Thursday, 11 November 2010

Mill on Comte : clever but absurdly consistent fascist

I'm just finishing up the great J.S. Mill book on August Comte.  In the end Mill spotted Comte's fascist tendencies, which clearly abhorred him, whilst appreciating his great intellectual abilities (especially early in Comte's career).  Mill finishes the book by highlighting the danger of what Emerson would later call a 'foolish consistency of small minds' but what Mill himself would call the absurd consistency of great minds.  Emerson tagged this kind of foolish consistency as indicative of small minds, ironically enough, in an essay encouraging people to be more self-reliant, individualists, non-conformist; this is the non-fascist perspective, precisely the opposite of the Comtian view of how humanity ought to be managed.  Mill labels Comte with Descartes and Leibniz in the same category, saying: 

"they were ... the most consistent, and for that reason often the most absurd, because they shrank from no consequences, however contrary to common sense, to which their premisses appeared to lead.  Accordingly their names have come down to us associated with grand thoughts,..., and also with some of the most extravagantly wild and ludicrously absurd conceptions and theories, which ever were propounded by thoughtful men."  
 I mention this because this argument about how free a model builder is to use input assumptions which differ substantially from reality is a very modern one in economics, just as it was in Ricardo and Malthus's time.  I hope to come back to it in later postings.

To my mind, what most resembles this frenzied French systematiser within the scope of economics is a well-described mathematical model of some aspect or other of economic behaviour, together with a set of (usually unrealistic) assumptions.  I hope to develop this idea further when reading other works on economic methodology.

It is also amusing to me that not only did Comte's life work contain inspiration for what would be the positive approach to economics, but also his life itself provided a model for a model-driven quasi-human not unlike the  Homo Economicus beloved of the neoclassical economist fraternity.  Mehrling, in his wonderful biography of Fisher Black, paints a similar picture of a man driven to change his very own behaviour in a way which made it conform to the CAPM model, an recent mathematical model of Homo economicus.  Mehrling refers often to Black as 'CAPM Man'.  I'm also reminded of John Searle's Chinese room experiment, which captures some aspect of this form of constraint on human behaviour.  When we behave according to the diktats of the model, are we debasing our humanity, or are we bringing light where otherwise there was emotional floundering?  In answering this question, it is worth remembering the conclusions concerning performativity as discussed in "An engine, not a camera".

Monday, 8 November 2010

Evolution of bagatelles

John Neville Keynes, in "The scope and method of political economy", 1891, highlighted two schools of political economy.  He prefers to regard them as differences of emphasis and notes that are both present in the great economists.  Adam Smith, he claims, didn't dwell on methodological issues explicitly but proponents of the two approaches both claim Smith for their side.  You could fancifully imagine that the original Smithian approach fractured into two, embodied in Ricardo and Malthus:

1. Is-based, theoretical, abstract, deductive, ahistoric , a priori, logical essences of human nature, Ricardo
2. Ought-based, ethical, realistic, inductive, historical, a posteriori , contingent evolved economic states of affairs, Malthus

Keynes, like J.S. Mill and Senior, are on the side of political economy as logical science.  One of the claims of this school is the ability to isolate more or less pure economic lines of reasoning which are distinct from general human social reasoning.  This empowers the scientist of economies to postulate models of behaviour which are exclusively economic in nature.  And no doubt Auguste Comte's views on the classification of each of the social sciences, and the possibility that they are allowed their own scientific models (grounded in mathematics, which he sees at the root of all science) dealing distinctly with phenomena from that subject have a large role to play in philosophically underpinning this school.

I think I see in this Comtian idea the beginnings of the intrinsic/extrinsic, modelled vs externally shocked dichotomy which permeates economic thinking and language to this day.  Keynes says:
Economic facts are, it is allowed, influenced by social facts of very various kinds, and in their turn influence them; but it is nevertheless held to be possible up to a certain point to isolate the study of the phenomena of society ... Economic science constitutes, therefore, a distinct, though not entirely indpendent, department of sociological speculation.
Keynes gives two more prosaic reasons to favour the deductive theoretical school - (i) we can't carry out economic experiments, hence undermining the more empirical of the two approaches; (ii) given the 'leakage' of causal explanations into general sociological departments of human behaviour, inducing a coherent and pure economic theory is very difficult.  Point (i) seems less relevant to us today, given the new subject of experimental economics, and (ii), I would have thought, has a similar flip-side w.r.t. the deductive approach - namely the artificiality of the 'purely economic' simplifying model could render theories inspired by this approach intellectual bagatelles with no serious value.  I think this is probably too strong, given the subsequent productive directions economics has moved in following Ricardo, J.S. Mill and Cournot, but nonetheless it can't be taken for granted that in general any theoretical economic model will necessarily be useful.

