Home > Uncategorized > In search of causality

In search of causality

from Lars Syll


One of the few statisticians that yours truly have on the blogroll is Andrew Gelman. Although not sharing his Bayesian leanings, I find his open-minded, thought-provoking and non-dogmatic statistical thinking highly recommendable. The plaidoyer below for ‘reverse causal questioning’ is typical Gelmanian: 

When statistical and econometrc methodologists write about causal inference, they generally focus on forward causal questions. We are taught to answer questions of the type “What if?”, rather than “Why?” Following the work by Rubin (1977) causal questions are typically framed in terms of manipulations: if x were changed by one unit, how much would y be expected to change? But reverse causal questions are important too … In many ways, it is the reverse causal questions that motivate the research, including experiments and observational studies, that we use to answer the forward questions …

Reverse causal reasoning is different; it involves asking questions and searching for new variables that might not yet even be in our model. We can frame reverse causal questions as model checking. It goes like this: what we see is some pattern in the world that needs an explanation. What does it mean to “need an explanation”? It means that existing explanations — the existing model of the phenomenon — does not do the job …

By formalizing reverse casual reasoning within the process of data analysis, we hope to make a step toward connecting our statistical reasoning to the ways that we naturally think and talk about causality. This is consistent with views such as Cartwright (2007) that causal inference in reality is more complex than is captured in any theory of inference … What we are really suggesting is a way of talking about reverse causal questions in a way that is complementary to, rather than outside of, the mainstream formalisms of statistics and econometrics.

In a time when scientific relativism is expanding, it is important to keep up the claim for not reducing science to a pure discursive level. We have to maintain the Enlightenment tradition of thinking of reality as principally independent of our views of it and of the main task of science as studying the structure of this reality. Perhaps the most important contribution a researcher can make is revealing what this reality that is the object of science actually looks like.

Science is made possible by the fact that there are structures that are durable and are independent of our knowledge or beliefs about them. There exists a reality beyond our theories and concepts of it. It is this independent reality that our theories in some way deal with. Contrary to positivism, I would as a critical realist argue that the main task of science is not to detect event-regularities between observed facts. Rather, that task must be conceived as identifying the underlying structures and forces that produce the observed events.


In Gelman’s essay there is  no explicit argument for abduction —  inference to the best explanation — but I would still argue that it is de facto nothing but a very strong argument for why scientific realism and inference to the best explanation are the best alternatives for explaining what is going on in the world we live in. The focus on causality, model checking, anomalies and context-dependence — although here expressed in statistical terms — is as close to abductive reasoning as we get in statistics and econometrics today.

  1. Dave Raithel
    November 18, 2018 at 1:58 pm

    Here’s something that needs explaining: That Scott Adams seems a pretty bright and ironic guy, he even gave us the phrase “schadenfreud party”; but he loves that moral detritus, Il Duce Trumpo. Someone needs to do a comic strip about that.

  2. Rob Reno
    November 18, 2018 at 3:09 pm

    Oh, I am so thankful for this: Il Duce Trumpo — is spot on ;-)

  3. Frank Salter
    November 18, 2018 at 3:44 pm

    Yet again social scientists ignoring real scientific understanding. The elephant in the room is analysis from first principles — of paramount importance in the physical sciences and yet again being ignored by Lars Syll. First principles analysis leads to valid conclusions.

    The causality arguments are attempts to turn concrete relationships into theoretically valid abstract relationships. In very specific circumstances, it might be possible. There is no reason to expect it ever will be achieved.

    First principles analyses leads to causal relationships. This has been proved innumerable times in the physical sciences. Why do economists fail repeatedly in recognise this as fact. Are they so arrogant as to believe that standing on the shoulders of giants is never to be done?

  4. November 18, 2018 at 7:53 pm

    Many a wag has noted grinning that correlation does not imply causality. Two points:
    1. It is no accident that correlation is displacing multivariat analysi like ANOVA notwithstanding this.
    2. Time has an arrow. Events in the future cannot affect (cause events) in the present.

    Combing these, if there is a high cross correlation with time lag as a parameter, the leading factor pretty much has to be causing the lagging factor directly or indirectly.

    Last I looked excel offers no cross correlation macro as a standard function. They should.

    • Craig
      November 18, 2018 at 8:45 pm

      As the person you often refer to here, Steve Keen, has shown…it’s a monetary economy not “a veil over barter”, and the three things DSGE doesn’t get right/ignores are money, debt and banks. It’s apparent to anyone who looks that the current paradigm for the creation of money and sole form for its distribution of Debt Only controlled and enforce by the private banks IS THE PRIMARY CAUSATIVE ECONOMIC PROBLEM.

      As I have posited here before the mental problem inhibiting the full realization of this fact is that macro-economics is a new body of knowledge which consequently has a very short cultural horizon combined with the fact that the paradigm of Debt Only has not changed….since the beginning of human civilization and hence has become ingrained in human culture and thinking.

      De-constructing and changing the paradigm of Debt Only via an analysis of the signatures of imminent and actual paradigm change, AND AN EXEGESIS OF THE OPERANT CONCEPT BEHIND EVERY HUMAN PARADIGM CHANGE, namely the natural philosophical concept of grace….is precisely what is required….NOW.

  5. November 18, 2018 at 9:17 pm

    The canonical reference is here:

  6. November 19, 2018 at 8:06 am

    Causality in economics
    Comment on Lars Syll on ‘In search of causality’

    Lars Syll summarizes: “In a time when scientific relativism is expanding, it is important to keep up the claim for not reducing science to a pure discursive level. We have to maintain the Enlightenment tradition of thinking of reality as principally independent of our views of it and of the main task of science as studying the structure of this reality. Perhaps the most important contribution a researcher can make is revealing what this reality that is the object of science actually looks like. Science is made possible by the fact that there are structures that are durable and are independent of our knowledge or beliefs about them.”

