For and/or Against Method, initial miscellany

The past couple weeks I’ve been accumulating material related to our fledgling summer reading group. First I got For and Against Method, realized it was more for than against so I ordered the third edition of Against Method and also found the (apparently much shorter) first edition online.

I’m currently dipping my toes into For and Against, reading Lakatos’s lectures at LSE on the scientific method. I was expecting to be more interested in Feyerabend’s perspective, but so far I’m pleasantly surprised. Lakatos is an interesting guy, and the conversational tone of the (transcribed) lectures is delightful.

I’m not sure how we plan to do this reading group, so, anarchist that I am, I’m going to randomly lash out until something sticks! Here are some initial thoughts from Lakatos’s first two lectures:

The past couple weeks I’ve been accumulating material related to our fledgling summer reading group. First I got For and Against Method, realized it was more for than against so I ordered the third edition of Against Method and also found the (apparently much shorter) first edition online.

I’m currently dipping my toes into For and Against, reading Lakatos’s lectures at LSE on the scientific method. I was expecting to be more interested in Feyerabend’s perspective, but so far I’m pleasantly surprised. Lakatos is an interesting guy, and the conversational tone of the (transcribed) lectures is delightful.

I’m not sure how we plan to do this reading group, so, free-wheeling anarchist that I am, I’m going to randomly lash out until something sticks! Here are some initial thoughts from Lakatos’s first lecture:

  • Around pp. 24-25 he lays out the demarcation problem: we want a (set of) method(s) to separate good and bad science. Presumably, our method should stand up to its own scrutiny. If our method is L(t), taking theory t and returning “good” or “bad”, then L(L) should return “good”. To me, this looks Gödelian.
  • p. 26: “I remember when back in my Popperian days I used to put this question to Marxists and Freudians: ‘Tell me, what specific historical or social events would have to occur tin order for you to give up your Marxism?’ I remember that this was usually accompanied by either stunned silence or confusion. But I was very pleased with the effect.

    “Much later I put the same question to a prominent scientist, who could not give any answer because, he said, ‘of course anomalies always spring up, but somehow sooner or later we always solve them.’ This is why, according to Feyerabend, who follows in Popper’s footsteps, all these criteria for intellectual honesty have one and the same function: they are empty rhetoric to frighten school children.” [emphasis my own]
    • Anyone here know something about rhetoric and the Greeks? Personally, I’m drawn to the notion that it’s all basically rhetoric. The term I prefer, though, is bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, by BS I don’t mean “wrong” or “bad” (per se). And for that matter, I don’t quite mean rhetoric either. It’s something like the sort of communication that goes on during a poker game.
      • You might be able to see that I’m going to be naturally sympathetic to Feyerabend who, apparently, preferred to think of himself as an entertainer than an academic philosopher. That’s part of the reason I’m reading Lakatos first. But I’m happy to see that a) Lakatos has a sense of humor, and b) He’s got a character endorsement from Feyerabend.
    • There’s good BS and bad BS. Bad BS leads to things like advertising campaigns and college accreditation schemes. Good BS leads to open minded learning. Good BS is what happens between grad students in a good program after midnight.
    • Good BS isn’t arbitrary, but it isn’t too tightly bound to reality either. You can’t send an astronaut to space on good BS, but you probably need good BS to come up with the idea in the first place.
    • I’m a materialist at the end of the day, and I believe in an objective external universe (though I can’t reject a Cartesian evil genius). But my map of that universe is highly impressionistic. I think anyone who’s map is more precise is either fooling themselves, or highly specific (i.e. they’re missing out on something).
    • Currently, I’m thinking rhetoric is for strangers and BS is for friends.
  • Lakatos talks about three basic groups: Militant positivists, anarchists, and elitist authoritarianism.
    • The positivists would be right if they were omniscient. In principle we could come up with theories that perfectly aligned with reality. And we could come up with a theory of theories that neatly separated the good from the bad. But the universe is more complex than our finite minds can handle.
      • Did you hear the one about the economist who was told about the latest brilliant new business? His response: “sure it works in practice, but does it work in theory?”
    • Lakatos’s view of the anarchists is that different theories are essentially all at the same level, but some get more support and others get less.
    • According to the elitists “there is a demarcation, but there are no demarcation criteria.”
    • I’m basically an elitist-anarchist with a heavy dose (I hope) of humility. There are better and worse theories (it’s not quite “anything goes”), and often (but not always) the elite are in the right position to pass (fallible) judgement. If a professional economist (ahem) says “Theory X is stupid”, then odds are good they’re correct. But it’s not guaranteed. Not even if all economists agree.
  • There’s no easy way out. Some science is good and some is bad, and there’s no algorithmic way to distinguish them.
    • It’s like the historians’ joke: “What was the outcome of WWII? Too soon to say.” We can extend the metaphor all the way back. It’s too soon to declare any specific outcome to the Big Bang. It’s surely the case that there will be some outcome (according to my materialist, even LaPlacian, priors), but predicting that outcome would require a computer bigger and more powerful than the universe.
  • Fundamentally, distinguishing good and bad science requires going out on a limb, taking a risk, making a judgment. All theories will ultimately be tested against objective reality, but nature isn’t always great about sharing her data and our methods (especially our language, which places the ultimate constraints on our ability to share and accumulate knowledge) prevent us from getting to 100%.

