A positive-sum game against nature

Whenever there is a major economic event (a rapid decline of stock prices, a spike in the price of oil, high unemployment, etc.) the media can be counted on to feature a person who was predicting these events all along. This should not be surprising because there are so many professional economists and commentators who cannot restrain themselves from making economic predictions that a few of them will turn out to be correct. But what is surprising is that so few journalists seem to be able to distinguish between skill and luck. This is one of the major themes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s seminal Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life.

If you are an obscure, but aspiring, economist, what are your options? In the June 2009 issue of The Freeman, Anthony de Jasay writes (p.33-34):

What is left for the 250,000 other, less-distinguished economists to do to gain fame and fortune? They too can offer forecasts and might put them on some record. If they place them in the cluster and the actual outcome is in the cluster, they remain unremarked and neither gain nor lose anything. If they go way outside the cluster and the outcome is in the cluster, nobody will remember the wrong forecast made a year earlier. They will again gain nothing and lose nothing. If their forecast is in the cluster and the actual outcome is way outside it, they will be in the good company of their 500 more-distinguished fellows and will again remain unremarked.

The rational choice for such an undistinguished economist is to make extreme predictions, corroborated with pessimistic scenarios that make such forecasts plausible.  If the economist is wrong, nothing (or little) is lost; if he is right, great publicity and riches can be expected. In technical terms, “he has access to a positive-sum game against nature.” On a more serious note, Jasay writes that “such forecasts are the best method of deepening the gloom, frightening the credulous, and making the worst more probable.”

Andy Nowicki’s Considering Suicide

Andy Nowicki’s book ‘Considering Suicide’ belongs to, what I would call, the cultural alienation genre. Nowicki’s alienation is not of the Marxist variety that rails against division of labor and harbors the juvenile desire that all work should be play. No, Nowicki is fundamentally not at home in this world and believes that everything that makes life worth living has been lost to a meaningless, shallow and vulgar culture. People with Nowicki’s beliefs and temperament have a real problem. They have nowhere to go. To Nowicki, this culture is of such a universal and invading nature that the only choice is to endure it or live outside modern civilization itself. In this predicament, it is not surprising that the author considers the question of suicide.

As a self-identified “Catholic reactionary” there is an obvious problem about committing suicide. The author discusses a number of arguments in favor of suicide and  ultimately dismisses them. If suicide is to make a statement, there is the real possibility that after the heroic act is executed no one cares, and those who do, only briefly.  Nevertheless, Nowicki writes that “what I want is for them to know is that I haven’t settled for the lie that life is worth living in a choose-your-own-meaning culture.” But I doubt this makes a strong case for suicide. The rest of the world still doesn’t care and, for respectable Epicurean reasons, the author will not experience this gratification himself.  Most people will not even understand what the author would be trying to convey. Many people are not obsessed with the decay of today’s culture, suffering or death. In a moment of real clarity the author asks, “is the luckiest person the one who dies in such a profound state of ignorance?” At least since Erasmus wrote ‘The Praise of Folly’, the answer is “yes.” The only credible reason to commit suicide that survives scrutiny is the straightforward determination that the the pain of life outweighs its pleasures. But even in this case, most people still have a hardwired instinct to survive.

Let me entertain two arguments that could provide counterweight to the author’s deep desperation and pessimism. The first is a logical argument about meaning. It does not make sense to apply the word “meaning” to existence as such. Just like it does not make sense to search for categorical imperatives. The existence of God does not end the quest for ultimate meaning.  The most coherent Christian theology (orthodox Calvinism) arrives at the conclusion that we exist for God’s self glorification. And then what? Does this satisfy our thirst for “meaning?”

I doubt Mr. Nowicki is a Marxist. If he were, he could argue that all the unfair and ugly things in the world are interrelated and reinforcing and reality is exhausted by them. But we are fortunate that reality defies such determinism. A decadent political system can co-exist with the most beautiful expressions of art. Great technical progress can co-exist with dumb ideas about economics and public policy. An impoverished and crude  mainstream culture does not exclude longer and healthier lifespans. It is tempting and easy to think that all imaginable bad things in life come bundled, but there is little evidence that this is the case.