    These structures (invariances in Nozick’s terminology) relate to the economic system and NOT to economic behavior. Hence, the lethal methodological blunder consists of thinking of economics as a social science instead of a system science.#1 The blunder started with Adam Smith and this explains why economists have achieved nothing of scientific value in the past 200+ years. Economics is a cargo cult science; economists have misspecified their subject matter from the very beginning.#2

    The heterodox economist Lars Syll is no exception and part of the wholesale failure.

    Systemic laws are invariances much like physical laws but do not entail the physicists’ notion of causality. So, the concept of causality has to be redefined for the economic system. There is no use to turn to philosophy and to seek help with Aristotle.

    The elementary version of the economic system is formally given with the First Economic Law as shown on Wikimedia.#3

    As it stands, the Law as a whole is causality-free. The systemic causality consists in the fact that if one variable is altered the others must change such that the equation is satisfied. However, it is NOT predetermined which of the other variables is altered and to what extent. The First Economic Law is an invariance with undetermined multiple inner causalities.

    In order to establish a simple unidirectional causality, it is necessary that two of the four variables are fixed by the policymaker. So if, for example, rhoE and rhoX are fixed and rhoD is changed, then the change of rhoF is causally determined with absolute precision by the systemic interrelations. The problem is that the four ratios rhoF, rhoE, rhoX, rhoD consist, in turn, of multiple variables, rhoF, for example, is given as quotient of wage rate W, price P and productivity R, i.e rhoF=W/PR. This multiplies the number of variables to be controlled.

    So, causality in economics is real but consists of undetermined multiple inner systemic causalities. As far as the required number of variables can be controlled, a politically defined causality can be established. Without knowledge of the systemic laws, this is impossible.

    It holds: “In order to tell the politicians and practitioners something about causes and best means, the economist needs the true theory or else he has not much more to offer than educated common sense or his personal opinion.” (Stigum)

    To this day, neither orthodox nor heterodox economists have more to offer than common sense blather.#4, #5

    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

    #1 Economics is NOT a science of behavior (III)

    #2 The economics Cargo Cult Prize

    #3 Wikimedia, First Economic Law

    #4 The Law of Economists’ Increasing Stupidity

    #5 Brief history of soapbox economics

    • Craig
      November 19, 2018 at 5:32 pm

      The last thing economic theory needs is the orthodoxy looking for justification known as scientism. Good inclusive truly open minded science which is a secondary mode of the superior discipline of wisdom would be welcome because good open minded science and its integration with an aspect or aspects of human consciousness is the signature of scientific breakthrough. Combine that with the signatures of wisdom: deep discernment, actual problem resolution as opposed to palliatives and mere reforms and radical de-constructions that eliminate problematic factors and invert current orthodox or enforced temporal realities…..and economics will be able to reflect the dynamic, interactive and integratively graceful flow of the temporal universe in which it is thoroughly embedded instead of the haltingly dominated and manipulated form of hypnotism it has come to be.

  7. Jorge Buzaglo
    November 19, 2018 at 5:17 pm

    “There exists a reality beyond our theories and concepts of it.”

    I find the following quote an incontournable criticism of realism. Particularly interesting because its author was a “dialectical materialist,” E. V. Ilyenkov, in: Dialectical logic. Essays on Its History and Theory. Progress Publishers. Moscow. 1977 (p. 16-17)

    The short version is:

    It is impossible to compare the thing as it is given in consciousness with the thing outside consciousness, because it is impossible to compare what I know with what I don’t know, what I do not see, what I do not perceive, what I am not aware of. Before I can compare my idea of a thing with the thing, I must also be aware of the thing, i.e. must also transform it into an idea. As a result I am always comparing and contrasting only ideas with ideas, although I may think that I am comparing the idea with the thing.

    The long version is:

    [T]he difficulty constantly facing every theoretician lies in understanding what it is that links knowledge (the totality of concepts, theoretical constructions, and ideas) and its subject matter together, and whether the one agrees with the other, and whether the concepts on which a person relies corresponds to something real, lying outside his consciousness? And can that, in general, be tested? And if so, how?
    The problems are really very complicated. An affirmative answer, for all its seeming obviousness, is not quite so simple to prove; and as for a negative answer, it proves possible to back it up with very weighty arguments, such as that, since an object is refracted in the course of its apprehension through the prism of the “specific nature” of the organs of perception and reason, we know any object only in the form it acquires as a result of this refraction. The “existence” of things outside consciousness is thus by no means necessarily rejected. One thing “only” is rejected, the possibility of verifying whether or not such things are “in reality” as we know and understand them. It is impossible to compare the thing as it is given in consciousness with the thing outside consciousness, because it is impossible to compare what I know with what I don’t know, what I do not see, what I do not perceive, what I am not aware of. Before I can compare my idea of a thing with the thing, I must also be aware of the thing, i.e. must also transform it into an idea. As a result I am always comparing and contrasting only ideas with ideas, although I may think that I am comparing the idea with the thing. E. V. Ilyenkov. Dialectical logic. Essays on Its History and Theory. Progress Publishers. Moscow. 1977. (p. 16-17)

    • November 19, 2018 at 5:54 pm

      So the map is not the territory and the territory isn’t even the territory.
      I think the seminal error is stating what things are not. That’s an editorial comment not a starting point for logical construction.
      State what a map is and build from there.

      • Craig
        November 19, 2018 at 8:06 pm

        Man thinks he’s conscious, but he’s actually barely so. Intellect, abstraction and sensation are epi-phenomena of consciousness not the other way around. Better to wall gaze until you come so thoroughly into present time for the first time since you were 1 year old that you have reality on it (consciousness itself) and then rigorously examine the temporal universe from that re-discovered utterly unbiased experience.

  8. November 28, 2018 at 11:32 am

    In 1998 The American Physical Society adopted a definition of science for its members to consider. The Society considered the statement necessary as a response to pseudoscience becoming so popular and due to many public confusions about science. The proposal was rejected by APS members. APS made no effort to follow up.