My understanding is that Lakatos will be building up to some notion of a more-or-less objective way to demarcate good and bad science. I believe there is good and bad science, but I’m skeptical of humanity’s ability to draw any sort of hard line separating the two. I think the evaluation of science is more like the evaluation of art than the evaluation of competing answers to a well defined mathematical question.

Sometimes science is more art than science…

Tying this in to my wheelhouse: science (as LaVoie has repeatedly told us) is in a similar position to market enterpreneurship (and also ants, which are amazing) and the Austrian insights apply: this is the sort of stuff that fundamentally only works in a decentralized, anarchic fashion. The ant queen is not actually a central planner. Entrepreneurship is decentralized social learning that central planning is no substitute for. And science is not so comprehensible that we’ll ever find some way to automate approval of grant proposals.

Learning is hard because we’re finite beings staring into an infinite abyss.

History and Philosophy of Science

Disclaimer: I’m not a philosopher of science by training, but I occasionally play one in the classroom.

The above playlist is* an excellent overview to the issues surrounding the question, “How do you know?”

I first stumbled into the topic of the philosophy of science (PS) as an undergrad at San Jose State. I was required to take an upper-division general elective class from a list of what seemed like tree-hugging indoctrination courses. I don’t remember what the other options were, but this class was probably the most important class I’ve ever taken.

This spring I taught “Modern Economic Theory” which I twisted into a mix of PS and History of Economic Thought. The biggest lesson I wanted to convey was: there are no right answers, there are lots of wrong answers, and our task is to seek the less wrong answers.

From my syllabus:

I hope to convince you of two big ideas:
1. There are no “right answers” but there are plenty of wrong answers.
2. What we know about the world rests on a foundation of received wisdom. And that foundation isn’t always as solid as we’d hope.

The video playlist above does a nice job of shedding light on how and which science is difficult. There is surely some objective truth to the universe, but it’s bigger than we can fit in our limited brains. Trying to understand our universe requires a heavy dose of humility, lest we impose grand plans that make things worse.


*As far as I know… a) See the disclaimer at the top. b) There’s an inescapable irony here. Science is fundamentally about uncertainty, so even if I was a philosopher of science, I wouldn’t be in a position to guarantee anything. See Feyerabend for more details.

Epistemological anarchism to anarchism

I’ve been working on a paper — since I’ve long tabled the idea of a future in academia, or scholarship, I have only a few projects I want to get done in substitution — to expand the work of Paul Feyerabend into a political philosophy. Feyerabend’s primary discipline was the philosophy of science and epistemology, where he considered his central thesis to be “methodological” or “epistemological anarchism.”

His dialogues, essays, and lengthier expositions of (sometimes called) “epistemological Dadaism” can be roughly summed up as

For any scientific conclusion C, there is no one route from empirical premises P.

