Home > Uncategorized > On logic and science

On logic and science

from Lars Syll

That logic should have been thus successful is an advantage which it owes entirely to its limitations, whereby it is justified in abstracting — indeed, it is under obligation to do so — from all objects of knowledge and their differences, leaving the understanding nothing to deal with save itself and its form. But for reason to enter on the sure path of science is, of course, much more difficult, since it has to deal not with itself alone but also with objects. Logic, therefore, as a propaedeutic, forms, as it were, only the vestibule of the sciences; and when we are concerned with specific modes of knowledge, while logic is indeed presupposed in any critical estimate of them, yet for the actual acquiring of them we have to look to the sciences properly so called, that is, to the objective sciences. 

In mainstream economics, both logic and mathematics are used extensively. And most mainstream economists sure look upon themselves as “twice blessed.”

Is there any scientific ground for that blessedness? None whatsoever!

If scientific progress in economics lies in our ability to tell ‘better and better stories’ one would, of course, expect economics journals being filled with articles supporting the stories with empirical evidence confirming the predictions. However, the journals still show a striking and embarrassing paucity of empirical studies that (try to) substantiate these predictive claims. Equally amazing is how little one has to say about the relationship between the model and real-world target systems. It is as though explicit discussion, argumentation and justification on the subject aren’t considered to be required.

In mathematics, the deductive-axiomatic method has worked just fine. But science is not mathematics. Conflating those two domains of knowledge has been one of the most fundamental mistakes made in modern economics. Applying it to real-world open systems immediately proves it to be excessively narrow and hopelessly irrelevant. Both the confirmatory and explanatory ilk of hypothetico-deductive reasoning fails since there is no way you can relevantly analyse confirmation or explanation as a purely logical relation between hypothesis and evidence or between law-like rules and explananda. In science, we argue and try to substantiate our beliefs and hypotheses with reliable evidence. Propositional and predicate deductive logic, on the other hand, is not about reliability, but the validity of the conclusions given that the premises are true.

  1. deshoebox
    September 6, 2021 at 6:03 pm

    I recommend Friedman’s “Methodology in Positive Economics” as a hilarious and instructive illustration of how wrong a person can be. He uses bad logic and incorrect assumptions about how scientists think about the world, to support an implicit argument that it’s OK for economics to use bad logic and incorrect assumptions. An appropriate propaedeutic to studying economics might be several years spent doing useful work in the actual world and thinking hard about your own experiences. (Yes, I had to look up ‘propaedeutic’, but then couldn’t resist using it.)

  2. Ikonoclast
    September 6, 2021 at 11:11 pm

    Lars continues making (and quoting) logical arguments. The passage from Kant is clearly correct; logically and empirically supportable. However, is it not our problem that logical arguments do not persuade people? We are largely creatures of appetite, emotion and inculcated prejudice.

    “Hitherto, philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” – Karl Marx.

    Lars understands that conventional economics is a pile of nonsense. Then he abrogates his responsibility, as a philosopher, to change it. In a previous post he laments the (low) “levels of aspiration among economists”. But we cannot expect and go on expecting any progress from the pile of nonsense itself that is conventional economics and certainly cannot expect its own self-initiated revolutionary reorintation. Rather, one should lament the low levels of aspiration from philosophers. It is only from them that the new ideas can come.

    Professor R.D. Wolff offers ideas for a practical way forward. These relate to “democracy in the workplace” and “worker cooperatives”. I leave people to search those terms. However, no progress will be made while people remain placated consumers, quiescent and acquiescent. When matters become bad enough under collapsing neoliberalism and collapsing social systems, environments and climate, then the mass of the people will become extraordinarily angry. I suggest philosophers and political economists prepare theory for that day. When a system collapses, all its rubrics and tenets will be easily argued away and dispensed with. Make them targets of the people’s anger. But be prepared with a new theorized system or else you will see a descent to barbarism and anarchy. Base the new system on genuine democracy, humane ethics and science. The people will be ready to listen when they are desperate to listen. They will be desperate when they are losing the means to live and facing penury and death en masse. That time is all but upon us under this system.