If these arguments do not persuade, I think there are two real possibilities: (1) the suffering of the person is not dependent on his environment but reflects an unfavorable physiological state of the brain, which may be mitigated by pharmacological treatment; or (2) the person’s suffering is of an abstract existential nature. Here the problem is not contemporary life but the fabric of the universe, and our awareness of it, as such. At that point we enter the nihilistic and Godless universe of writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Liggotti. Since the writer is a self-identified “Catholic Reactionary” I do not think we should go there but I sometimes have the impression that Nowicki wants to have his nihilist cake and eat the bread of Christ too.  For example, in chapter 7 the author ponders the question of God’s sovereignty and it is not clear to me whether he is converting to Calvinism (or Augustinianism) in this chapter or expressing serious doubts about his own religion.

To Nowicki, death “comes to everyone” and is a source of despair. He writes that  “the Carpe Diem” attitude quickly makes one miserable, for the very reason that one can only seize the day for so long.” The view that everything is futile when life is ultimately futile has a strong following. On the other hand,  the view that is it exactly death that gives meaning to life (see humanist death apologetics) has a strong following as well. The, otherwise not very enlightening, neo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse rejects this alleviation of death from a contingent natural feature of life to something that gives or takes away meaning:

In the history of Western thought, the interpretation of death has run the whole gamut from the notion of a mere natural fact, pertaining to man as organic matter, to the idea of death as the telos of life, the distinguishing feature of human existence. From these two opposite poles, two contrasting ethics may be derived; On the one hand, the attitude toward death is stoic or skeptic acceptance of the inevitable, or even the repression of the thought of death by life; on the other hand the idealistic glorification of death is that which gives “meaning” to life, or is the precondition for the “true” life of man…

Aging or death is not a biological necessity and cryopreservation of the brain after legal death may even allow people who are given up by contemporary medicine to benefit from a second opinion from a future medical professional. Our habit of burning or burying a person that is “dead” by contemporary medical criteria gives the question of what it means to be “pro-life” a whole new meaning.

Nowicki has also written a book about the psychology of liberalism, and if his his observations in ‘Considering Suicide’ about contemporary politics are an indication, this should be well worth reading. He holds a special animosity for modern liberals and contemporary intellectuals who practice ethnomasochism to signal their own moral superiority and use the threat of “hate” to pursue their own power-hungry and hateful agenda:

“No one hates the way hate-haters hate ; no one is more dishonest about his intentions or in his overall self-representation than one who loudly proclaims that his goal is to rid the world of “hate.” Those who profess to hate “hate,” who cannot tolerate “intolerance,” seem capable of anything. More on point, they are capable of justifying anything.   If they are harsh, shrill, and mean, if they make unfair accusations or commit outrageous slanders, if they ruin or destroy lives, they feel no shame or guilt. After all, even if they go too far sometimes or make mistakes, they can fall back on the noble crutch. Their hearts are in the right place. “We only want to stamp out hate!” they scream.

Not surprisingly, Nowicki feels little affinity for contemporary “conservatives” who seem more eager to  export America’s civilization-in-decline to other countries than to roll back modern liberalism,  abortion (to which he devotes a powerful chapter), the welfare  state, and other manifestations of secular modernity. He attributes a lot of the ills of contemporary society and politics to the view that there are no objective standards for right and wrong anymore.

When he writes, “If God does not exist, then all claims to legitimacy are a ruse. Politics is gang warfare writ large, and all high minded talk of “justice” mere cant and hypocrisy,” there is little reason to disagree. Politics, per definition, concerns, non-unanimous, collective decision making that is an imposition on spontaneously evolved conventions that foster peace and trade. In modern times, the locus of power has shifted from God (his “representatives”) to the State but the power and obedience relationship remains identical. There is a serious debate between those who think objective values exist and can be discovered through reason and those who question this whole project. According to the moralists, these objective values put limits on what politicians  and public officials may do. Those with more empirical and skeptical views disagree, and argue that the existence of politics rests exactly on such metaphysical illusions. To them, contemporary politics feeds off the residual metaphysical thinking of religion and the quest for power and money is hidden by appeals to “rights” and “social justice.” The need for politicians to cultivate such illusionary concepts is obvious because the legitimacy of the state would greatly suffer if politics is simply seen as “gang warfare writ large.” Nowicky is clearly on the right track about the pathologies of modern political culture, but he seeks the solution in less modernism instead of a more analytic / scientific worldview. For a stimulating contrast, consult L.A. Rollins’s ‘The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays’ (review here), by the same publisher. Nowicki’s book ends with some reflections on existence and non-existence that set the stage for another uplifting Nine Banded Books publication, Jim Crawford’s ‘Confessions of an Antinatalist.’

