Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Adam Smith and Spontaneous Order: Capitalism, Sympathy and Community

Spontaneous order is basically the idea that a system can order itself in a logical and agreeable way without any planning and work to implement a plan. It has been used to describe how capitalism should operate if left free from intervention. The spontaneous order of Smith's invisible hand does have an element of divine providence or guidance in it; it is not completely without planning or implementation. He writes in Theory of Moral Sentiments that, "The administration of the great system of the universe, however, the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man.” So to talk of the invisible hand and just distribution of wealth as being merely spontaneous order is not exactly accurate. But at the same time order in Smith’s economy does not come completely from some law of nature or divine providence. It comes mostly from the fact that he sees humans as moral creatures that have habits and somewhat predictable ways of thinking, acting and making decisions. Humans for him are sympathetic, communal and concerned with family by nature.

His first book was a book of moral philosophy. He was trained and worked as a moral philosopher and professor. (It is important to realize that at that time there was no such thing as economics as a separate field of study, not as we know it.) The idea of what a human is and how a human should act that he lays out in that book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is the individual economic actor that is operating in his more famous book The Wealth of Nations.

He starts Moral Sentiments by talking about sympathy:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it."

This is a central part of human nature for Smith and is something that should be kept in mind when dealing with his economic thoughts and theories. Man is not an isolated individual that has no feeling or connection for the people around him. Smith’s economic actor, as a human being, is sympathetic by nature. The spontaneous order of a capitalistic society that is supposed to keep there from being extreme poverty and inequality comes about because people act in ways that take others into account by their very nature as human beings. The order that Smith saw was not the result of deliberate planning, but it was not by pure accident either. The order is a result of what the system is made up of. It is similar to how chemists can expect certain things to happen because they know the characteristics of the elements that make up the materials they are dealing with.

He may have been wrong about human nature being inherently sympathetic and concerned with family, community, etc. And, so far as that is not human nature, the invisible hand will not function as predicted and there will be no agreeable order that emerges from the uncoordinated individual actions of the many (unless God does so in his administration of the universe). In other words, if people are not sympathetic, the order that spontaneously arises from individual actions will not be one that is acceptable, desirable or logical.

I am skeptical of any set idea of human nature. I think for Smith to assume that “this sentiment [of sympathy], like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it,” is not realistic. This is not because I think humans are inherently bad, selfish or individualistic. I think humans have a capability to feel sympathy and to be affected by those around them and have feelings for those around them, but that is just a capability. That capability needs to be cultivated into a tendency to actually do so.

In so far as people do not grow up in an environment that nurtures that capability, they will not have that sentiment in reality. I think this is why capitalism’s invisible hand, and the spontaneous order that arises from a capitalistic system, work differently (or not work at all) depending on the culture, society or era they function in. I think this is also why Marxist communism, or any sort of communism or strong socialism, can easily fail. If the people are not of the right temperament and moral convictions, the theory will not work out in practice not matter what or how good the theory is. And the temperament of the people is a result not of nature but of culture and upbringing more than anything else.

Smith assumes that people will have sympathy and that they have a duty to work on “the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country.” If they do, his system will likely work quite well. Marx assumes many things as well, one of them being that people will not be ruled by laziness and, like Smith, narrow selfishness. The system needs a certain type of people to make it work.

Something that is related to the spontaneous order and invisible hand of Smith is his ideas of government intervention or participation in the economy. This is an area where there is a lot of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Smith’s own writings and thoughts. He did not say that government participation in the economy was bad or should be completely ruled-out, just that it should be as minimal as necessary. I think that should obviously be read as meaning as minimal as necessary to make things work: most notably the invisible hand and an acceptable social and economic order. If they don't work because people are not living up to his standard of what a human is (by nature), then something should be done. When what comes about spontaneously is not see as an acceptable, desirable or logical order, then order may need to be planned and implemented. I am not sure that means that the government has to step in, but that is an option. If people do not have the sympathy and concern for family, community and nation that Smith saw as more or less natural, his system will not function as he predicted. What can the government do and what can others do?