The axioms of the deductive approach are essentially axioms about human nature - for example,  all men would prefer the outcome of any economic behaviour they engage in to increase their wealth.  All the other idiosyncratic motivations can, by definition, be assumed to be random noise around the basic tenets, and hence can be ignored in models as a simplifying first assumption.  But nobody at the time sees this as anything more than a model of a hypothetical man.  Rational expectations assumptions were still a long way off.  Still, it is indeed not a bad approximation to identify these axioms and consider them static for the purpose of the model.  Yet of course, there's always a historically embedded, institutional version of even these axioms of human nature - how our cognitive facilities developed, no doubt as our material environment and maturing culture evolved.

Keynes points out that in reality, neither of these two schools were as different from each other as they claimed (except in the positions of their own extremists).  This sounds right to me.  Take, for example, the efficient markets hyppothesis.  Markets are clearly historically situated; and they have been moving towards a position of achieving efficiency through the construction of historically embedded institutions of trading, (exchanges, electronic exchanges, S.E.C. protections, corporate govenrances, etc.)  Yet the mathematician who jumps straight to the matehmatical asymptote of this essentially cultural evolution may also be justified in constructing his model with these assumptions.  They are two sides of the same analytical coin, for me. 

It is interesting to see how Keynes distinguishes the positive science (IS) of political economy with the ethics (OUGHT) of political economy and the art of political economy.  His son would contribute to all three.  Also, it isn't clear to me how the OUGHT school got to be associated with an empirical approach.  Aren't there just as good a set of reasons to associate IS with the empirical approach?  Conversely the OUGHT school could be considered theoretical and ahistoric - after all, a moral system is often considered timeless and theory-based.

Keynes is an advocate in positive economic science of the principle which resists any final vocabulary, since the phenomena of economic activity are driven not only by human beings' self-interested motivations, but also by their other-regarding motives.  And the particular mix of these two must be historically contingent and subject to change.  This position is akin to adding a historical element to Smith's "Theory of moral sentiments".  Shouldn't the key distinction be not between self-interest versus altruism but long-established pieces of cultural-biological context versus more recent cultural context?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Adam Smith the moralist more revolutionary than Auguste Comte the moralist

Most moral systems aim at the general good of humanity (or a subset thereof).  This is certainly true of Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments
1759 and Comte's System of positive philosophy, which was published a century later.  But it is Smith's work which is more revolutionary.  If you assume the goal of morals to be the general good of humanity, then one obvious way of going about it is Comte's - namely to enforce on every human in every culture that would ever live an all-encompassing systematic way of behaving.  This is quite dictatorial and also fits many of the major world religions.  Comte's is an extreme form whereby a set of rules for acting is defined and against which all humans will be judged.  Society will cohere around this set of rules, and rule-breakers would expect to pay a price which such a society saw fit to exact.  In essence, the ought which underlies the moral system as it applies to human beings in general gets directly encoded in terms of rules for individuals.  There is within it an implicit top-down homogeneous model of behaviour which identically reflects the goals at the level of Humanity.  That is to say, once the starting point of "what's good for humanity" has been worked out, then the rules individual human beings ought to follow just drop straight out of the analysis.

   With Smith, things are quite different. Still present is an ought model of human behaviour but in his system individual humans could behave as self-interestedly as they liked, so long as the right economic structures were in place to transform such self-interested behaviour into outcomes which could maximise good for humanity in general.  What a fundamental difference this is between the model of individual behaviour (a realistic is) and the goal of maximising human happiness (ought), especially when compared to the much more simplistic Comtian  one.  In this one sense the intellectual development of social philosophy was stronger a century earlier - a clear counter-example to the implicit evolutionary, monotonically improving history of ideas you find within Comte

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Earnest Comtian eschatology loses against ironic Rortian contingency

When I first started studying Comte, I was under the impression that his later writings were not worth bothering about, and that his earlier writings more or less set the modern conception of the evolutions of the  various sciences.  Now that I've come back to his work I've found out that his conception of science was  dangerously final and his later writing contains some important (mainly negative) lessons for the way we approach modelling human phenomena. It is clear to me now that even from the very beginning he saw a definite end shape to the brief evolution of the sciences, and this final state was influenced by an essentially religious or metaphysical belief in the existence of such an end point.  In fact, you could even call it positive, so weakened has that term become to me now.