Despite the main subject of the book (suicide), I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Considering Suicide.’ The cover artwork and the use of lower-case fonts for the title are appealing. A lot of the author’s cultural and political observations are dead-on and, I think, can be sustained with solely secular arguments as well. His relationship with death, meaning, and God seems more tortured to me and reminiscent of his indecisiveness about suicide. The author may be a Catholic but the tone of the book is decidedly nihilist, including his reflections on religion. In ending, I was surprised to detect the occasional use of strong language and open discussion of sexual matters in this book. If we can no longer rely on a Catholic Reactionary in such matters, all hope must be lost indeed!

Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience

Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson believes that a major reason why the social sciences have made so little progress is that its practitioners have ignored the biological basis of human behavior. He is not impressed with arguments that purport that the complexities of human behavior cannot be reduced to more elemental physical principles as embodied in modern neuroscience and biochemistry. Wilson recognizes that his view on the unification of the sciences carriers forward the logical positivist ideal of the Unity of Science. In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge he writes:

Logical positivism was the most valiant concerted effort ever mounted by modern philosophers. Its failure, or put more generously, its shortcoming, was caused by ignorance of how the brain works.

The canonical definition of objective scientific knowledge avidly sought by the logical positivists is not a philosophical problem nor can it be attained, as they hoped, by logical and semantic analysis. It is an empirical question that can be answered only by a continuing probe of the physical basis of the thought process itself.

Wilson is basically saying that logical positivism was not empiricist enough, a view that was anticipated by the logical empiricist Hans Reichenbach in his seminal work Experience And Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations And the Structure of Knowledge.

On the tension between religious and scientific  perspectives of the world he writes:

The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms. The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are not factually compatible. As a result those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth will never acquire both in full measure.

Remnants of such supernatural thinking are still with us today when we exempt humans from physical reality and attribute agency and free will to them.

Wilson is sensitive to the scenario that defective or disadvantageous genes increase and persist in modern human life but he believes that such a course of events will be relatively short-lived as humanity will master and embrace human genetic engineering. On the use of such technologies he writes:

I predict that future generations will be genetically conservative. Other than the repair of disabling defects, they will resist hereditary change. They will do so in order to save the emotions and epigenetic rules of mental development, because these elements compose the physical soul of the species. The reasoning is as follows. Alter the emotions and epigenetic rules enough, and people might in some sense be “better,” but they would no longer be human. Neutralize the elements of human nature in favor of pure rationality, and the result would be badly constructed, protein-based computers. Why should a species give up the defining core of its existence, built by millions of years of biological trial and error?

His reconciliation of human enhancement and cultural incrementalism is reminiscent of the “conservative transhumanism” of the biologist Alexis Carrel.

Jim Crawford against natural rights

Jim Crawford’s autobiographical antinatalist manifesto Confessions of an Antinatalist(review here) contains an illuminating perspective on the idea of natural rights:

Concurrent with our wish to understand the human condition through over-simplification is our tendency to ground human desire and behavior in ‘natural rights.’ Such ‘rights’ are often gleaned, reasonably, from empathic awareness of the human condition. Where proponents get off track is when they assume these rights are imbedded in the very fabric of existence, like the laws of gravity or motion. To really get a grip on the fundamental difference between laws and rights, one only has to ask: when was the last time anyone had to enforce gravity? To understand human rights as something above and beyond a status granted by authority–or, conversely, the refusal of authority to interfere in what people want to do–is simply an attempt to elevate authority to the abstract. In a sense, it’s the canonization of the human condition. “This is it! This is good! There’s nothing more to be said!” It’s not so much a reflection of reality, as an attempt to make reality conform to a particular moral structure to settle ontological questions.

