Category Archives: Scientism

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)

Yin-Yang and Three Obediences

The ancient Chinese philosophers believed that the ultimate reality, which underlies and unifies the multiple phenomena we observe, is intrinsically dynamic. They called it Tao the way, or process, of the universe. For the Taoist sages all things, whether animate or inanimate, were embedded in the continuous flow and change of the Tao. The belief that everything in the universe is imbued with life has also been characteristic of indigenous spiritual traditions throughout the ages. In monotheistic religions, by contrast, the origin of life is associated with a divine creator.

(….) The association of manhood with the accumulation of possessions fits well with other values that are favored and rewarded in patriarchal culture expansion, competition, and an “object-centered” consciousness. In traditional Chinese culture, these were called yang values and were associated with the masculine side of human nature. They were not seen as being intrinsically good or bad. However, according to Chinese wisdom, the yang values need to be balanced by their yin, or feminine, counterparts expansion by conservation, competition by cooperation, and the focus on objects by a focus on relationships. As one of us (F.C.) has long argued, the movement toward such a balance is very consistent with the shift from mechanistic to systemic and ecological thinking that is characteristic of our time (Capra 1982, 1996).

Capra, Fritjof (2016) The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (p. 1). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

(….) There are striking parallels between complex systems and the old wisdom of Taoism, which arose from close observation of nature and of human affairs. The Taoist world view is probably best known for its concepts of yin and yang. Yin and yang are often characterised as the female and male principles, but the Tao view is that all things in life have opposites, or polarities, that are also manifestations of yin and yang. Other examples are dark and light, yielding and resistance, intuition and rationality, contemplation and action. In the Tao view there are times for contemplation and times for action. When the world is stable it may not be a good use of energy to try to force change, but if the world is changing, particularly if it is in crisis, then small actions may have large consequences. (….) Taoism counsels that a life lived only at one polarity will be a restricted life. For a full realisation of potential we should not become stuck in an extreme, but should balance yin with yang. Taoism seems to have distilled an essence from the living world: healthy living systems do not depend on competition alone, nor on cooperation alone, but balance both in varying degrees. (Davies, Geoff. Economy, Society, Nature: An introduction to the new systems-based, life-friendly economics.World Economics Association Books Book 3. Kindle Locations 2109-2118).

(….) We can leave the question of what ‘reality’ is ‘behind’ our observations to the metaphysicians and theologians. Unfortunately many scientists became enamoured of the idea that science is in the business of ‘reading the mind of God’. It’s another distraction, unless God’s mind is very changeable and context-dependent. So too can we leave the question of ‘truth’ to others. It is apparently a shocking claim to many people that science is not in the business of revealing Truth. Rather, science is, to emphasise the difference, in the business of inventing useful stories, stories that may be rather loose or may be very precise. (Davies, Geoff. Economy, Society, Nature: An introduction to the new systems-based, life-friendly economics. World Economics Association Books Book 3. Kindle Locations 2402-2408).

— Geoff Davies (2019) Economy, Society, Nature.

[T]he external ki of women is rooted in yin, and so by their ki women are apt to be excitable, petty, narrow, and temperamental. As they live confined to their homes day in and day out, theirs is a very private life and their vision is limited. Therefore, among women compassionate and honest minds-and-hearts are rare indeed. That is why Buddhism says that women are profoundly sinful and have difficulty in achieving {buddhahood}.

Nakae Tōju (573) Learning.

My family tried to raise me as an obedient girl [according to the Three Obediences]: [my mother told me] obey your father, obey your husband, obey your son. And I asked her; if I keep obeying everyone, when does my life start?