  3. Edward Ross
    September 7, 2021 at 2:24 am

    As a practical lay person i agree with Ikonoclast “But we cannot expect and go on expecting any progress from the pile of nonsense that is conventual and certainly cannot expect its own self-initiated revolutionary revolutionary reorientation.” On this basis I complement all those o academics from other fields for their efforts to bring the conversation down to the real world.
    Then re “democracy in the the workplace’ and” worker cooperatives” From my experience in the work place the problem is unless those involved really understand the privilege’s and obligations involved in democracy they are open to manipulations of those with ulterior motives. Therefore I think the subject of democracy has been neglected in the home and the education system. Of course this is exactly what the elite want so that they can manipulate them in a way that benefits them.

  4. September 7, 2021 at 7:45 am

    I always feel a bit uneasy about this kind of armchair criticism. Isn’t the ‘all other things being equal clause’ Economics 101 that you learn on day 1? For instance, there is a supposed relationship between money supply and price level. It makes sense, but you often do not see it in reality. So, does this relation not exist, or are there other variables that also affect the outcome?

    As for predictiveness in human behaviour, an example can demonstrate why that might not be possible. If you know the future, that will change it. For instance, if I know I will have a car accident tomorrow, I will stay at home tomorrow. If people know that the stock of corporation X will rise 20% tomorrow, they will buy it now so that it rises 20% today.

    There are many economic models. Some work better under specific circumstances. The supposed mathematical relationships (for instance, M*V = P*T) could be practical tools rather than statements about reality. That works better for me than putting up strawmen and kicking them down by stating that the supposed relationship is not visible in the statistics.

    There was a course on Model Thinking by Professor Scott E. Page of the University of Michigan on Coursera.org. I have followed it and made an abstract. You may want to read the first chapter (see link):

    https://www.naturalmoney.org/modelthinking-01.html#0100

    Presumably, if you have toolkit of economic models, you can use them to think through a proposal. An informed estimate is usually better than a random guess. And the more models you use, the better your estimate is likely to be. But then again, do not be surprised when your predictions do not come true.

    • yoshinorishiozawa
      September 7, 2021 at 12:31 pm

      [T]here is a supposed relationship between money supply and price level. It makes sense, but you often do not see it in reality. So, does this relation not exist, or are there other variables that also affect the outcome?

      (nivtric on Sep 7, 2021 at 7:45 am)

      This is an interesting example. I have quickly passed my eyes over your Chapter but I could find no explicit arguments. Have you somewhere argued it?

      • September 7, 2021 at 1:33 pm

        The link points to an abstract of a course on the use of models. It is about models in general, not so much economics. The first chapter argues that models, despite being limited and not fully reflecting reality, can help you to understand reality and that using multiple models is better. This may also be true for economics.

        I do research into an interest-free global financial system (all interest rates being negative, and the maximum interest rate being zero) and I use the ideas of classical economics, keynes, monetarism, rational expectations, and many more, to evaluate whether it is possible, how to do it, and how it may work in practice. There is no other way because there hardly any emprical data on the subject.

        Main stream economics assumes that an interest-free financial system is not possible, but my research shows that there is good reason to believe that it is possible (at least, if certain conditions are met). But in the end, the proof is in the pudding.

      • yoshinorishiozawa
        September 7, 2021 at 3:51 pm

        Thank you for detailed explanation. Would you like to send me an e-mail to me at y@shiozawa.net . I have some materials that I want to send to you.

  5. September 7, 2021 at 10:12 am

    I’m impressed by all the above reactions – thanks for your appreciation, Edward – but there is an alternative reading of Lars’ self-defence in terms of our all having different jobs to do, and that is that all the rest of us need to become more philosophical. Remember the wisdom of ancient Greece? “Know thyself”! Learn from a scientist how our brains work so we can see why we can be placated until it is too late; then reflect on former President Bush’s excuse for the military reaction to planes being flown into American skyscrapers: “You can’t think straight when you are angry”. Of course the anger Ikonoclast fears is justified, but in extremis merciful forgiveness and caring for each other will be much more productive than justice. As I see it, Professor Wolff has it about right. In practice the Mondragon cooperatives started from investment where the money wasn’t, not where it already was. As Nitvic implies, once we can see our future we can change ourselves.

