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Certain decisions

from Peter Radford

One of the books I keep close by on the shelf is Paul Glimcher’s “Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain: The Science of Neuroeconomics”.  It dates back to 2004 and is one of those books that provides a glimpse of what a dialog between economic theory and psychology might produce.  More to the point it explores the issues surrounding economic decision making at a deep biological level.  It thus adds substantially to the behavioral explanation of economic activity.

Apart from making me think about the practical problems of decision making, one of the additional benefits I had from reading the book was that it introduced me to David Marr whose work was instrumental in the development of neuroscience. a few decades back.

Here’s a very long quote taken from Marr’s book “Vision” and I hope you can see its relevance to the plight of contemporary economics:

” Almost never can a complex system of any kind be understood as a simple extrapolation from the properties of its elementary components.  Consider, for example, some gas in a bottle.  A description of thermodynamic effects — temperature, pressure, density, and the relationship among these factors — is not formulated by using a large set of equations, one for each of the particles involved.  Such effects are described at their own level, that of an enormous collection of particles; the effort is to show that in principle the microscopic and the macroscopic descriptions are consistent with one another.  If one hopes to achieve a full understanding of a system as complicated as a nervous system, a developing embryo, a set of metabolic pathways, a bottle of gas, or even a large computer program, then one must be prepared to contemplate different kinds of explanation at different levels of description that are linked, at least in principle, into a cohesive whole even if linking the levels in complete detail is impractical.  For the specific case of a system that solves an information-processing problem there are in addition the twin strands of process and representation, and both these ideas need some discussion.”

One of the great failings in mainstream economics is its futile insistence that all theory must stand on the shoulders of what are called “micro foundations”.  Such an insistence is a clear denial of the complexity of a modern economy and that within such complexity phenomena worthy of study can emerge at different levels of detail.  Of course there is the additional issue that economists of this ilk also deny that the faux-psychology upon which they construct those micro-foundations is naively simple and hopelessly inadequate.  Yes, behavioral economics is beginning to change that, but the damage being done every day by the adherence to rational expectations based micro is too awful to contemplate.  Marr is clear that the macro and micro descriptions ought to be consistent, but that one follows necessarily from the other is not the same thing.  Need the micro must be consistent with the macro.  So descriptions developed at a more aggregate level ought inform our thinking lower down.

Not everything can be reduced to the decisions of individuals as if the interactions between individuals doesn’t produce phenomena of interest also.  Glimcher, of course, is writing his book at the level of the individual, and looking at the brain as a complex system, but Marr reminds us that emergence is something we need to deal with as we scale upwards through larger and larger aggregations of activity.

Mainstream economics has, by and large, obstinately refused to embrace such an approach.  By so doing it has denied itself the ability  to interpret or explain some aspects of the macro economy,  and has isolated itself from the kind of fresh thinking that might have helped it avoid the calamity of its failure prior to the 2008 crisis.

Until the entire concept of rationality is re-worked to adhere to real world experience and behavior, and until the consequences of complexity are fully brought on board, modern economics will continue to flail and will continue to decline in relevance.  So it will leave open the opportunity for other disciplines to offer more relevant and coherent explanations of economic activity — if they haven’t done so already.



For fans of the intersection between neuroscience and economics here is another quote I dug up from another Glimcher book.  On one of its early pages, as he describes the arc of progress in recent years, he remarks on a special conference issue of the journal of the Society for Neuroscience.  The editors, he says, write in their introduction:

” Within neuroscience, for example, we are awash with data that in many cases lack a coherent understanding … Conversely, in economics, it has become abundantly evident the pristine assumptions of the standard economic model — that individuals operate as optimal decision makers in maximizing utility — are in direct violation of even the most basic facts about human behavior.”

The gig’s up.

It is time to reinvent economics.

  1. Rob Reno
    March 25, 2019 at 1:15 am

    Great post. My oldest daughter and her husband are both studied neuroscience at the University of Washington in Seattle. I left my library on neuroscience with them when we moved to Japan. My youngest is following in her track but heading to McGill post biosciences at York in Toronto. Both physics and biology have had to come to terms with emergent phenomenon. The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology has been a wonderful resource in these studies. It seems the field of economics is confronted with seriously understanding the difference between Methodical Reductionism and Philosophical Reductionism, the former being able to discern emergent phenomenon requiring a higher level of analysis, while the latter is dead, dumb, and blind to higher levels of heirchical reality being trapped in Plato’s cave of mechanistic materials that insists all reducinle to the simple sum of it’s parts IF we just measure the right things. And you have not even touched the “hard problem” of neuroscience, a very much still open question (hard question of brain-mind).

