Home > Uncategorized > Best advice to an aspiring economist — don’t be an economist

Best advice to an aspiring economist — don’t be an economist

from Lars Syll

And still, amidst all this tumult, many economists are disinclined to rethink the foundations of their field. It reminds me of the closing joke in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall. A guy has a crazy brother who thinks he is a chicken.  The doctor asks, ‘Why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy replies, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ ”

wrong-focusWhy is the free-market discourse so perdurable despite so many social, ecological, and political realities that call its logic and categories of thought into question?  Because the whole field, despite its flaws, is functional enough and entrenched. It needs the eggs — the certitude of quantitative analysis aping the hard sciences, the credentialed expertise always in demand by powerful institutions, the prestige that comes with proximity to power.

But behind these factors, there is a new world a-bornin’ that economics needs to engage with and understand. There are brilliant economic thinkers like Kate Raworth, inventor of “doughnut economics” framework; the writings of degrowth economist Jason Hickel and the late anthropologist David Graeber; the thinkers associated with the web journal Real World Economics; and a number of student associations clamoring for new economic paradigms and pedagogy. Beyond reading the right things, I find that it helps a lot to hang out with the right crowd, listen to serious new voices, and bring one’s full humanity to the questions of the moment.

Economists of all ages – but especially younger ones who have the suppleness and imagination to grow – need to pay attention to these outsider voices. There is a new world that is fast-overtaking us, and it needs to be seen and explained on its own terms.

David Bollier / Evonomics

A science that doesn’t self-reflect on its own history and asks important methodological and science-theoretical questions about the own activity, is a science in dire straits.

Already back in 1991, a commission chaired by Anne Krueger and including people like Kenneth Arrow, Edward Leamer, and Joseph Stiglitz, reported from own experience “that it is an underemphasis on the ‘linkages’ between tools, both theory and econometrics, and ‘real world problems’ that is the weakness of graduate education in economics,” and that both students and faculty sensed “the absence of facts, institutional information, data, real-world issues, applications, and policy problems.” And in conclusion, they wrote that “graduate programs may be turning out a generation with too many idiot savants skilled in technique but innocent of real economic issues.”

Not much is different today. Economics — and economics education — is still in dire need of a remake.

More and more young economics students want to see a real change in economics and the way it’s taught. They want something other than the same old mainstream catechism. They don’t want to be force-fed with useless and harmfully irrelevant mainstream theories and models.

  1. JD
    February 1, 2021 at 6:38 pm

    If the aspiring young person insists she or he wants to be an economist (dropped on head as baby, e.g.) you might suggest an alternative path: Help develop a really useful new economics grounded in the actual purpose of an economy, starting with assumptions that are demonstrably true, and using sound logic to build on them with the goal of informing really good public policy around the use of resources and the long-term preservation of a livable planet. If they look at you as if you might be crazy, advise them to become a licensed plumber or electrician instead.

  2. Neville Middleton
    February 1, 2021 at 11:51 pm

    Prof Steve Keen is developing a new economic model based on the real world especially the operation of the financial markets on economic outcomes.

  3. Ikonoclast
    February 2, 2021 at 2:58 am

    The problems with conventional economics go right to its (lack of) ontological foundations.

    If a discipline does not get its ontology right then everything will be wrong after that. Take the example of the humors theory of disease in early medicine. While that theory of disease dominated, no real progress could be made in treating many kinds of disease. The humors ontology was false as a theory of base existents ( meaning basic enough for the discipline) and their interactions related to physiology and disease. The development of the “germ” theory of disease, following the discovery of disease-causing pathogens, enabled real progress in treating diseases caused by pathogens. The key was that the new ontology linked pathogens and diseases of pathogenic origin in a consistent cause and effect network: essentially a cause and effect taxonomy. “Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced.” -Francis Bacon. Of equal importance, where the cause is not known the undesired effect cannot be prevented.

    If conventional economics has a false ontology (as I contend) then it can make no real progress in connecting socioeconomic or political-economic cause and effect. An ontology is the set of basic existents (things, relations and processes) held to be fundamental to a particular discipline or thought system. An ontology essentially is a set of discoveries and/or assumptions advanced as statements about basic discipline-relevant existents. Once accepted, an ontology becomes a system of a priori assumptions for an applied discipline. Conventional economics has misconceived its ontology of economic objects because it fails to understand, often willfully, the fundamental difference between “laws” and “rules”.