    PROPOSAL: What is Science?
    Science extends and enriches our lives, expands our imagination and liberates us from the bonds of ignorance and superstition. The endorsing societies wish to affirm the precepts of modern science that are responsible for its success. Science is the systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the world and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories.
    The success and credibility of science is anchored in the willingness of scientists to:
    1. Expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by other scientists. This requires the complete and open exchange of data, procedures and materials.
    2. Abandon or modify accepted conclusions when confronted with more complete or reliable experimental evidence. Adherence to these principles provides a mechanism for self-correction that is the foundation of the credibility of science.
    Accepted as a proposal by the Council of The American Physical Society 11/15/98
    Consider this regarding causation. Most facts have many different, possible, alternative explanations, but we want to find the best of all contrastive (since all real explanation takes place relative to a set of alternatives) explanations. In fact, there is no means, and never has been for humans to pick the “best” explanation. Our approach to causation needs to change. Causation is not a thing. It is a story. A story that explains within the framework of a specific culture how events or actors relate to one another, and how both relate to human society. For example, every society have a creation story that explains the origins of that society and its place in the “universe.” That’s causation, a story. A believable story we can share.

    • Rob
      November 7, 2019 at 10:49 pm

      No wonder it was ultimately rejected, The opening sentence reads more like a cult or religion than a statement of what science is. Chocked full of value judgments that are ultimately contextual and relative.
      This part I think is good:

      Science is the systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the world and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories.
      The success and credibility of science is anchored in the willingness of scientists to:
      1. Expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by other scientists. This requires the complete and open exchange of data, procedures and materials.
      2. Abandon or modify accepted conclusions when confronted with more complete or reliable experimental evidence. Adherence to these principles provides a mechanism for self-correction that is the foundation of the credibility of science.

      Everything following it is, well, warmed over Yuval Noah Harari; only all sauce no meat.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 8, 2019 at 2:14 am

        Rob, read Harari again. In my view, he makes only one major error in his review of Sapiens’ history. He attempts to exclude science from the everyday life of that species. Creating value judgments and stories to explain them and how humans use them is what Sapiens does. Even your reactions to the value judgments and stories in the APS statement on science are value judgments and stories. No escape. Choose another species on another planet. Maybe get a different result.

      • Rob
        November 8, 2019 at 5:28 am

        I have read all three of his books and I see no need to read him over. While I agree with many of your statements Ken I don’t agree essentially with your extreme social constructivism and claims about reality, science, or the nature of causality.
        Indeed, we cannot escape value judgments; but that is a given, isn’t it? So that is really not saying much, in my view. Nothing I (and many others) don’t already know.
        On some ideas and concepts I agree; but on what I consider important other ideas a concepts I don’t agree with your value judgements and conclusions. But that is neither here nor there.
        You would reduce science to mere story telling, your “story” being the one you evangelize with religious zeal. It is your religion, so-to-speak.
        Indeed you are right about one thing though; human creativity and imagination are the root cause of uncertainty in economics and it would be well for the field of economics to become more observant of what motivates and causes those human behaviors that lead to either healthy economic relations or unhealthy economic relations instead of searching for a secret law of economics if only they can find the mathesis universalis.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 8, 2019 at 11:51 am

        Rob, as you say, we all make value judgments. Everyone knows this. Anthropologists want to understand how one vs. another value judgment is made. Why people use mythical reasoning sometimes, empirical reasoning at other times, for example. Both are human inventions, stories about how things work, so it’s not that one is right and the other wrong. It’s the choice humans make to use one and not the other in a particular time and place that interests anthropologists. An interest shared with historians. You, in my view do a great disservice both to people and to the social sciences when you use the adjective “mere” to describe humans’ stories. They’re mere in the same way humans’ imagination is mere. I’ve tried to use the terminology of economics when commenting on this blog. Afterall that terminology is part of the story economists create. Truth be told; however, I’d prefer the language of anthropology in terms of human choices (judgments) rather than the language of uncertainty. With this focus, I can ask questions about who makes choices, how they make them, and why.

  9. November 8, 2019 at 8:44 am

    Missed this one! (2018/11/18).

    Interesting to compare Lar’s Gelmanism with Francis Bacon’s original real-world concept in “The Advancement of Learning” (1604). My paraphrase of what Bacon was advocating was not “reasoning” but “taking things to bits to see how they worked”.

    Interesting too on Ken’s view that science is just about story telling. In the wake of the Reformation, Bacon as Lord Chancellor was faced with dispossessed and homeless people on a massive scale, and he advocated focussing on what we now call science rather than religious good will in order to find new ways of employing them. Hence his splendid summary of the aims of the new forms of science he was proposing: “for the glory of God and the relief of Man’s estate”.

    Sad that capitalists, following Adam Smith into unnecessary mass production of rubbish in search of wealth, sidelined both God and Man in their pursuit of the siren of Money.


    • Rob
      November 8, 2019 at 11:06 am

      Dave, I am not sure it is accurate or wise to project today’s situation back onto Adam Smith; he did after all write another book The Theory of Moral Sentiments which stands in contrast to his Wealth of Nations. Regardless, his actual ideas have certainly been cherry picked and taken out of context by modern market fundamentalists.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      November 8, 2019 at 11:42 am

      Yes, Dave Bacon seems to have favored going to the smallest parts of things. Or, at least the smallest parts that could be uncovered. But why did he make this choice? Rather than looking at the whole of a thing to learn about what it is. That’s my first question. And on Bacon’s summary of his new form of science, my initial question would be, how did Bacon conclude the two were compatible? Finally, how did capitalists (and others) conclude that wealth from mass production was preferable to either Bacon’s Godly science or the general welfare of Sapiens? Seems counter intuitive to me. Unlike you Dave, I sometimes have few answers, but always a lot of questions.

      • November 8, 2019 at 1:08 pm

        Try putting yourself in other people’s shoes! But here’s some programmatic advice from a wiser man than me. [GKC in “Orthodoxy” discussing “The Suicide of Thought”].

        “We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers”.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 8, 2019 at 3:18 pm

        But will the answers help the peoples who need answers?