“Scientific” here being widely inclusive and contemporary with social standards, as a function of Feyerabend’s opposition to positivism. The hubbub of observation statements, empirical tests, auxiliary hypotheses, inferences, axioms, etc. that govern a research programme are only one possible set of multiple that have historically yielded similarly sanctified discoveries. For any B, there is no single route from A. Describing the scientific method as a route of Popperian falsification, for instance, cuts out Galileo, or cuts out Einstein, he would argue.

Feyerabend swore off the doctrine of political anarchism as a cruel system, although he was often inspired by revolutionary anarchists like Bakunin. Even still, his philosophy lends support for social power decentralization in general — even with sometimes grotesque deviations like his support for government suppression of academic inquiry.

I’ll be working on the paper on this, but in lieu of that, I think the primary connection between Feyerabend’s work on epistemology and a potential work in political science is the support of his epistemological thesis — for any scientific conclusion C, there is no one route from empirical premises P — for a broader methodological statement, namely, that for any outcome C, there is no one route from starting point A. For politics, this could mean:

For any social-organizational outcome O, there is no one route from given state of nature N.

Where “route” can clearly apply to ranges of government involvement, or zero government involvement. Feyerabend’s writings do not support this liberal of a reading in general, but in a constrained domain of social organization and especially knowledge-sharing (he was keen on dissolving hierarchies for their disruption of information), there might be a lot of connection to unearth.

This is, again, part of a larger project to bring Feyerabend more into the liberty spectrum — his writings are hosted on marxists.org, after all — or at least on the radar for inspiration. I’ll be posting more, and hopefully defending it, in the future.

Nightcap

  1. Fear for the future of classical liberalism John McGinnis, Law & Liberty
  2. Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial Mary McDonough, Commonweal
  3. Troll epistemology Jonathan Rauch, National Affairs
  4. Murray Rothbard was right Justin Raimondo, Antiwar.com

Jordan Peterson’s Ignorance of Postmodern Philosophy

Up until this point, I’ve avoided talking about Jordan Peterson in any serious manner. In part because I thought (and continue to hope) that he’s the intellectual version of a fad diet who will shortly become irrelevant. My general impression of him is that when he’s right, he’s saying rather banal, cliché truisms with an undeserved bombastic air of profundity, such as his assertions that there are biological differences between men and women, that many religious myths share some similar features, or that taking personal responsibility is good. When he’s wrong, he’s talking way out of the depth of his understanding in his field (like the infamous lobster comment or this bizarre nonsense). Either way, it doesn’t make for a rather good use of time or opportunity for interesting, productive discussion—especially when his galaxy-brained cult-like fanboys are ready to pounce on anyone who criticizes their dear leader.

However, since everyone seems to be as obsessed with Jordan Peterson as he is with himself, I guess it’s finally time to talk about one example of him ignorantly bloviating that particularly annoys me as a philosophy student: his comments on postmodernism. There’s a lot one can talk about with Jordan Peterson because he says almost anything that comes to his mind about any topic, but for the present purposes you can pretend that I think everything he’s ever said that isn’t about postmodern is the deepest, most insightful thing ever said by any thinker in the history of western thought. I’m not interested in defending any overarching claims about him as a thinker. At the very least, his work on personality psychology does seem rather well respected and he surely got to his prestigious academic position with some merit, though I am not qualified to really appraise it. I am, however, more prepared to talk about his rather confused comments on philosophy which might shed light on why people are generally frustrated with his overly self-confident presence as a public intellectual.

Postmodernism, According to Peterson

Peterson often makes comments about “postmodern neo-Marxism,” which he calls a “rejection of the western tradition.” Now the very phrase “postmodern neo-Marxism” strikes anyone remotely familiar with the academic literature on postmodernism and Marxism as bizarre and confused. Postmodernism is usually characterized as skepticism towards grand general theories. Marxism is a grand general theory about how class struggle and economic conditions shape the trajectory of history. Clearly, those two views are not at all compatible. As such, much of the history of twentieth century academia is a history of Marxists and postmodernists fighting and butting heads.