    In this discussion, the term “law” means a fundamental law of nature as discovered by one of the hard sciences. An example of such a fundamental law is the first law of thermodynamics. The term “rule” means a prescribed guide for conduct or action (meaning prescribed by humans for the conduct of humans and their operations). In physics, we are concerned only with fundamental law-bound behaviors and behaviors which we are still seeking to desribe with laws. In economics, we are concerned with behaviors governed by laws and by rules. In particular, we concerned with the complex interactions of natural laws and human rules (prescriptions).

    Of course, a concern with human rules and their instantiation in society and economics, equates to a concern with customs, legal laws, regulations and institutions: concern with institutional economics. However, it goes further than this. I have not yet seen, in anything I have read (and perhaps my reading is not wide enough), a concern with developing a unified ontology of the real and the formal. This would mean a unified ontology of fundamental laws and human rules. Initially, the project may sound paradoxical and contradictory. However, let us take as inspiration Arthur Schopenhauer’s aphorism: “A Truth is permitted only a brief victory celebration between the two long periods where it is first condemned as paradoxical and later disparaged as trivial.” Let us dare to begin this attempt to unify the real and the formal, in ontology.

    I have developed a formal deductive proof (philosophical not mathematical) that under a condition of priority monism of the concrete whole (the real cosmos), the formal must be a subset of the real. Every subset system of a real system must be a real system. This a priori insistence on complex real-system, priority-monist consistency across all systems results finally in the seemingly contradictory assertion that a Formal System is also a Real System. Yet this contradiction is only seeming, not actual. A Formal System is indeed also a Real System. It is simply a special case of a real system. Real systems and formal systems are nominally and epistemologically separate but they are not ontologically separate. In a unified Physicalist ontology, the “formal system” is still a real subsystem of the larger or full real system.

    It is in the transmission of information in both directions and in the operations on and with that information, via human actions, computer actions or natural biological encoding, decoding and transcription processes in genetics that we see the Formal or encoded systems interact with broader real systems; interacting via information (pattern) transfers which enforce or engender algorithmic processes and their algorithmically produced products. I leave aside the details of this theory. I must content myself with this hint here.

    Of course, if the a priori assumption of priority monism is wrong, then the deductions that follow are wrong. This philosophical caveat is unavoidable but the modern scientific support for realtiona system monism is strong. I deal with such justifcations and objections in my developing work but must leave them aside here for the sake of some brevity. Let us provisionally entertain the possibility that the priority monism assumption is correct and thus the deduction that formal systems are subsets of real systems is also correct. Where might this lead?

    A Basic Monist Theory of Ontology.

    To begin on these matters, ontology may be divided into three broad categories.

    Table 1 – Ontological Categories

    1. Religious, ideological, dogmatic and speculative;
    2. Empirical; and
    3. Formal.

    Point one relates to arenas of belief, arguments from dogmatic authority and speculative propositions. Point two relates to knowledge from experience and particularly to knowledge from the empirical hard sciences to high degrees of likelihood but not absolute certainty. Point three relates to matters of certain but formal knowledge; certain because we have created the objects of said knowledge by custom, formal naming or “pure reason” so-called. In this latter case, the ontological set and the epistemological set largely coincide. We know formal “things”, and theoretically should know all of them and all about them, because we explicitly and formally made them, named them and specified their definitions, categories and relations. There are complex and emergent exceptions to this last assertion. We can and do create formal systems whose ramifications in use, real or potential, do escape our initial knowledge and predictions, often in the form of unforeseen consequences. Let us put that objection aside for now.

    To clarify matters, we need to introduce a set of basic definitions.

    Table 2 – Basic Definitions

    A. Model: A simplified representation of a more complex original.
    B. Monism: Attribution of oneness or singleness to a concept, entity or system.
    C. Ontology: The study of existence, and emergence, in terms of categories and relations.
    D. Process: A set of transformations over a period of time.
    E. System: A regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming an integrated whole. “Every system is delineated by its spatial and temporal boundaries, surrounded and influenced by its environment, described by its structure and purpose and expressed in its functioning.” – Wikipedia.
    F. Real System: Any system which obeys the discovered fundamental Laws of hard science.
    G. Formal System: Any system of signs based on or forming a language, including mathematics.