  2. Rob Reno
    March 25, 2019 at 2:55 am

    Scientism: an exaggerated and often distorted conception of what science can be expected to do or explain for us. One aspect of scientism is the idea that any question that can be answered at all can best be answered by science. This, in turn, is very often combined with a quite narrow conception of what it is for an answer, or a method of investigation, to be scientific. Together these ideas imply a narrow and homogenous set of answers to the most diverse imaginable set of questions. Everywhere this implies a restriction of the powers of the mind; but nowwhere is this restriction more disastrous than in the mind’s attempts to answer questions about itself…. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, misguided approaches to the understanding of human behaviour, or human nature, are fraught with danger.

    (….) Although there are important dissenting tendencies within the [dismal] discipline of economics, there is also an overwhelming dominant hegemony. This is the conception of economics as the investigation of the consequences of individuals striving to maximize their selfish interests. And recently this selfish model of human life has increasingly been imported from it’s homeland in commodities markets and inflation rates, and offered as a path of insight into human life generally. As important as what a scientific programme emphasizes is what it leaves out.  (Dupre 2001, 1-3, Human Nature and the Limits of Science)

    Unconsiouly philosophical presuppositions can limit what we can see. A neuroscientist, Jonathan Cohen, offers some words of caution.

    When the scientist (real human experience) is left out if science, we end up with a distorted picture of human nature. Sometimes what we don’t know is more important to be aware of than what we THINK we know. Critical assumptions extrapolate erroneous beliefs at our own peril as a species. Science too can pose a danger when it loses sight of the very human it seems to understand.

    • Frank Salter
      March 25, 2019 at 8:26 am

      I am in complete agreement with what Rob Reno has said. However, valid science understands that physical world interactions are describable through mathematics. Other human responses are far less predictable. BUT economics must deal appropriately with both.

      • Rob Reno
        March 25, 2019 at 12:16 pm

        Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar said, “Catastrophe apart, I believe it to be science’s greatest glory that there is no limit upon the power of science to answer questions of the kind science can answer.” (P. B. Medawar, The Limits of Science, p. 87)

        Math alone does not make science “valid.” Logic is valid in the material world, and mathematics is reliable when limited in its application to physical reality; but neither logic nor math are to be regarded as wholly dependable or infallible when applied to life problems. Alfred Wegener proposed his theory of continental drift largely based on geological and paleontological observations; but the physicists who marshalled the math, forced the geologists to accept the doctrine that the earth was completely solid. Thus when Alfred Wegener proposed his theory of continental drift in 1912, it was rejected on grounds of physical impossibility (Brush 1996, 143) despite the fact that:

        The pieces of the puzzle, as geologists understand it today, were assembled by the end of the 1920s. Geologists had a phenomenon, they had evidence, and they had a mechanism. What was hailed as breakthrough knowledge in the 1960s—albeit on the basis of different evidence and with different justification—was proposed in the 1920s. (Oreskes, Naomi (1999) The Rejection of Continental Drift: Theory and Method in American Earth Science. Oxford University Press. p. 120)

        It matters little how accurate the math if the wrong things are measured for any given problem at hand, such as when “soft variables” (quality, rather than quantity) are the causal factors in a given outcome. How does one measure greed, lust for power and money, unethical behavior, which were more the root causal mechanisms of the Great Recession and the Global Financial Crisis than any correct mathematical analysis of capital, labor, etc. One is primary causation and the best mathematics can do is measure the effects of the secondary tsunami wave as it shutters factories and lays off family wage earners. To claim that measuring secondary physical effects of human behavior rooted in primary qualitative realities such as greed in the financial sector (excluded from the model[less] model, by the way, under the illogic is not the “real economy” when it is exactly what blew up the real world economy!) somehow makes an assertion “valid science” is like hiring lovely ladies to hold hot globes and pronounce upon such measurements we can now know the age of the earth:

        In order to determine the time at which the planets were formed and to calculate the cooling of the terrestrial globe, he engaged the services of four or five lovely, sweetly complexioned ladies; he had several globes of all sorts of materials and of all sorts of densities heated to red-hot, and these they held by turns in their delicate hands, reporting to him the degrees of the heat and the periods of cooling; and upon this fragile basis, he erected the most audacious of edifices. (Chevalier D’Aude, Via Privée du Comte De Buffon)

        Mathematics is to science what a hammer is to a carpenter. It is a man-made tool (a language invented as needed) with an uncanny power to accurately measure physical reality. But it is not the only tool in a scientists toolbox, albeit an essential one and indispensable for creating an intersubjective verifiable intelligent discussion of the material aspects of the cosmos. But it is not necessarily a part of the higher realization of truth. The recognition of emergent phenomenon is not dependent upon mathematics. The observation that not only in the realms of life but even in the world of physical energy, the sum of two or more things is very often something more than, or something different from, the predictable additive consequences of such unions. The entire science of mathematics, the whole domain of philosophy, the highest physics or chemistry, could not predict or know that the union of two gaseous hydrogen atoms with one gaseous oxygen atom would result in a new and qualitatively superadditive substance—liquid water.

        [T]he 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 and cultural complexity are literally flourishing: labels such as “neuroethics,” “neuroaesthetics,” “neuropolitics,” [or “neuroeconomics,] or “neurotheology” increasingly populate 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. (Tommasi, Luca et. al., eds. Cognitive Biology [Evolutionary and Developmental Perspectives on Mind, Brain, and Behavior]. Cambridge: MIT Press; 2008; p. 6.)


        Mathematicians, as far as I can see, are not terribly interested in the philosophy of mathematics. They often have philosophical views, but they are usually not very keen on challenging or developing them—they don’t usually consider this as worthy of too much effort. They’re also very suspicious of philosophers. Indeed, mathematicians know better than anyone else what it is that they’re doing. The idea of having a philosopher lecture them about it feels kind of silly, or even intrusive. (Roi 2017, 3)

        So we turn to people who have something to do with mathematics in their professional or daily lives, but are not focused on mathematics. Such people often have some sort of vague, sometimes naïve, conceptions of mathematics. One of the most striking manifestations of these folk views is the following: If I say something philosophical that people don’t understand, the default assumption is that I use big pretentious words to cover small ideas. If I say something mathematical that people don’t understand, the default assumption is that I’m saying something so smart and deep that they just can’t get it. (Roi 2017, 3-4)

        There’s an overwhelming respect for mathematics in academia and wider circles. So much so that bad, trivial, and pointless forms of mathematization are often mistaken for important achievements in the social sciences, and sometimes in the humanities as well. It is often assumed that all ambiguities in our vague verbal communication disappear once we switch to mathematics, which is supposed to be purely univocal and absolutely true. But a mirror image of this approach is also common. According to this view, mathematics is a purely mechanical, inhuman, and irrelevantly abstract form of knowledge. (Roi 2017, 4)

        I believe that the philosophy of mathematics should try to confront such naïve views. To do that, one doesn’t need to reconstruct a rational scheme underlying the way we speak of mathematics, but rather paint a richer picture of mathematics, which tries to affirm, rather than dispel, its ambiguities, humanity, and historicity. (Roi 2017, 4)

        (….) The uncritical idolizing of mathematics as the best model of knowledge, just like the opposite trend of disparaging mathematics as mindless drudgery, are both detrimental to the organization and evaluation of contemporary academic knowledge. Instead, mathematics should be appreciated and judged as one among many practices of shaping knowledge. (Roi 2017, 4-5)

      • Frank Salter
        March 25, 2019 at 4:49 pm

        I really do not understand the many ideas you now offer. Scientific theory is validated by its conforming to the empirical evidence. If the mathematics in use is correct then that is of itself a logical proof. The problem with the mathematics in economics is NOT the maths per se but the assumptions and the analysis actually describe some alternative universe with different physical properties. As I know of one paper cited more than 27,000 times which contains an elementary mathematical error which invalidates the analysis completely, I have little faith in the mathematical abilities of the academics involved.

        However it is NOT sufficient to blame the tool which appears to be done all too often.

      • Rob Reno
        March 26, 2019 at 12:20 am

        Nobody is blaming the tool and to suggest such reveals you miss the point of Roi et. al. regarding mathematics. But to fetishize it is to misuse it. It is the overconfidence in the tool combined with human hubris that have mislead some to depend upon it at the exclusion of other tools that sometimes are just as or more important. Not all economic causes are measurable via mathematics, and mathematics is not the only way of confirming empirical evidence. Not all human problems are physical problems nor can they be reduced to neat mathematical models. That is the dream of physicalists who adhere, consciously or unconsciously, to monistic materialism, a philosophical belief-framework not a scientific fact.