A Young Courageous Women Breaking With Tradition

Let it be made clear that Japan has come a long way towards equality of the sexes since Fukuzawa Yukichi’s comments that follow. Progress still needs to be made. Women are too frequently relegated to subservient roles within Japanese corporate culture (e.g., serving tea, being secretaries, or both). Nevertheless, the popular Western appropriation of Eastern philosophy and religion frequently distorts it to such an extent it no longer resembles its factual meaning in historical context and is hardly recognizable. One would never recognize the original message of Lao Tzu or the meaning of the Tao by the sanitized and popularized misappropriation above as Sung-Hae Kim makes obvious:

The Taoists exchanged the metaphoric term “Heaven” (though they still used it occasionally) for a fuller term Tao 道 (literally, the way), and developed the most systematic metaphysics in ancient China. Tao is defined as the indescribable and unnameable origin of all things and the constant principle present in the phenomenal world. Because of their preoccupation with Tao and its ultimate standard that transcends all human relative values, the Taoists were the most radical critics in ancient China. What characterized them was their that man is only a tiny part of the whole transformation of Tao and man has to learn Tao from the phenomenal world. (Kim 1985, 13) (….) Traditionally Lao Tzu has been thought of as the first of the Taoists and senior contemporary of Confucius. The historicity of the person Lao Tzu is still controversial and can probably never be solved. What we have is the text of the 81 short chapters of the book Lao Tzu—now generally accepted to have been written in the fourth or third century B.C.E. (Kim 1985, 101) According to the traditional version, the first chapter of Lao Tzu begins with the indescribability of the Way (Tao 道) and the concluding chapter sums up the way of the sage (sheng-jen 聖人) who embodies the Way concretely in the world. (Kim 1985, 102) The most important term for the Ultimate in Lao Tzu is Tao. The clear definition of Tao as the indescribable ultimate source and origin of all that exists and the constant nurturing principle at the phenomenal level is the most important contribution of Lao Tzu made to the metaphysical thought of ancient China. The famous chapter 1 describes both the transcendent and the immanent character of this ultimate reality. (Kim 1985, 106) As the origin of all things, it is nameless because it is transcendent, but as the immanent principle principle of the phenomenal world, it is called the mother of the world. The concept of Tao that both transcends the phenomenal world as its source and also is present within it as the constant principle, is in fact the metaphysical elaboration of the traditional concept of Heaven. For Lao Tzu, the Tao was both the supreme principle and the absolute reality; it was the reality behind the origin of the universe. (Kim 1985, 107) Heaven (the Tao) is the ultimate reference at the beginning and the end. With its characteristically anthropocentric outlook, the Confucian sage ultimately stands before Heaven for the final judgment of his innocence and success. (Sung-Hae Kim 1985, 138)

— Sung-Hae Kim 1985, 138, The Righteous and the Sage: A Comparative Study on the Ideal Images of Man in Biblical Israel and Classical China. Sogang University.

Taoism was a religion, a metaphysics, and a philosophy that was no less concerned with “reading the mind of God” the Ultimate and Transcendent Reality which they defined as the Tao which the “sage” (sheng-jen 聖人) or “perfect man” (chih-jen) sought to live and rule according to the principles of the Way. Davies is projecting a distorted, shallow, and false Westernized view of Taoism apparently copying Capra and contrasting it with his stereotyped view of early Western ideas as exemplified in the ideas of Newton and others who saw themselves as discovering the laws of God in their scientific discoveries. When so-called scientists engage in facile story telling on topics they know little about and thereby misrepresent an entire religion or philosophy or history for mere rhetorical purposes they are unwittingly demeaning science by reducing it to scientismmyth making. In reality the Torah’s ideal of the righteous man and the Taoist ideal of the perfect man have more in common than Davies’s scientism does with real, sober, and careful science.

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.

