Home > Uncategorized > The drunk looking for the key

The drunk looking for the key

from Yoshinori Shiozawa  (originally a comment)

This is a part of my essay “Between Math and the Occult” written in 2002 for a journal named “The pleasures of mathematics” (in Japanese) No. 30.

There is an interesting parable that points out this. Originally of Arab origin, it was introduced and disseminated in economics by writers like Martin Shubik and Thierry de Montbrial.

At midnight, a drunken person was wandering under a lonely streetlight. He seemed to be looking for something. When a passerby asked, the drunken person said he was looking for a key. The passersby joined in the key hunt, saying it would be a problem. But they couldn’t find the key. After a while, the passerby asked for the drunkard. “Did you really drop the key here?” The drunkard replied calmly. “No, it’s over there where I dropped the key, but it is pitch-dark there and I can’t see anything. That’s why I’m looking for the key in the light.”

Mathematics is a strong light. But, if we consider mathematics as the only tool of theory, it can be the same as the above drunkard. Only problems on which mathematics can spot the light are prone to be studied, leaving other, more important tasks untouched. For 100 years until 1970, theoretical economics was mostly advanced by the light of mathematics. Mathematics is not to be blamed by that fact. However, there are some frameworks that are easy to shed light of mathematics and others that are not. Optimization and equilibrium is such a framework. As a result, huge progress has been made in the logical level. But it was also the cause that economics began to wander in a wrong direction. Ironically, the mistake was hidden as long as light of mathematics continued to shed light on economics. This is also one of the dangerous paths hidden in economics.

Those who can read Japanese can read the whole text here.


  1. Craig
    October 30, 2020 at 6:23 pm

    The parable is actually most apt regarding the mindset and utilization of analysis itself. If one will only look with the reductionist mindset of science while neglecting or ignoring philosophy, which by the way also includes the set of science, they will be prone to at best palliatives and at worst missing the pattern solution altogether.

    The word philosophy means the love of ideas/concepts, and paradigms are single and singularly defining pattern concepts like terra-centrism, nomadism and Debt Only.

    New paradigms are the ultimate integrative mental and temporal phenomena that replace the old/present ones…. like for instance helio-centrism, agriculture/homesteading/urbanization and Monetary Gifting.

    Let us be aware of and not be afraid to use all of the tools of analysis, lest we stumble around in the light in the corner of a room and never consider that solutions may exist in the unexplored darkness of its entirety.

  2. November 1, 2020 at 5:21 pm

    An excellent analogy, no doubt. It would be nice to shine a light on the place where the keys were lost. A drunk man knows where they are lost, but anybody won’t listen to him because he is drunk. The one who lights the lanterns suggests looking where it is light and he has a chance that the keys will be found the same as a pocket torch to send a signal to another galaxy.

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