      • November 9, 2019 at 12:04 am

        Ken, try putting yourself in Bacon’s shoes. He was writing in 1604, the microscope was invented in 1590. But Bacon’s physician Harvey going against the old Christian tradition of considering the body sacred and cutting it up to see how it worked resulted in the discovery of the circulation of the blood, which by now at least is helping lots of people who need their doctors to know that. And try putting yourselves in an 18-19th century capitalist’s shoes. Most of them didn’t PREFER wealth to Bacon’s science, they didn’t care enough about either their Creator or Sapiens to bother making the comparison.

        I’ve got a question for you! Why did you (as you always do) spoil my significant contribution to this debate by following it up with your negativity? Rob above seems to be feeling the same, and previous contributors are increasingly conspicuous by their absence.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 9, 2019 at 1:13 am

        Dave, however you put it, the capitalists chose a path. Why did they go that direction rather than another? Thanks for the comment on Bacon and early western science. If I take it correctly, Bacon was simply following the contrarian path marked out by that science. Was he a zealot or just a “take the easy way” person? Or did he have some other reasons for following the early scientists? And I cannot put myself in Bacon’s shoes. No one can. But I can read the literature of early scientists, including Bacon and of the culture in which that science developed. Including the history of western culture before science came.

        As to negativity, I call it reality. Something that’s supposedly a focus of this blog. How can asking the basic question, “But will the answers help the peoples who need answers?” be negative? Unless of course these peoples’ concerns don’t interest you.

      • Robert Locke
        November 9, 2019 at 10:43 am

        “Roger Bacon
        Order of Friars Minor
        Born c. 1219/20[n 1]
        near Ilchester, Somerset, England
        Died c. 1292[2][3] (aged about 72)
        near Oxford, Oxfordshire, England
        Nationality English
        Alma mater University of Oxford
        Era Medieval philosophy
        Region Western philosophy
        School Scholasticism
        Main interests
        Natural philosophy
        Notable ideas
        Experimental science
        Roger Bacon OFM (/ˈbeɪkən/;[6] Latin: Rogerus or Rogerius Baconus, Baconis, also Frater Rogerus; c. 1219/20 – c. 1292), also known by the scholastic accolade Doctor Mirabilis, was a medieval English philosopher and Franciscan friar who placed considerable emphasis on the study of nature through empiricism. In the early modern era, he was regarded as a wizard and particularly famed for the story of his mechanical or necromantic brazen head. He is sometimes credited (mainly since the 19th century) as one of the earliest European advocates of the modern scientific method. Bacon applied the empirical method of Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) to observations in texts attributed to Aristotle. Bacon discovered the importance of empirical testing when the results he obtained were different than those that would have been predicted by Aristotle.[7][8] (Aristotle had never performed experiments to verify his explanations of his observations of nature; in ancient times, constructing an artificial situation was not considered a valid way to discover the laws of nature.)”

        Dave, Ken, if you want to look at Francis Bacon, look at Roger Bacon,. I did when I studied medieval history with Lynn White Jr. at UCLA.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 9, 2019 at 11:35 am

        Thank you, Robert. Very helpful. I have limited knowledge of early science in Europe.

      • November 9, 2019 at 12:31 pm

        Robert, thank you for the detail, especially of the Arab connection. I was of course well aware of Roger Bacon,’s empiricism, but so what? I’m an empirical scientist myself, being given other people’s conclusions, occasionally finding them wanting, and reaching my own conclusions in light of my own background knowledge and observations, whether or not that sets me at odds with those invested in fashionable views.

      • Craig
        November 9, 2019 at 4:44 pm

        When in doubt integrate…and keep on integrating.

      • Robert Locke
        November 10, 2019 at 10:27 am

        The point about Roger Bacon, White stressed, is that that the people at Oxford, as empiricists, stood in mark contrast to the followers of the Scholastics, e..g., St Thomas Acquinas, in Paris, and hence that it might just be that Francis Bacon learned from this Oxford tradition about scienticic method that White highlighted, since it was part of the Oxford tradition.

      • Robert Locke
        November 10, 2019 at 10:46 am

        Fifty years ago this month, at the 133rd annual meeting of the
        Do you know White. He was an inspiring teacher and a thought inducing member of my PhD committee. He was in my wriittens. To you extent can Europe civilization, 1050-1350, be called Christian.”

        “AAAS held in Washington DC, a fifty-nine-year old historian of medieval science and technology dropped an intellectual bomb, sending jarring reverberations still felt today. On the evening of December 26th, 1966, Lynn White Jr. climbed the steps to the stage and took his place behind the podium. His address was published as “The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” in March of 1967 (1). Within just a few years of its publication, the article was already considered a ‘classic;’ and over time it would elicit dozens of responses, be frequently reprinted in textbooks, and become standard reading in a wide array of university environmental courses.

        In his essay, and later in a follow up essay entitled “Continuing the Conversation” (2), White conveyed a deceptively simple yet profound message. Our current environmental crisis, he argued, is the result, not simply of our technological ability to impact and degrade the environment. Rather, our environmental crisis is first and foremost the product of our Western worldview. That is, our problem is fundamentally philosophical or ideological: we bring our ideas about the world into existence, ideas about what humans are, what the world is, and how the human and the non-human world ought to interact. To put it simply, and in White’s words, “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them” (1). Until we “think about fundamentals,” “clarify our thinking,” “rethink our axioms,” White said, we will not adequately address our environmental crisis.

        Though White focused his critique on our interpretation of the human/nature relationship as manifest specifically in the Judeo-Christian tradition, his point was more foundational. This was a challenging message in part because it ran so contrary to what so many believed. If our problems are primarily philosophical, they are not primarily scientific, or technological, or political, or economic. Those societal structures are the secondary artifacts of our deeper Western worldview, they do not touch or change it, they only embody and reinforce it. Our problems are not going to be solved, therefore, simply by the application of more science and technology. To many scientists this assertion alone was blasphemy, as they reflexively assume the starring role in problem-understanding and -solving. Our problems are instead, White suggested, the expression of a specific Western, post-Enlightenment worldview that both draws a hard and fast boundary between humans and nature, and prioritized humans over nature at all turns. A failure to alter that worldview is a failure to address the roots of our environmental problems.”