First let me sketch a picture of how Comte behaved during this period - this description largely through Mill's useful little book on Comte's two intellectual periods.   Comte had stopped reading newspapers, periodicals, and books, with the exception of a couple of favourite poems.  This you might expect from a rigorous systematiser who thought he'd found his own final vocabulary, to use a Rortian phrase.  This he did to achieve 'cerebral hygiene' - contrast this to Rorty's untrammelled love of the writings of others.  Cutting yourself off like that allows you to become the deluded master of your own model; it allows you to follow your systematising designs to their ridiculous limit.  The object of his later religion was a sense of duty towards the abstract concept of the human race.  In this sense he shares with Rorty the belief in the desirability of solidarity.  This concept of the human race certainly includes all our ancestors, descendants.  I'm reminded of one of the phrases he's famous for: "the dead govern the living" and how he really means it - especially in the final state of humanity - since most of our ways of seeing the world will have been discovered by thinkers of the past and these final conceptions will and should govern all of humanity for ever.  What a horrible thought - much more open is the Keynesian twist to the idea, pointing out that in the realm of economics and politics, often there's a long-dead thinker determining our approach, even if we delude ourselves into thinking we're practical men.  There's more of a sense that this influence should be discovered and overcome in Keynes than with Comte.  And that's a better attitude to have.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

What's really different about private and public debt?

I really want to get to the heart of what's in theory different about the public sector and the private sector.  This is a huge issue and one which will take me a long time to get to.  But I'd just like to point out one issue which economists (neo-classical and Keynesian) have when comparing the public and private sectors and that is their attitude to debt.

The first point is I want to make is to be aware of the potential presence of the fallacy of composition when considering any micro phenomenon which can be aggregated up to the macro level.  In particular reasoning about debt at the individual consumer's level or the individual company's level may or may not apply when you talk about the debt levels within the private sector as a whole.  In practice, I notice that there's often an implicit assumption that the same reasoning can be done at both levels.  Politicians too have for quite some time been happy to extend metaphors of good housekeeping and good shopkeeping at the individual level at the national level.

Whatever the truth, economists are most certainly in the practice of aggregating private sector debt up to the national level, and then making inferences about its size, particularly when compared against the baseline of the nation's gross domestic product.

With public debt, there is quite a different aggregating activity - debt issued by national and local state bodies.  So national public debt goes through a different degree of aggregation.  Again, that may or may not be important when thinking about both of these kinds of debt.  Issuance of both kinds of debt are clearly similar in some ways - they respond to the interest rate, for example; commentators like to see good debt-to-equity coverage, similar basic principles of economics determine the market of public and private debts.

But there are also differences.  Why is it, for example, that Modigliani and Miller has provided a kind of theoretical justification for increasing debt loads on companies, but there's no corresponding irrelevance theorem at the national debt level?  What would one look like?  

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

From "les calculs personnels" to "vivre pour autrui"

It must surely be one of the great ironies of the history of the social sciences that the man who brought the world positivism, which itself was to inspire a more logical and mathematical approach to economics, with the emergence of Homo Economicus as the exclusively self-interested model of human behaviour, later in life so utterly rejected from a moral point of view any human instinct based on "les calculs personnels".  In Auguste Comte's later period of intellectual development, this is exactly what he proposed, popularising the term altruism in doing so.  Quite some going to be the man who was one of the intellectual forefathers of Homo Economicus and later recommended altruism as the moral compass of humanity.  Over a hundred years later George Price appeared to finally synthesise the early and later Comte by deriving a mathematical equation which demonstrated the conditions under which altruism could be expected from a population of organisms supposed to be operating under a gene-centric self-interest.  Unfortunately in his own life, Price's success in his personal attempt to "...deaden the personal passions and propensities by desuetude" worked only too well - he gave all his possessions to homeless people, then finally committed suicide. 