When scientists spoof religion they are doing no better than when creationists spoof science. Spotting the Spoof is a critical skill required for both religionists and scientists and is best served by a sound philosophy (which means ‘the love of wisdom’) that wisely discerns the difference between facts, meanings, and values. Science and religion can only be self-critical of their facts. The moment departure is made from the stage of facts, reason abdicates or else rapidly degenerates into a consort of false logic. Science as sober science is careful; science as story telling is not. Being able to spot the spoof allows one to “distinguish between good, sober, and restrained science on the one hand, and non-empirical metaphysics, fantasy, myth and ideology on the other.” When scientists engage in story telling with little or no regard for fact or truth they are espousing an ideology “transcending the category of provisional scientific theories … [and] constituting a world-view.'” (Alexander and Numbers 2010, Biology and Ideology: From Descartes to Dawkins, Kindle Locations 4215)

For serious, historically accurate, and relevant studies of economics and religion one can look to Michael Hudson (2018) … and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year or Robert H. Nelson (2001) Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond. Or another classic is Tomas Sedlacek (2011) Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street. From a Buddhist perspective one can look to Clair Brown (2017) Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science. From a Muslim perspective one could look to Ismael Hossein-zadeh (2014) Beyond Mainstream Explanations of the Financial Crisis: Parasitic Finance Capital. For a good analysis of the failures of so-called Compassionate Conservatism see Lew Daly (2009) God’s Economy: Faith-Based Initiatives & the Caring State. No doubt there are many more.

~ ~ ~

The equality of men and women Fukuzawa Yukichi 1885, 9–10, 45– 6 (11– 13, 39– 40)

Confucius said, “Whenever there is work to be done, the young will take on its burden; whenever there is wine and food, the old will be the first to enjoy it” [Analects ii. 8]. Borrowing this saying to describe men and women in Japan, “Whenever there is work to be done, women will take on its burden; whenever there is wine and food, men will be the first to enjoy it.”

Women of our country have no responsibility either inside or outside their homes, and their position is very low. Consequently, their sufferings and pleasures are very small in scale. It has been the custom for hundreds and even thousands of years to make them as feeble as they are, and it is not an easy matter now to lead both their minds and bodies to activity and to vigorous health. There are animated discussions on the education of women. No doubt education will be effective. When taught, women will acquire knowledge and the arts.

(….) I once compared the present efforts in schools for the education of women in Japan to caring for a dwarf pine in a pot and hoping it will grow into a big tree. Without doubt, fertilizer is important in a tree’s growth. When it is administered in proper measures and moisture and temperature are controlled, the pine will put out branches and leaves in profusion and their green luster will be beautiful. However, that beauty will be limited to the beauty of a potted plant. One can never hope for its growth into the sublimity of a hundred-foot giant. To rectify the sad state of women’s ignorance, the use of school instruction and such means will not be in vain. A woman may become well versed in science or in literature, even well informed in law. Such a woman may well compete with men in the classroom, but when she returns home from school, in what position does she find herself? (Heisig, James W.; Kasulis, Thomas P.; Maraldo, John C.. Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook (Nanzan Library of Asian Religion and Culture) (p. 601). University of Hawaii Press. Kindle Edition.)

At home, she owns no property of her own, and in society she cannot hope for a position of any consequence. The house she lives in is a man’s house and the children she brings up are her husband’s children. Where would such a person, without property, without authority of any sort, and with no claim on the children she bears, and herself a parasite in a man’s house, make use of the knowledge and learning she acquired? Science and literature will be of no use. Even less would her knowledge in law serve her. The normal reaction of the general public is to regard a woman who discusses law and economics as liable to bring misery upon herself. (Heisig, James W.; Kasulis, Thomas P.; Maraldo, John C.. Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook (Nanzan Library of Asian Religion and Culture) (pp. 601-602). University of Hawaii Press. Kindle Edition.)

(….) On top of all this, suppose that school education were Confucian or Buddhist, and taught such sayings to the effect that women and tools are irredeemable, or that it is a virtue for women to lack wisdom, or that the five faults that women are liable to and the three obediences[8] they must observe are proof that women are sinful by birth. Such education is less than useful, for it serves only to oppress women and to beat into them a kind of “modesty” and “reticence,” resulting in the deformation of even their physical organs—ears, eyes, nose, and tongue. Yet some educators never realize the results of their training. They have veritably been doing nothing but hindering the healthy development of women’s minds and bodies.