    • November 10, 2019 at 1:35 pm

      Robert, I have seen Lyn White’s thesis, if not where I thought to find it (in James Lovelock’s “The Ages of Gaia”, I found Lyn Margulis). White has stirred a lot of Christian consciences, but I think he was wrong to blame the Judeo-Christian tradition rather than the dominance of the “sensory” personalities characteristic of “the chattering classes”. Lovelock portrays a different picture of the pre-Reformation Christian tradition in the epilogue to the book I’ve mentioned.

      “So why should I fret over the destruction of a countryside that is, at most, a few thousand years old and soon to vanish again? I do so because the English countryside was a great work of art; as much a sacrament as the cathedrals, music and poetry.”

      Having regretted the influence of 19th century writer Thomas Hardy’s tragedy-laden portrayal of the countryside, Lovelock says:

      “The England I knew as a child and a young man was breathtakingly beautiful, hedgerows and small copses were abundant, and small streams and rivers teemed with fish and fed the otters. It inspired generations of poets to make coherent the feelings we could not ourselves express. Yet that landscape of England was no natural ecosystem; it was a nation-sized garden, wonderfully and carefully tended”.

      I myself came from the city of Blake’s “dark, satanic mills” and settled in part of that garden, laid out as an exemplar in the Christian tradition begun c. 500 a.d. by Benedictine monks. This sadly means nothing to today’s urban developers: pursuing golden eggs but happy to kill the goose which laid them.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 11, 2019 at 9:28 am

        Robert and Dave, my focus is another part of White’s essay I consider to be his basic lesson for us. “All forms of life modify their contexts.” Humans add another aspect to that modification. Humans add culture arising from human imagination and creativity. Humans don’t just modify what’s around them by living with it, but by contextualizing it within human constructed notions about what literally exists, what is and is not, what’s important and what’s not, what justifies some life forms living while others die, and, of course, the place of humans in all this. What makes this work particularly powerful is that it is unchallenged. No other animal on Earth can offer any challenge, any alternative to it. Humans create themselves and the world in which they live, and then judge their work. They negotiate the world among themselves. And those negotiations are never fair, between human and nonhuman or between human and human. White is right to say we need to re-think the current results of those negotiations. But he provides few clues as to how to begin that process.

        My suggestions for how to fix the problems White identifies are quite simple, even compared to White’s essay. First, stop rewarding actions and concepts we don’t want repeated or spread, such as greed, selfishness, bullying, etc. Second, reward (mostly in a non-monetary manner) actions and concepts we do want repeated and spread, such as generosity, empathy, community first, etc. We missed a wonderful teaching opportunity during the 2008 financial crisis when bank officials who manipulated bank resources to benefit themselves and/or rich bank investors were not tried on criminal charges. This takes me to my third suggestion – hold every person accountable for the impacts of their actions and the actions of the institutions they control that hurt society. People need to understand and believe that those who engage in such actions will be brought to public account. For example, Donald Trump has engaged in dozens of fraud actions, some even self-confessed to the media but has thus far never been charged in a criminal court. If NYC prosecutors are honest in their recent statements, that will change after he leaves the presidency.

        Finally, allow me to address Dave’s concerns about my view of religion. It is my conclusion that on balance religions have harmed humans and human societies far more than benefited them for at least the last 2,000 years. I’m open to examining religion’s past and current role in human societies. Just not here or now.

      • Meta Capitalism
        November 12, 2019 at 6:48 am

        During the first half of the twentieth century totalitarian secular materialism as embodied in communism, fascism, and Nazism killed more human beings than were killed during the whole of the Christian dispensation up to that time. They used the power of science to kill in levels of mass destruction unheard of in human history. And today we have the scientific power of nuclear weapons and are capable of destroying the entire human species.

        I think Ken is blinded by a hatred of religion that is self-evident when he trots out militant atheists like Sam Harris to make the point science doesn’t provide certainty, as he did in the past.

        Ken has openly said he holds both philosophy and religion in contempt. So let’s not be phished for phools when he trots out pseudo-intellectual attempts to use science as patina or venier for his prejudiced militant athiesm.

        There exists a vast body of professional literature in both the domains of comparative religion and the philosophy of religion that call into question his many canards and old tropes about religion.

        Ken acts exactly like the other Oracles of Science who would subtly preach his own religion in place of the real science that recognizes it careful, restrained, tentative nature that sticks to facts.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 12, 2019 at 12:43 pm

        Meta, my comments you reference are about religions. Not secular materialism, fascism, Nazism, etc. All of which I count as cults — religious bodies. But even excluding them from that “bucket,” the standard religions of Europe lead to the deaths of about 200,000,000 people over the thousand years beginning in 1100 CE. That’s one reason I say religion has harmed more than helped people over its history. The other reason is that religions have been one of the major factors in creating and maintaining poverty in the western world, while also promoting non-democratic governments.

        I’m neutral about religions in terms of “private” dogmas. But I’m not neutral about the great pain and suffering they’ve caused Sapiens. This I cannot forgive. As to philosophy it’s not contempt I feel but rather a regret that so much time and effort is wasted on it. I’m acquainted with philosophers who improve life and understanding among humans, and help humans live better with nonhumans but they also have “real” jobs aside from philosophy as novelists, play writes, journalists, etc.

        I’ve read lots of treaties and investigations claiming to show the value and need for religion and philosophy. Always happy to read more. Send the references along.

        People create religions, and they create facts and science. In other words, people have done this to themselves. Although the decision making was not always equally shared. In fact, in many instances only “elites” got any say on which religion or philosophy controlled their lives.