Monday, 4 October 2010

Mill's Social Statics = Comte's Social Dynamics (with some variables held constant)

" might be thought that the proper mode of constructing a positive Social Science must be by deducing it from the general laws of human nature, using the facts of history merely for verification. Such, accordingly, has been the conception of social science by many of those who have endeavoured to render it positive, particularly by the school of Bentham. M. Comte considers this as an error. We may, he says, draw from the universal laws of human nature some conclusions (though even these, we think, rather precarious) concerning the very earliest stages of human progress, of which there are either no, or very imperfect, historical records. But as society proceeds in its development, its phaenomena are determined, more and more, not by the simple tendencies of universal human nature, but by the accumulated influence of past generations over the present. The human beings themselves, on the laws of whose nature the facts of history depend, are not abstract or universal but historical human beings, already shape and made what they are, by human society. This being the case, no powers of deduction could enable any one, starting from the mere conception of the Being Man, placed in a world such as the earth may have been before the commencement of human agency, to predict and calculate the phaenomena of his development such as they have in fact proved. If the facts of history, empirically considered, had not given rise to any generalizations, a deductive study of history could never have reached higher than more or less plausible conjecture"  (J.S. Mill)

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

How was Homo Economicus manufactured? What's his shelf-life?

The design engineers in the manufacture of Homo Economicus.
  1. David Hume
  2. Adam Smith
  3. Auguste Comte
  4. Jeremy Bentham
  5. James Mill
  6. David Ricardo
  7. John Stuart Mill
  8. William Stanley Jevons
  9. Leon Walras
Hume reminded everyone of the is-ought distinction (the difference manifested itself as political economy - Ricardo - versus moral science -  Malthus).

Smith centred economics on the understanding of human action - how we weigh choices and decide when engaged in economic behaviour.  That is, economic theory comes out of a general model of human choice-making.  In "The theory of moral sentiments", the self-interest motive was one of many - and certainly not the most important -  dimensions along which he considered man to operate.  Those other dimensions included other psychological facilities, and also the historically specific institutions which each economic agent finds himself in.  Smith's methodology amounted mostly to the advice - be empirical, be systematic; in particular he sometimes applied deductive arguments, sometimes inductive ones.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, a kind of physics envy set in, resulting in an emphasis - by people like James Mill, David Ricardo, Jeremy Bentham - on the logico-deductive style of rhetoric and methodology.  At the same time, Auguste Comte was promoting a view of scientific methodology which categorised the sciences in relation to one another, in particular in relation of the more fundamental ones, the most fundamental of which was mathematics.  J. S. Mill cemented the concept of 'economic man' as a purely self-interested utility maximiser, no doubt helped by the preponderance of numbers and measures in economics (as opposed, say, to anthropology).  People like Ricardo Jevons, Walras contributed logical and mathematical rigour to the models of (self-interested) human action.  Then there was a move back out from an analyis of 'man in an economic setting' to a sociological view of man.   This movement was driven interestingly forward out of the domain of man-as-consumer - i.e. from the strict economic domain of interest - and into the human sciences generally by people like Wilfredo Pareto all the way to Gary Becker.  Here the key elements of the (neo-)classical approach:- 
  1. a mathematocal or rigourous logical model
  2. motivation reduced to pecuniary self-interest
  3. a deductive reasoning style with an ahistorical flavour
James Mill and Ricardo were also responsible for promoting self-interest as the canonical human sentiment to use as the ideas-machine to generate their increasingly mathematical models.  We moved from a rich theory of moral sentiments of a single-minded soverign consumer in the space of a generation.  Ever since, economists have chosen where they stand with respect to how far the single-minded model gets you (rational expectations, efficient market theory, CAPM, Modigliani-Miller, Paul Samuelson versus John Maynard Keynes, Robert Shiller, Daniel Kahneman.)  The most amenable to numbers of all the human motivations is the one where we look to minimise costs and maximise our financial return.  It allows you easily to apply calculus and compounding to a tiny region of ideal human reasoning.  No wonder this became so popular a style of economic modelling - just like the drunk man looking for his keys under a lamppost since that's where the light is.  Actually, that analogy is perhaps too harsh.  Why blame this approach when it was clearly a decent avenue to pursue.  But something happened along the way - it changed from being a decent avenue to being the exclusive methodological approach to economic modelling.  And that is surely wrong.

J.S. Mill draws a distinction between a social statics and a social dynamics approach to human agency.  Comte, he claims, was strong on the latter, weak on the former.  It is the former which includes the domain of modelling which sees humans as financial maximisers, since this is generally considered to be more or less permanent (in the context of the last 13 thousand years of human history).

I've read Fiedman's famous "The methodology of positive economics" and I don't think it actually adds anything to the debate, which I consider essentially a philosophy of economics one.

Allen Oakley has a fantastically well written book, "Classical Economic Man", which is a history of the construction of the idea itself.  Specifically, he focuses his attention on Adam Smith and J.S. Mill and how the concept of economic man developed between these two great classical economists.  Likewise, Keynes's father wrote a book, quoted favourably at the start of the Friedman classic, which captures the methodological state of play as it stood at the end of the nineteenth century.