There is nothing more representative of this tendency than Austro-Libertarianism in which both economics and morality are placed outside of the realm of empirical investigation. In such views morality is not something that has evolved from the ground up to facilitate coordination and mutual advantage between people but a set of moral imperatives that is deduced from concepts such as “human nature”, “reason” or “action.” Historically, such approaches have been a formidable obstacle to the development of the natural sciences and experimental investigation of human conduct.

An important question when evaluating moral and political philosophy is whether it can be reconciled with what experimental science has discovered about human nature. It is striking how often the answer is “no” in the case of rationalist philosophy. One of the most notorious and embarrassing examples  is Ayn Rand’s discussion of free will. One can only wonder how much progress would have been made if such thinkers would have abstained from scholasticism and would have engaged with the relevant empirical sciences instead.

Scientific consensus

Scientific consensus seems a reasonable concept. If a great number of individual scientists arrive at a similar opinion this is generally a sufficient reason to have confidence in those views. Skeptics about scientific consensus often use examples of scientific views that started out as a minority view to become the majority view later. Although these examples raise interesting questions about how science evolves as a collective undertaking, they cannot be used to argue against the importance of scientific consensus as such. For every minority view that became a majority view there are a lot more examples of crackpot theories that are still crackpot theories today. Nevertheless, there are a number of situations where the concept of scientific consensus is of limited value.

A good example are fields that are so interdisciplinary that there is no clearly identifiable group of scientists who can be perceived as authorities on the matter. For example, what is the scientific consensus on cryonics? The consensus of biologists? The consensus of cryobiologists? The consensus of neuroscientists? The consensus of experts on nanotechnology? The consensus of those who study cryonics in all its aspects? It is clear that when there is no clearly identifiable group of experts, the concept of scientific consensus becomes problematic. Another example of cases where the concept of scientific consensus is of limited use is when the scientific issue in question concerns such a marginal field of inquiry that few people can be considered qualified to comment on it. Only the people who are engaged in the field can be considered experts whose views should matter. Obviously, this presents a major problem for evaluating such views because the marginal nature of the field can either reflect some real innovative research or complete hokum. In those cases the best approach is to evaluate disputed claims on general scientific criteria. Can the claims be substantiated through empirical observations?  Which observations would confirm or falsify the hypothesis? etc. Many crackpot views can be dismissed on methodological grounds alone.

There are areas of research where the concept of scientific consensus completely breaks down. These are areas of research in which one of the competing views is culturally or politically controversial.  This can range from mild disapproval to outright hostility and persecution of those who express them. Throughout history there have been many examples of views that were not even allowed to be expressed, often because its widespread dissemination and acceptance would undermine the existing scientific, religious, or political establishment. When an individual researcher has a strong incentive not to engage in a field of research or express his/her views about it, the practice of  simply counting the number of people in favor and against a view to establish scientific consensus is utterly unreliable. Unfortunately, it is exactly in fields that are (politically) controversial that people like to abuse the concept of scientific consensus; climate change, evolutionary psychology, heredity and intelligence, animal research etc. There is little value in stating that the majority of someone’s colleagues reject a view when the price of embracing such a view is the end of an academic career, or in some countries, political persecution.

Then there are areas of inquiry that are such a draw for people with non-scientific motives that the whole field can become a dubious undertaking. The social sciences and philosophy suffer from this kind of academic activism.  The field of macro-economics is currently one of the worst examples of a politicized science in which scientists cannot even seem to agree on the meaning of the terms that are used. Strangely enough, this condition does not produce more humility but increased arrogance among its practitioners.

Is there anything that can be done to bring sanity to these controversial fields of research? For an answer we may want to look at the natural sciences.  There is no such thing as “conservative physics” or “feminist chemistry.” This is useful because any credible science can be reduced to the science of physics (or mathematics). Biology can be translated into biochemistry. Biochemistry can be translated into physics. Such an effort will give some scientific endeavors a firm foundation but will expose other areas of research as methodologically immature.

This position is prone to be misunderstood. For example, it does not necessarily mean that one should prefer “nature” over “nurture” in scientific disputes about behavior. If  “genes” and “environment” are properly conceptualized they will both refer to the same material world that can be investigated through scientific means. Unless one wants to argue that the “environment” works its way through unknown mysterious ways into the soul, the researcher who argues that behaviour is predominantly shaped by a person’s environment should be expected to present such views in the language of neuroscience and biochemistry. Unfortunately, few “environmentalists” are prepared to do so.