  6. September 7, 2021 at 3:21 pm

    ” In science, we argue and try to substantiate our beliefs and hypotheses with reliable evidence.” As a mathematician it seems to me that such ‘substantiation’ necessarily involves something like ‘logic’ and ‘mathematics’, and if we are to denounce (as perhaps we should) what economists often understand by these terms then we need to point to something to put in their place.

    If we take Popper’s view that science is about testability then the problem seems to me not that economists use logic and mathematics, but that they too often use them to test the conformance of a proposed theory to their preconceptions. In contrast ‘proper sciences’ use logic and mathematics to test theories against evidence. Popper notes that different sciences use different logics to test their theories, so the challenge seems to me to be to identify logic(s) appropriate to economics.

    As an example, nivtric links to a page which seems to suggest that probability is the appropriate model of uncertainty in a number of examples. Popper supposes that such a view ought to be tested, and I agree. So here is one area in which needs exploring, and I accept the general message of nivtric’s link: that a logical and mathematical view would be useful. How else is economics to progress beyond its current constraints?

    • September 8, 2021 at 7:50 pm

      Dave M says “Nivtric links to a page which seems to suggest that probability is the appropriate model of uncertainty in a number of examples. Popper supposes that such a view ought to be tested, and I agree”.

      Many years ago I ended up doing research to test the reliability of reliability theory, which proved to be well worth doing, although the outcome was not what was expected (and indeed not popular). What the failure statistics showed up was the cases where there far more failures than expected, which helped to pinpoint the non-random events due to design errors.

      • September 9, 2021 at 12:37 pm

        A useful contrast to the last line of Lars’ post, and also useful in that the strange attitude to theories that economists have are more widely problematic.

        When we had our house built the default was a roof designed to withstand a ‘once in a hundred year storm’, which sounded quite reasonable. But having worked with meteorologists I realised that this didn’t actually mean what you might think. Similarly any application of ‘reliability theory’ is reliant on a number of assumptions that are (in my experience) hardly ever as reliable as people often seem to think. I think Lars gets this, even if we don’t like his reading of Kant.

        But did you make any progress? If so, how? If not, why not? Did you gain any insights that might enlighten anyone? ;-)

      • September 9, 2021 at 7:04 pm

        My job was testing the theory (treating it as a null hypothesis) rather than proposing it. I learned that one can often learn more from failures than from success. The designers could have learned that designers make mistakes, but they were paid not to, so as I said, didn’t like like the result. The insight I am gaining now is how few people have any idea what reliability theory is all about, and how it is but a phase in the process of justifying the use of redundant equipment (e.g. duplicate computers) and information (i.e. that already known or being repeated) to detect and drastically reduce errors.

      • September 9, 2021 at 10:30 pm

        Thanks. As a mathematician I like to distinguish between probability and reliability theories as mathematical theories and as empirical theories. As mathematics they say ‘if so and so is the case, then such and such must be the case’, and often seem to me completely reliable. But it seems to me that what you were testing was not the mathematical theory as such but the corresponding empirical theory (that ‘such as and such is the case’). The mathematical theory can be useful in drawing your attention to the fact that, logically, if ‘such and such’ is not the case then ‘so and so’ can’t be either.

        Another way to think about the issue is to note that logical theories are about logical concepts, such as ‘lines’, and we shouldn’t confuse these with supposed ‘real’ things such as ‘the path that a ray of light takes’. Any claimed correspondence is an empirical one, not a mathematical one, even if mathematicians do use the same terms (such as ‘line’, ‘probability’ or ‘reliability’). What you showed is that this correspondence should not be taken for granted.

        Lars seems not to get this distinction. Maybe your ‘designers’ didn’t either. Or maybe their employers were the victims of some unfortunate mis-education? Whatever the problem, how could we overcome it?

        I can’t insist that others adopt my terminology or conceptualisation, but I do think such distinctions vital if we are to avoid confusion.

  7. yoshinorishiozawa
    September 7, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    I agree with nivtric and Dave Marsay. Lars Syll must know bounded rationality. He criticizes perfect rationality as means to formulate human intentional (including economic) behaviors. He is right on this point.

    However, what Lars Syll does not understand is that scientists and economists are also constrained by bounded rationality. Our knowledge is a mess of unrelated and often contradictory collection of information. Science is in one aspect an essay to give an order to this mess of facts. Logic and mathematics play an important role in discovering an order among messy mass of information. Rejecting logic and math is to voluntarily stay in a confused state of our knowledge.

