Category Archives: Philosophy of Science

Postmodernism’s Bunkum

The Threat of Postmodernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Science and the enduring Questions of Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unavoidability of Epistemology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science and Metaphysics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

~ ~ ~

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)

Telos and Economics

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

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

Consciousness cannot be computable.
— Roger Penrose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chemical self organisation, life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ORIGIN OF LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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)

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

~ ~ ~

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)

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.

~ ~ ~

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.)