Home > Uncategorized > Levels of aspiration among economists

Levels of aspiration among economists

from Lars Syll

225px-allais_pn_maurice-24x30-2001bSubmission to observed or experimental data is the golden rule which dominates any scientific discipline. Any theory whatever, if it is not verified by empirical evidence, has no scientific value and should be rejected.

Maurice Allais

Formalistic deductive ‘Glasperlenspiel’ can be very impressive and seductive. But in the realm of science it ought to be considered of little or no value to simply make claims about models and lose sight of reality.

Mainstream economics has since long more or less given up on the real world and contents itself with proving things about thought up worlds. Empirical evidence — still — only plays a minor role in economic theory, where models largely function as a substitute for empirical evidence. Hopefully humbled by the ever growing manifest failure of its theoretical pretences, the one-sided, almost religious, insistence on axiomatic-deductivist modeling as the only scientific activity worthy of pursuing in economics will give way to methodological pluralism based on ontological considerations rather than formalistic tractability.

To have valid evidence is not enough. What economics needs is sound evidence. Why? Simply because the premises of a valid argument do not have to be true, but a sound argument, on the other hand, is not only valid, but builds on premises that are true. Aiming only for validity, without soundness, is setting the economics aspiration level too low for developing a realist and relevant science.

  1. September 1, 2021 at 1:52 pm

    You guys write the same blog post every single day.

    • bruceolsen
      September 1, 2021 at 3:09 pm

      Your statement is objectively false, and any intellectual framework that supports it appears to be a poor match for reality.

      It’s a near-perfect mirroring of the flaws in neoclassical economics.

    • September 1, 2021 at 6:17 pm

      Well, yes and yes, but you guys dismiss Lars’ arguments every day rather than suggesting how they need to be amended, so no wonder he keeps saying the same thing. Try revising Lars’ understanding of ‘truth’ to a pragmatic one and Bruce’s criterion of objectivity to a “functional” relationship between choice of language and the results of acting on it. (A functional delivers another function, i.e. a program, rather than an immediate result).

      Lars, it will be more fruitful to follow Bhaskar and use the language of C S Peirce’s philosophy of science here instead of taking Hume’s half-baked empiricism for granted.

  2. deshoebox
    September 1, 2021 at 5:28 pm

    Respectfully, Professor Syll, don’t you think it’s about time to stop talking about what is wrong with conventional economics and focus instead on what a true and useful economics might look like? We get it, we get it! I suggested (and have suggested many times) that a good starting point would be to define what an economy is and what its purpose is. Every element of an economic system has a purpose, so it’s possible to talk about verious ways those purposes could be achieved Taken as a whole, an economic system has a big purpose, which is to provide, on a sustainable basis, everything people need to support healthy, secure, and productive lives. I understand that ‘real economists’ never talk about the purpose of an economy but this leaves them unable to say anything at all about whether it is operating well or poorly. The economic system of the present world, with its vast inequality of wealth and income and its disastrously destructive cumulative effects on the natural world we all depend on, is clearly not functiioning well in relation to its basic purpose. Lets talk about that and see where it leads!

  3. September 1, 2021 at 5:57 pm

    I do understand your frustration, but I do also think we have to accept a certain level of division of labour also in the academic world.

    When I have presented my critique of mainstream economics for the last thirty years now, I have often heard the reproach that if I can’t come up with a better alternative myself, if I can’t build a better model myself, or develop a new and better theory myself, I shouldn’t say anything at all or at least not expect people to pay attention to my critique.

    As I see it, this is, however, to utterly misunderstand the role a philosopher and methodologist of economics can and should play. Philosophy and methodology can contribute to economics by clearing obstacles to science by clarifying limits and consequences of choosing specific modelling strategies, assumptions, and ontologies. Of course, we need new models and theories, but that is not what we can expect philosophers and methodologists to supply us with. Other economists are certainly better equipped for that purpose — i.e., we have to accept some kind of division of labour.

    • September 1, 2021 at 9:52 pm

      I agree with you completely, Lars.

    • Meta Capitalism
      September 3, 2021 at 10:51 pm

      I think Lars is right. Why some project onto Lars their desire to see him perform some role he chooses not to perform is beyond me. Might I suggest they broaden their reading for there are many who are doing what they complain so vociferously that Lars is not doing, like for example Kate Raworth, Marianna Mazzucato, etc., etc., etc.

  4. deshoebox
    September 2, 2021 at 4:09 am

    Respectfullly, I disagree. I think economists are the least qualified to underake this task. I came to economics from philosophy and public policy. This prepared me to see that economics uses bad logic to build on a foundation of false premises. Public policy is connected to economics because laws and policies determine what can be done and what must be limited or prohibited in the economic sphere. If we start with the idea that we should clearly state the fundamental purpose of an economy, we have already created an unbridgeable gap between ourselves and nearly all economists. We will never change their minds. They must be marginalized and left behind. We should start with a definition of the purpose of an economy that almost everybody will agree with. We should establish premises that are either self-evidently true or are already accepted by most people. For example, suppose we declare that (1) there is enough to go around, and (2) every person born has an equal and inalienable right to everything necessary for a secure, healthy, and productive life. We could on to say that the purpose of an economic system is to fullfill both these conditions through a sustainable structure of laws, policies, practices, and information. That might be good start for this project, and it’s not one that any economist alive today would consider for a moment.

  5. September 2, 2021 at 8:29 am

    “We will never change their minds. They must be marginalized and left behind.”

    I’m with deshoebox.

    But at least I now understand better why Lars is always going on about philosophy and methodology – he identifies as a philosopher and methodologist. But this audience has heard it a hundred times, however much the rest of the mainstream profession might benefit, except they would just shut it out and carry on.