One obvious objection to this position is that it will leave us with little we can have great confidence in. In other words, we would often feel compelled to simply say “I don’t know.” But there should be no shame in that. It is better to be modest than to be arrogant.

Further reading: Robert Higgs – Peer Review and Scientific Consensus

Man the unknown

In a recent review of two new Ayn Rand biographies Daniel J. Flynn makes the following observation:

Ayn Rand’s midcentury novels continue to strike a chord because they read as though culled from today’s headlines. Here, Rand’s “looters” raid government coffers to bail out their poorly performing industries; there, Rand’s “moochers” demand that the “producers” pay for their health care.

In the aftermath of the Great Depression the French Nobel laureate Alexis Carrel writes in his book Man the Unknown (1935) :

Moral sense is almost completely ignored by modern society. We have, in fact, suppressed its manifestations. All are imbued with irresponsibility. Those who discern good and evil, who are industrious and provident, remain poor and are looked upon as morons. The woman who has several children, who devotes herself to their education, instead of to her own career, is considered weak-minded. If a man saves a little money for his wife and the education of his children, this money is stolen from him by enterprising financiers. Or taken by the government and distributed to those who have been reduced to want by their own improvidence and the shortsightedness of manufacturers, bankers, and economists…

Man the Unknown is an extensive meditation on the implications of the fact that modern man finds himself in an environment and culture much different from that which shaped his biology for thousands of years.  Although this book contains little that would have surprised contemporary readers, Carrel’s work is often reduced to discussion of  specific passages concerning his views on eugenics and the treatment of dangerous criminals.

Alexis Carrel’s groundbreaking work on cellular senescence, extracorporeal perfusion and his strong interest in life extension and re-making mankind makes him one of the rare individuals that can be characterized as a “conservative transhumanist.”

David Stove and the Plato cult

David Stove’s book The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies is a remarkable collection of essays. As a staunch positivist ,the author is not impressed with most of what constitutes “philosophy” (or the quality of our thinking in general). As Stove laments in the preface, “there is something fearfully wrong with typical philosophical theories.” But unlike the early 20th century logical positivists, Stove has little hope for formulating a criterion that shows why the opinions of most philosophers are nonsense and completely devoid of common sense. As a consequence, Stove is forced to look for alternative  strategies to explain the “exceedingly strange” views of prominent philosophers.  Most of the essays in Stove’s book are informed by a perspective that investigates non-rational causes that could throw some light on the matter.

For example, the thoughts of Karl Popper, who Stove holds responsible for facilitating an era of irrationalism in the philosophy of science, are explained by the spirit of the “Jazz Age” (anything goes) that is expressed in Popper’s philosophy.   Stove’s case is not  all that persuasive. The most obvious line of criticism is that it is highly implausible to attribute the spirit of the Jazz Age to a grumpy, intolerant person like Karl Popper. If anything, in light of Popper’s personality traits, the anti-authoritarian aspirations  in his writings are actually quite remarkable.  Stove missed the most obvious personal explanation available to him; Popper’s obsession to refute the logical positivists. One would look in vain in Popper’s writings for a celebration of the Jazz Age but it is not hard to detect Popper’s compulsive need to establish his place in the history of thought.  Obviously, this cannot be done through incremental refinements of the theories of previous philosophers; it requires a new way of looking at things (falsificationism).  If Stove would have argued that lifting concepts from the political realm and using them in epistemology is the road to confusion and leads inevitably to the epistemological anarchism of Paul Feyerabend and the vacuous “pancritical rationalism” of William Bartley, he might have been on firmer ground.  Instead, Stove argues that the main emotional impulse of Popper was ultimately what he calls horror victorianorum,” the  irrational distaste for, or condemnation of, Victorian culture, art and design. As a self-proclaimed conservative, one would expect Stove to launch a strong defense of the politics and culture of late Victorian England but, oddly enough, Stove seems to have considerable sympathy for horror victorianorum and it is only the rational side in him that forces him to admit that this emotional response has little intellectual merit.

