Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Greg Ransom on Kuhn and Membership Selection

Greg Ransom wrote an interesting essay on Kuhn's theory of scientific paradigms, attempting to explain the way paradigms emerge. In it he proposes what he called "membership selection", which he defines as follows:

"membership selection is a selective process which selects over individuals for a property of those individuals which either does or does not contribute to a group property, a property which cannot be exhibited alone by a single individual, but which can only be expressed as a group property. Through this process which selects over individuals and for a property these individuals either do or do not contribute to the group, there will be selection for the group property which selected individuals exhibit."

This is to be distinguished from group selection, where one engages in an action that may harm you, the individual, but benefits the group (which contain some of your genes -- in a Daqwkins "selfish gene" way). In group selection, an individual may give a warning call that protects most members of the group, but may draw attention to the individual giving the call. With membership selection, the individual is not harmed at all with the behavior. Ransom gives the example of musk ox keeping wolves at bay by constantly facing the threat and keeping the calves behind them -- this benefits the individual and, when with other musk ox, results in the famous circling behavior that is even more protective. Another example would be herding/schooling behavior.

While this is an excellent theory of biological evolution, there are, as usual, problems with metaphorically extending it to social behavior. Specifically, Ransom tries to say that new paradigms in science are created through membership selection as he describes it. He does so to try to explain that natural selection is insufficient as an explanation for why a particular paradigm will gain members to the exclusion of others. The problem with his metaphor is that people are capable of changing their minds (even if many do not), while genes change from generation to generation. With the emergence of a new paradigm, people are going to choose to accept it or not, for a variety of reasons. Is there a genetic predisposition for believing in Newtonian gravitation vs. Relativistic gravitation? Hardly. But clearly there is a genetic element to circling behavior in musk ox. This is where the metaphor fails. Where it works, however, is when, if I believe something, I am benefitted if others believe it as well. If we add in an ability to convince ourselves and others, the idea of membership selection works for paradigm acceptance. A new paradigm takes over as more members are added to the group that believe in the new paradigm.

But what makes us believe in the new paradigm? Ransom doesn't address this, but there may in fact be an element of natural selection at this level. Kuhn believes that new paradigms are accepted if they "bear fruit." Well, many theories can and do bear fruit, yet are not accepted as a dominant paradigm -- or such theories may be delayed for a while before being accepted. Perhaps it is those that bear the most fruit most quickly, thus demonstrating a selective advantage to those who accept the paradigm and join in with others in using it as a research model. This would explain the selection of a particular paradigm. As it demonstrates its usefulness, more people are convinced, and membership selection takes over. Perhaps if Ransom had added in the theory of memetics, he would have come to such conclusions himself. Catastrophe theory also provides a mathematical model that demonstrates how one moves from one paradigm to the next. He would have also benefitted from such a model.

Now, this works well for the hard sciences -- physics, chemistry, and even biology to an extent. But it hardly works for the soft sciences and the humanities, which do not demonstrate the dominance of a single paradigm, but rather demonstrate the dominance of several paradigms. Of course, this isn't exactly right, either, as the humanities are still dominated by blank slate theories since discarded by practically everyone else -- though there are different sub-paradigms within that theory that make up the majority of humanities scholarship. Anyone with any kind of foundationalism -- including evolution -- or belief in human universals have no place in most humanities programs. But the problem in the humanities and the soft science is that none of them can "bear fruit" in the same way. With the hard sciences, you have to have hard results. But in something like economics, you don't have to have a result that matches the real world for people to accept it. In fact, you can have the opposite result in the real world, and still have supporters (think of Keynesian economics, which was a demonstrable failure in the 70's, yet is making a comeback). The problem is that economics is not really an experimental science. You can observe what happens, and theorize from that, but you cannot conduct experiments to see if your ideas work. The result is and has been a proliferation of theories and models that may or may not have any relevance to the real world, and which may help or may harm. Scientism and mathematicism in economics has thus been quite harmful, because they give the appearance of hard science and precision where none can ever be achieved. Certainly mathematics forms the foundational paradigm of contemporary economics -- but it has been very much to the detriment of economics, as it gives the appearance of hard knowledge where there is none. This is what happens when something is used incorrectly in a field. There is a place for math in economics, of course, but not to the extent that it has been used, where it masks reality and results in false conclusions.

Of course, what I may simply be saying is that economics is really for a paradigm shift. If revolutionary science is when we get a "crisis due to the emergence of some intractable anomaly," then the current economic crisis shows that economics has certainly reached this point. Except in abstract model-building, math has reached its limits in economics. But I predict it will be harder to make the shift, and the transition will be longer, precisely because of the nature of economics as a science.