    It might be impolite to say so, but I’ve regarded philosophy as a license to talk about whatever you want to talk about (some ‘philosophers’ seem to do that). So, with respect, why not be adventurous and start looking, for a change, at how to do what deshoebox is talking about? There aren’t very many of us, and there is plenty of low-hanging fruit.

    • Meta Capitalism
      September 3, 2021 at 10:59 pm

      It might be impolite to say so, but I’ve regarded philosophy as a license to talk about whatever you want to talk about (some ‘philosophers’ seem to do that). (Geoff)

      Geoff, you resort to philosophy in your own book yet you fail to recognize or acknowledge this. The fallacy in your argument (if it even rises to that level) is that anytime one talks about the nature of science and its practice one is doing philosophy to one degree or another.

      When we reflect on science—its aims, its values, its limits—we are doing philosophy, not science. This may be bad news for the high priests of scientism, who reject philosophy, but there is no escaping it. (….) How a scientist becomes a disciple of scientism is mysterious, because science and scientism are incompatible. Science owes its success to its restricted focus—its acknowledged inability to even address questions like those raised by scientism, much less answer them. Scientists concentrate on very particular subjects, generally astonishingly narrow, and use rigorous methods to study them, submitting their hypotheses to careful scrutiny and avoiding extrapolations or unwarranted generalizations. In contrast, scientism is an unsupported generalization, bad philosophy masquerading as science or one of its consequents. (Giberson et. al. 2007, 40, Oracles of Science)

      • September 4, 2021 at 2:13 am

        It seems we’ve been over this ground before Meta. I don’t object to philosophy, and I don’t claim that what I do is not categorised by philosophers into something I may or may not have heard of. So you are berating a straw man.

        Rather, I get tired of the large volume, on this site, of philosophising about how one might do economics, and the sparsity of anyone actually doing some economics that might be useful to a world desperate to escape the destruction wrought by neoclassical fantasies.

        It’s true there are others, as you cite above, like Kate Raworth doing useful things. I do contemplate leaving this site, but then there’s the occasional useful post.

  6. September 2, 2021 at 10:28 am

    What Lars says about division of labour is reasonable. What isn’t is his apparently uncritical acceptance of Humean sophistry as philosophy, encouraging deshoebox and Geoff to misrepresent as sophistry the Peircean/Critical Realist rethinking of the logic of scientific method in pursuit of greater wisdom.

    • Meta Capitalism
      September 3, 2021 at 10:45 pm

      I think your ad hominem abuse of Hume is wearing thin. It is BS.

      • September 4, 2021 at 9:56 am

        The problem with primary sources is, the author is represented by his work, so that fair judgment (having read the guy) may easily be misinterpreted as ad hominem abuse. My copy of Hume’s Inquiry contains his essay on “My Own Life”, which explains why he had to write to make his fortune, transforming his “frugality” into “opulence”. The reason I keep repeating this ad nauseam is because wisdom and commercial sophistry are significantly different, but no-one here seems willing to admit it.

  7. Gerald Holtham
    September 2, 2021 at 11:22 am

    Those who know no history are condemned to repeat its mistakes, or so someone said. The same is true of economics. I get irritated when talking to some economists but I get equally irritated by people pontificating about it without really knowing what they are talking about. The criticisms of existing schools of thought in economics would be more cogent and the attempts to build a better economics would be more likely to succeed if people knew a bit more about what they were talking about. Every single valid criticism I have read on this blog was made by some economist or other, often decades ago. I cannot recall a single original critcism. It is a shame the neo-classical and new-classical schools of economics loom so large in people’s consciousness. Their limitations and distortions are not universal in economics. Read Kalecki for macroeconomics, H A Simon for microeconomics an J de V Graaf for welfare economics. They got there before you..

    • September 3, 2021 at 1:54 am

      Gerald, I’ll pick up your challenge. Regarding ignorance of the history of economic thought I plead guilty, I’m a scientist. But I’m not just making ‘criticisms of existing schools of thought’. I’m happy to be shown ideas that really are useful, except anything neoclassical or equilibrium will be a waste of time.
      But what about going beyond criticism and on to new conceptions. Did the people you cite talk about complex systems? Possibly not, as the field only developed in the latter third of last century. If you recognise an economy as a complex system then you get three fundamental conclusions:
      1. There are many ways to organise an economy.
      2. There is no reason at all to expect free markets to be efficient, or optimal.
      3.. There is no reason in principle why an economy cannot be compatible with the living biosphere.
      It also means the economy has a degree of intrinsic unpredictability, so you can’t expect to ‘manage’ more than the general character of the economy, rather as you might ‘manage’ the behaviour of a dog.
      Perhaps there has been more passing through this blog than you have properly appreciated.

      • yoshinorishiozawa
        September 4, 2021 at 7:45 am

        Dear Geoff,

        let me point a comment on what you wrote above:

        Did the people you cite talk about complex systems? Possibly not, as the field only developed in the latter third of last century.

        In my understanding, Herbert A. Simon is one of origins of complexity thinking in economics and management. Gerald may have proposed to reshape microeconomics on the basis of Simon’s bounded rationality. W. Brian Arthur does not seem to be influenced much from Simon, but there are many economists who have got inspiration from Simon including me.

        The first chapter of our book Microfoundations of Evolutionary Economics is in a sense a story of how I learned from Simon. Marc Lavoi’s book review attests it (See the second paragraph of his review). Later chapters do not contain philosophy and methodology as Lars Syll may understand them, but whole theory is constructed by rejecting any kind of equilibrium frameworks. This positive construction seems much more important (at least at the present situation) than simply repeating criticizing equilibrium and neglect of uncertainty. Please note also that our book does not seek to construct a predictive theory. It is more focused on understanding how economy works. We have almost the same three conclusions as you pointed above.