    Let us start with an examination of formal ontologies. A Formal Ontology sets out or prescribes a set of formal Ontological Objects, usually stated or defined in the form of axioms or rules. The game of chess provides an example of a formal ontology. All the entities, spaces and times in Chess are created by the formal rules of chess. The entities are the pieces and pawns. The spaces are the squares or array elements in a two-dimensional array. The (digital) time units are moves. Technically, the time unit is the “half-move”, a move by white or black. The depth of the move tree in “half-moves” is measured in “ply”. I have developed a basic ludic (game) theory and an aesthetic (arts) theory which covers the reasons why certain formal ontologies (like those of games and the arts) exhibit the requirement for entity, time and space modelling.

    Essentially, this revolves around the issues of (a) the brute fact of our existence in perceived classical time and space at human scale and our recognition of various entities, (b) the operations of our senses and in-brain constructed perceptions related to this and (c) the psychological-conceptual necessity of being able to make individual and collective sense of our formal systems and our communications about them. A formal system which made no psychological-conceptual sense to the human brain would be indecipherable and could not form the basis of communication and the sharing of information. Our games, arts and sociocultural rules perforce must model and deal with entities, space and time or even entities, energies or potentials, space and time). This is where the basic ontological categories of human formal sub-systems of the real and standardly real systems are ineluctably shared; at least under an assumption of priority monism. Highly abstract human endeavors like abstract art and pure maths do challenge and “bend” this statement but do not break it. However, again I must leave extensive objections and responses aside for relative brevity in a blog post.

    Euclidean geometry is an example of a Formal System with a formal ontology which yet somehow converges closer to empirical reality. We must examine its derivation from and its formal approach back towards the “asymptote” of the real. We uncover the clear appearance that formal-real ontology runs along one monistically connected spectrum. Seemingly fully formal systems, like Euclidean geometry, commence, in exposition, with formalized axioms and define their suite of ontological objects purely formally. Yet, we can easily enough see the “empirical inspiration” for developing Euclidean geometry. The empirical inspiration comes from flat or near flat surfaces (or 3D spaces definable by two flat reference planes posited at right angles) and thus essentially derives from how humans experience such space. Euclidean geometry was developed into an axiomatic system by a modelling simplification of reality. It is only by this modelling simplification that it can possess inviolable axioms. And it is by these inviolable axioms that it can possess a wide set of practical applications to one topology but NOT (and this is very important) a universal application to all topologies. Only when the axioms approach the “asymptote” of (at least one aspect of) reality, are they simultaneously general enough and generally applicable enough, within acceptable error limits, to be pragmatically useful.

    It is clear that Euclidean geometry has useful applications for certain spaces and topographies, within given boundary conditions (eg flat and near flat surfaces), but not for other spaces, topographies and conditions. Euclidean geometry works, meaning it has practical uses, because it can exhibit a close, or approximate, but still useable, homomorphic correspondence with the space, topography or terrain types it is commonly used to model.

    This introduces both the specific idea of homomorphic correspondence and the general idea of a “Theory of Truth”. Essentially, the correspondence theory of truth is a theory of how formal signs are related to real existents. This incorporates the idea that some language statements and some mathematical equations, which function as compounded formal sign statements, can be related in some way to the signified real objects, forces, processes or systems to which they refer and model. This correspondence theory of truth perforce must hold that there can be true representations and false representations of real existents and real systems. This must be so, even if unavoidably in practice, a “true” representation is always an approach to truth rather than a complete, final or absolute truth. This correspondence of signs – as word statements, equations or models (real or virtual) – to the real is best interpreted as a homomorphic correspondence. This is so when any kind of word based, mathematical equation based, material or virtual modelling is expressly or implicitly occurring. (This does not include mere formal or customary naming as in “That man is Bill.”) When referring to the correspondence theory of truth, a claim is being made that there is something in the structure and relations of the compounded model sign statement as a formal system, which homomorphically matches one or more essential structures and/or relations in the real objects/systems being referred to.

    As Bertrand Russell writes, “we are driven back to correspondence with fact as constituting the nature of truth”. Homomorphism, as a concept, is the most suitable way in which to conceive of this correspondence. Homomorphism employed in active modelling practice may be considered as the procedure of generating a structure-preserving statement, equation, map or model of a real object or real system, a formal object or formal system, or a part or subsystem thereof. As an aside, models of models (meta-models) are also possible and sometimes useful. For a dynamic model (real or virtual) there will be process-mapping and topography-mapping components. In algebra, a “homomorphism is a structure-preserving map between two algebraic structures of the same type”. The preservation of essential aspects of structure, relation and dynamism in the model, in relation to the real object or real system, is critical to any claim that it be an accurate or true model in some sense; that it corresponds with at least some real and empirically verifiable facts.