(….) Confucianism characterizes men as yang (positive) and women as yin (negative); that is, men are like the heavens and the sun, and women are like the earth and the moon. In other words, one is high and the other is humble. There are many men who take this idea as the absolute rule of nature, but this yin-yang theory is the fantasy of the Confucians and has no proof or logic. Its origins go back several thousand years to dark and illiterate ages when men looked around and whenever they thought they recognized pairs of something, one of which seemed to be stronger or more remarkable than the other, they called one yang and the other yin. For instance, the heavens and the earth looked very much like the ceiling and the floor of a room. One of them was low and trampled on with feet, but the other was high and beyond reach. One was classed yang and the other yin. The sun and the moon are both round and shining; one is very bright, even hot, while the other is less bright. Therefore, the sun is yang and the moon is yin. This is the level of the logic behind this theory and we today should regard it as no more than childish nonsense. (Heisig, James W.; Kasulis, Thomas P.; Maraldo, John C.. Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook (Nanzan Library of Asian Religion and Culture) (pp. 602-603). University of Hawaii Press. Kindle Edition. Bold Added.)

This theory simply attached itself to people’s minds with not much of a basis. On seeing a pair of similar objects, one somewhat superior to the other, they classified the first in the yang category and the other in the yin category. Then they would think up ideas to embellish their theories. That was all. Therefore, between men and women, there never existed any such distinctions as yin and yang. The idea itself being fictional to begin with, there could not have been any actual features to suggest such a theory. But some scholars of the Confucian trend must have felt like belittling women, and for no other reason than their own prejudice, classed women as yin. It was a great nuisance on the part of women to have been thus involved in an empty theory which extended to the sun and the moon and heavens and earth, and which had nothing to do with women’s relations to men. It was truly a misfortune for women to be thus made victims of the Confucian scholars’ ignorance of science. (Heisig, James W.; Kasulis, Thomas P.; Maraldo, John C.. Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook (Nanzan Library of Asian Religion and Culture) (p. 603). University of Hawaii Press. Kindle Edition. Bold Added.)

8. [The five faults are indocility, discontent, slander, jealousy, and silliness. The three obediences are obedience to one’s father while in his care, obedience to one’s husband when married, and obedience to one’s son after one’s husband’s death. Emphasis added.]

Phishing for Phools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amartya Sen (1982) Rational Fools

Free License of Creativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

Social Science as Sorcery

There are four chief obstacles to grasping truth, which hinder every man, however learned, and scarcely allow anyone to win a clear title to knowledge; namely, submission to faulty and unworthy authority, influence of custom, popular prejudice, and concealment of our own ignorance accompanied by an ostentatious display of our knowledge.

— Roger Bacon cited in Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery

[W]hat we have to deal with in the study of society and culture, indicates its purely intellectual difficulties, and shows how much easier are physics, chemistry or even biology. Even this, however, is not the whole story: for imagine how sorry would be the plight of the natural scientist if the objects of his inquiry were in a habit of reacting to what he says about them: if the substances could read or hear what the chemist writes or says about them, and were likely to jump out of their containers and burn him if they did not like what they saw on the blackboard or in his notebook. And imagine the difficulty of testing the validity of chemical formulae if, by repeating them long enough or persuasively enough, the chemist could induce the substances to behave in accordance with them — with the danger, however, that they might decide to spite him by doing exactly the opposite. Under such circumstances our chemist would not only have a hard time trying to discover firm regularities in his objects’ behaviour but would have to be very guarded in what he said lest the substances take offense and attack him. His task would be even more hopeless if the chemicals could see through his tactics, organize themselves to guard their secrets, and devise counter-measures to his maneouvres — which would be parallel to what the student of human affairs has to face. (Andreski 1973, 20-21, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