Many commentators have pointed out this error, but Jordan Peterson now has a response. In it he tries to offer a more refined definition of postmodernism as two primary claims and a secondary claim:

Postmodernism is essentially the claim that (1) since there are an innumerable number of ways in which the world can be interpreted and perceived (and those are tightly associated) then (2) no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived.

That’s the fundamental claim. An immediate secondary claim (and this is where the Marxism emerges) is something like “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.”

He then goes on to concede to the criticism that Marxism and postmodernism can’t be described as theoretically aligned, but moves the goal posts to say that they are practically aligned in politics. Further, he contends postmodernisms’ commitment to analyze power structures is just “a rehashing of the Marxist claim of eternal and primary class warfare.”

It is worth noting that this attempt at nuance is surely an improvement at Peterson’s previous comments that postmodern a Marxism are a coherent “doctrine” that just hated logic and western values. But his attempt at a “definition” is unsatisfactorily way too restrictive for every thinker who gets called “postmodern,” and the attempt to link the politics of postmodernism up with the politics of Marxism is a complete mischaracterization. Further, his attempt to “critique” this position, whatever one wants to call it, is either (at best) vague and imprecise or (at worst) utterly fails. Finally, there really is no alliance between postmodernists and Marxists. Whether or not a thinker is called a “postmodernist” or not is not a very good predictor of their political views.

Why Peterson’s Definition isn’t what Postmodernists Believe and his Critique Fails

First of all, I am really not interested in dying on the hill of offering a better “definition” of postmodernism. Like any good Wittgensteinian, I tend to think you can’t really give a good list of necessary and sufficient conditions that perfectly captures all the subtle ways we use a word. The meaning of the word is the way it is used. Even within academia postmodernism has such broad, varied usage that I’m not sure it has a coherent meaning. Indeed, Foucault once remarked in a 1983 interview when asked about postmodernism, “What are we calling postmodernity? I’m not up to date.” The best I can give is Lyotard’s classic “incredulity toward metanarratives,” which is rather vague and oversimplified. Because this is the best I think one can do given how wildly unpredictable the usage of postmodernism is, we’re probably better off just not putting too much stock in it either as one’s own philosophical position or as the biggest existential threat to western civilization and we should talk about more substantive philosophical disagreements.

That said, Jordan Peterson’s definition is unsatisfactory and shows a poor understanding of postmodernism. While the first half of the fundamental claim is a pretty good stab at generalizing a view most philosophers who get labeled as postmodern agree with, the second half is rather unclear since it’s uncertain what Peterson means by “canonical.” If he takes this to mean that we have no determinate way of determining which interpretations are valid, then that would be a good summary of most postmodernists and an implication of Peterson’s own professed Jamesian pragmatism. If what he thinks it means is that all perspectives are as valid as any other and we have no way of deciphering which ones are better than the other, then nobody relevant believes that.

Peterson objects to is the implication “that there are an unspecifiable number of VALID interpretations.” He tries to refute this by citing Charles Pierce (who actually did not at all hold this view) and William James on the pragmatic criterion of truth to give meaning to “valid interpretations.” He says valid means “when the proposition or interpretation is acted out in the world, the desired outcome within the specific timeframe ensues.” However, it doesn’t follow from this view that you can specify the number of valid interpretations. It just begs the question of how we should understand what “the desired outcome” means, which just puts the perspectivism back a level. Even if we did agree on a determinate “desired outcome,” there are still multiple beliefs one could have to achieve a desired outcome. To put it in a pragmatically-minded cliché, there is more than one way to skin a cat. This is why, in fact, William James was a pluralist.