      • September 5, 2021 at 1:14 am

        Thanks Yoshinori. Your knowledge of existing economics is far beyond mine. Congratulations on a very positive review of your book.

      • yoshinorishiozawa
        September 5, 2021 at 7:13 am

        Let me add some more comments on the three fundamental conclusions in your post of September 3, 2021 at 1:54 am.

        As I wrote in my previous post, I basically agree with your conclusions. The point that I want to add is that the experience of Edo period Japan may gives us some hints for our problems. We are facing the limits of growth from the fact that earth is a dissipative structure: climate change, exhaustive resources, and others.

        In Edo period (1603-1868), Japan was essentially closed to external trade (there were four small windows open to the world through Nagasaki, Tsushima, Satsuma and Matsumae). Trade was important for bringing new knowledge and seeds of new plants. For example, cotton, sugar cane, pumpkin, pepper, and tobacco were imported and naturalized before 1600. Potato and sweet potato spread in later years as famine food. Higher technologies were introduced in agriculture (mainly tools for farmers), silk and cotton industries, and ceramics. In the early phase of Edo period, Japan was still importer of silk cloths (from Chain). But from 1640’s foreign trade was limited because of its “close the country” policy.

        There was an extensive development in the first phase of Edo period (until around 1720). The cultivated surface expanded by about a half and the population increased almost double. In the second phase (1720-1850), exploitation of new fields became difficult and the population stagnated. If we measure GDP per capita, it may be stagnated as well. But, even in this stagnating second phase, the common people’s life became more sophisticated than ever. Literacy was improved and printed matters came to be sold more and more in large numbers. The people’s attendance to primitive schools (only reading, writing and abacus) increased. In these 130 years, Japan was materially closed in the sense that import and export were very small compared to the total amount of the internal economy. New crops like sugar cane, cotton, and tobacco were domestically produced.

        This economic development is in sharp contrast to English industrial revolution, because its cotton industry depended much on importation of cotton flowers, which were mainly imported from the USA. The cultivation depended much on slave labor. The oversea customers, mainly in colonized countries, was also important, because it afforded a large demand for mechanized mass production. Without these oversea trade, industrial revolution must have been much more retarded even if it was possible at all.

        In sum, European industrial revolution and economic development of Europe and European offshoots presupposed an ever extending world. Edo period Japan’s development was slow and low leveled but it shows qualitative improvement was possible even in a materially half-closed environment. As we are now put in a similar situation as self-closed state, experience in Edo period Japan may give us some lessons.

      • September 5, 2021 at 8:58 am

        Thank you for this Japanese history, Yoshinori. It is really helpful. The English took us all wrong by seeking to mass produce, this needing slave rather than voluntary labour given the unpleasant work in the cotton fields. It led directly to the present social and environmental crises.

      • yoshinorishiozawa
        September 5, 2021 at 3:26 pm

        It is good, Dave, that you are fine and active. The comparison may be difficult, because people (mainly peasants) of Edo period had to work very hard. But one may say it was more ethical than slave labor.

        I have forgotten to add that Edo period Japan was highly recycled society. There were many used cloths shops. Iron was recycled completely. Peasants in the suburbs competed to buy human waste as manure.

        London in the 18th century was also a highly recycled society, but it was not very hygienic. It was so even at the mid 19th century as it is vividly described by Steven Johnson in his The Ghost Map 2006. London suffered much from Cholera around 1854 and Dr. John Snow became the father of modern epidemiology by plotting the points of the disease appearance. Cholera was a pandemic like COVID-19 and landed later on Japan but the situation seemed much better than in London.

  8. deshoebox
    September 2, 2021 at 7:28 pm

    Despite my degree in philosophy, I resent the implication that I might misrepresent the Piercean/Critical Realist whatever-it-was as anything at all. I have no idea what the Pierceans and the Critical Realists would say about this or any other subject. So let’s get going! If you disagree with my first draft statement of the purpose of an economy, speak up! We are thnking people and we have lived within very bad economic systems all our lives. I’m going to assume we are also ethical and forward-looking people, so we have the qualifications to take on this task. Professor Syll, cast caution to the winds and join us. We’re done with criticizing conventional economics, that poor dead horse. There are more interesting and important tasks at hand!

  9. Gerald Holtham
    September 2, 2021 at 10:17 pm

    Deshoebox you let indignation simplify your view and to elide the ‘”is” and the “ought” Asking what is the purpose of an economy is an excellent prelude to framing a manifesto and proposing schemes of reform. But the reform is more likely to succeed if we understand the reasons the economy takes the forms it does and how it works. The normative is indispensable but changing things has to rest on an understanding of what is there. An economy is the result of the interactions of a myriad people each of whom has their own diverse objectives. It is not to be understood by asking what it is “for”. . Bertrand Russell pointed out that for a millennium or more people tried to understand the universe through teleology – asking what was God’s intention. Once they abandoned teleology and just asked how things worked a millennium of scientific progress resulted.
    I share your wish to think about social purpose but good intentions are not enough. On their own they lead to well-meaning actions that can have unexpected and undesirable consequences. They have to be supported by an understanding of the system you are trying to change. That understanding is achieved by studying things as they are, not asking what they are for..
    Also criticising “economics” is meaningless. There are schools of thought within the subject with radically different approaches and very different conclusions. Institutionalists, evolutionists, neo-classicals, Marxists – who are you talking about?