        Lars has plainly laid out how to make economics relevant again (here) and you repeatedly miss his point falsely asserting he is blaming mathematics and you have the corret way of using mathematics that apparently no one else can see and if only “economists applied” economics could be true science. You are turning into an intellectual parrot imprisoned in your own mind’s limited fetishized belief in the power of mathematics. You are charmed by dimensional analysis but you utterly fail to recognize its limitations. Your claim that you do not use “models” or do “modeling” appealing to applied mathematics and how successful it has been in the field of engineering (which indeed it has as engineers are dealing with physical reality) yet you exclude from your modelless modeling finance because it doesn’t fit into your toy model. Yet reality — an ugly fact — slays a beautiful theory in that it is part of the real economy and was the primary cause of the Great Financial Crisis.

        Hubris had led you to write checks (make claims) that your impeccable (for I don’t doubt your technical prowess) mathematics cannot cash. As much as my wife would have loved to skip the pain of childbirth via a birthless pregnancy, there is no escaping it. So too you seek to develop a model the economy with an abusud claim of modelless modeling despite the model staring everyone else in the face; charming but I am not charmed.

        Arithmetic says that, if one man could shear a sheep in ten minutes, ten men could shear it in one minute. That is sound mathematics, but it is not true, for the ten men could not so do it; they would get in one another’s way so badly that the work would be greatly delayed.

        Mathematics asserts that, if one person stands for a certain unit of intellectual and moral value, ten persons would stand for ten times this value. But in dealing with human personality it would be nearer the truth to say that such a personality association is a sum equal to the square of the number of personalities concerned in the equation rather than the simple arithmetical sum. A social group of human beings in co-ordinated working harmony stands for a force far greater than the simple sum of its parts. ~ UB

      • Robert Locke
        March 25, 2019 at 6:53 pm

        The great educational reformer, Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote, in a letter to his wife Caroline, “It is only through the study of language that there comes into the soul, out of the source of all thoughts and feelings, the entire expanse of ideas, everything that concerns man, above all and beyond everything else, even beauty and art.”

        He held that “Language is deeply entwined in the intellectual development of humanity itself, it accompanies the latter upon every step of its localized progression or regression; moreover, the pertinent cultural level in each case is recognizable in it. … Language is, as it were, the external manifestation of the minds of peoples. Their language is their soul, and their soul is their language. It is impossible to conceive them ever sufficiently identical… . The creation of language is an innate necessity of humanity. It is not a mere external vehicle, designed to sustain social intercourse, but an indispensable factor for the development of human intellectual powers, culminating in the formulation of philosophical doctrine.”

        So what is all this about the importance of mathematics in understanding the real world.

      • Robert Locke
        March 26, 2019 at 8:12 am

        To return to Wilhelm von Humboldt and Mathematics.

        Why would he have favored learning classical languages over mathematics? He said:

        “Classical Greek has a special place in every successful and attempted renaissance in European civilization. It was the massive introduction of classical Greek sources into Europe in the Fifteenth century, typified by the role of Plethon in this, which provided the explosion of knowledge and revolutionary impulse in development of European languages—out of the depths of brutish local dialects during that period. …

        “The clear historical significance of classical Greek—from Homer through Plato—is that this represents the development of a language out of the barbaric depths of the preceding dark age of illiteracy, a language which, through the mediation of the Ionian city-states and the allies of Solon, Socrates, and Plato, assimilated into its best usage the sum of all of the essential knowledge gathered from the world of that time. It was a language which reflected in its best usages, necessarily, the evolution of the capacity to assimilate and develop such acquired knowledge. …

        “Classical philology, combined with classical music and poetic compositional knowledge, applied to the mastery of one’s own language, impart critical consciousness of one’s own thought, impart a sense of the causal connectedness of large spans of history, and help the young individual to locate himself or herself efficiently within history as a process of development. This can be accomplished only with aid of a classical language, not one’s own, in which the highest level of moral culture, such as Plato’s, is provided. This must be a real language of the past, in respect to which one can situate the development of one’s own language and the civilization of which one is part.