Perhaps by “specifiable,” he doesn’t mean we can readily quantify the number of valid interpretations, just that the number is not infinite. However, nobody believes there are an infinite number of valid perspectives we should consider. The assertion that a priori we cannot quantify the number of valid perspectives does not mean that all perspectives are equally valid or that there are an infinite number of valid perspectives. Peterson’s argument that we have limited cognitive capacities to consider all possible perspectives is true, it’s just not a refutation of anything postmodernists believe. On this point, it is worth quoting Richard Rorty—one who was both a Jamesian pragmatist and usually gets called postmodern—from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature:

When it is said, for example, that coherentist or pragmatic “theories of truth” allow for the possibility that many incompatible theories would satisfy the conditions set for “the truth,” the coherentist or pragmatist usually replies this merely shows that we have no grounds for choice among thse candidates for “the truth.” The moral to draw is not to say they have offered inadequate analyses of “true,” but that there are some terms—for example, “the true theory,” “the right thing to do”—which are, intuitively and grammatically singular, but for which no set of necessary and sufficient conditions can be given which will pick out a unique referent. This fact, they say, should not be surprising. Nobody thinks that there are necessary and sufficient conditions which will pick out, for example, the unique referent of “the best thing for her to have done on finding herself in that rather embarrassing situation,” though plausible conditions can be given as to which will shorten a list of competing incompatible candidates. Why should it be any different for the referents of “what she should have done in that ghastly moral dilemma” or “the Good Life for man” or “what the world is really made of?” [Emphasis mine]

The fact that we cannot readily quantify a limited number of candidates for interpretations or decide between them algorithmically does not that we have absolutely no ways to tell which interpretation is valid, that all interpretations are equally valid, nor does it mean there are an infinite number of potentially valid interpretations. Really, the view that many (though not all) postmodernists actually hold under this “primary claim” is not all that substantially different from Peterson’s own Jamesian pragmatism.

As for the secondary claim, which he thinks is Marxist, that “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.” This view is basically just one just Foucault might have held depending on how you read him. Some would argue this isn’t even a good reading of Foucault because such sweeping generalizations about “all interpretations” is rather uncharacteristic of a philosopher who’s skeptical of sweeping generalizations. However, you read Foucault (and I’m not really prepared to take a strong stand either way), it certainly isn’t the view of all postmodernists.  Rorty criticized this habit of Foucault (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 63), and thought that even if power does shape modern subjectivity it’s worth the tradeoff in the gains to freedom that modern liberalism has brought and thus is not the best way to view. It’s also telling that Peterson doesn’t even try to critique this claim and just dogmatically dismisses it.

Postmodernism’s Alleged Alliance with Marxism

So much for his vague, weak argument against a straw man. Now let’s see if there’s any merit to Peterson’s thought that Marxism and postmodernism have some important resemblance or philosophical alliance. Peterson says that the secondary claim of postmodernism is where the similarity to Marxism comes. However, Marx simply did not think that all theories are just attempts to grab power in the Foucauldian sense: he didn’t think that dialectical materialism the labor theory of value were just power grabs, and predicted a day when there was no competition for power in the first place at the end of history since a communist society would be classless. If anything, it’s the influence of Nietzsche’s Will to Power on Foucault, and oddly enough Peterson thinks rather highly of Nietzsche (even though Nietzsche anticipated postmodernism in rather important ways).

The only feature that they share is a narrative of one group trying to dominate another group. But if any attempt to describe oppression in society is somehow “Marxist,” that means right libertarians who talk about how the state and crony capitalist are oppressing and coercing the general public are “Marxist,” evangelicals who say Christians are oppressed by powerful liberal elites are “Marxist,” even Jordan Peterson himself is a “Marxist” when he whines about these postmodern Marxist boogeymen are trying to silence his free speech. He both defines “postmodernism” too narrowly, and then uses “Marxism” in such a loose manner that it basically means nothing.

Further, there’s Peterson’s claim that due to identity politics, postmodernists and Marxists now just have a practical political alliance even if it’s theoretically illogical. The only evidence he really gives of this alleged “alliance” is that Derrida and Foucault were Marxists when they were younger who “barely repented” from Marxism and that courses like critical theory and gender studies read Marxists and postmodernists. That they barely repented is simply a lie, Foucault left all his associations with Marxist parties and expunged his earlier works of Marxist themes. But the mere fact that someone once was a Marxist and then criticized Marxism later in their life doesn’t mean there was a continuing alliance between believers in their thought and Marxism. Alasdair MacIntyre was influenced by Marx when he was young and became a Catholic neo-Aristotelian, nobody thinks that he “barely repented” and there’s some overarching alliance between traditionalist Aristotelians and Marxists.