    C. S. Peirce sums up very well the strict specificity attached to making truth claims.

    “That truth is the correspondence of a representation to its object is, as Kant says, merely the nominal definition of it. Truth belongs exclusively to propositions. A proposition has a subject (or set of subjects) and a predicate. The subject is a sign; the predicate is a sign; and the proposition is a sign that the predicate is a sign of that which the subject is a sign. If it be so, it is true. But what does this correspondence or reference of the sign, to its object, consist in?” – Charles Sanders Peirce.

    That last question I have considered long and deeply; as in “what does this correspondence or reference of the sign, to its object, ontologically consist in?” I believe I have made progress on this fundamental ontological problem and I more than hinted at that issue above when talking about formal systems as subsets of real systems. Now, let us consider the ontology of empirical disciplines.

    It is always necessary to generate and continuously review, by empirical research, the ontology of empirical objects and processes for any given empirical discipline. Empirical ontologies will be found to be discipline-relevant. A cosmologist is concerned with a different set of real objects and real processes from the medical doctor. There is a connection of these sets across the basics of the hard sciences. Both are concerned with the ontology of objects and processes in physics and chemistry and both use some of the fundamentals of both of those disciplines. The cosmologist is concerned with bodies or systems like planets, stars, galaxies and black holes and processes from planetary orbits to Hawking radiation. The medical researcher is concerned with bodies or systems from the human body to organs and tumours and also with physiological processes like metabolism, homeostasis and circulatory systems.

    In progressing the discussion to this point, I have moved from a discussion of formal ontology to a discussion of empirical ontology. I left for last the discussion of customary, religious, ideological, dogmatic or speculative ideas as ontological objects and processes. These “objects” might all be termed objects of the nomos. Here, “objects” is shorthand for ontological objects and processes. The cultural nomos I here define as all ideas, as ontological objects, of culture, customary law, legal law, regulation, formalisation, belief and speculation but excluding those ideas and models which can be argued to possess some homomorphic correspondence to some aspect(s) of the physis meaning that which is physically, materially and objectively real and detectable. This last, for both scientific and definitional reasons, must be strictly defined as those real objects, processes and systems, some of whose characteristics at least, can be measured and aggregated in the objective scientific dimensions of the SI, the International System of Units.

    The scientific dimensions of the SI are, and we must understand them as, our modern essential base ontology for the physis as we experience it via senses, intrucments, technology ans sciene. The SI too is a humanly developed ontology and the base ontology of all our physical investigations. It was developed by an historical process of philosophical/empirical investigation, commencing in the West (sometimes derivatively from Islamic scholars) with Francis Bacon and even his forerunners, the medievalists Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham.

    Conclusion for now.

    How can this above ontological approach be related back to economics? I will attempt to lay that out in a subsequent post on RWER. However, I will do this only if I pique some interest.


    When one is trying to come up with new ideas, it is quite possible that one will be (a) entirely derivative or (b) writing total nonsense. It is a necessary risk. Otherwise, one must stop thinking altogether or think only in the paths pre-assigned by current “common sense” as current ideological and ideational hegemony. It is anathema to me to accept conventional ideas uncritically and to not make my own attempts at new and better solutions. I consider it necessary to be in constant revolt against received common sense as 99% of it always seems to turn out to be unempirical prejudice. Since current common sense, especially in economics or extant political economy, is destroying the planet, we can take this as clear and inescapable proof that the existing common sense is wrong and needs to be radically overthrown.

  4. Yoshinori Shiozawa
    February 2, 2021 at 2:05 pm

    What we (including Lars Syll) must do is not to advice young aspirants to leave economics, but to advice how to succeed in remaking existing economics and making true economics. If Lars Syll admits that “They [young students] want something other than the same old mainstream catechism,” he and we must present a new possible direction in a more affirmative way.