      • November 11, 2019 at 10:27 am

        Ken, what you say of religion can with even more truth be said of Bacon’s well-meant science. What you don’t mention is my argument: that using good things for bad purposes is down more to personality differences than to the social institutions you discuss so indiscriminately.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 11, 2019 at 10:54 am

        Dave, you’ll get no argument from me that science is replacing or has replaced religion as the “ultimate” guide. So, yes on balance science has been more harmful than helpful for humans and human societies. But what’s your answers to two simple questions. First, what is a good thing and a bad purpose and how do we distinguish the two. Or, can we? Second, what’s the origins of personality differences and how are these distinguished from institutions? Or, can they be?

      • November 11, 2019 at 12:33 pm

        “You are old, Father William, the young man said …
        And yet you incessantly stand on your head.
        Do you think at your age that is right?

        “I have answered three questions, and that is enough”
        said his Father. “Don’t give yourself airs.
        Do you think I can listen all day to this stuff?
        Be off or I’ll kick you downstairs”!

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 11, 2019 at 12:56 pm

        No, Dave you haven’t answered these questions. But I wish you would at least try.

      • Robert Locke
        November 12, 2019 at 8:48 am

        Don’t try to separate religion from secular inhumanity; unfortunately, until today, Christians have made pacts with the devils, continuously; with autocratic monarchs against democratic Republics, which is one reason Americans have been so suspicious of the pope, with Fascist Italy, with Fascist Germany and Spain; as long as the autocratic state protected the hierarchy. Right now, the Church is in with the Polish fascists against the European union; and in the 19th century, the Papal Zouvaes fought Italian democracy. So don’t make some fine distinction between secular and religious when it comes to mass killing. In my house, my wife thinks religion is the source of mass murder; she is unshakable in this belief; I’m the moderate here. But she grew up in the Soviet Union and Poland.

      • Meta Capitalism
        November 12, 2019 at 9:25 am

        Robert (November 12, 2019 at 8:48 am ),
        You are exactly correct that to try to play this game of making a distinction between secular inhumanity vs. religious inhumanity (that was my exact point) is like the vacuous argument that argues Muslims are the more guilty than Christians when it is really, for the historian, a matter of which period of time one is looking. It is in the popular culture common to hear Buddhists never engage in violence (although that is a bit harder today given some recent history in Southeast Asia), when in fact history is replete with examples of sectarian violence even in the Buddhist tradition. But here is where your correct point fails; it fails to distinguish between institutional religion and personal religious experience; it fails to account for the fact that at any one point in time in history there has been a diversity of beliefs, practices, and exemplars in every religious tradition (I include humanist, atheism, as a ‘religious’ tradition, because I define religion as ‘that which one holds of supreme value’ to the point one evangelizes it in one’s life to others and the world). So, to play this ignorant and silly game that Ken plays, that “on balance science has been more harmful than helpful for humans and human societies” doesn’t stand up under more nuanced, careful, historical analysis. It is a matter of what blinders (prejudice) one chooses to wear. The poet/mystics have existed in all faith-traditions, and the saints have much in common (including the humanist and atheist saints) and when one puts on blinders because of personal historical experience with the negative aspects of institutional and authoritarian religion one blinds oneself to this larger truth.

      • November 12, 2019 at 11:52 am

        Thank you, Metacapitalism. You have stated this argument much more articulately than I can.

      • Meta Capitalism
        November 12, 2019 at 1:06 pm

        the standard religions of Europe lead to the deaths of about 200,000,000 people over the thousand years beginning in 1100 CE. ~ Ken Zimmermans ex cathedra pseudo-science masquerading as science

        I note you cite no source Ken in your ignorant game of trying to pretend science has calculated this number and all can be laid at the feet of a generic boogeyman called “religion,” without ever considering the nature, history, and context of the many manifestations of religion(s) over the history of mankind itself.
        Your dogma is no different that the dogma of the most dogmatic of institutional religion. Your false pretense to science is hallow and empty. Your rhetoric that pretends to be scientific is well described in the Oracles of Science and many other works that expose this kind of extremist rhetoric ungrounded in evidence or fact.
        You would blindly lump all religion in every age the same no doubt, in this ignorant form of militant atheisms masquerading as science.
        But such is not scholarship nor science nor truth or fact. It is ideology; a form of religious fanaticism and blind dogmatism, every bit as destructive as that which you rail against.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 12, 2019 at 2:37 pm

        Exact numbers are difficult to pin down. But it goes like this. 50 to 90 million indigenous people killed in North and South America and Asia in the conversion to Christianity. 5 million from witch hunts. 1,000,000 perished during the early Arian schism; 1,000,000 during the Carthaginian struggle; 7 million during the Saracen slaughters. In Spain 5 million perished during the eight Crusades; 2,000,000 of Saxons and Scandinavians lost their lives in opposing the introduction of the blessings of Christianity. 1,000,000 were destroyed in the Holy Wars against the Netherlands, Albigenses, Waldenses, and Huguenots. Plus another few million killed in local sectarian riots and massacres. Plus another 25-30 million during nearly 100 years of schism wars in Russia. I can’t venture even a guess on how many Muslims were killed by European Crusaders. What’s your problem. You believe Christians only kill justly?

      • Robert Locke
        November 13, 2019 at 9:03 am

        Dave, Ken, and Metacapm if we live thoughtful lives, we all know that the christian hierarchies would have crucified christ if he reappeared on this earth with the same message. Saintly souls are to be found hidden in religious groups.

        But what are we to do when organized religion links with the privileged orders? In 1992, when we had a Polish Festival at the University of Hawaii, I taught a course on Polish history in that 3 month program, and I gave a public lecture as part of it. In my public lecture I pointed out that the Polish Catholic Church was in a great position in 1991 to play a key reformative role in creating a moral order in post=communism poland, if the church did not ally itself, as it always did before, with repressive political and social institutions. But I ended my talk by predicting that the Polish church would not have the courage to pursue the public interest instead of its own. And I was right.

  10. November 9, 2019 at 9:33 am

    Dear Readers, to be fair to Ken I need to put myself in his and your shoes to consider whether it his negativity or my taking you beyond your comfort zone which is silencing you. (Or am I leaving nothing to be said)? Are Ken’s Humean anti-religious prejudices his version of my wife’s excuse for not listening to my answers: that because she does not already understand me, she never will? Yet for all their subvertive intent, Ken’s questions have got ME thinking, thereby bringing the microscope into this discussion of the search for causality.