The humanities are in even worse shape, because the results are even less clear. Nobody is reading the works of humanities scholars anymore, and perhaps that is the expression of the crisis there. But how do the humanities "bear fruit"? Not merely be increased "interest," whatever that may mean. And people in the humanities who dominate are in protected positions in universities, so there are no real consequences for them to hold bad theories. They just keep producing more like them, hiring more like them, protecting those people, and thus perpetuating bad ideas. Membership selection in this case only perpetuates bad behavior and bad ideas. How, then, does one create a paradigm shift on the humanities? If revolutionary science arises because of bad consequences, how can there be revolutionary humanities if bad consequences are protected?

To a limited degree, this problem also exists in the soft sciences. The good news, though, is that as complexity theories and biology begin to dominate, fewer bad ideas can survive. The soft sciences need to be made more scientific through biology and systems science rather than made more like math and physics. That will be the real paradigm shift -- in the soft sciences as well as in the humanities. Unfortunately, it seems that those of us in the humanities who do not believe in postmodernism and rather use evolutionary and systems theories in our work will perhaps find ourselves more at home in social science departments. But those social science departments are going to have to be open to hiring us, which they currently are not -- primarily due to a wrong-headed, tribalist turf protection. If they could get over that and become more interdisciplinary, that would open things up for both the soft sciences and the humanities. Now that would be a major paradigm shift.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Self-Esteem Movement Dehumanizing

It turns out that if you think highly of yourself, that is positively correlated with low frontal cortex activity, and the frontal cortex is, of course, most developed in humans, and is the location of the mental activities that make us distinctly human. The authors observe that, "This region of the frontal lobe is generally associated with reasoning, planning, decision-making and problem-solving." Is it any coincidence that these are the very traits missing in our high school graduates? Isn't it time we got rid of this destructive, dehumanizing program of education?

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Quantum Golden Mean

It's fractals all the way down. Specifically, the golden mean ration has just been discovered at the quantum level. This ratio can be found throughout nature, and is common in our art and architecture as well. Part of the diaphysical nature of the universe, it seems.

Friday, January 08, 2010

On Beauty and Feeling at Home in Spontaneous Orders

One of my regulars, Winton Bates, asked me how spontaneous orders and beauty were related, after I observed that in my Fund for Spontaneous Orders conference paper, I argued at the end that understanding beauty would help us to live well in a spontaneous order social system. Since the main part of the paper will appear later (and to which I will make a link when it does appear) in their online journal, and since I cut the entire section on beauty from it, I'm going to just share the section on beauty. It's an idea I want and need to develop further.

Beauty and the Spontaneous Order

Beautiful works of art and literature help us to both understand and live well within spontaneous social orders. Indeed, beauty may be the missing piece that has caused us to feel alienated within these orders. We do not have to feel that way.

In "On Beauty" Elaine Scarry argues that beauty brings us to justice because of beauty’s attention to symmetry, leading us to an understanding of “a symmetry of everyone’s relation to one another” (97, quoting John Rawls from "A Theory of Justice"). While symmetry is certainly part of beauty, it is in fact only one half of beauty, the other half being asymmetry. A perfectly symmetrical tree would be a ball on a column – hardly beautiful (equating symmetry with beauty also denies the fact that Japanese works, which focus on asymmetry, are also beautiful). Rather, a beautiful tree is one that has symmetry, yes, but also is ragged around the edges, uneven in its evenness, even in its unevenness. If this is the case, justice may in fact be distributive, as Scarry argues, but it cannot be purely symmetrical, as Scarry implies. Rather, it would exhibit qualities of symmetry and asymmetry simultaneously – as network theory in fact says happens in complex network systems. It seems likely that spontaneous orders are the only systems capable of exhibiting such qualities – and of doing so without prejudice. This claim would be strengthened if it turned out that spontaneous orders were, themselves, beautiful.

One aspect of spontaneous orders is that they allow for equal access to all (which is far different from equal outcome, as outcomes depend on many different things). In a truly spontaneous legal order, for example, there is equality under the law. In a truly spontaneous economic order, there is an equal ability to enter into economic transactions, broadly defined. Scarry observes that “the equality of beauty” in part resides “in its generously being present, widely present, to almost all people at almost all times” (108-9). Beauty is accessible to all, though the more engaged one is with the beautiful object, the more benefits one derives from it, the more beautiful it becomes. The same is also true of participation in spontaneous orders.