  10. September 3, 2021 at 2:13 am

    Gerald, further to my comment above, your claim about lack of purpose has been debated recently here. Why do you just repeat the same thing, regardless of how your claim has been challenged?
    It is not so simple as to say the economy is just the product of what individuals do, following their individual purposes. That is only part of the story.
    The other part is that the rules and mechanisms of the economy are manipulated all the time to change its character – by governments and by those wealthy and powerful enough to affect it. For forty years it has been tweaked to favour the wealthy. Before that it was managed to ensure a greater (and fairer, in my view) flow of wealth to the many who help to produce the wealth.
    So purpose very relevant to real economies. Is the purpose to produce more and more stuff so as to further enrich the rich? Or is the purpose to obtain enough from the world’s abundance and to ensure our descendants will also be able to obtain enough, indefinitely into the future? We do have that choice, ‘the economy’ is not some alien thing beyond human influence.
    Perhaps you do have something to learn here. For example that you need to extract yourself from thinking about theoretical abstractions and look more at real economies. And to ask questions that go beyond what the old masters were thinking about.

    • September 3, 2021 at 9:57 am

      My apologies, deshoebox, for triggering your indignation with what was intended to be a philosophical joke about the pot calling the kettle black. However, you are looking for the purpose of economics, I’m seeing behind that the purpose of philosophy. The conflict between sophists making a living selling comfortable ‘wisdom’ and real philosophers like Socrates (finding not having it uncomfortable, so seeking it) was already evident in the history of the early Greeks. In the history of economics the sophist Hume is significant as the tutor of Adam Smith, while the value of Doctorates of Philosophy depends on which form was fashionable at the time it was awarded: the Peircean pursuit of truth or Humeans like Russell and the Logical Positivists claiming to have found it in evidence shorn of reference to ‘gaming’ language.

      So Gerald’s “Those who know no history are condemned to repeat its mistakes” was about right: you haven’t even spelled Peirce’s name right. So you “resent the implication that I might misrepresent the Piercean/Critical Realist whatever-it-was as anything at all”? The “whatever-it was” was the logic of scientific method, this is a Critical Realist telling you, and you are saying it is irrelevant to ask how you and we know your (1) and (2 ) to be true? To facilitate discussion, and for reference, the best summary of Peirce’s position I have found is on p.85 of N R Hanson’s “Patterns of Discovery”, 1958, Cambridge University Press:

      “Deduction proves that something MUST BE, Induction shows that something ACTUALLY IS operative; Abduction [Peirce’s contribution, accounting for hypothetical insight] merely suggests that something MAY BE”.

      So may be there is enough available for everybody NOW, but how do you know there will be in the future? Or better, how can you ensure it remains true: the population control and broader sustainability issues?

    • Meta Capitalism
      September 3, 2021 at 10:19 pm

      To say that the ‘economy is just the product of what individuals do’ is nothing but the pseudo-scientific propaganda preached by mainstream economics and the econophysicists qua econometricians. It is rooted in the naturalistic fallacy that humans are like atoms in physics. It is religion to some it seems and elides the fact that humans are purposive beings who indeed socially construction their institutions, including their economic relations that give rise to diverse economies over time and place.

      Indeed Gerald’s claim that the economy lacks a purpose has been debated and his own comments have acknowledge the pervasive role of politics (institutions, etc.), which always have a teleological purposive nature to their policies, yet he elides this point. In reality, Gerald is making a fallacious argument in the sense that his unspoken assumption, erroneous though it be, is that there ‘a’ economy that is a ‘natural phenomena’ (like physics, or chemistry) resulting from the (microfoundations) atomistic individual consumer and producer choices. This is the delusion and illusion mainstream economics and econometrics is founded upon because of the teleological requirement that it be amendable to measurement (hence, econometrics) mathematical formalization and statistical analysis similar to physics (hence his red herring argument and attempt to drag his fictitious caricature of God/religion/naturalism etc., into a discussion where the analogy is false and unnecessary. The fact that Gerald brings in Bertrand Russell and cosmology (astronomy), a science grounded in the study of natural phenomena (physical material universe that astronomy studies via physics reveals his attempt to elide the purposive nature of human created economies with a fallacious red herring argument that attempts to equate apples (material astronomical natural phenomena in nature) with oranges (human social constructions that are purposive and teleological. Unintended and unforeseen consequences resulting from purposive socially constructed relationships do not make the economy a natural phenomena like a nova or plate tectonics. Rather, to make his exclusive use of econometrics and to justify the validity econometrics Gerald must remain blind to or elide the purpose social constructions that humans use to regulate there economies.

      It is a fallacious abstraction to treat the economic behavior of humans as thought there is a single economy that is a natural phenomena independent of human purposive choice; there is not. GDP and all the metrics used to measure the economies are man-made abstractions for the purpose (teleological) of mathematical tractability. There are no natural laws in economics it seems. Rather there are myriads of economies functioning on a diverse levels from local, to regional, to global, etc., and they all operate within some socially constructed framework that indeed does have teleological purposes. As Geoff notes, ‘the rules and mechanisms of the economy are manipulated all the time to change its character – by governments and by those wealthy and powerful enough to affect it.’ And the philosophical unspoken assumption that the there exists a single natural phenomena called ‘the economy’ is nothing more than a fallacy of philosophical naturalism. It is not science, but pseudo-science, that mainstream economics has been preaching since the historical mathematization of economics (a long history most know about now).