One things is to widen the idea of self-interest back to something that Smith would recognize. Self-interest for conservative economists is not what it is for conservative ideologues or even the average person when they think about it in relation to economics. Milton Friedman wrote in his book Free To Choose that a:

"broad meaning… must be attached to the concept of 'self-interest.' Narrow preoccupation with the economic market has led to a narrow interpretation of self-interest as myopic selfishness, as exclusive concern with immediate material rewards. Economics has been berated for allegedly drawing far-reaching conclusions from a wholly unrealistic 'economic man' who is little more than a calculating machine, responding only to monetary stimuli. That is a great mistake. Self-interest is not myopic selfishness. It is whatever it is that interests the participants, whatever they value, whatever goals they pursue."

If taken to heart, that would do a lot to change the way people act in the economy. How can the government help implement that way of thinking, or valuing? It has a role, but the society as a whole does as well. And the values that this change moves to are something far more in line with Smith than the values we have now.

There is an element of spontaneous order in Smith’s capitalism, but it comes as much from morality as chance (or even divine providence). This morality is centered around a human nature that is sympathetic and concerned with others. If human nature is not that way, then we can’t expect there to be an ordered outcome from capitalism. I am not convinced there is any set human nature at all, so I think we need to pay attention to the culture and temperament of people and try to align that with the economic system we want, and try to adjust that system to the people as well. Smith was never against government intervention; he just thought it was to be avoided when possible. If the system is not working, then something needs to be done to make it work, and that may necessitate government action. But I am not sure that should be our primary approach at this point; I think a first step in making capitalism more effective is to promote something Smith likely took for granted and that we have mostly forgotten: a broader and not exclusively monetary conception of self-interest.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Devolution of the Species

Devolution of the species doesn't mean going backwards: regression.  That would be the case if evolution were actually synonymous with progress, but it isn't.  Evolution is adaptation.

The Theory of Evolution is misunderstood as talking about how a species progresses or gets better.  This is because of the connection that the word evolution has developed with the idea of progress.  It is really​ better named the theory of adaptation-- to get around the idea of progress.  It is about being better adapted to the environment or surroundings and as a result surviving.

As modern humans armed with science and technology, we feel we are masters of the universe; we feel we don't need to fear the physical world or our impact on it. (Science tells us differently, but our everyday experience tells us things are fine, and we are in control.  Even if we accept things are not fine, we believe that we can analyze, control and fix the problems with science and technology.) In our daily lives we are more and more detached from our basic surroundings.  Our ideas and words, technology and theories, society and habits all keep us further and further from basic experience with the physical world.

We are not going backwards, but we are not keeping up with our surroundings.  We are making progress in freedom, democracy, science, technology and profits. The complexities involved with making and sustaining this progress are becoming greater and greater.  This is in part a necessity of progress, but I think it is also partly a necessity arising from the fact that we are further and further detached from physical reality and differing views.

In any case, things are changing faster now (in society, technology, economics and the physical world) than maybe any other time in human history. The odd thing is that we are what is changing our surroundings more than anything else, but we seem to be more and more outof touch with them on a day to day basis.  Through science and technology (and our obsession with 'information' and news over experience, both of which are highly shaped by science and technology), we act and think in ways that change our world (both physical and mental) in ways and speeds that are unprecedented.  And we do this while we pay less attention to the world and develop tunnel vision that increasingly shows us only what we do and what we think.

We are progressing in many ways, but I fear we are not adapting.  It is a devolution of the species.  Is that best described as a failure to adapt or a degredation in the ability to adapt?  I don't know, but I fear both. My greatest fear of all of these is what will happen because of this if adaptation and natural selection are as important as the Theory of Evolution says they are.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Education: Entertainment and Individual Learning


I am educator and not an entertainer.  Anything that I do that is entertaining when I teach is a bonus, not an essential part of what I do. I am also not a personal tutor when I have a classroom of students.  They are a group and not a room full of individuals.   