Bruce Mazlish also examines the idea of positivism in nineteenth century intellectual thought in a way that shows just how crucial this period was to all current economic work.

Jonathan Aldred and Justin Fox each provide a well reasoned modern critique of the idea and how new economic approaches are set to flourish post credit-crunch.

To say that the deductive model, with humans as exclusively self-interested - a mode eminently amenable to mathematical analysis - has been a productive direction is surely true.  It has opened up for us whole worlds, new instruments, new sciences, new industries.  It has surely transformed us too, as Donald MacKenzie clearly shows.  But is it now time to return to Smith, to a broader conception of economics based on a fuller range of human sentiments.  And surely we can find a way to mathematically, algorithmically, logically model these too?  Perhaps this will allow us to re-engage with the important institutions of economics, which have been denigrated and under-modelled for a long time.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Demand management of ideas with verbal inflation

A person is not likely to be a good political economist who is nothing else.
J.S. Mill

The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man's nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.
John Maynard Keynes 

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Pursue attractive models, don't self-analyse

Aesthetics of scientific model choice

What criteria should the positive scientist consider when building a model, according to Comte in J.S. Mill's book?
1. respect the facts and relationships as currently observed
2. give as much satisfaction to the essential inclinations of our intelligence as we can afford collectively

Mill unpacks these "essential inclinations" to mean:
1. our instinctive predilection for order and harmony and classifying phenomena systematically (Levi Strauss makes a similar point about the essence of the human spirit)
2. our aesthetic feelings

So Comte is saying that model choice is also partly an aesthetic choice.  Mill doesn't like this one little bit.  But I think Comte is right.

Dislike of introspective psychology

Interestingly Comte is the father of behaviourism since he claims that you can't have a positive psychology; You can however have a study of moral and intellectual processes as a branch of physiology.
Hence he's the father of a materialist theory of mind.  He unfortunately wants to reuse the word phrenology here, while throwing away the pseudo-science of phrenology as it
existed in Comte's time, to describe what we would now call neuro-biology.  Despite the poor word choice, he again is proved right, though, again, Mill seems displeased.
This wonderfully expressed Mill-on-Comte critique foreshadows twentieth century psychology's great arguments between its famous schools - phenomenological, behaviourist,
cognitive behavioural, neuro-biological.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Positivist negatives

I mentioned in a previous post that I didn't think Comte's name choice was very good in describing the three main stages of development within a science.  Well, I've been reading J.S. Mill's "August Comte and Positivism"  and he also thinks the name choices are a bad idea.  He makes some revealing alternative suggestions, namely: the personal, the ontological and the phenomenological (rather than theological, metaphysical and positive) - this captures a lot more of the influence of Kant on all this (read noumenal for ontological).  And it shows how this Kantian distinction makes its way through Comte into philosophies of science as diverse as Husserl's and those of the Vienna Circle. In the personal approach to explaining nature, everything happens not through invariable law, but because some being (spiritual or otherwise) makes it happen like that.  The approach tries to tease out the workings of these various beings.

The next development in scientific methodology involves the realisation that there just doesn't need to be a being effecting all of these relationships; instead one talks of an occult power or a force which achieves the same result.  The approach to science has been de-animated and the objects of scientific enquiry are Aristotelian final causes, or plastic forces, or vital principles.  Nonetheless this is still weird, and said forces reside in the noumenal.

Finally, we leave behind any talk of the noumenal (a move familiar to many Logical Positivists to come) and concentrate in establishing laws between observed phenomena.  Science becomes preoccupied with a method which allows relationships to be posited betweem observed phenomena and no commitment to any noumenal object is needed. To explain the distinction between the positive approach and the metaphysical approach (which I think as a distinction we can credit Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes) using modern scientific language, think of how scientists develop a model - perhaps mathematical, perhaps not - and then set about critiquing it through well designed experimentation.  There is no longer any moment where the scientist 'discovers' that the model corresponds to a final ontological reality - instead there's just the possibility of falsification of that model.  The realm of the model is the metaphysical realm, in the sense that we create a set of relationships which are more or less supported by some scientific evidence.  We don't necessarily get the model from phenomena (though models can be refined by experimental results) - we can postulate a model based on an inspiration, a guess, etc.  But the Comtian 'metaphysical' approach to science is tempted to infer the existence of real objects (Platonic Ideals).  I am reminded of Friedman's polemical position paper in economics which follows in this positivistic tradition.  But I am also reminded that economics is performative.  Options prices changed following the Black-Scholes solution was published in the early 70s and as traders started to use the result.  This performativity, if you think about it, can change reality so that it conforms to the model.  This is something totally unknown to Comte.  I'm particularly interested in this point, since Friedman's approach to economic modelling (the model can be simplistic, the assumptions unrealistic, but we prize it if it gets experimental support and proves useful) provided some support to the increasingly held 'rational expectations' view of people's economic behaviour as defined by a homogeneous agent with a simplistic institutional/communicative context (perfectly functioning, perfectly free markets).