      Gerald’s argument that ‘reform is more likely to succeed if we understand the reasons the economy takes the forms it does and how it works’ is reasonable and true (up to a point). But his auxiliary assumption that the way to figure this out is through econometrics requires him to elide the fact that the economies humans create are teleological and his God argument and Russell are red herrings that we simply cannot, for our children’s sake, let slide any longer. We indeed to need to bring to bear upon the study of human economic behavior various disciples and schools of thought grounded in empirical studies that include participant observation and even econometrics (statistics?), but not naively or uncritically. Otherwise those like Gerald sneak in personal unspoken philosophical assumptions that lead down the same dead end roads of mainstream economics; treating human economic behavior like particle physics or billiard balls that can be aggregated within a mathematical model. That too is an unwarned naïve oversimplification.

      It seems the lens through which Gerald views the reality of human economic-political-social behavior elides the political and social and tries to turn them into a nail for his econometric hammer. That is not to say that econometrics may not have valid insights; Gerald has made some sound arguments in my view. This is not one of them, unfortunately.

      • September 4, 2021 at 10:14 am

        Gerald’s problem, in my opinion, is that he doesn’t understand the difference between abstraction and generalisation. In your first para here, Meta, yours is not understanding anti-religion being mistaken for religion, so that wanting more because one is ungrateful for what one already has seems to occupy the same territory as being grateful even for just being alive.

  11. Ikonoclast
    September 4, 2021 at 3:52 am

    “Of course, we need new models and theories, but that is not what we can expect philosophers and methodologists to supply us with.” – Lars Syll.

    Actually, I disagree with this statement and I think Lars Syll sells himself and his profession very short in saying this. There is a boundary between hard science and social science and it is at this boundary we can “do” the key work in philosophy to better link the hard sciences and social sciences. The key work I refer to is to find the possible connections (ontologically and methodologically) between the hard sciences and social sciences.

    A philosopher of the order of David Hume or Charles Sander Peirce would consider it his task, a matter of professional pride and incumbent on him, to sort out this ontological mess which mere economists have failed to sort out.

    1, Hume’s Philosophy Suggested Evolution to Darwin.

    I wonder if people here are aware that Charles Darwin credited the philosopher David Hume with giving him the “germ” or core idea of evolution as contained in Hume’s philosophy? We can look at how Hume suggested evolution to Darwin.

    To set the scene, we must note that the assumption that some valid deductions are “pure reason” and “independent of all experience” will be found to be an incomplete description. Some such deductions only appear to be independent of “all experience”. Sometimes, they will be found to be dependent on as yet un-noted or unexamined aspects of experience. Where they are genuinely independent of all proximal and personal experience, they can sometimes be found to be dependent on distal species experience, as ancestor experiences and practices culturally transmitted as surviving memes of operational logic contained in language. There must exist, at the least, a rudimentary universal logic, by which the human brain and mind interpret or rather model the world to make some operable and communicable sense of external reality (for humans as a social species) and to pragmatically interact, in mutual cooperation, with external reality; the latter being defined as systems external to brain and mind systems.

    The broad idea of brain and/or mind evolving in response to, and to successfully respond to, the environment, was elucidated at least as early as David Hume. In scientific hindsight, we can see that Hume was referring to the naïve brain’s apparent native propensity to generate, though not explicitly make cognitively and consciously, the logical induction of the general existence of event successions and (some) predictable outcomes as cause and effect. Higher brains seem to possess this native or in-built understanding of the general principle of time-dependent event succession and cause-effect outcomes in a manner not entirely attributable in itself to learning from individual experience; rather it likely must have been acquired in the process of higher brain evolution itself.

    Particular causes and effects (fire burns the skin) are learned from experience. However, the apprehension of a general time-governed principle of event succession and the perception that later states arise consequentially 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, and what I call “near-empirical metaphysics”, in the development of science.

    2. Pay Attention to Hofstadter.

    Hofstadter expressed the central dilemma of metaphysics in its collision with science. “The problem is to state a provisional conception of reality which is as far as possible continuous with the goal of traditional metaphysics and which nevertheless is of empirical import.” In other words, we must assume that the statement “is of empirical import” means that it is not contradicted by science, it facilitates further hypotheses for scientific testing and finally suggests what metaphysical inductive and abductive reasonings and beliefs we may still reasonably develop out without being manifestly obtuse or preposterous with regard to existing scientific knowledge. With the benefit of accumulated scientific knowledge acting as philosophical “farsight”, we can see now that we need to redevelop metaphysics so it is, as far as possible, contiguous with hard science. A philosophical method must be developed which generates inductions from hard science, carries them into metaphysics and thence helps to connect metaphysics to physics and even to suggest what is permissible in empirical metaphysics unless it is to be explicitly rejected as excessively speculative or dogmatic.

    The basic building blocks of this “near-empirical” metaphysics must needs be matter, energy and information; their transfers between systems and their transformations in systems. First however, a resolution must be found for the philosophical difficulties involved in examining the interactions of real systems and formal systems. The genuine ontological dilemmas presented by real system / formal system interactions become manifest in science and the humanities at the boundaries where investigations cross from the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) into the soft or social sciences. An analysis of what happens at system boundaries, including discipline boundaries, will be of vital importance to these investigations It is at the boundaries of systems that mass, energy and especially information are transferred.