        Marianna Wertz comments about Humboldt: “What we discern, examining these matters in light of primary sources discovered in archives as well as those already in print, is that what the collaborators of the great organizers, the Humboldts, built into the German educational system’s achievements is nothing other than a distillation of the greatest contributions of European civilization—including the young United States—up to that point.”

        Humboldt’s educational reformers were concerned with the education of what we call the “directing classes” and they believed that the formation of their character not their “knowledge” was the most important educational element. By character, they meant moral behavior (our leaders must be part of a moral order). Humboldt emphasized Greek instead of mathematics, because he believed the world faced a moral crisis, which only a leadership class imbued with ethics could deal with. We teach our directing classes mathematics, model building, and positively revel in the fact that modern sciences banished ethics from scientific consideration.

        Humboldt is simply telling us that in economics we need to educate our people to a moral order and we won’t do it by emphasizing mathematics at the expense of the humanities.

  3. Rob Reno
    March 25, 2019 at 8:00 am

    If one reads carefully Glimcher’s preface, he even goes so far as to ask whether the idea of consciousness and volition are needed any more to explain animal and human behavior. This is the mechanstic materialist dream grounded in philosophical reductionism. “Could all behavior be explained by reflex like mechanisms? In fact, many have quite reasonably wondered whether congnitive mechanisms can even be considered scientific notions?” (Glicher 2003, xix). Being pre-GFC he confidently proclaims the predictive power of economics and how useful it is to biology. Note he leaves out the equally many dissenting voices in science, including the field of neuroscience, that seriously question his philosophical materialist reductionistic assumptions that easily dismiss consciouness as a solved problem, merely an epiphenoma of matter. He asserts that the goal is exorcize Descarte’s ghost (consiousness and volition itself) form the machine rather bluntly.

    Dupre goes on directly addressing this kind of scientism masquarding as science:

    Economics describes people’s interests in terms of their particular tastes, but it does not on the whole concern itself nuch with where tastes come from. Tastes are typically treated as ‘endogenous”. This term is crucially ambiguous. Sometimes it means that tastes are treated as given within the context of a particular model, a relatively harmless methodological convience. But it is very easy to slide from this to the idea that tastes are endogenous in the sense that they are somehow generated by intrinsic features of the person who exhibits them. This is a remarkable view. One might suppose that people’s tastes would be formed to a great extent by their culture, their family background, advertising, and so on. But the common-sense idea would be fatal to a large part of the project of contemporary economics. For economists, despite generally trying to distance themselves from normative matters, do tend to take it as obvious that satisfying people’s desires is a good thing (hence the absurd tendency to describe advertising as merely the communication of information). This makes it seem worthwhile to do economics without politics, without consideration of the processes that help to determine what people want, and yet to offer the wisdom of economics to politicians, as a path to providing something good, the maximum satisfaction of people’s wants.

    It would be nice for economists to have access to an independent theory that helped to explain why people have the particular endogenously generated tastes they do, and here there is a natural alliance between economics and the parts of biology just mentioned [i.e., the gene-for-X simplistic reductionism of Dawkins et. al. that doesn’t hold up under closer scrutiny]. Tastes–for alcohol, sexual partners, weapons, education, and much else–can be seen as produced by particular genes, and genes that owe their existence in modern human populations to the advantages that they conferred on our distant ancestors. So these [reductionistic] aspects of biology and of economics are well suited to one another. Biologists will tell us what people most fundamentally want, and economists will tell us how they will act in their attempts to get as much as possible of it. Here we have a sketch of a far-reaching scientific account of human behavior.

    The bits of science I have alluded to are, in my view, seriously misguided. Worse, they provide justification or encouragement for social policies and personal behaviour that contribute to the provision of poor environments for the flourishing of many people…. Bad science, when directed at human nature or society, is always liable to lead to bad practice. And if there is none overriding reason for people to care about dubious science, it is because it lends support to pernicious social policy. (Dupre 2001, 1-4, Human Nature and the Limits of Science)

    If we are to take emergence seriously then we must turn a critical philosophical eye on science itself and ask the hard questions. Perhaps we don’t only need to rethink economics but to ask, what is science after all, and what are its limitations? Contrary to the empty rhetoric of some on this site, that doesn’t mean abandoning science, but rather taking seriously the dissenting voices within science itself that call into questions such philosophical materialistic assumptions that fuel this dream of ultimate theories that can reduce mind to an algorithm and behavior to a social mathematics:

    Does consciousness matter?