There is no reason to deny the existence of phenomena known to us only through introspection; and a number of philosophers have pointed out the impossibility of carrying out Carnap’s programme (accepted as a dogma by the behaviourists) of translating all statements about mental states into what he calls the physicalist language. I would go even further and agrue that physics itself cannot be expressed in the physicalist langauge alone because it is an empirical science only insofar as it includes an assertion that its theories are corroborated by the evidence of the senses; and we can assign no meaning to the latter term without entailing a concept of self…. Thus you cannot give an account of the evidential foundations of physics without hearing and uttering ‘I’. And what kind of meaning can you attach to this word without using the knowledge obtained through introspection; and without postulating the existence of other minds within which processes are taking place which are similar to those which you alone can observe? (Andreski 1973, 21-22, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

At this point let me say a few words about the often debated question whether any of the social sciences is a ‘real’ science. As often happens with such debates the arguments for as well as against omit the obvious truth that the answer to this question will depend on what we mean by science. If we mean exact science like physics or chemistry, then neither economics nor psychology nor sociology nor any other kind of research into human conduct is a science [, which obviously includes economics]. But if we agree to affix this honorific label to any kind of systematic study which aims at providing careful descriptions, substantiated explanations and factually supported generalizations, then we can say that the above mentioned branches of learning are sciences — although the propriety of this appellation will depend on whether we decide on the basis of aspirations or actual performance, and whether we look at the average or at the highest achievements. (Andreski 1973, 22-23, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

Though formidable enough, the methodological difficulties appear trivial in comparison with the fundamental obstacles to the development of an exact science of soceity which puts it on an entirely differnt plane from the natural sciences: namely the fact that human beings react to what is said about them. More than that of his colleagues in the natural sciences, the position of an ‘expert’ in the study of human behaviour resembles that of a sorcerer who can make the crops come up or the rain fall by uttering an incantation. And because the facts with which he deals are seldom veifiable, his customers are able to demand to be told what they like to hear, and will punish the court physicians for failing to cure them. Moreover, as people want to achieve their ends by influencing others, they will always try to cajole, bully or bribe the witch-doctor into using his powers for their benefit and uttering the needed incantation … or at least telling them something pleasing. And why should he resist threats and tempations when in his specialty it is so difficult to prove or disprove anything, that he can with impunity indulge his fancy, pander to his listeners’ loves and hates or even peddle conscious lies. His dilemma, however, stems from the difficulty of retracing his steps; because very soon he passes the point of no return after which it becomes too painful to confess that he has been taking advantage of the public’s gullibility. So, to allay his gnawing doubts, anxieties and guilt, he is compelled to take the line of least resistance by spinning more and more intricate webs of fiction and falsehood, while paying ever more ardent lip-service to the ideas of objectivity and the pursuit of truth. (Andreski 1973, 24, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

So to examine the validity of the claim that these are highly useful branches of knowledge, let us ask what their contribution to mankind’s welfare is supposed to be. To judge by the cues from training courses and textbooks, the practical usefulness of psychology consists of helping people to find their niche in society, to adapt themselves to it painlessly, and to dwell therein contentedly and in harmony with their companions. [We can ask the same question about economics.] So, we should find that in countries, regions, institutions or sectors where services or psychologists [and economists] are widely used, families are more enduring, bonds between spouses, siblings, parents and children stronger and warmer, relations between colleagues more harmonious, the treatment of recipients of aid better, vandals, criminals and drug addicts fewer, than in places or groups which do not avail themselves of the psychologists’ skills. On this basis we could infer that the blessed country of harmony and peace is of course the United States; and that it ought to have been becoming more and more so during the last quarter of the century in step with the growth in numbers of sociologists, psychologists [, economists] and political scientists. (Andreski 1973, 26, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

The self-fulfilling prophecy constitutes only one (and fairly narrow) manifestation of the much more general disposition of human beings to be influenced by what is said about them and their environment. On the individual plane everybody knows that one can make a person discontented by deploring the circumstances under which he lives, encourage his endeavour by praise, or discourage it by sarcasm…. [I]f we show that the idea that ‘honesty is the best policy’ is groundless we remove an important incentive to honesty. (Andreski 1973, 31, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

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)

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, 35)

If the rank and file come to be convinced that the leaders are crooks, cowards or fools, their actions will differ radically from what would be, were they convinced that the leaders are dedicated men of great courage and intelligence. Conversely, the leaders’ behaviour will to some extent depend on the popular image of their office, which will determine whether the latter carries with it the dignity which they are expected to live up to, or whether they will have no reputation to preserve. (Andreski 1973, 36, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

The difficulty of verifying assertions about human relations gives wide scope to ulterior motives, and provides immunity for the purveyors of false information. (Andreski 1973, 38, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

If you listen to the practitioners of social and economic research talking informally, you will easily find that not only are they very well aware of the aforementioned [social status and economic gain] pressures, but also that they fully take them into account in making plans and arrangements about what to study, to write, or to say. This, however, happens on the everyday bread-and-butter level, while neither their pronouncements ex cathedra nor their publications ever mention that these pressures might make a difference to the trustworthiness of the results of social research, and to the prospects of its ever attaining the level of objectivity and reliability of the natural sciences. (Andreski 1973, 39, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

To summarize: the propensity of human objects of inquiry to react to what is said about them creates three kinds of obstacles to the development of the social sciences. The first is of a methodological nature and consists of the difficulties surrounding the task of verifying propositions which can influence the happenings which they purport merely to describe or analyse. The second kind of impediment stems from the presures upon the direction of the inquiry and the dissemination of its results, motivated firstly by the awareness that what is said might influence what will happen; and secondly by the desire … to hear what pleases them. The disarray wrought by the operation of the two aforementioned factors prduces the third kind of impairment in the shape of ample opportunities for getting away with falsehoods and crypto-propaganda. (Andreski 1973, 39-40, in Social Sciences as Sorcery)

Once an activity becomes a profession — this is, a way of making a living — the dedicated amateurs tend to fall into second place, greatly outnumbered by the practitioners guided primarily (if not soley) by the normal motives of the market place — which commonly boil down to the desire to get the most at the least cost to themselves. In other words, as soon as it becomes apparent that there is money in it, the saleability of goods rather than their intrinsic excellence becomes the dominant criterion. (Andreski 1973, 43, in Social Sciences as Sorcery) [i.e., literature-only economics; see Payson 2017.]

If everything is wonderfully dovetailed and adjusted, then we should leave things alone. More insidiously than nineteenth century organicism, functionalism propagates a conservative ideology in the name of science; while, for those things its practitioners do not like, they have the aforementioned epithet ‘dysfunctional’, which enables them to insinuate a condemnation without openly saying so, and to enlist the authority of science for their ideologies or personal preferences. For if somebody says that something is good or bad, he might be asked: for what?, or for whom?, or why? So he might be obliged to take off the mask of objective omniscience and to reveal, firstly, his values and, secondly, the reasons for his assumptions about the likely consequences of various arrangements or courses of action; whereas by using ‘functional’ and ‘dysfunctional’ instead of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, a functionalist can hide behind a façade of objectivity and invoke the magic of science to back his crypto-propagandist insinuations. (Andreski 1973, 57-58, Social Science as Sorcery)

Anreski’s letter to editor

The article to which I referred in my letter supplied one or more of the innumerable instances of that ever-popular kind of explanation which consists of a tautological rephrasing which tells us nothing that we did not understand before. An explanation which Moliere ridiculed three hundred years ago in one of his plays, where one of the characters answers the question about why opium makes people sleep by saying that it is because of its soporific power. In historiography and social sciences this kind of explanation crops up again and again. Thus, to take an example of a great scholar who luckily did not confine himself to this, Werner Sombart attributed the development of capitalism to the spread of ‘the spirit of capitalism’, without telling us how we could find out that this spirit was spreading except by observing activities which add up to the process known as the development of capitalism. (Andreski 1973, 68, in Social Science as Sorcery)