    The disciplines of Medicine and Economics prove to be vital case studies for analysing these philosophical dilemmas at the boundaries of the hard and social sciences. Medicine, insofar as it deals with biochemistry, cellular biology, anatomy, physiology and neuroscience is a hard science; a very difficult, complex-system, physical science. As we ascend the complexity chain, in terms of considering ever widening and interacting collections of complex sub-systems, such as the physiological, neurological and “psychological”, we enter arenas of ever more complex emergent behaviours. We experience ever more temptation to admit metaphysical dualism back into our thinking again and to propound the existence of both somatic and psychological causes, as completely separate sources of causation, for processes and events in the whole human organism and its behaviours. This amounts to a retreat to the Cartesian dual substance thesis as the somatic is explicitly physical and the psychological is implicitly “mental” or “psychical”, whatever these imprecise terms for undetectable “realities” actually mean. Yet this treatise has declared dualism and all dual substance theses to be untenable IFF (if and only if) the a priori priority monist assumption is correct: namely that the cosmos is one system, that all “parts” of the cosmos are sub-systems of the cosmos and that all sub-systems of the real cosmos system are real systems in turn and share the same universal laws particularly with respect to space-time, matter, energy, entropy and information.

    Economics is of interest in this context because of the real system / formal system dilemma (an ontological dilemma) inherent in its theory and methods. The real economy is that part of the economy which is concerned with producing real goods and services. Goods and services are physically real in the sense that they entail the use and transformation of real quantities of, and types of, materials and energy, which said real quantities can be measured by the standard physics units for mass, energy and other scientific dimensions as laid out in the SI Table. On the other hand, the economy has a formal or notional aspect best illustrated, at the everyday level, by the operations of money and finance. Money these days is a notional, formal or abstract quantity. The days of using material, commodity-money like silver or gold are, by and large, gone. Accounting rules and procedures, like double entry book-keeping (DEB), national accounts and even laws of ownership are also formal systems set variously by mathematical rules, custom, regulation and legal law. These form parts of what is termed “the nomological machine” by philosophers like Lars Syll. The real economy of real people, machines, resources and energies may be termed the physis (physical) machine. Legal laws are of course quite different from fundamental physical Laws. Markets are an even stranger and more complex amalgam of real system and formal (notional and nomological) system interactions. Various micro-economic theories are resorted to in order to explain, or ideologically justify, the various possible and particular constructions (set-ups) and operations of ownership rules and markets in the nomological machine, meaning in the cultural, regulatory and legal prescriptions of a society.

    Thus, the ambitious goal of this project is to reconceptualise metaphysics in a science-congruent manner and also to produce, by philosophical induction, insights potentially useful in the sociological sciences and economics. This hopefully should enable some integration of “empirical metaphysics” into the process of generating testable scientific hypotheses and also enable better outcomes, in moral philosophy and real terms, in the economic and political “sciences”.

    As hard science makes further discoveries, science-congruent or “near-empirical” metaphysics itself will perforce be continually re-shaped. In turn, the re-shaping of this metaphysics could suggest new hypotheses for scientific testing. The dialectical or positive feedback nature of the proposed process is clear, at least in theory. Philosophical method and scientific method in this way can support and illuminate each other. Their methods exhibit key similarities and key differences. It is the juxtaposition of these similarities and differences which ought to permit a productive exchange. Without similarities as complementary definitions, methods and processes there can be no meaningful dialogue and interaction. Without differences, there can be no novel conjunctions and their resultant new syntheses as emergent ideas and insights.

    To sum up at this point, the central challenge for empirical philosophy is the development of a near-empirical metaphysics. By this, I mean a metaphysics derived from physics by a priori justification. The a priori assumption necessary for this work – for philosophy cannot do away with at least one a priori assumption – is that the Universe is a single complex system. This is a form of Priority Monism, meaning the whole comes before and conditions, or “emerges” (as a transitive verb) and evolves, the parts. This latter statement “emerges and evolves the parts” is consistent with what is now known of the earliest cosmological beginnings of the universe. After the “big bang”, the homogenous, high energy, low entropy singularity expanded (inflated) and subsequently developed or “emerged” heterogeneity (lumpiness) and the many differentiated parts (differentiated sub-systems) of the universe of our “today”.

    The declaration “emerges and evolves the parts” is also consistent with the observed facts of biological evolution and indeed of physiological development from conception (as “emerges and develops the parts”), at least for sexually-reproducing, multicellular life. The lumpy, clumpy or differentiated phenomenon of “emergence”, as new complexity and “radical novelty”, is a consistent feature of the cosmos in the direction of the “arrow of time”, at least up until the current age of the cosmos, albeit it appears to occur at the cost of an overall increase in entropy (disorder).

    Summing Up.

    Either the Cosmos is one system of one substance with time-succession governed events and emergent law-governed behaviors and regularities (the premise of priority monism) OR it is two or more systems of different substances which do not interact or do not directly and regularly interact in any reliably detectable law-governed ways. If you think it is the first then get to work unifying real system and formal system ontology for that is where the answer will lie IFF ther priority monist a priori assumption is correct. If you think it is the other, dualism, tiralism etc. then give up philosophy and science to solve the big questions and get down on your knees and pray for divine help for yourself and for humanity.

    Now each response above is rational based on its founding a priori assumption. They don’t even necessarily exclude each other, though we tend to intuit and feel they do. The Cosmos, despite some apparent manifestations of reliable fundamental laws need not demonstrate complete category consistency nor complete adherence to the “Law of non-contradiction” whether it is of a Monist or Dualist nature or whether it is complete or not complete with respect to “all existence” or “the absolute.

    I am really disappointed when philosophy does not set itself the highest goal of being the proper guiding light for the hard and soft sciences and for the goal of changing the world. Such a diminution of ambition is indeed philosophy reduced to a glass bead game in academe only.

    • September 4, 2021 at 10:38 am

      “By their fruits you shall know them”. So Hume’s “empathy” spawned Smith and Malthus, his “hypothesis” Darwinism, social Darwinism and a nazi Superman, and between them centuries of sadistic competition for other people’s territory.