  5. Charles Thomas
    February 2, 2021 at 4:30 pm

    Externalization of costs to all other life forms on the earth, externalization of losses of scarce geochemical resources, externalization of pollution of atmosphere … economics is a bankrupt basis for the earth. Scientists do not ignore external factors in an open system nor do they fail to recognize the law of mass action as a system is increasingly dominated by a single organism … Young aspirants need to have a good dose of how ecological systems function, study ecology and energy inputs and outputs. Costs should never be counted as positive contribution to GDP..

  6. Ikonoclast
    February 2, 2021 at 11:28 pm

    Economics needs a “Great Instauration”. The term is from Francis Bacon, translated from the Latin, and it means a renovation and renewal. A veritable “Francis Bacon of Post-Economics” is required, or an entire multi-disciplinary team amounting to the same. Conventional Economics is in such bad shape it essentially needs to be abolished in total. It needs to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch in a radically new way. The task is as great as was Bacon’s project of moving thinking and scholarship from magic, alchemy and medieval schoolman logic to empiricism and science.

    The place to begin is ontology, as I outlined in my long post above. If the ontology is demonstrably wrong (and conventional economics’ ontology IS demonstrably empirically wrong) then everything is wrong after that. Those who decry the call for a re-examination of the ontology of economic objects (including the very assumption that there are economic objects) will condemn themselves to continuing failure in attempting to reform economics or even (as may prove radically necessary) reforming it out of existence.

    You must go right back to the philosophical and empirical basics. Pull every assumption apart. Discard everything that does not fit with science and with a consensus intersection of consequentialist and deontological moral philosophy. Search for an ontologically consistent method to link the real and the formal. Then begin putting “things” back together. What you reconstruct may not even be economics as we currently envisage it.

    Of course, this means moving outside all “tents”, outside all or most of received academe [1] and very likely outside careerism and any likely stream of assured income. It could well mean a life of poverty, obscurity, social scorn and academic shunning. If your ideas have worth, they may well only be picked up after, even long after, you are dead. This is the standard of the true philosopher as well as of the true religious ascetic. This is what we need to tell young, aspiring economists. Take the hard road, perhaps the hardest road. The best of the best may take it.

    Ask yourself, what truly great thinker in history who ever benefited humanity in the long run was ever praised or rewarded in his or her lifetime? Maybe there were rare cases but for most it meant obscurity and being shunned all the way, plus a course a fair amount of imprisonment and execution. Power doesn’t like having truth told to it.

    Note 1 – The only “home” in academe could be in the Philosophy Department or in a branch of the Social Sciences as far as possible from Economics.

  7. Charles Thomas
    February 3, 2021 at 12:20 am
  8. February 3, 2021 at 11:13 am

    Perhaps the best advice to an aspiring economist is to ignore today’s textbooks and study the peripheral works of neglected economists. The problem with Ikonoclast’s long comment is the one created by David Hume: “black box” empiricism denying the possibility of relating our thoughts to reality. G K Chesterton’s comparison of a name and the art it referred to gave me the beginning of an answer to that. A course in Communications Engineering familarising me with C E Shannon’s information theory helped. What perhaps opened my eyes was the economist Kenneth Boulding’s little book “the Image”, which coined the term “iconic language”. Put that together with Chesterton’s two sides to the brain and Shannon’s measure of the information content of a television picture and Hume can be refuted by showing how the brain can convert what it senses into words (which I have done). The words are invented but work like a book index: what we don’t look for we don’t usually see.

    Ikonoclast’s references to Bertrand Russell and C S Pierce are both interesting. Russell argued that a description which applies only to one object functions as a name. Pierce says that truth (if not merely formal) applies only to propositions; but what does a proposition refer to? The example I give is a computer program, which is truly if it does what it is claimed to do, which is to produce new sets of facts from old ones. The original facts give true results only so long as there were no mistakes in the program which produced them. In economics there was such a mistake. The word ‘economics’ applied to household management, but Adam Smith changed its meaning to a form of chrematism: getting more wealthy by mass-producing for trade.

    • February 3, 2021 at 11:31 am

      Significant type 6 lines up: “truly” was intended to be “true only”. Looking back, I have to say I appreciate JD’s comment. Those who don’t want to know are a bloody nuisance!

  9. Ikonoclast
    February 3, 2021 at 10:06 pm


    As always, I find your comments very interesting. The advice to “study the peripheral works of neglected economists” I agree with. Of course, my advice is obviously more than that in that I say to go back to ontological fundamentals and rebuild from scratch. The discipline rebuilt would not even be “economics”. But enough of that, I made my basic points above.