    It has been said that the aim of a good teacher is not to pass on fashionable opinions but to enable his students to think for themselves. Jesus used parables, J S Mill and J H Newman hid profound insights in exhaustive discussions, G K Chesterton delighted some of us with “serious jokes”. This last was my intention in a comment on “The Great Transformation”, repeated here for convenience:

    “Pretty invariant is the law that in order to keep living, one must eat. Almost equally invariant is the fact that, lacking a peacock’s feathers, more than half the monetary economy is devoted to men keeping their women happy displaying the like of pretty clothes, fine rings, posh cars and splendid houses. I’ve not seen the significance of that noticed by any economist! ”

    Calgagus reminded me of Veblen on “Conspicuous Consumption”, which brings me to the point here. I’m a Brit with a local history predating the Romans, Ken is an American where the history is of cowboys and indians and business big enough to drive railroads across a Continent. In Britain Veblen is a rare import, in the US Bacon is virtually pre-historical. (As indeed, since America financially won World War I, he has become in Britain: I chanced upon him second-hand, having heard rumours of his significance). No wonder, then, that Ken and I get at cross purposes and others turn away (in disgust?); yet surely we should be seeing questions and seeking answers from each other? As it took me about twenty years to really understand Chesterton, perhaps the biblical psalmist (songster) had it right on causality: “We plant seeds in sorrow, but will harvest them with joy”.

    • November 10, 2019 at 8:31 am

      A brief word on “serious jokes”. Academia’s algorithm has worked out that my interests are Marxist. Actually they are not. In pursuit of his materialist philosophy Marx rubbished More’s “Utopia”, which I first read for myself in the Burns, Oates edition. The introduction of that made it quite clear that Utopia was not (as Marx has it) a blueprint for “pie in the sky”, but a serious joke. The scathing criticism in Book 1 of worsening social conditions in Tudor England is contrasted in Book 2 with an imaginary island economy – newly discovered, so devoid of Christianity, but not of common sense,. This builds up to the scathing punch line: that supposedly Christian England had become a land where “sheep eat men”.

  11. Meta Capitalism
    November 12, 2019 at 2:59 pm

    According to Tambiah (1990) anthropologists propose that “a person can in a certain context behave mystically, and then switch in another context to a practical empirical everyday frame of mind.” …. This legacy poses two problems of immediate concern for anthropology: how do we get beyond the artificial dichotomy that separates Western and non-Western forms of knowledge, simultaneously discrediting and romanticizing the latter; and how are logical/empirical and mystical/magical aspects of thought related, in all traditions? Perhaps we have begun to see that the distance separating the scientist and the shaman is not so great as was once imagined…. In other words, it appears the structures of reason in myth and magic are not fundamentally different from those of science.
    (Ken Zimmerman, 11/8/2019, RWER, Conflating Magic, Shamanism, and Science)

    One really wonders if anthropology is as lost in its own imaginary world as mainstream economics (but I don’t take Ken as an exemplar, so I withhold judgment). The psychobabble above that conflates magic, soothsaying, and shamanism with science is nonsense masquerading as erudite informed knowledge. We know a lot about the history of religion and if one wants to understand it really take a few good courses in the history of religion from reputable universities, which have little in common with nonsense above espoused by Ken. There is a long history of religion and science and the study and recognition that the material world is not being animated by spirits but is dependable and law abiding as the writings of early Greek thought attest. Increasingly as civilization advanced in knowledge about the material universe they have followed in the footsteps of the earliest Greeks distinguished between the inanimate and animate. Science must always be grounded in reason, although imagination and conjecture are helpful in the extension of its borders. Yet, as Ken proves so perfectly in his conflation of magic and shamanism with science there has always been misleading interpretations of the phenomena of the natural world by those who claim to be scientists as well as religionists. Ken’s conflation reminds me more creationist’s rhetoric than reasonable thoughtful science. Ken regularly makes false statements regarding the history of science playing loose with the facts; to wit Darwin invented evolution (false) when evolution as an idea long preceded Darwin; he merely formulated (and in parallel with Wallace) the idea of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution.

    I agree with Sam Harris’ assessment, although Muslims are not the only people committing acts of violence based on religious convictions. That is today a primary form of political (religious) expression.
    Mr. Harris is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University and holds a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA, where he studied the neural basis of belief with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). He is also a Co-Founder and CEO of Project Reason. ~ Ken Zimmerman trotting out a militant atheist who’s schtick is to go around arguing all religion is bunkum, RWER

    Ken always finds the worst in religion; his militant atheism can see it no other way. He goes out his way to trot out a militant atheist whose primary schtick is to argue religion is false period, full stop. That is not conducive to an intelligent, scholarly, let alone reasonable discussion of religion. He then trots out unearned plausibility (appeal to authority) that Sam Harris studied the neural basis of belief with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). If one didn’t know any better they might think this is earned, but it is not, and it is more pseudoscience than science:

    The related field of social neuroscience-bringing science-bringing the methods of cognitive neuroscience to the study of the social life of organisms-has more recently shown the same explosive growth (see, for example, Cacioppo and Berntson 2002). (Luca Tommasi; Mary A. Peterson; Lynn Nadel. Cognitive Biology: Evolutionary and Developmental Perspectives on Mind, Brain, and Behavior (Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology) (Kindle Locations 110-111). Kindle Edition. )
    Although this success is fully deserved, and insights into the understanding of mental phenomena have come from brain imaging studies (and the other way around), the mind-brain coupling is subject to serious temptations: the standard cognitive neuroscience formula (mental phenomenon + imaging = fabulous discovery) has been applied quite liberally, and often incautiously, to the brain correlates of justice, beauty, and truth, to name but a few examples. Neuroimaging incursions in the most fundamental corners of human cultural complexity are literally flourishing: labels such as “neuroethics,” “neuroaesthetics,” “neuropolitics,” or “neurotheology” increasingly populate late scientific journals and academic publications, and one has the feeling that belief in the explanatory power of human neuroscience may exceed the genuine knowledge being returned by these disciplinary joint ventures. Weisberg and colleagues (2008) have recently shown that nonexperts judge explanations of psychological phenomena as more satisfying when they include neuroscientific information, even when that information is logically irrelevant. Most worrisome is the striking ability of neuroscientific information to mask bad explanations. (Luca Tommasi; Mary A. Peterson; Lynn Nadel. Cognitive Biology: Evolutionary and Developmental Perspectives on Mind, Brain, and Behavior (Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology) (Kindle Locations 111-116). Kindle Edition. )