      I’m more in sympathy with what you say about Hofstadter, Ikonoclast, for what you see still needing to be done is what I have already done. One has to have a way of speaking about difference before one can seek it, find it and express it, so one’s axioms have to be complex definitions like Cartesian coordinates. But extend that in practice to the arabic number form; consider how the unit definitions evolve and the need to check the digits at every level.

      • Ikonoclast
        September 4, 2021 at 11:41 am

        Blaming Hume for Social Darwinism is like blaming the man who invented the axe for axe-murders. Blaming the man who invented a useful tool for the acts of those who misuse the tool is illogical.

        Selfishness and callousness are part of the unreformed, or at least unsocialized, condition of man. Social Darwinism as a misconstruction and misapplication of Darwinism can then be seen as a set of rationalizations and self-justifications by the selfish and callous by the misapplication of the theory in question via a clear category mistake.

        Evolution does not proceed by rational or logical choice. It proceeds by mutation and natural selection. Rationality and logic are limited in a way that natural selection is not. [1] To think that Social Darwinism applied by rational and logical thought selections as descriptions or prescriptions (human choices) is akin to genuine natural selection is to make the category mistake I referred to.

        Note 1. This is a big statement which takes a lot of supporting and there is little room for that here. Suffice it so that the arena of natural selection (empirical reality in the biosphere) is a much bigger and more complex arena than the arena of human rational and logical thought. Reality continually surprises, baffles and confounds us. Ergo, reality is greater than our thoughts, more extensive than our imaginations, more capable of emergent developments. Indeed, our thoughts, as suppositions and modelling-of-reality statements, are themselves only a sub-set of reality.

      • September 4, 2021 at 12:58 pm

        Blaming Ikonoclast for knee-jerk reactions is no worse than his wanting to blame Herbert Spencer for Social Darwinianism.

        “Evolution does not proceed by rational or logical choice”? On the contrary, it proceeds by giving things time and space to adapt: either their finding a niche environment or rational observers recognising the logic of this and giving them one.

        I’m happy to say I have experienced this not only in bringing up children but in my working environment.

    • Meta Capitalism
      September 5, 2021 at 5:07 am

      I wonder if people here are aware that Charles Darwin credited the philosopher David Hume with giving him the “germ” or core idea of evolution as contained in Hume’s philosophy? We can look at how Hume suggested evolution to Darwin. – Nikon

      That would be an interesting citation. Can you provide one?

  12. Ken Zimmerman
    September 4, 2021 at 9:32 am

    Anthropologists want to locate aspects of people’s individual and collective lives, which is to say their lives and societies, in terms of how these aspects relate to one another in an interconnected whole with often unclear and uncertain boundaries and a noticeable level of chaos. Every society and culture ever created by humans which anthropologists have studied includes activities through which people produce, circulate and consume things, the ways people and societies secure their subsistence or provision themselves. It is important to note, though, that ‘things’ is an expansive term. It includes material objects, but also includes the immaterial: labor, services, knowledge and myth, names and charms, magic, and so on. In different times and places, different ones of these will be important resources in social life, and when they are important, they come within the purview of economic anthropologists.

    In other words, where some economists have identified economic life in terms of the sorts of mental methodology that people use and the decisions that they make (for example, utility maximization), which stresses the form of thought of the person being studied, most economic anthropologists would identify it in terms of the substance of the activity; even those who attend to the mental methods are likely to do so in ways that differ from what is found in formal economics (for example, Gudeman 1986, 2001; Gudeman and Rivera 1991). This substance includes markets in the conventional sense, whether village markets in the Western Pacific or stock markets in the First World. However, these markets are only a sub-set of economic life, and in accord with their tendency to see the interconnections in social life, economic anthropologists tend to situate things like markets or other forms of circulation, or production or consumption, in larger social and cultural frames, in order to see how markets, to for example, affect and are affected by other areas of life.

    This contextualization operates at a more general level as well. So, while anthropologists would recognize the growing importance of the economy in how people in Western societies understand their world over the past couple of centuries (Dumont 1977), they would not take the nature of ‘the economy’ as given or its growing importance as self-evident (for example, Carrier 1997, 2021; Carrier and Miller 1998; Dilley 1992, 2017; Friedland and Robertson 1990). This indicates that for many economic anthropologists, it is not just economic life that merits investigation. So too does the idea of economy, its contents, contexts and saliences, and the uses to which it is put and the problems it creates and encounters.

    Economic anthropologists are concerned to place people’s economic activities, their thoughts and beliefs about those activities and the social institutions implicated in those activities, all within the context of the social and cultural world of the people being studied. This reflects the assumption that economic life cannot be understood unless it is seen in terms of people’s society and culture more generally.

    • September 4, 2021 at 10:46 am

      Yes, Ken, but what is an economic activity? One needs to start from generalisations about human society but from which is unchanging, i.e. the hard fact that we are mammals needing to be fed while we grow up, whether or not we are accepted in “society”.

      • September 4, 2021 at 10:59 am

        Apologies for another couple of typos! Should read “One needs to start NOT from generalisations” etc. and “from THAT which is unchanging”.

      • Ikonoclast
        September 4, 2021 at 12:18 pm

        “One needs to start NOT from generalizations about human society but from that which is unchanging, i.e. the hard fact that we are mammals needing to be fed while we grow up, whether or not we are accepted in “society”.” – davetaylor1

        I very much agree with this statement. That is why I wrote elsewhere on this site about rejecting the Lockean construction of private property, in favor of Robert Ardrey’s “territorial imperative” construction of, as the term suggests, the imperative need for territory (even as a nomadic territory range) for food, shelter and safety needs, for humans, as a terrestrial, mammalian, animal species.