    I am not sure what “black-box empiricism” is although I think I can figure out what it means. Surprisingly perhaps, I am not formally familiar with the compound term, though of course I know what a black-box is and what empiricism is. I read philosophers in the original or at least in the English translation of their original. I can assure you the term “black-box empiricism” does not occur in any of Hume’s texts that I have read. It is seems a commentator’s term. If you can direct me to a good definition of “black-box empiricism” I would be grateful.

    I suspect my ontology of “boundaries and (system) depths”, which could also be termed an ontology of the interface, probably equates to “black-box empiricism”. Galileo (and George Berkeley) correctly deduced that motion can only be conceived as relative motion. In like manner, I contend that existence can only be conceived as relative existence in a complex relational system; as the existence of each something relative to other somethings in the system-connected whole under conditions of priority monism. This is essentially demonstrated by the process of detecting of an existent. The process of empirical detection itself, as a process of interaction, is essentially the proof of the existence of at least two existents; the detecting system and the detected system. A human sense, or an instrument which extends our detection powers, is a system detecting other systems or their influences and effects, sometimes through intermediary systems, and certainly through system boundaries which transmit information. The term “interface” is to be preferred in some ways to “system boundary” as transfers of matter, energy and information can and do occur across these interfaces.

    In physics, chemistry and biology, boundaries are generally definable and it is at boundaries that discrete systems interact. Admittedly, there is a “by definition” element to this statement. What occurs at boundaries and what crosses boundaries are phenomena both observable and diagnostic. Boundary phenomena give us information about the interacting systems. Indeed, it will be argued in this paper that system boundary phenomena are the only phenomena empirically available to humans from senses and instruments. Information or sense data (termed “impressions” in older philosophical terminology) cross our bodily boundaries – in various manners according to the modes of operation of the different senses – and are thence transmitted to the brain where the information undergoes further operations and transformations. A good understanding of boundary interactions facilitates the process of making inferences about the system-internal structures and processes of each interacting system under investigation. A metaphysics of the boundary as empirical interface and of all-existence as complex system priority monism should facilitate a science-congruent resolution of metaphysics in the sub-area of “Empirical Metaphysics” or near-empirical metaphysics.

    Does the above equate to Humean “black-box empiricism” updated to a complex systems paradigm? If it does, I am clearly still in the Humean camp on this matter. However, I don’t see that this denies the possibility of relating our thoughts to reality. Indeed, it outlines in complex system terms how the brain, through the senses, relates to what it termed “external reality” or objective reality. In fact, I think it strengthens the case. Hume himself suggested that the human brain had developed to anticipate effects from causes. Thus, considering the philosophical problem of induction, while we can cannot with certainty say that an example or set of examples of apparently linked cause and effect (really just correlations) can prove the validity of the cause and effect deduction in a given case or a set of given cases, we can appeal to a deeper possibility as it were. This is that the brain itself evinces and embodies forth this possibility in its hardware and firmware (to mix modern terms with Hume’s thoughts on the matter).

    Particular causes and effects (fire burns the skin) are learned from experience. However, the apprehension of the general time-governed principle of event succession and the perception that later states arise from earlier states, may be evolutionarily “wired” into brains as evolved neuron logic gates. The blink reflex, for example, when initiated by an object rapidly approaching the eye, would seem to come under this heading. Reflexes of this blink reflex type (but not of the type of patellar knee-jerk reflex) indicate modelling of time, time-succession and state-succession, including an event expected in the future and to be caused by a current event in process. The Moro reflexes (also called startle reflexes) of babies would seem to support this hypothesis.

    Overall, the broad idea of brain and/or mind evolving in response to, and to successfully respond to, the environment was the very philosophical induction, and proto-scientific hypothesis, in David Hume’s work, which suggested the essence of evolution to Charles Darwin. Darwin himself acknowledged this. It is a wonderful demonstration, if one is needed, of the real use of good empirical philosophy in the development of science.

    When it comes to the issue of language forms like everyday pragmatic statements, philosophical texts, scientific texts and mathematical formulae in physics, there is no basis in my view for saying that “Hume can be refuted”. Indeed, I am not sure which part of Hume you are saying is refuted. Words can refer to objects, systems and processes. We do this via statements which model the objective, model the real as I said in my original post.