The other essays in The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies are similar cases studies of philosophers with crazy ideas including a scathing review of Nozick’s attempt to engage in “non-coercive” philosophy. Of most interest is the final chapter called “What is Wrong with Our Thoughts? A Neo-Positivist Credo.” It is in this essay where the strict positivist outlook of Stove finds its most forceful expression. Stove cites a number of passages of the works of Plotinus, Hegel and Foucault and cannot explain how (supposedly) intelligent people can express such madness. What characteristics do all these ideas have in common? Stove has considerable sympathy for the logical positivist project to find criteria to eliminate metaphysics and nonsense from philosophy but does not believe that finding such criteria will be comprehensive enough. He refers to Tolstoy who said that all happy families are the same while every unhappy family is unhappy in a different way.  There are endless ways in which human thinking can go wrong. In the end Stove is pessimistic about the prospect for rational thought: “genetic engineering aside, given a large aggregation of human beings, and a long time, you cannot reasonably expect rational thought to win.”

Stove may be correct about the ultimate fate of the human race, but he may be too pessimistic about developing criteria that discipline thinking. The mistake of some of the early logical positivist may not have been so much in looking for such criteria but insufficient recognition of the fact that such criteria need a context to be useful. Instead of saying that the statements of, let’s say, Hegel or Heidegger, or not meaningful (period) it would be better to say that such statements are not meaningful in the context of action or prediction. As Hans Reichenbach writes in his logical empiricist masterpiece “Experience and Prediction:”

It seems to me that the psychological motives which led positivists to their theory of meaning are to be sought in the connection between meaning and action and that it was the postulate of utilizability which always stood behind the positivistic theory of meaning, as well as behind the pragmatic theory, where indeed it was explicitly stated.

From this perspective, critiques concerning the self-applicability of the logical positivist criterion of meaningfulness can be avoided by linking cognitive significance to action (including such endeavors as experimental science) in a way that itself can be subjected to logical or empirical investigation. In essence, this “pragmatic” element would introduce a more thoroughgoing empiricism. Logical positivists like Carnap were not hostile to this idea as evidenced by his ongoing efforts to refine his criteria so as not to exclude the achievements of modern science.  Broadly speaking, we look at successful scientific efforts (which basically comprise all sciences that can be reduced to physics and mathematics) and “reverse-engineer” our criteria around this.  Such efforts may produce new roadblocks but there is a good chance that the resulting criteria will eliminate of lot of the madness that Stove finds in most philosophers, intellectuals, and public policy makers.

Liberty and oblivion

In 1991 the Libertarian Alliance published an article called “Immortality: Liberty’s Final frontier” (PDF) by David Nicholas. In this article the author argues that “the continuing fact of death renders all talk of liberty ultimately futile.” The author further argues that our concern for the future will diminish as we approach death. But instead of facing the enemy, we devise all kinds of defensive strategies.

Life extensionists often speak disparagingly of such coping mechanisms. But as argued on the Depressed Metabolism blog before, one can hardly blame people for trying to live in peace with the inevitable. Raging at the prospect of death, if no rational means can be imagined to overcome or delay it during our lifetime is foolish and unproductive. But as Herbert Marcuse said, there is a difference between accepting death and elevating it to something that gives meaning to life.

Historically, the delay between the technical ability to place a person in low subzero temperatures to avoid decomposition and its actual implementation was not excessive at all. Perhaps the biggest technical obstacle to broader acceptance of cryonics is that most people still believe that the inability of the human body to sustain itself as an integrated organism must necessarily mean the end of the person as well.

In her  dissertation “An Examination of the Bio-Philosophical Literature on the Definition and Criteria of Death: When is Dead Dead and Why Some Donation After Cardiac Death Donors are Not” Leslie Whetstine dissects traditional definitions of death and proposes an “ontological” definition of death that recognizes what is important in humans: personhood and consciousness. Such a definition of death should make us think twice before giving up on a person when technologies are available that offer the prospect of being cured and restored to good health in the future.

Overcoming death is an ambitious (perhaps too ambitious) objective to sway the general public, not in the least because it contains a strong element of wishful thinking. But spreading the “meme” that most people who currently are destined for the worms or the flames still possess the neurophysical basis of their personality at “death” might have a better chance.