    We cannot rule out the possibility that carefully avoiding the concept of consciousness in quantum cosmology may lead to an artificial narrowing of our outlook. Let us remember an example from the history of science that may be rather instructive in this respect. Prior to the invention of the general theory of relativity, space, time, and matter seemed to be three fundamentally different entities. Space was thought to be a kind of three-dimensional coordinate grid which, when supplemented by clocks, could be used to describe the motion of matter. Spacetime possessed no intrinsic degrees of freedom; it played a secondary role as a tool for the description of the truly substantial material world. The general theory of relativity brought with it a decisive change in this point of view. Spacetime and matter were found to be interdependent, and there was no longer any question which one of the two is more fundamental. Spacetime was also found to have its own inherent degrees of freedom…. This is completely opposite to the previous idea that spacetime is only a tool for the description of matter.

    The standard assumption is that consciousness, just like spacetime before the invention of general relativity, plays a secondary, subservient role, being just a function of matter and a tool for the description of the truly existing material world. But let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. I know for sure that my pain exists, my “green” exists, and my “sweet” exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory. Later we find out that our perceptions obey some laws, which can be most conveniently formulated if we assume that there is some underlying reality beyond our perception. This model of a material world obeying laws of physics is so successful that soon we forget about our starting point and say that matter is the only reality, and perceptions are nothing but a useful tool for the description of matter. This assumption is almost as natural (and maybe as false) as our previous assumption that space is only a mathematical tool for the description of matter. We are substituting reality of our feelings by the successful working theory of an independently existing material world. And the theory is so successful that we almost never think about its possible limitations. (Linde, Andrei, Author. Inflation, quantum cosmology, and the anthropic priniciple. In Science and Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology and Complexity. (John D. Barrow, Paul C. W. Davies, and Charles L. Harper, Jr., eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2004: 450-451.)

  4. Rob Reno
    March 25, 2019 at 1:05 pm

    The need for pluralism is bigger than just economics if we are to save our children and grandchildren from the consequences of the religio-scientism of secular materialism growth be at all costs (in biology that’s called cancer):

    Science, it is often said, is the religion of our era. Where we once expected priests to give us insight into the nature of the cosmos and of human existence, now we look rather to men, and sometimes women, in lab coats. Where once public expenditure in the service of deeper truth might have taken a the form of mighty cathedrals, today it will be found in cyclotrons and gene-sequencers. While it is no part of the thesis of this book that we should return to this earlier age of theocratic epistemology, I shall argue that science as it has traditionally been conceived has serious limitations in its ability to answer some of the most profound questions we are given to ask and, more specifically, to answer questions about the nature and causes of human behaviour. My more positive thesis is that the only hope for serious illumination of such questions is a pluralistic one, an approach that draws both on the empirical knowledge derivable from the (various) sciences, and on the wisdom and insight into human nature that can be derived from more humanistic studies. (Dupre 2001, 1-5, Human Nature and the Limits of Science)

  5. Frank Salter
    March 26, 2019 at 6:43 am

    You preach pluralism but refuse to embrace it. On March 26, 2019 at 12:20 am you attack my analysis claiming that it does NOT deliver what it promises. That is false to fact. It stands as an example of a Lakatosian progressive research programme. You accuse me of hubris for simply asserting the truth. I do not know how to describe your responses. Every time I have asked you to attempt to justify your assertions by stating real facts, you will not. Whenever I attempt to engage with you to resolve the issue, you merely reiterate your prejudices. Is it that you know that you can NOT justify what you claim so you just run from the truth?

  6. Ken Zimmerman
    April 1, 2019 at 8:19 am

    As I’ve noted Sapiens created culture as devices to solve problems and protect the species. It’s made-up, invented by Sapiens through sociality. Applying imagination to current and past experiences Sapiens, apart from biology made a life for itself. The result, human culture is co-equal to biological evolution in the decisions and actions of Sapiens. So, terms like complexity, levels of detail, neuroscience, behavioral, science, mathematics, etc. and all the others that people use, along with all the actions, feelings, desires, etc. that go with them are invented by Sapiens to move along human cultures. One result is that there is no escaping human judgement. Identifying something as important is a result of human judgement, as is hating something or someone, or loving it, or not noticing it at all. For example, Glimcher’s quote misses just about everything.
    ” Within neuroscience, for example, we are awash with data that in many cases lack a coherent understanding … Conversely, in economics, it has become abundantly evident the pristine assumptions of the standard economic model — that individuals operate as optimal decision makers in maximizing utility — are in direct violation of even the most basic facts about human behavior.”
    Since humans create optimality and individuality, it is possible for human culture to be based on such creations. Certainly, other cultures may not accept this creation. But this only underscores the issues here. For example, this from Rob, “Mathematics is to science what a hammer is to a carpenter. It is a man-made tool (a language invented as needed) with an uncanny power to accurately measure physical reality,” misses the mark entirely. Mathematics is indeed like a hammer. It is a human imagined and constructed tool. But its role is to attach numbers to human observations that link those observations to other observations, and eventually into a network of observations, often under the rubric of science. But to the end these remain human observations, not “accurate measurement of physical reality.” They are human judgments about what physical may be. And since it’s also part of human experience to make mistakes, may be themselves be a mistake. Economists, whether scientists or not, do what scientists and all people do when creating and connecting “facts.” They make judgments. Judgments relating to the acceptability of experimental data as facts about natural phenomena, and judgments relating to the plausibility of theories. But scientists, like all humans often avoid explicitly facing up to their judgments by retrospectively adjudicating upon their validity. Scientists reference “theoretical constructs,” while the non-scientist references feelings, hunches, insight, revelations, wisdom, etc. Humans are not really lying to themselves. It’s just that keeping track of all that humans think and do is impossible. So, humans fill in the gaps with stories that make sense, in terms of their own culture and experience. Seems to work, at least so far. The species hasn’t extinguished itself, yet.

    There are thus literally thousands or more ways to associate facts with one another. From this perspective talk of causation is not just useless but a waste of time. But it is useful to consider the history, each history of the linking of facts together by humans.

  7. Rob Reno
    April 1, 2019 at 9:46 am

    I think I know a book that might be interesting on this idea that culture is part of the mix:

    “To our genetic, epigenetic, and cultural parents and offspring” (Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology)” by Eva Jablonka, Marion J. Lamb, Anna Zeligowski, http://a.co/1SRuRo3)

    I thought of you when I read this quote from “Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology)” by Eva Jablonka, Marion J. Lamb, Anna Zeligowski –

    “The book is intended to be both a synthesis and a challenge. It is a synthesis of the ideas about heredity that have come from recent studies in molecular and developmental biology, animal behavior, and cultural evolution. The challenge it offers is not to Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection, but to the prevalent gene-based unidimensional version of it. There are four dimensions to heredity, and we should not ignore three of them. All four have to be considered if we are to attain a more complete understanding of evolution.” (Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology)” by Eva Jablonka, Marion J. Lamb, Anna Zeligowski, http://a.co/fKtvZ8t)

    • Ken Zimmerman
      April 1, 2019 at 12:12 pm

      Thanks, Rob. Read the book in its original edition back in 2005. The authors are imaginative, and certainly in line with the direction of ideas about how humans create their lives and survive as a species. I was with the group that helped to spread the notion of muscle memory and muscle learning beyond rote or mechanical actions. For example, in love and attachment and defense (both physical and psychological). Asian martial arts had emphasized this type of guided action for centuries. And anthropologists had emphasized that culture was an equal co-determinant with biological evolution of Sapiens actions and learning and its survival. But Jablonka’s, Lamb’s, and Zeligowski’s extension of these notions is certainly a worthwhile effort. But it has the same issues as most scientific works and writings. Most scientists think of it as their purpose to explore the underlying structure of material reality, and it therefore seems quite reasonable for them to view their history in this way. But from the perspective of the historian/social scholar the realist idiom is considerably less attractive. Its most serious shortcoming is that it is retrospective. One can only appeal to the reality of theoretical constructs to legitimate scientific judgments when one has already decided which constructs are real. And consensus over the reality of each construct is the outcome of a historical process. Thus, if one is interested in the nature of the process itself rather than in simply its conclusion, recourse to the reality of natural phenomena and theoretical entities is self-defeating. Scientists look at themselves (as do most of us) as simply passive, neutral observers of nature. But this is not so. Scientists make their own history; they are not the passive mouthpieces of nature. This perspective has two advantages for those who study society, such as historians. First, while it may be the scientist’s job to discover the structure of nature, it is certainly not the historian’s job. The historian deals in texts, which allow her/him access to the actions of scientists–scientific practice. The historian’s approaches are appropriate to the exploration of what scientists were doing at a given time in looking for the underlying structure of material reality. By examining texts expressing contemporary scientific practice the historian can escape from the retrospective idiom of the scientist. In this way, the historian can attempt to understand the process of scientific development, and the judgments it entails, in contemporary rather than retrospective terms. But of course, only if the historian rejects the realist identification of theoretical constructs with the contents of nature. Otherwise scientific work remains a mystery. Scientists certainly are not interested in studying science. So, others must take on that task. Others like historians and scholars of society.