    Nevertheless, I may still be misunderstanding or missing your essential points and your integrated complex of ideas. I would state baldly that a proposition refers to its object just a model refers to the modelled. Indeed, I say that a proposition is a form of model of reality or a part thereof. I don’t think there is any mystery to that part of this issue. But if I am misconstruing matters I am open to further ideas. Shannon sounds interesting and I really should attempt to read his book. What was the title again?

  10. February 4, 2021 at 11:05 am

    Thanks for your interest, Ike. Bear in mind I am an intuitive and understood what Hume was saying long before I found the phrase “black box” to express it summarily. Here anyway is a helpful definition of that:

    “Black Box Model Definition – Investopedia … › Financial Technology 25 Aug 2020 — In science, computing, and engineering, a black box is a device, system, or object which can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs, without any knowledge of its internal workings”.

    To situate Hume’s understanding of “empiricism” one needs to follow the trail from Bacon’s “taking things to bits to see how they work” – in effect instrumentally extending the range of our senses – to Descartes seeing our own mechanism as brain and spirit, Locke denying it to insist that all we know came via our senses, Berkeley saying the Creation we see is what is in God’s mind and Hume saying in effect that we can’t see God so we can’t know he exists. Hume attempted to ape Newton’s method, but chose to follow the particle theory of light rather than the wave theory, arguing there is no way we can know that there is a world beyond our senses: all we can do is agree on it, bolstering his own argument with Machiavellian misuse of language (telling the powers that be what they wanted to hear). Tony Lawson in “Economics and Reality” politely calls this the “epistemological mistake”: seeking the source of ideas in the mind rather than their “ontology” – what they are and do in terms of the physical causes of them. In any case, I’ve been able to refute Hume’s argument by showing in some detail how the brain can make the memory automatically adjust the senses, until there is basically no difference been the signal sensed and what the senses were tuned in to. There is no need for what Hume claimed was impossible: for today’s electro-magnetic carriers to exert forces on our electrical brains.

    It seems to me your “priority monism” follows Hume into the “particle” theory of light, whereas I start from the “wave” theory, where the determinable differences are not boundaries but zeros when passing between positive and negative values or rates of change. The relationship between these is modelled as right angle rotations between the coordinates of complex numbers, or as the quarter-hours on an analog clock. Mathematically, rotations can be counted linearly but linear measures can only approximately imply “irrationals” like the rotational constant pi.

    My monism joins your after the first quarter, in which photons have evolved into subatomic particles, three forms of which – evolving new capabilities as they go – form the basis of atoms, chemistry, life, language, family life, economic communication and ultimately capitalist money making. I’ve a couple of interesting quotes on this: the first is Claude Levi-Strauss saying the unit of society is not the individual but the family system, and the second, Yanis Varafoukis in “Another Now”, explaining “How Capitalism Died” in terms of the talking up of the prices of randomised derivatives of shares. “The mutual reinforcement of debt and share prices is a closed circle, and so the world of money is decoupled from the real world, in which most people struggle, and leads eventually to a handful of super funds owning virtually everything”.

    As for Darwin being a fan of Hume, the idea of knowledge evolving came from Locke, and years before the voyage of the beagle, J H Newman was arguing for the development of doctrine. Even the best of us can be mistaken. Where I see Shannon fitting into all this is the electromagnetic wave theory of light reinterpreting Descartes’ spirit as an invisible process, and Shannon making a science of that by showing how to use order or timing rather than amplitude to measure and interpret it. (Compare the graph with the spectrum analysis of a tune being played). His paper anyway was in the Bell System Technical Journal, but it is worth getting hold of the book version with Weaver’s introduction to it if you can. It has by then become “THE Mathematical Theory of Communication”, and was published in 1949 by the University of Urbana Press.

    • February 4, 2021 at 11:25 am

      You say: “In like manner, I contend that existence can only be conceived as relative existence in a complex relational system”. In that case we agree, but you are counting the existences, I the minimally complex relational systems, which start from self-reference: simple circulation.

      You say ” Hume himself suggested that the human brain had developed to anticipate effects from causes”. Why then did Kant get so stirred up about this? Because ’causes’ for Hume were in the human mind?