    Real scientists are beholden to make honest statements as Tommasi et. al. make above; pseudo-scientists not so much if at all. Morison and Shapiro () in Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities, aptly describes the kind of unearned plausibility he slings around as pseudoscientific rhetoric on this blog most regularly:

    As Deirdre McCloskey has pointed out, economic argument, like that of many fields, relies on rhetoric often unrecognized as such.48 In each historical period, there is always a set of terms that add unearned plausibility to a claim. “Studies have shown,” “computer models prove,” “brain scans demonstrate”: these are the magic words of our time. Like social Darwinism in the late nineteenth century, this phraseology seems persuasive because it is new, and it is ours. (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (p. 42). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)
    If you say “people like sweet things and will expend effort to taste them,” it seems like a truism hardly worth saying at all. But say “brain scans show that the pleasure neurons of the such-and-such region of the cerebral cortex light up in the presence of substances with a sweetness index as high or higher than 1.0, and that oxytocin is released when neurons associated with anticipation and focused attention are activated” and it sounds more scientific without adding any real information. Say with wonder “do you know that some forms of learning actually change the brain?” and people forget they always knew that. What else could learning change, the kidney? By such rhetoric, those who would mystify us—or have mystified themselves—may lend unearned authority to weak ideas, or unwanted significance to trivial ones. Economists and other social scientists are not immune to such self-mystification. We need to recognize when that is the case. The present volume offers some tools for recognizing signs that increased skepticism is in order. (Morson, Gary Saul. Cents and Sensibility (pp. 42-43). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)

    • Ken Zimmerman
      November 13, 2019 at 9:35 am

      Meta, you seem lost. Perhaps the subtleties of human interactions and societies are too difficult for you to grasp. Anthropologists have been studying these interactions and societies for over 200 years. You certainly have the right to believe their work is absurd, but that conclusion reflects more your inadequacies that those of anthropologists. The anthropology of religion and science are enlightening, much more so than similar studies that do not exist in either religion or science. You seem to be very attached to religion. And maybe science, too. Your statements on that are confusing. I suggest you get unattached, quickly, so you can have some broader perspective to see science and religion more clearly. For example, your starting point in considering science is 100% off. Science doesn’t begin with reason! It’s not grounded in reason. Science begins with people. It’s grounded in people. People create both reason and science. Study those processes of invention to learn about the history of science.

      Again, if you would stop huffing and puffing for a moment, you’d discover that anthropologists are major critics of neuroscience. Many conclude it’s not even near being a mature science and thus its findings should be taken for application purposes with great care and checking. The human brain is an interactive actor. Human brains cannot become “human” brains without interactions with other humans, which is of course beyond the grasp of any brain scan and is not yet even considered in neuroscience. Human brains are also adaptive. Even when the biology says certain parts of a brain are too damaged to function, the brain often finds ways to adapt, even changing itself so at least some functions believed lost can be recovered. Interactions with other humans, and even nonhumans sometimes play a role in creating these adaptations.

      You also seem to want to draw a clear dividing line between science and the magical/mystical. Between reason/science and intuitive understanding. After hundreds of years looking at how people create themselves, their societies, their cultures, Anthropologists concluded long ago that such a separation is not possible. And, if it were, those who made it would no longer be human.

      I’m concluding with some of the more pungent bullshit you put out.
      1. “Ken regularly makes false statements regarding the history of science playing loose with the facts; to wit Darwin invented evolution (false) when evolution as an idea long preceded Darwin; he merely formulated (and in parallel with Wallace) the idea of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution.” If you’ll read the entire paragraph from which you lifted this small part, you’ll see I agree that Anthropologists and others considered the notion of evolution long before Darwin ‘invented’ it.
      2. Instead of denigrating me for agreeing with Sam Harris, put forth some facts that challenge Harris’ view. As to finding the “worst” in religion, there’s a lot of it to find in religions.

      • November 13, 2019 at 11:26 am

        Ken doesn’t believe in truth, so his disregard of it is hardly surprising. People die, and they have done so more from lack of immunity to imported infections, and self-righteous hypocrites believing in their own lies, and primitive slaughter or isolation in physical and mental hygiene (misinformed by the hierarchical logic of caste systems), than from religious teachings about being grateful for what one already has, and loving even those who seem to want to be enemies.

        Bob, as religious cultures are just as vulnerable as any other, and more so to mud-slinging, no need for a Russian pot to call the Roman kettle black. What to do about Polish popery? As I see it we have a democracy in time, with honest brokers like Good Pope John trimming the ship from time to time. So, we too sow in sadness, but still find it worth living in hope.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        November 13, 2019 at 12:08 pm

        Dave, there are some facts mixed in your recitation, but I don’t see any truths.

  12. Robert Locke
    November 15, 2019 at 10:47 am

    My son, Ken, a theologian, who died at 45 from cancer, use to argue with a friend about science and religion; when his friend died, Ken said “now he knows.” I’ll be satisfied with the wait; it won’t be long.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      November 15, 2019 at 2:48 pm

      Robert, what I lived through in Vietnam, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon as a Marine has led me to conclude that I’m either going to die from sometime simple like an infected toe nail, or I’m going to live forever. I think the former if more likely. Maybe Shakespeare was right,
      To die:—to sleep:
      No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
      The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
      That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
      Devoutly to be wished.

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