The attraction of jargon and obfuscating convolutions can be fully explained by the normal striving of humans for emoluments and prestige at the least cost to themselves, the cost in question consisting of the mental effort and the danger of ‘sticking one’s neck out’ or ‘putting one’s foot in it’. In addition to eliminating such risks, as well as the need to learn much, nebulous verbosity opens a road to the most prestigious academic posts to people of small intelligence whose limitations would stand naked if they had to state what they have to say clearly and succinctly. Actually, the relationship between the character of a jargon-mongerer and the amount of his verbiage can be expressed in the formula below, which can be applied in the following manner. The first step is to assign intuitively estimated scores for an author’s ambition, designated by A, and to knowledge, designated by K (which must always be greater then 0, as nobody knows exactly nothing). A must also be positive because, if somebody’s literary ambition is nil, they he writes nothing, and there is nothing to apply our equation to. V stands for verbose jargon. Our equation is

Verbosity Formula

Why I? Because when the knowledge matches the ambition there is no verbiage. When knowledge exceeds the ambition V becomes negative; and negative verbiage amounts to conciseness. However, since there is a limit to conciseness, V can never become less than I; whereas there is not limit to verbiage, and so V increases indefinitely as ambition grows, while knowledge vanishes. (Andreski 1973, 82-83, Social Science as Sorcery)

Our formula cannot, of cours be treated as exact until measurable indices are devised for the variables, and then checked against empirical data. I do believe, however, that it is approximately true, and I invite readers to try it on the authors they read as well as on their colleagues, teachers or students. Its predictive and explanatory power is roughly the same as that of most theorems of mathematical economics. The many different kinds of people, ranging from an undergraduate who is trying to scrape through a dissertation without having learned anything, to a scholar with a fairly extensive knowledge but devoured by a craving for greatness. (Andreski 1973, 83, Social Science as Sorcery)

If you happen to be a student, you can apply the same test to your teachers who claim that what they are teaching you rests upon incontrovertible scientific foundations. See what they know about the natural sciences and mathematics and their philosophical foundations. Naturally, you cannot expect them to have a specialist knowledge of these fields; but if they are completely ignorant of these things, do not take seriously grandiloquent claims of the ultra-scientific character of their teachings. Furthermore, do not be impressed unduly by titles or positions. (Andreski 1973, 86, in Social Science as Sorcery)

As has often been said, measurement is the beginning of science (if we mean thereby exact science) because our ability to predict the behaviour of a phenomenon must remain very restricted until we can measure it. It does not follow, however, that no knowledge whatsoever is possible without measurement, nor that such knowledge cannot be worth having — which is precisely the conclusion which … many sociologists [and economists] have adopted in the mistaken belief that only thereby can they maintain the scientific character of their discipline. But the true scientific spirit consists of trying to obtain the nearest approximation to truth which is possible under the circumstances, and it is puerile to demand either perfect exactitude or nothing. those who refuse to deal with important and interesting problems simply because the relevant factors cannot be measured, condemn the social sciences to sterility, because we cannot get very far with the study of measurable variables if these depend on, and are closely interwoven with, immensurable factors of whose nature and operation we know nothing. A weakness of this kind diminishes the usefulness of economic theory … because it excludes from its universe of discourse immensurable but causally crucial factors … such as the balance of political power … or simply relegating them to the category of those things which are treated as ‘being equal’. (Andreski 1973, 123, in Social Science as Sorcery)