    • February 4, 2021 at 12:33 pm

      What I realise I’ve missed in Hume’s background is Hobbes (1651) arguing that even an autocratic leader was better than none; much as Kant had argued that you cannot discuss real causes without the word ’cause’. Locke and Hume both seem to have been envisaging democracy as an alternative to Hobbes’ autocratic form of state (that of Charles II post-restoration, i.e. before “the Glorious Revolution” which replaced the king with the Bank of England); and that democratic concept has overflowed into how majority opinions have overtaken logic in how most of us – even most scientists – now understand words.

  11. Ken Zimmerman
    February 21, 2021 at 4:35 pm

    As a non-economist, I have little useful advice to young economists seeking to build a successful career. The typical path forward is to absorb the received wisdom of one’s elders and develop new insights within their frameworks of thought. But what I’d like to suggest is that the upcoming generation of economists needs to help their discipline come to terms with some epochal realities of our times. A number of forces — climate change, collapsing ecosystems (fisheries, coral reefs, soil desertification, loss of water, biodiversity loss), savage wealth inequality, tech monopolies, and their data-surveillance, the growing precarity of livelihoods – are challenging some foundational assumptions of standard economics.

    My advice to an aspiring economist, therefore, is to immerse yourself in disciplines and ways of life that lie outside of the prevailing economic paradigm and typical career paths. The future will require economics to rethink itself in light of what’s happening outside of its aging, self-referential modes of thought. It needs to seriously reexamine its ontological and epistemological premises to take account of the different ways of knowing and being beyond those of the modern, industrialized West. In short, the discipline, as currently taught, desperately needs to get beyond its “One-World World” perspective, as anthropologist Arturo Escobar puts it. Outside of its narrow, asocial, and transaction-focused way of seeing the world, there is actually a pluriverse of life that intimately conjoins the human with the more-than-human and the individual with social collectives.

    It would help, therefore, for economists to open up deeper conversations with the social sciences, especially anthropology and sociology, and with political economy, complexity sciences, and evolutionary sciences. Economists may also want to acknowledge the limits of intellectual inquiry itself. A significant amount of what we know is embodied in our bones, viscera, and flesh, and not necessarily part of anyone’s canon. It is tacit, situated, local, and embodied knowledge. Thankfully, the emotional and sociological dimensions of life – including in economic contexts – are beginning to get more serious attention.

    But generally, these phenomena are regarded as aberrations from the default “rational actor” model – or used as heterodox tools to advance familiar corporate and capitalist goals. Meanwhile, a backlash is brewing against the standard “free-market” narratives because of its limitations. Many critics are seeking a deeper, more structural paradigm shift in mindset that would make economics the servant of larger ethical, social, and ecological goals, and not an end in itself.

    I bring some different perspectives about economics because I’ve been an activist/scholar involved with various citizen movements for more than forty years. I learned a great deal from my time with Ralph Nader and the consumer movement and as a (non-academic) scholar of the commons, which is emerging as a new/old paradigm of economics, politics, and culture. I have learned about economics from the outside in, so to speak. I’ve found that many of its core premises – about the separation of humans from “nature”; about the purported sovereignty of humans as individual rational agents; about the glib conflation of price with value – to be untenable.

    Working with Nader and the consumer movement in the late 1970s and 1980s, I learned through countless policy battles (safety design of cars, pesticides in food, workplace toxins, drug safety, etc.) that the narratives of free-market economics work much better as abstract theories and political cover-stories than as realistic accounts of everyday market life. Put more bluntly, by focusing so obsessively on market transactions, economic analysis tends to ignore social, ecological, and intergenerational realities. It tends to marginalize and dismiss them as “externalities.” The misguided presumption is that free markets are self-regulating and don’t really need governance (“market interventions”) – until, of course, the next oil spill, deadly drug, or speculative financial bubble intrudes to show otherwise.

    As various “externalities” from climate change to market abuses disrupt social stability and indeed, confidence in markets themselves, future economists will need to address a gaping hole in standard economic theory: How shall the anti-social, ecologically destructive tendencies of ‘free markets’ be reliably constrained or prevented in the first place? Given the political sabotage and systemic failures of government regulation over the past fifty years, this is a profound question. It’s entirely possible that waning social trust and legitimacy in the market/state system will intensify strongman, authoritarian responses, hastening the corporate neofeudalism underway.

    Are economists prepared to deal with such impending traumas? It’s clear to me that political economy – and the underlying cultural life that informs it – must increasingly be part of an economics education.

    David Bollier
    My Advice to an Aspiring Economist: Don’t be an Economist

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