As for the claim that postmodernists and Marxists are read in gender studies, it’s just absurd to think that’s evidence of some menacing “practical alliance.” The reason they’re read in those is mostly courses is to provide contrast for the students of opposing perspectives. This is like saying that because Rawlsian libertarians are taken seriously by academic political philosophers there’s some massive political alliance between libertarians and progressive liberals.

Really, trying to connect postmodernism to any political ideology shows a laughably weak understanding of both postmodernism and political theory. You have postmodernists identifying as everything from far leftists (Foucault), to progressive liberals (Richard Rorty), to classical liberals (Deirdre McClosky), to anarchists (Saul Newman), to religious conservatives (like Peter Blum and James K.A. Smith). They don’t all buy identity politics uniformly, Richard Rorty criticized the left for focusing on identity issues over economic politics and was skeptical of the usefulness of a lot of critical theory. There really is no necessary connection between one’s highly theoretical views on epistemic justification, truth, and the usefulness of metaphysics or other metanarratives and one’s more concrete views on culture or politics.

Now Peterson can claim all the people I’ve listed aren’t “really” postmodern and double down on his much narrower, idiosyncratic definition of postmodernism which has very little relation to the way anyone who knows philosophy uses it. Fine, that’s a trivial semantic debate I’m not really interested in having. But it does create a problem for him: he wants to claim that postmodernism is this pernicious, all-encompassing threat that has consumed all of the humanities and social sciences which hates western civilization. He then wants to define postmodernism so narrowly that it merely describes the views of basically just Foucault. He wants to have his cake and eat it too: define postmodernism narrowly to evade criticism that he’s using it loosely, and use it as a scare term for the entire modern left.

Peterson’s Other Miscellaneous Dismissals of Postmodernism

The rest of what he has to say about postmodernism is all absurd straw men with absolutely no basis in anything anyone has ever argued. He thinks postmodernists “don’t believe in logic” when, for example, Richard Rorty was an analytic philosopher who spent the early parts of his career obsessed with the logic of language. He thinks they “don’t believe in dialogue” when Rorty’s whole aspiration was to turn all of society into one continuous dialogue and reimagine philosophy as the “conversation of culture). Or that they believe “you don’t have an individual identity” when K. Anthony Appiah, who encourages “banal ‘postmodernism’” about race, believes that the individual dimensions of identity are problematically superseded by the collective dimensions. This whole “definition and critique” of postmodernism is clearly just a post-hoc rationalization for him to continue to dishonestly straw man all leftists with an absurd monolithic conspiracy theory. The only people who are playing “crooked games” or are “neck-deep in deceit” are ignorant hucksters like Peterson bloviating about topics they clearly know nothing about with absurd levels of unmerited confidence.

Really, it’s ironic that Peterson has such irrational antipathy towards postmodernism. A ton of the views he champions (a pragmatic theory of truth, a respect for Nietzsche’s use of genealogy, a naturalist emphasis on the continuity between animals and humans, etc.) are all views that are often called “postmodern” depending on how broadly one understands “incredulity towards metanarratives,” and at the very least were extremely influential over most postmodern philosophers and echoed in their work. Maybe if Peterson showed a fraction of the openness to dialogue and debate he dishonestly pretends to have and actually read postmodernists outside of a secondary source, he’d discover a lot to agree with.

[Editors note: The last line has been changed from an earlier version with an incorrect statement about Peterson’s source Explaining Postmodernism.]

The Roots of Truth and the Roots of Knowledge

John Oliver raises a Hayekian point on the roots of knowledge:

Just because they believed you and you believed them, doesn’t make it true! This isn’t like Peter Pan where believing in fairies will keep Tinker Bell alive. This isn’t a magic thing Peter, she has Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

He’s rightly picking on Donald Trump, who has a) been a particularly bad epistemologist, and b) should be held to a higher standard because he’s the president.