        What flows from that is the clear fact that biological and social territory is NOT the same thing as exclusive private property. It is not at all the same thing, especially for a social and even arguably a eusocial species, such as homo sapiens sapiens.

        Of course, say things like this to most economists and all you will draw are blank looks or maybe they will twirl their index fingers at their temples and then point at you. Say such things to an anthropologist or ecologist and immediately they will understand you, whether or not they precisely agree with you on your detailed points.

        The failure to possess the requisite empirically grounded concepts rests solely with the economists not with the heterodox “econophysicists” or “eco-economists” despite the economists’ hubristic self-assessment that their discipline is somehow fundamentally objective rather than being merely descriptive of social customs and implemented rules confined to certain times and places.

        The construction of exclusive private property domains beyond reasonable human needs for social territory and personal territory is what lies at the root of all our problems. In this sense, property is theft. The true Christian and the true Socialist can certainly agree on that.

        It is not that money (or property) is the root of all evil. It is that “The love of money (or property) is the root of all evil.” The love of personal property beyond fair need and beyond the requirements for social, eusocial and shared territories and some personal possessions, is the problem.

        Given how badly the private or exclusive property privilege is abused and has been abused throughout recorded history, private or exclusive property as an income producing asset needs to be abolished. This would not abolish personal property of the non-income producing form. You could own a toothbrush or a (reasonably-sized) house for personal use. Privately owning property for income producing purposes ought to be wholly abolished. The way forward is a mix of state ownership and cooperative ownership. See Prof. Richard D. Wolff for worker cooperative theory.

      • September 4, 2021 at 1:09 pm

        Glad to see we agree on this! The other side of it (picked up by Veblen) is a desire for appreciation being expressed in a need to look good, or at least to keep up with the Jones’s.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        September 5, 2021 at 1:36 am

        Dave, please read my comment before responding. “Every society and culture ever created by humans which anthropologists have studied includes activities through which people produce, circulate and consume things, the ways people and societies secure their subsistence or provision themselves.” Some anthropologists chose to study such activities and how people create them. This is an empirical generalization since its source is observations. Don’t know why the anthropologists chose to name their work economic anthropology.

      • September 5, 2021 at 8:33 am

        Ken, I did, and you appear to be agreeing with me apart from restricting your observations to observations about dead humans rather than of living mammals. Perhaps you did not read my corrective?

      • Ken Zimmerman
        September 5, 2021 at 9:47 am

        Dave, messed up again. “It is important to note, though, that ‘things’ is an expansive term. It includes material objects, but also includes the immaterial: labor, services, knowledge and myth, names and charms, magic, and so on. In different times and places, different ones of these will be important resources in social life, and when they are important, they come within the purview of economic anthropologists” Unless you somehow believe differently and can support your beliefs with evidence, humans are the only mammals who create labor, knowledge, mythology, names and charms, and magic. All of which have at one time or another been important resources in social life; and thus studied by economic anthropologists.

  13. Gerald Holtham
    September 4, 2021 at 7:31 pm

    I plead not guilty to thinking the economy is a natural system. I understand that it is of course an artificial system, the result of human agency. Its outcomes are the result of interactions and conflicts among people with different purposes. Of course some people are more powerful than others and outcomes will reflect that. Does it help to understand those interactions by asking what an economy is for? No, and you are in a state of confusion if you think so.
    People are reacting to what they think I said. Did I say people should not ask what an economy should be for? No. It is appropriate to judge economic outcomes against what you think they could and should be. But there are two stages: diagnosis and prescription. I did not ignore comments, I just thought they were wrong in not grasping the difference between diagnosis and prescription. First understand why the system works as it does, second form a views as to how it should be improved. Actual policies for improvement have to take account of the constraints of reality if they are to work. I am emphatically not arguing for acceptance of the status quo. But teleology just leads to conspiracy theories not understanding.

    • September 5, 2021 at 1:45 am

      OK Gerald, but I don’t think the separation of diagnosis and prescription is as clean as your words imply. It is not useful to ask what is the purpose of Jupiter’s orbit, but it is useful to ask how one segment of society has manipulated the internal mechanisms of the economy to suit its own purpose.
      That is the sense in which I understood deshoebox’s question, and I think it’s a good one. To be sure, one needs to understand how the manipulations flow through the system, but without losing sight of the fact that they are manipulations with purpose. Perhaps you would agree.

  14. Edward Ross
    September 5, 2021 at 12:20 am

    Here I admit that I have had a limited education and am well past my prime.
    In spite of that I am very concerned, about the serious divide and inequality between the rich and the poor. Therefore I believe there is an urgent need to to either improve the present economic system or build a new economic system. Either way I remember Bill Geddes once said to understand the present we need to know the history of how we arrived at the present.

    Thus I read and reread all the comments on the above because in my opinion they all contribute to a meaningful conversation. However there are two comments that particularly resonate with me. They are Iconoclast September 4 first Privately owning property for income producing purposes ought to be wholly abolished” Here I am not so sure that I agree with the above but I certainly agree their has to be limitations on the ownership of private property. For example their is something seriously wrong with an economic system that allows the wealthy to use property to increase their wealth and charge exorbitant rents to people that are struggling to survive.
    second” the way foreword is a mix of state ownership and cooperative ownership” Here I also include there is a need to include breaking down the divide between employer and the employee, regardless of whether the employer is the state or private enterprise. From my simple observation this is where the conversation for a new or reformed economic system needs to start with real problems in the real world, before formulating economic theories and models isolated from reality. Ted

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