Part of my insistence on this comes from my belief that if you need to be entertained to learn, then you don't value what you are learning very much or see its importance. When we use entertainment to teach too often, we are not taking the material or the student seriously.  And as a result the student isn't likely to take the class or the material seriously.  The material is turned into something like a disposable, consumable product which can easily strip it of its importance.  It is used, if at all, to get a grade, to pass a test and then left aside and forgotten. 



Yes, entertainment can make learning easier-- on both the student and the teacher. However, it very easily makes it too easy and takes the seriousness out of the process of learning.  If entertainment is too closely tied to learning in the students’ experience, the students don't learn how to learn on their own and without being entertained.  Learning and knowing how you learn best is a very important skill to have, now days more than ever.



As an educator I am also not a personal tutor.  There is a time and place for that, and as a teacher there is a need to be aware of your audience and try to reach them in an effective way.  That however does not mean that the teacher needs to work with each person individually.  The goal is to get them to the same place, on the same page.  If they come to you individually outside of class because they are struggling, the goal should be to get them what they need to get up to speed with the class.  Part of learning in a group is learning to be in a group.  That is something that we need to be able to do to be part of a community and a democracy.  Having things tailor made for you all the time is a way to keep you from leaning how to be part of a group and community.



If you are more advanced and everything is tailor made for you, you never learn how to slow down and help others.  If you are behind, you may never get a chance to catch up and be part of the group.  Yes, those that are advanced should get a chance to go ahead a bit at some point.  Without people going ahead we would never break new ground that others can, as a group, cover later to the benefit of all. And those that are behind do need some extra attention to help them catch up, ideally in the form of learning habits and skills that allow them to keep up on their own.  But there should be an emphasis on the group because if we value democracy we need to value the ability to work and function in a group and in a way that that makes community possible. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

Postman's "Now... This" and Facebook

"Of course, in television's presentation of the 'news of the day,' we may see the 'Now... this' mode of discourse in its boldest and most embarrassing form. For there, we are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment."

--Neil Postman from Amusing Ourselves To Death

Postman did not think that the "Now... this" phenomenon was new with television. He mentions the telegraph, photography and radio as having made use of it but says that it reached its "perverse maturity" in TV. He was worried that people got entertainment, education, news and other things all from the same source: the TV. Since it tends to simplify and equalize everything it takes up, it strips things of depth, context and weight.

I can only imagine that Postman, who was critical of technology and its effect on society and human thinking to begin with, would be horrified at Facebook's News Feed. Facebook is the portal though which so many people access the internet. People get entertainment, news, social interaction and even education from Facebook. And all of these things are mashed together with no regard for what is what and what it ends up next to. Algorithms that have little to no understanding of what the bits are about sort them based on popularity. They put serious things next to amusing things, credible things next to uncredible things, personal things next to professional, and so on. We lose a sense of where things come from or why they are in the first place. Everything--not just news and entertainment--is fragmented, without context, without consequences, without value and without seriousness.

If the "Now... this" reached its "perverse maturity" with TV, it has now become perversely universal thanks to Facebook and mobile devices.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Climate Change: Fears and Misunderstandings of Science

Getting people to believe in climate change often takes more than just presenting facts to them. Facts will help with people that are open to the idea and who trust the facts (as well as those who collected them and are presenting them), but they won't help with people that have other reasons that make them skeptical. I think there are two that are the most common, and they are both connected to an underlying misunderstandings or fears of science. The first is when people have an unrealistic view of science, and the second is when they have a fear that science may take over their lives.

I think one of the major problems with climate change acceptance is a misunderstanding of science. Science cannot definitively prove anything; scientific truths are arrived at by consensus of the experts based on evidence collected according to the methods and traditions that the experts have deemed the best for the purpose at hand. Yes, even science relies on tradition and authority. We must trust the experts and their judgment, even in science. Some people just don't get that and want one hundred percent, clear and certain proof. I consider this the direct effect of scientism on the climate debate. Demanding that is unrealistic and actually unscientific.