But the truth is that we’re all in the same boat: we believe what we hear from what we believe are reputable sources (because we heard those sources were reputable from sources we believed to be reputable). Most of our knowledge we take on faith from other people. In essence, we can’t simply know the truth in a vacuum; we depend on the context created by our culture, language, and personal experience. It’s only by trusting others that we can stand on the shoulders of giants.

What’s so special about science is that the standards are higher than in other domains. Knowledge has been carefully curated over generations by fallable humans engaged in a particular subculture of society. To the extent science makes good predictions, it creates value in society, and to the extent it can verify and capture that value, its practitioners get funding and get taken (mostly) seriously by the educated public.

You might notice that there are many places where science can go wrong. And the history of science is replete with blind alleys and shameful episodes. But also glorious advances in our knowledge, capability, and humanity. The same is true of all areas of life that deal with knowledge from politics and journalism to how you clean your kitchen. To the extent we see both competition and cooperation (in a variety of institutional forms) we will tend to see knowledge and truth converge. (I think.)

In this respect, we’re all, essentially, in the same boat. We should expect fallability and adopt a humble attitude. As surely as I want to believe John Oliver’s portrayal of current events (most of the time), I’m not about to fly to DC to check things out for myself.

Because, this isn’t about belief, it can’t be… Faith and Fact aren’t like Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. When you confuse them it actually matters. Real people get hurt when you make policy based on false information.

We face trade offs when it comes to knowledge. Received wisdom might be correct enough to operate a bed and breakfast. But we’ve created real fragility in our political system by vesting so much power in the White House. It means that the standard of truth has to be so high that not even a crazed billionaire hell-bent on becoming president (a segment of society usually celebrated for their levelheadedness!) can be trusted to pursue.

Let me sum up:

  1. Our knowledge is always based on the trust we place in others. As such we can be more or less certain about any thing we might know. I am very certain (0.99×10^-100) that gravity exists and keeps me rooted to the earth, but less certain (0.05) that I am organizing my bookshelves correctly.
  2. We can, and do, have different standards of truth in different areas of our lives. I don’t make any important decisions that don’t account for the severity of gravity. But I’m not going to sweat it if I put a new book on an inappropriate shelf.
  3. We absolutely need to hold our government to very high standards. Nuclear weapons are scary, but lesser powers also call for very high standards. The level of certainty I’d insist on for nukes is at least an order of magnitude higher than the level for regulating pollution. But the level of certainty for the latter is orders of magnitude higher than might be possible under alternative arrangements.
  4. At the same time, we have to accept our own fallability, particularly when it comes to our ability to accurately know the truth. But that’s no reason to be nihilistic; it should inspire a striving for constant improvement in general (while making the appropriate trade offs on the margin).

Where did Homo Economicus come from?

Over on my Facebook page, I posted a short criticism of both neoclassical and behavioral economic scholarship on rational choice (drawing from a paper I’m working on exploring that topic). Stated a bit polemically,  though homo economicus has largely been dead in neoclassical theory, his spirit still haunts the work of most modern neoclassical scholars. Likewise, though behavioral economists are trying to dig the grave and put the final nails in the coffin of homo economicus, their nightmares are still plagued with the anxieties of his memory.

This led a former colleague from Hillsdale to ask me where I thought homo economicus came from historically. I wrote the following in response (lightly edited for this post):