Comte claims that each and every science independently goes through these three stages.  This seems plain wrong to me.  Sciences which have been around for quite a while might be exposed to these 2 earlier stages, but if it is a young science I would find it hard to believe that it is born in the modern world and still would have to makes its own way through the stages to reach the positive stage.  I think it'll just short-cut to the more modern conception of science.  Comte I believe didn't cover this possibility, though he did talk about a classification of the sciences.  Mathematics is at the root, physics next, etc.  Each downstream science is a proper superset of the sciences which came before it - and this relation between sciences (a measure, in fact) - corresponds to the experienced evolution of these sciences.  This doesn't seem right at all either.  As he was writing his theory, new branches of mathematics and science were being formed in peoples' heads.  If mathematics itself is changing all the time, how can it be a proper foundation of all the other sciences.  Take also for example the birth of genetics.  As Comte was thinking about and publishing his ground-breaking philosophy of science, Gregor Mendel was inventing the science of genetics.  Here's an example of a bit of so-called metaphysical thinking which was later supported by micro-biological evidence.  The ontological object known as the gene turned out to have a reality based in DNA located in every cell (excluding red blood cells and some skin cells) of an organism.

I think Comte’s stages apply to a couple of eras of science, essentially pre-Greek, Greek, post-Enlightenment.  All new-born sciences will immediately implement post-Enlightenment approach.

I also realise that this philosophy of science is only somewhat Hegelian, since the progress stops once the positive stage is reached.  This is more in line with Bohme than Hegel, who also could see an end point rather than a never-ending process. 

And I doubt that science is always and everywhere progressive and positive in Comte's sense.  I think there is an institutional (politico-cultural) which drives this, and our perception of it.

The phenomenological inviolate laws which comte sees as positive are no more grounded than the metaphysical stage ‘vital forces’ – the same gradation he applies to theological – from sprites to a single god, could equally well be applied to the metaphysical level, where the ‘final’ level is really the mature metaphysical approach – one real vital force which keeps all the laws in check.

If you apply an experimental approach to the various metaphysical  levels, perhaps you can do good science – maybe you’d just be making a lot more ontological (provisional) statements, then retracting them when a better ontological model presents itself.  This is not significantly different from the positive approach.

And the converse is probably true.  Sticking to identifying correlations between phenomena can lead to pseudo-science.  One example which immediately springs to mind is Elliot wave theory.

So what am I taking from Comte?  A certain post-Enlightenment hopefulness is all that's left for me.  Comte was, I think, too optimistic and too simplistic on science arriving at a final destination which would necessarily result in social goods.  He missed the performativity of models.  This might result in a kind of evolutionary inertia around models, as they 'bed in' by making reality conform to them.  This might not be too bad a thing if Comte's other view - that a positive science would necessarily lead to social good.  But I don't think this is the case, which is another way of saying that I think we should be careful about models with demonstrated performativity - we need to challenge them much more than Friedman et. al. would have you believe.   I plan to talk about Friedman's positivism in his approach to economics in a separate posting, so I'll develop that point later.

A question which interests me is how such a philosophy, which was quite socialistic, both in Comte and in J.S. Mill, was transformed into the much more individualistic classical economics approach of Ricardo, Walras, Jevons.  Comte talks a lot about how women and the working classes were the most likely to be first convinced by positivism, and he sets himself up in opposition to Marx and communism.