The opposite of this is important to note to, though it has only an indirect effect on the climate debate as far as I can see. This is when science is understood as being synonymous with the newest information available so that the newest must be the most true and scientific. Science tells us to stop smoking, to drink less, to not eat eggs and then to eat them, that GMOs are safe and then not safe and again safe, that there is no God, that monogamy is not natural and so on. But in reality much of that isn't really science. (Science takes time to find truths and over turn old ideas; it has its traditions and authority that vet truths, and that takes time.) What is happening with all of these new truths that come at us all the time is that the media is taking something that might have a bit of scientific evidence to support it (or maybe growing evidence) and selling it to us as science because they know we will buy it if it is labeled science. It is the media and making marginal things science, so we buy it as news, as truth. So in a sense we are right to be skeptical of what the media tells us is science, truth. This might lead to scientism as skepticism. It also can lead to a fear of science running our lives, which is my next point. 

The second major resistance to climate change, I think, is due to the fact that many people assume that once we accept a scientific truth or fact, the science or scientists then also give us a command to do something. That implicit in the truth or fact are clear actions that we must take because of it. Many people are not comfortable with having their actions dictated to them by science and scientists. When it comes to climate science that may be one thing, if technology can indeed produce alternative energy sources that will allow us to have the kind of life we have currently, or at least close to it, then maybe the scientists and technologists can tell us what to do. But that is not a direct line from the fact to the action, there is a detour there. And, I think that detour is very important: we must evaluate and choose based on more than just the science and its facts. Science can't assume the right to tell us what to do based on its facts, even if we accept those facts; we have to choose to take those actions in a separate decision. I think people are afraid that we must simply listen to and follow the scientist and technologist when it comes to climate change. That we must abandon our lives to the dictates of science. 

This fear of science dictating our lives is even greater because of the way that everything is labeled and sold as science, as was mentioned above. When every study with new information is touted as a new scientific truth that must change the way we act, it is understandable that people feel that science and scientists are trying to take over our lives and tell us what to do.

It is true that humans are responsible for the rapid change in climate and that this will drastically change the earth. (This is what the vast majority of experts, authorities on the subject, are saying, and we have to take their word for it.) That however does not dictate what we need to do or that anything needs to be done. (Of course I am simplify here, but that simple understanding is the understanding I think many people have.) I know it sounds callous and cold to say we don't have to do anything, but we need to be a bit callous and cold when moving from truth to action, especially when there is opposition. I don't think we can let ourselves get carried away by the facts and ignore values and tradition when making decisions.

That this situation is established scientific fact is one thing. (Which should make us take it much more seriously than something presented in an article on a news-site talking about the results of one study and how is should change our lives, but for some people, it doesn’t.) What we do with that is another. It can't be assumed that we need to do something or that the same people that brought us the fact ought to be the ones to tell us what to do. Going from the fact to the action requires making a choice based not just on the facts but also on values, and making that action work often requires that people (the average person) need to believe it. Experts can talk all they want, but especially when it comes to climate change--because it will likely require all of us to significantly change our everyday lives-- people need to believe in the solutions enough to act on them, or the solutions will not work.  

In the end, I think it is dealing with misunderstandings and fears that will get more people to agree that climate changes is a real threat that we have played a part in and then come to the table to agree on what will be done about it. People that are going to be convinced by facts are already convinced. Getting those that still are not (and we need not only to convince them to believe but also convince them to act) will take something other than facts, it will take addressing fears and misunderstandings about science itself. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

For Me, Truth Does Not Lie In Science

I am a philosopher by education, so I love playing with definitions.  Some times, it is not just playing. In fact, the foundations of thought often rely on how we define and use words.  In addition to that, the words that we attach to things in the world provide a foundation for what we consider to be real and reality. A word that I think we need to pay more attention to these days is truth. Here is my take:

There is a simple definition of truth that can apply anywhere: that something is true when it is consistent with experience.  A statement about the world can be considered true when it is consistent with experience. But that is often not what we are talking about now when we refer to truth, especially not with science. Things that we try to establish as true or false these days are often far outside of experience, especially our personal experience. Science itself is beyond personal experience and deals with data derived from measurements and experiments often using specialized and purposefully designed equipment. This is important-- science is important--, but it is far from experience, especially the everyday experience of most people.  That is part of why I think the connection between truth and science is strained and tenuous.  I think truth is (or has to be) connected to experience and to everyday life AND to the meaning of both.  Science can be connected to meaning and is for some people, but for many, it is too narrow and sterile to give meaning or to draw values from.  I tend to fall into that camp even though I can be amazed at the theories and discoveries of science and their applications in technology. 

That is just beginning of what I mean when I say: I don't think that science finds truth. Science finds very useful and practical knowledge and information. It allows us to predict and manipulate the world around us which is very useful, but is that truth?  The data, facts and theories of science are practical and useful. There is great value and importance in that. However, I don't think that is truth. 

For me, truth has much more to do with meaning and value. Truth is not just facts or the theories derived from them.  Facts need weight assigned to them.  They need a structure given to them, a narrative (or meta-narrative) so to speak.  That comes from values and meaning. Information and theories from science should inform the creation of meaning and value when appropriate, but value and meaning (and therefore truth) go beyond them and often come before them.

Mixed in with all of this is the leap from science as a descriptive pursuit to values and meaning which are prescriptive.  Saying that science can be the foundation for meaning or values violates Hume's Law (jumping from the 'is' to the 'ought' without sufficient reason) in a way that I can respect when someone else does it, but will not do myself because it is essentially a logical leap of faith, and one that I don't trust or believe in.  I place truth on the side of the 'ought' along with meaning and values, not on the side of 'is' which is where science and its facts and theories lie.  There is a influence that passes from one side to the other, and in both directions.   But I think that the 'ought' side is more foundational and originary.  As a result, I don't associate science with truth in any deep or meaningful way.  I understand why others do, but I see it as a leap of faith and not as a logically sound choice that I should be compelled to make.  My leap is to place truth closer to meaning and value, while still respecting science and its facts and theories. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Incomprehensible by Design

Dedicated to Fr. Paneloux SJ

I find myself more and more convinced that in order for God to give us free will, he also had to create a world that we are unable to fully understand. To put it in existentialist terms: to give us free will, God also had to give us the absurd.

If the world was completely comprehensible, then we would be able to know what things are and how they work, completely. This would mean that the world would dictate to us what we should do, or that simply knowing enough would make it clear to us what we should do or even will do. In any of these cases, free will would no longer exist in any meaningful form. Choices would be obvious and we would always be convinced to make the right choice.

The complexity and irrationality of the world makes free will not only possible and unavoidable, but it makes it a burden. We (if not as an individual, at least as a society) create the paradigm or system that we use to make sense of the world. They are not given to us by God (though they maybe more or less inspired by the Divine), and they are not inherent in the world. They are human constructs that are limited and imperfect. There have been others than the one we find ourselves in, and there are others outside of the one we are in at any time. There will be others still, as the current ones adapt and adjust to a changing world.

Even when we come to know things there is always the problem of putting value on those things and deciding how to use them. Sometimes this is done after we come to know them. Sometimes values and use were part of discovering things and coming to understand them. Often it is a mix of both before and after. (And they-- both the things, and the values and uses-- can always change as we go.)

If any of those things-- the things themselves, the values or the uses-- were definitively and clearly determined, they would limit our free will by giving us information that we had to take seriously and act according to. If they all were, they would completely override free will.

It then seems obvious that the world can't be logical or comprehensible to us if we are to keep our free will and be able to exercise it. We can misunderstand, make mistakes, make bad choices and disagree with each other because things are not clear cut and obvious, and they never will be because by design they aren't.