But we should be careful not to present the fight against death as a fight for liberty.  Death is not a man-made imposition and should not be brought under the rubric of human freedom. It can become an issue of liberty when political mechanisms are used to prevent people to take advantage of the means that offer them a chance to postpone death and prolong life. If we present the case for life extension and experimental medical procedures such as cryonics in a thoughtful manner, such scenarios may be minimized.

Karl Popper and Rudolf Carnap Revisited

In his classic book Significance and Basic Postulates of Economic Theory (1938) Terence W. Hutchison  makes the case for economics as an empirical science.

An interesting aspect about this book is the ease with which Terence W. Hutchison uses logical empiricist authors like Moritz Schlick, Rudulf Carnap, and Otto Neurath but also the “critical rationalist” Karl Popper in making his case for the testability of economic theories.

On a number of occasions Rudolf Carnap himself has drawn attention to Popper’s habit of exaggerating the differences between his work and the logical empiricists. Historians of philosophy, or at least those with little training in the philosophy of science, have often followed Popper in his views while ignoring the quite substantial agreements between the logical positivists and Popper on topics such as the unity of scientific method and their common objective to find criteria to distinguish science from other activities.

In hindsight, Popper’s compulsive need to distance himself from the logical positivists has harmed his own project more than he could have anticipated. The traditions of thinking and social inquiry that Popper railed against, and hoped to defeat by his non-justificationist philosophy and falsification criterion, were often identified as problematic by the logical positivists as well. It is rare to find a philosopher or social scientist dealing in obscurantism and anti-empiricism who rejects logical positivism but praises Karl Popper’s demarcation between science and non-science and his views on falsifiability.

But until the dominant reception of logical empiricism as a monolithic enterprise with little more to offer than its verification principle persists it is doubtful that the broader concerns of Rudolf Carnap and Karl Popper will receive the attention they deserve. A promising start would be for philosophers to seriously engage with the work of Carnap instead of judging it on the basis of Karl Popper’s views. For example, in his later writings Carnap recognized both the problems with the classic verification principle and Popper’s falsification  principle and proposed a more liberal criterion of confirmability. As Carnap would be the first to recognize, this proposal may turn out to be either too liberal or too restrictive after detailed analysis, and further refinement may be necessary. Last, but not least, Carnap is also an admirable example of how one can do philosophy of science without (political) hyperbole.

Carl Menger and the exact science of economics

In Significance and Basic Postulates of Economic Theory (1938) Terence W. Hutchison presents a logical-empiricist perspective on economic methodology and takes specific issue with Austrian economists who believe that economic theories cannot and should not be falsified through empirical testing. In the chapter “The Application of Pure Theory” Hutchison criticizes Carl Menger’s view of what constitutes an “exact” science:

Menger contributed a further precision to this concept of economic laws, emphasizing what he and subsequent writers called their exactness, exceptions to them being inconceivable, and that “it involved a misconception of the foundations and postulates of the exact method” to test them empirically…To-day one can hardly help concurring with Schmoller that any worker in a chemical laboratory who proclaimed Menger’s conception of exactness would be ejected forthwith.

He also quotes John Elliott Cairnes on the methodology of economics as saying, “The economist starts with a knowledge of ultimate causes. He is already, at the outset of his enterprise, in the position the physicist only attains after ages of laborious research…”

Hutchison responds to his claim as follows:

It is possibly very encouraging for the economist to hear that compared with the natural scientist the psychological method saves him “ages of laborious research”, but it is curious and a pity that this huge start has not enabled him to formulate any considerable body of reliable prognoses such as the natural sciences have managed to achieve.

Hutchison does not completely dismiss the role of  a-priori reasoning in economics but objects to the idea that such reasoning exhausts the subject of economics. He quotes Ernst Mach on “laws” being “a limitation of what is possible.” If a law does not exclude or forbid any conceivable type of empirical occurrence than it  is not telling us anything about the world and, therefore,  such a science should be considered a pseudo-science. A similar complaint has been raised by Karl Popper about the all-accommodating nature of Marxism. The logical positivist writer Otto Neurath was of the opinion that, historically, metaphysical and anti-positivist thinking go hand in hand with the justification of oppression.

Much ink has been spilled over the question of whether the methods of the natural sciences are suitable for the study of economics. But even after 70 years since the publication of  Hutchison’s classic, economists who  have completely rejected empirical testing have contributed little of substance to the science of economics.