To substantiate their claims, the advocates of an exclusive concentration on quantification ought to demonstrate either that [political] corruption can be measured, or that it is a factor of no significance. The fist, … cannot be done, while to maintain that corrupt practices play no important part in social causation one must be either a hypocrite or a starry-eyed dreamer. (Andreski 1973, 124, in Social Science as Sorcery)

Even if the diagnosis offered on the foregoing pages is only partially correct, we have no grounds for expecting any great leap forward in the study of society which would replicate the rapid advances of the natural sciences. True, it is quite easy to conceive remedies against many of the ills stemming from the purely intellectual difficulties, which would work in a more perfect world. we could, for instance, insist that the economists should openly state the limitations and empirical reliability of their models, be prepared to take cultural (or, if you like, psychological and sociological [and the humanities, and literature, and religious studies, etc.]) factors into account, and desist from proffering advice on the basis of one-sided and coarsely materialistic statistics. We could demand that the psychologists should acquire some general culture, and acquaint themselves with the subtler products of the human mind before setting themselves up as experts on human nature. We could compel the sociologists to learn about history and philosophy, and the historians about the social sciences. Above all, we need a kind of intellectual puritanism which would regard money as a clear (even necessary) evil, and any manipulation of it as essentially polluting. Not that any great advantage would accrue if social scientists imitated monks and took vows of poverty; but, nonetheless, no steady advance will be possible without an ethical code which would forcefully condemn mercenary trimming as intellectual prostitution, and counter the natural human tendency not only to flatter and obey, but even to genuinely to adore those who control money or wield coercive power. The snag is that it is difficult to visualize who could enforce such requirements, and how. The difficulty here is the same as with finding the best form of government: we can readily agree with Plato that the best system would be that where the wisest and kindest rule, but nobody has so far been able to discover a practicable method for brining about such a state of affairs. (Andreski 1973, 231-232, in Social Science as Sorcery)

Some years before the First World War, a Parisian periodical asked some of the most prominent French figures in the various branches of what we would now call social sciences, and which were known at the time in France as les sciences morales, about what they regarded as the most essential method in their field. While other respondents sent back learned methodological disquisitions, Georges Sorel replied in one word: honesty. This lapidary answer has lost none of its relevance; but it is difficult to find any reasons for hoping that we shall ever have a society where absolute frankness would be the best policy for self-advancement. (Andreski 1973, 231-232, in Social Science as Sorcery)

Despite these irremovable obstacles, my own view on the prospects for the social sciences might be described as a desperate optimism. I say desperate because I do not see how our civilization could survive without important advances in our understanding of man and society. Having invented so many wonderous gadgets [e.g., nuclear weapons] which can be employed for its benefit only through the utmost use of reason, mankind has long ago passed the point of no return in this respect. No matter how valuable might be many ingredients of the old religious and moral traditions, the problem of how to reconcile human physical and spiritual needs with the environment created by technology, and how to assure mankind’s very survival, will not be solved by going back to the good old ways or dogmas. Consequently, I have no doubt that if the social sciences fall into a total and irremediable decadence, this will be a part of the general collapse of civilization, likely to be followed by an extinction of our species. No matter therefore how heavy are the odds against us, we should persist in trying to do our best, because the alternative is resignation in the face of an imminent catastrophe. (Andreski 1973, 232, in Social Science as Sorcery)

Provided some freedom of expression remains, we have reason to hope that no branch of learning will come to a complete standstill even when its main trunk succumbs to decay; because even during the ages of deepest ignorance and superstition, indomitable spirits with a natural bent for rational inquiry continued to crop up and add a brick or two to edifice of knowledge. What made their cerebrations more effective in the long run than the efforts of the vastly more numerous priests and mystagogues was the fact that the products of rational thought are cumulative, whereas mystic visions, fads, stunts and phantasmagorias not only add up to nothing, but even cancel one another out and merely sway minds to and fro, hither and thither. (Andreski 1973, 232-233, in Social Science as Sorcery)