    Most of mathematicians know how it is difficult to conjecture a theorem and then to prove it. Unfortunately, Lars Syll and Tony Lawson have no experience to have worked as mathematicians. They know how these two are abused but seem to have no experience to be helped to find links (say a truth) hitherto hidden in the dark, thank to trials and errors in mathematics to find it.

  8. Ikonoclast
    September 7, 2021 at 9:26 pm

    I’m bemused that Lars scarcely ever responds to criticism. He is getting a fair bit of push-back here and from disparate critics. Also, there is push-back from critics like me who find his views a curate’s egg: very good in parts, not so good in other parts. Why write, in a blog of all places, if one is not going to engage? The engagement needs to be judicious for sure. Academics cannot reply to every crackpot. I get that. But where the criticism is reasonably judicious, there needs to be engagement. Otherwise, the blog ceases to be a blog; a social democratic phenomenon where at least some grass-root and alternative views are heard.

    This blog like all blogs, and indeed all serious schools of philosophy for that matter, is a bit of an echo chamber. Without some of that, the denizens could not understand each other at all. But there are diverse, dissonant views clanging around at the limits of the bell which ought to be of at least theoretical dialectical interest and chich would get the creative signals reflecting, reinforcing, cancelling etc. But when the bell is muffled it’s just the sound of one mind cogitating.

    • yoshinorishiozawa
      September 8, 2021 at 1:50 am

      We cannot blame Lars for not responding to all objections and criticisms. He is writing too frequently. The biggest trouble with him is that he shows very little progress by receiving various criticisms. It means he is not reflecting seriously what are written and proposed here as a form of comments. I had once proposed him to write less often, read and reply more seriously, and reflect more on his opinions. Of course, it was ignored. I was not surprised by that. It is his way of blogging. Ikonoclast, do not expect too much from him. I only write for the readers of this blog.

  9. September 8, 2021 at 9:56 am

    I think the mathemathics can be helpful to get some idea as to what might happen if you take a specific course of action, but do not expect the outcome to be a prediction.

    For instance, if you think about the relationship between money supply and price level, there is evidence supporting the existence of such a relationship in the long run.

    For instance, when the supply of silver increased in the past, prices often went up.

    But if you then try to put into a nice mathematical formula, and test the predictions, you are going to be disappointed, whatever formula you may come up with.

    And recently something peculiar happened. In the last fifteen years we have seen a dramatic increase in money supply while inflation remained low.

    So, what happened? One answer may be that currency has become an attractive investment because interest rates are low. Keynes would attribute that to liquidity preference.

    That may indicate that interest rates for risk-free money would be negative if markets were ‘free’, meaning that interest are not capped to to the downside.

    • September 9, 2021 at 7:18 pm

      “In the last fifteen years we have seen a dramatic increase in money supply while inflation remained low. So, what happened?”

      “if you think about the relationship between money supply and price level …”.

      Level of what prices?

      Fictitious Ponzi debt money has been stored in shares of it, so the money circulating has not gone up, it has just been stored by increasing share prices.

      • September 11, 2021 at 6:49 am

        The problem with this reasoning is that you do not need more money or debt for higher stock prices. Lower interest rates suffice. (discounting). So, it appears that lower interest rates are causing higher stock prices, not money printing.

        The money may be kept as an ‘investment’. If interest rates are near zero, cash is an attractive investment if your alternative is bonds. And so central banks can buy bonds with cash while ‘investors’ and banks gobble up the cash. Cash has become a substitute for bonds. That might explain the low inflation.

        It therefore appears that the interest rate on cash is too high. The market is distorted because interest rates cannot meaningfully below zero (except by inflation but that is not happening). That is why endless QE appears necessary.

        There is a danger to endless QE, which is that central banks may end up buying everything because cash is more attractive than other investments, so that the state owns the economy. That is explained here:

        https://www.naturalmoney.org/blog/200502.html

        It seems that everyone else in the field of economics fails to recognise this. I believe this is an epic mistake. That is the reason why I do this research. The underlying cause of all these problems is interest (usury) but usury can only be ended once the markets permit it.

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