It could be argued, in a sense, that the protestant Christian aim to complete moral purity and the Enlightenment aim to make man perfect in knowledge in morality (as embodied in Franklin’s virtue ethics) helped give rise to a culture that would be primed for such a model. Within economics, historically it comes from Bentham’s utilitarianism and Jevon’s mathematical extrapolations from Bentham’s psychology. However, I’d say this comes from a deeper “Cartesian anxiety” in Bernstein’s use of the term to make economic a big-T True, capital-C Certain, capital-S Science just like physics (which Jevon’s himself stated was an aim of his work,[1] and has preoccupied economists since the days of JS Mill). If economic science cannot be said to be completely positive and “scientific” like the natural sciences with absolutely falsifiable propositions and an algorithmic means of theory-choice, it is feared, it must be written off as a pseudo-scientific waste of time or else ideology to justify capitalism. If economics cannot make certain claims to knowledge, it must be solipsist and relativist and, again, be another form of pseudo-science or ideology. If economic models cannot reach definitive mathematical results, then they must be relativistic and a waste of time. This is just another example of the extreme Cartesian/Katian/Platonic (in Rorty’s use of the term) either/or: objectivity OR relativism, science OR nonscience, determinate mathematical solutions OR ideological emotional bickering. Homo economicus was erected as a means to be an epistemic foundation to solve all these anxieties and either/ors.

Of course, as any good Deweyan, I think all these either/ors are nonsense. Their understanding of science, as revealed through the so-called “growth of knowledge” literature in postempiricist philosophy of science (ie., the work of Thomas Kuhn, Lakotos, Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, Michael Polanyi, Richard Bernstein, Richard Rorty, etc.) has shown that this positivist conception of science, that is science consists of algorithmic theory choice selected based off correspondence with theory-free, brute “facts” of the “external world,” is woefully inaccurate. Dialogical Aristotelian practical reasoning in the community of scientists plays just as much of a role in formulating a scientific consensus as empirical verification. This does not undermine science’s claims to objectivity or rationality, in fact it puts such claims in more epistemically tenable terms.

Further, the desire to make the social sciences just another extension of the natural science, as Hayek shows in the Counterrevolution of Science, and as even positivists like Milton Freidman argue, is a completely misleading urge that has led to some of the worst follies in modern social theory. Obviously, I cheer the fact that “homo economicus is dead, and we have killed him,” but now that we’ve “out-rationalized the rationalizer of all rationalizers,” we must try to re-evaluate our economic theories and methods to, as Bernstein or Dewey would put it, “reconstruct” our economic science.

In short, immenatizing the eschaton in epistemology and philosophy of science created homo economicus.

For the record, you don’t have to be a radical scientific anti-realist like Feyerabend or Rorty to agree with my analysis here.[2] I myself wax more towards Quine than Rorty in scientific matters. However, the main point of philosophy of science since positivism is the exact type of foundationalist epistemology undergirding modern positivist methodology in the mainstream of the economics profession, and the concept of rationality that is used to buttress it, is a naive view of science, natural or social.

Notably, this critique is largely unrelated to much of the Austrian school. Mises’ own conception of rationality is mostly unrelated to homo economicus as he understands rationality to be purposive action, emphasizing that economists first understand the subjective meaning from the point of view of the economic actor him/herself before declaring any action “irrational.”[3] [4]

What are your thoughts on this? Are neoclassical and behavioral economics both still way too influenced by the spirit of homo economicus, or am I off the mark? Is my analysis of the historical conditions that led to the rise of homo economicus right? Please, discuss in the comments.

[1] Consider this quote from Jevon’s magnum opus Theory of Political Economy “Economics, if it is to be a science at all, must be a mathematical science.”

[2] In fact, I doubt anybody mentioned is really a scientific anti-realist, I agree with Bernstein that Feyerabend is best read as a satirist of the Cartesian anxiety and extreme either/or of relativism and objectivism in philosophy of science and think Rorty’s views are more complex than simple scientific anti-realism, but that’s an unrelated point.

[3] Of course, any critique of epistemic foundationalism would apply to Mises, especially his apriorism; after all, Mises did write a book called “Ultimate Foundations of the Social Sciences” and the Cartesian anxiety is strong with him, especially in his later works. Notably, none of this applies to most of Mises’ students, especially Schutz, Machlup, and Hayek.

[4] For a more detailed discussion of Mises and the Austrians on rationality, see my blog post here or this paper by Mario Rizzo. For a more general discussion of the insights of the type of philosophy of science I’m discussing, see Chapter 2 of Richard Bernstein’s excellent 1983 book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis.