioners of those fields as nothing short of imperialism, since economists expropriate topics rather than treat existing literatures and methods with the respect they deserve. Too often the economic approach to interdisciplinary work is that other fields have the questions and economics has the answers. (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (pp. 2-3). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

As with the dehumanities, these efforts are not valueless. There is, after all, an economic aspect to many activities, including those we don’t usually think of in economic terms. People make choices about many things, and the rational choice model presumed by economists can help us understand how they do so, at least when they behave rationally—and even the worst curmudgeon acknowledges that people are sometimes rational! We have never seen anyone deliberately get into a longer line at a bank. (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (p. 3). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

Even regarding ethics, economic models can help in one way, by indicating what is the most efficient allocation of resources. To be sure, one can question the usual economic definition of efficiency—in terms of maximizing the “economic surplus”—and one can question the establishment of goals in purely economic terms, but regardless of which goals one chooses, it pays to choose an efficient way, one that expends the least resources, to reach them. Wasting resources is never a good thing to do, because the resources wasted could have been put to some ethical purpose. The problem is that efficiency does not exhaust ethical questions, and the economic aspect of many problems is not the most important one. By pretending to solve ethical questions, economists wind up spoofing philosophers, theologians, and other ethicists. Economic rationality is indeed part of human nature, but by no means all of it.

For the rest of human nature, we need the humanities (and the humanistic social sciences). In our view, numerous aspects of life are best understood in terms of a dialogue between economics and the humanities—not the spoofs, but real economics and real humanities. (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (pp. 3-4). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)