      • Rob Reno
        April 2, 2019 at 8:52 am

        Very interesting. I agree, we are not passive but participating in our own created reality, if that is how I can say it :-)

      • Ken Zimmerman
        April 4, 2019 at 2:14 am

        Rob, in the early 1970s one of my teachers, John O’Neill wrote this in a book entitled “Making Sense Together,”
        Self is circumstantial through and through and is utterly lost if it does not learn to save circumstance in the expression of its needs and knowing. Wild sociology cannot trick the relation between self and circumstance by making of self or of circumstance a thing. an organization. or a contract. The corporeal composition of self and circumstance involves us in a daily metaphysics of contingency. relation. caprice. and corruption in which culture is not an abstract and universal organ but a concrete and circumstantial practice without any other resort than the great natural orders of our daily living. Wild sociology embraces the common dilemma of making sense together that it must share with all other lay practitioners of the art. It exercises a limited reflexivity that attaches us to the conversable particulars of use, limit, and value, which engender the immense perspectives of the world, of family, class, gender, truth, and rationality. Wild sociology refrains from the ecstasy of conventional sociology in the presence of hieratic values rather to celebrate the integrity of everyday conduct and its own artful accomplishment of concrete destinies.

        O’Neill, a sociologist by education was teaching at the U. of Texas Anthropology department because he could not get a job in sociology. He was a rebel sociologist. It was a time when sociology was in turmoil. Since the end of WWII one theory and set of ideas defined sociology. It was a formalist, deeply mathematics-based, and theory-cratic social science. Of not much use to anyone, except the sociologists of the “in-group.” By the end of the 1970s the old regime was on the run; by the end of the 1980s the old regime was gone. Sociology has been rebuilding since 1990 but isn’t finished yet. Economics is today where sociology was when O’Neill’s book was published in 1974. The first lesson to learn in making the transition is that reality is made-up. The study of how, when, where and by whom it is made-up is the most important question to consider. That’s the case with science as well as all other parts of human societies.

  8. Rob Reno
    April 4, 2019 at 2:53 am

    Thank you Ken. I just kept having synapses go off reading your comment reminiscing about my studies in Buddhist philosophy.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      April 4, 2019 at 3:44 am

      Thanks, Rob. Buddhist – there’s a name never applied to Dr. O’Neill,

    • Rob Reno
      April 4, 2019 at 10:01 am

      Well, I don’t want to impose a label on someone else, but the concepts are very similar with some Buddhist Philosophical concepts.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        April 4, 2019 at 11:50 am

        Rob, bad joke on my part. Dr. O’Neill would certainly have found Buddhism interesting. Although Marcuse, Habermas, and Adorno would likely appeal to him more.

      • Rob Reno
        April 5, 2019 at 11:20 am

        That’s ok, my autistic mind got it, but I must admit I struggle with dry wit sometimes. I sure love it though 😍

      • Craig
        April 4, 2019 at 10:05 pm

        Stick with the buddhist perspective. It’s natural philosophy which is an integrative level above science. And study the zen buddhist perspective because it emphasizes essence and experience/consciousness itself. From the bottom up the epistemological/wisdom/integrative scale goes:

        Data, abstraction/theorizing/science, philosophy, paradigm perception, ethic of the age/zeitgeist

      • Rob Reno
        April 5, 2019 at 11:29 am

        Thanks Craig. I have studied Buddhist philosophy, religion, and practice since I was sixteen years old. I am now on my 60th decade. As I expanded my studies into Sufism, Islam, Jewish wisdom literature, I have come to the realization that to know only one religion is akin to knowing none. Same with science; to silo knowledge (or wisdom) by fields (or religion by faith tradition) is to lose cosmic perspective.

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