Performativity potentially changes everything – if we are to become what our models predict, then in the absence of certainty that a developed model is necessarily socially good, then model choice becomes somewhat of a politically charged, aesthetically charged, or morally charged activity.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The dead govern the living

Two quotes from Auguste Comte. "The dead govern the living" and "A science is not completely known as long as one does not know its history"

Comte, often described as the father of sociology - a quantitative approach to the study of human beings, as he would have it -  introduced into the new subject of social science the concept that all bodies of knowledge evolved.  Though he died two years before the publication of Darwin's great work, the concept of a kind of progressive evolution - for example as expressed in the works of Lamarck  and Hegel
- was in the intellectual atmosphere. An interesting side note: Hegel was a major participant at that moment in history in applying the idea of the arrow of progress to the world of ideas.  But his own contemporary inspiration for this  (ignoring the undoubted influence of the Greek philosophers for a moment) lay in the work of Christian mystic Jacok Bohme.  The 25 year old Bohme, a cobbler by trade, became transfixed by the beauty of a beam of sunlight shining on a dish and experienced an intense mystical experience which he 'Christianised'.  As a Christian thinker, after meditating on the story of Adam and Eve - the splitting of one into two and the likewise fracturing of good and bad behaviour - and the separation of Lucifer from heaven - Bohem proposed that man himself was destined to experience a separation from God before evolving to new, higher state of unity with God.  God  himself desired this kind of separation and unification as a means to reach full self-awareness.  This idea had its origin in Plato's concept of the soul mate. In a sense, the classic Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis operation of progress is a de-mystified version of an ancient creation myth.  No doubt Comte would have approved with this move.  The idea that God enacts this force in the universe in order to reach a kind of self-realisation has itself resurfaced in a de-mystified form in modern science.  I'm thinking here of the digital philosophy movement, including Wolfram, Chaitin and Fredkin.

Comte thought he'd found the three stages of all forms of scientific endeavours.  He applied the idea of progressive evolution to the world of ideas.  The first stage: in the absence of an effective and disciplined epistemology, indeed in the absence of the possibility of questioning received ways of doing things, we accept the pre-existing body of practical knowledge.  He called this the theological stage (and by it, he meant pre-Enlightenment, though we might jokingly call it the antediluvian approach), though perhaps the structures of power embodied in religion were only the most obvious (and most relevant) ones  to him and his time.  But he would have accepted any structure of power which oppressed the search for knowledge (totalitarianism, cultural strictures).  As each proto-sceince matured,
a questioning, metaphysical stage emerged.- participants began to raise questions about received practice, but they lacked  the mechanisms of a formal science in place to best answer them.  Finally, the freedom to ask questions, no matter where they may lead, together with the institutions and practices of a science resulted in the positive approach to our accumulation of knowledge.  This  positivist and mathematical bent has been with the subject of modern economics ever since.  The intellectual lineage is direct, since Mill was a close intellectual acquaintance of Comte, and of course a student of Bentham, while Mill senior was a close friend of Ricardo.

Since that time, this foundation myth of modern philosophy of science has experienced its own Boehmian degeneration, first through Kuhn (in a sense the Darwin to Comte's Lamarck - i.e. evolution without as dominant a focus on monotonic evolutionary progress) and downward to Feyerabend (epistemological anarchism and no promise of progress at all).  The quote about the dead governing the living has two subtle meanings for me.  One is a point Jonathan Aldred makes concerning the moral justification of the current population imposing higher costs on future generations (a point I'm sure I will return to in another post).  The second sense is the same sense that Keynes meant in his famous quote about economists: "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist"  Perhaps it isn't too far a stretch to imagine that Keynes's quotation is itself an example of the dead (Comte) governing the living (Keynes, at the time he wrote it).  As with science, so too with philosophy - an idea is not completely known unless you know its history.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Cannonical Casts

Imagine you're starting from scratch with the goal to model human behaviour scientifically.  How would you go about it?  Would one aspect of that behaviour be easier than another to model?  Would you want to build mathematical models?  Would you build models only of certain dimensions of human behaviour?  For example, economic models, political models or ethnological ones?

I'm asking this so that I can understand the move in classical economics which resulted in the more or less formal model of the optimising individual, the rational economic agent, Homo Economicus.  I want to see what drove the original economics to postulate such a model of economic behaviour, especially in light of subsequent criticisms of those models and their effects (from the merely performative to the destructive) on our world.
 These criticisms started to gain traction in the 1930s, as a consequence of the great depression, a worldwide phenomenon, and have again received attention following the more recent credit crisis.

I want to articulate the main elements of this approach, as I see them, and identify what is still good about the approach, what may change.  The best place to start is by imagining the simplest possible useful economic model.  

We will always in any model need actors who interact with each other.  My first question : how many different kinds of actor?  My second question : how constrained are the interactions?  What I'd like to achieve in thinking about these two questions is an framework which simultaneously represent classical/neoclassical (Jevons, Walras, Fisher), institutional (Veblen), Austrian and  Keynesian approaches.
The kind of framework I have in mind is the cellular automaton.  I think here we can strip down all the main kinds of economic approach as variants of cellular automata. 

This is not to say that cellular automata are the best, or even useful ways of modelling economic phenomena.  What I am saying is that thinking of all of the approaches to economics as fitting into this framework might be a useful exercise in understanding their relative strengths and weaknesses.

My contention will be that with cellular automata, there are two equally essential structural parts - one defining the repertoire of behaviours of the actors, the other defining the range and complexity of signals which can be emitted and received by these actors.  All forms of economic modelling can be re-framed as kinds of cellular automata, with varying kinds of actor, varying kinds of signal.  The signalling architecture of these models corresponds to a kind of institutional constraint.  Jevons and Walras were right to begin their analysis with the simplest kind of model of economic behaviour - one where the only institution in place was a competitive market, processing and re-distributing price signals to all participants instantaneously and evenly.  Those very participants are following the same rulebook - they're a family of mathematically identical little John Stuart Mills - brought up on a strict 
regime of Benthamite utilitarianism. 

However, economics is performative, and this initial model, with its most basic institutional element, together with a doctrinaire utilitarianism, began to have efefcts in the real world.  This kind of performativity can act as a drag on the speed with which new economic world views can be synthesised.  But before I take this investigation any further, I want to read some more on the intellectual transformations which take us from what is essentially the socialist agenda of Auguste Comte and J.S. Mill to the more familiar model of the optimising, self-interested economic agent.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Flogger Radar

A blogger can write about anything.  A monetising blogger might include links to products they reference in their blogs; for example Amazon books.  Bloggers can cover the spectrum from excessively optimistic right the way through to excessively pessimistic, through either psychological predisposition or through a consciously adopted blogging persona, or some mixture thereof.  Ceretis paribus, you might think fortune favours the optimist, since they tend to say positive things, hence encouraging a putative audience to do more purchasing.

It is therefore in the audience's interest to identify genuine enthusiasts from performance enthusiasts, the fluffers of the blogging world or floggers.  Assume you can divide your potential audience into pessimists, optimists and in-betweeners.  Ignore the possibility of a need for the audience member to adopt a persona for now.

Assume furthermore that audience members like to give reign to their tendency to confirmation bias, hence audiences should stratify with optimistic readers consuming optimistic blogs and pessimists reading pessimistic blogs.

First the pessimists.  Now, there are many books out there which are critiques.  It may be possible that the pessimistic blogger might be just as inclined to review and rate these critiques, but that just doesn't feel like the whole story.  Just as likely, I think, is the possibility of an unfavourable review of books.  Unfavourable reviews tend to lead to fewer click-throughs.

Now the two kinds of blogging optimist, the psychologically enthused and the adopted persona of optimism.  The optimistic audience ought to be aware of the distinction in order to favour the former and avoid the latter.  It isn't that there's no value in the simulacrum of optimism, since part of what the optimistic audience seeks out could be satisfied that way; it is just that the satisfaction will also be present, and I assume in equal measure, with genuine enthusiasts. But with genuine enthusiasts, you are less likely to be taken for a ride. Common sense and being aware of the distinction ought to be a good start in developing your flogger radar.

I say this because I'm a monetising blogger who's psychologically disposed to optimism and have no intention of ever becoming a flogger.  This ought to become obvious to you over time through reading my reviews, which will be a decent balance of enthusiasm and honesty.  If your very motive for writing is based on a form of dishonesty, then discerning audiences ought to shun you, and rightly so.

This is a problem with all media, old and new.  Sometimes they will shamelessly fluff (Total FilmEmpireNew testament), occasionally less so (cahiers du cinemaOld testamentMichelin guide).

A common technique by content providers is to highlight the ratio between best and the universe of consideration.  You implement this by giving top grades scarcity value in your system of measurement and/or by including only the best to begin with, while highlighting the size of the universe of consideration.  From an information theoretic point of view, these gradings have high information content  If you were to model it mathematically, you'd assume every item in the universe would get graded.  The Michelin guide is mathematically a measure.  The Egon Ronay guide is a measure too.  As is the Which? good food guide.  Some better than others.  Good measures will probably have certain properties.  I would imagine the grading system would have a power law distribution.  There are probably many reasons for this, not least of which is great institutions often exert orders of magnitude more effort in the consistent manufacture of their product.