We see, using two different ways of defining both beauty and the nature of spontaneous order, a commonality: paradox. A beautiful object must be both symmetrical and asymmetrical. To have a just legal order, one must have equal treatment under the law (laws applying to all people equally), resulting in unequal outcomes. Contrariwise, to get equal outcomes, you must treat people unequally and, as a consequence, unjustly – as Vonnegut brilliantly demonstrated in “Harrison Bergeron.” The affirmation of paradox seems to lie at the heart of both the nature of beauty and of spontaneous orders. Beauty must contain both complexity and simplicity. Simple rules and feedback generate complex spontaneous orders (see diZerega, Hayek, and also Stephen Wolfram’s The Making of a New Science). Indeed, feedback, or reflexivity, is another feature of beauty. Both beautiful objects and spontaneous orders are ordered, evolutionary (changing over time), rule-based, simultaneously digital and analog, generative and creative (as Scarry also argues of beauty), scale-free hierarchies (what Turner calls heterarchies in The Culture of Hope) in structure, patterned/rhythmic, unified in their multiplicity, synergistic, novel, irreducible, unpredictable, and coherent (see Turner’s The Culture of Hope on these qualities of beauty and Christian Fuchs on these qualities of self-organizing systems). It seems, as I note in Diaphysics, that “there is a correlation between self-organizing complex systems and beauty. Each have the same attributes.” More, “all beautiful objects are information-generating systems. And to the extent that something is a self-organizing system, it is beautiful” (84).

If one of the problems with understanding spontaneous orders is that they are more complex than we are, we being nodes within the network, and a less complex entity cannot fully understand a system more complex than itself (Hayek, The Sensory Order, 185), then understanding the relationship between spontaneous orders and the nature of beauty (especially in regards to the internal structures of beautiful things, and how they interact to create the beautiful whole) could help us to understand the nature of spontaneous orders. More, learning to better appreciate and understand beauty – whether in nature or in works of art, music, literature, etc. – should help each of us to learn how to better live within the extended order and positively contribute to its health and growth. This then brings us back to the importance of the liberal arts. Plato saw beauty as a sort of master concept informing all the other concepts (or, ideas, to come closer to the Greek word) (Phaedrus). As we see here, there is much truth to that – and, as Keats reminds us, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”). The truth-seeking orders, such as the scientific order, are more truth-seeking the more they are truly spontaneous orders – which is to say, the more beautiful they are. “Virtue aims at the beautiful” according to Aristotle (Nicomachian Ethics), and more goodness emerges out of the moral order the more it is a truly spontaneous order. And if beauty is fair, and the fair is just (Scarry), the closer the legal and the democratic orders are to being truly spontaneous orders, the more just they and the extended order will be. In fact, if beauty, truth, virtue, and justice are indeed so deeply related, it logically follows that spontaneous social orders, being beautiful, are going to generate people who are truthful, virtuous, and just – and if these are elements not typically associated with the market order, this is a failure as much of the critics of the market order as it is of the economy having yet become a full spontaneous order – or, more, the almost complete failure of money to have become a spontaneous order (which only serves to undermine the catallaxy).

If we come to embrace beauty, which is, as Frederick Turner observes, the “value of values” (Beauty), we can come to feel at home in the extended order. We evolved in the midst of an evolutionary drama – and this is precisely what a spontaneous order is (Turner, 131). We can find beauty in the social spontaneous orders precisely because they have all the qualities of the evolved, evolving natural ecosystem. Ironically, precisely as our social world has become more and more a set of spontaneous orders within the extended order, we have abandoned beauty as a value – thus cutting ourselves off from the very thing that would have helped us know how we fit in. As Roger Scruton says in Beauty, “When we are attracted by the harmony, order, and serenity of nature, so as to feel at home in it and confirmed by it, then we speak of its beauty” (72). While I would argue against the inclusion of “serenity,” certainly the other two, and the list I gave above, equate beauty and spontaneous orders. Educated in beauty, we could learn to feel at home in the universe, including our spontaneous orders.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Is and Ought

John Hasnas argues that "because Hayek was arguing for normative conclusions without recognizing when he was crossing the is-ought barrier, I characterized him as a bad moral philosopher." As one who does not believe in the is-ought barrier, this argument doesn't fly for me any more than it did for Bruce Caldwell.

Michael Polanyi, in "Meaning", argued that the is-ought division comes about due to the rejection of science as being imaginative, meaning it is value-free Specifically, he says,

"Science has most commonly been thought to deal with facts, the humanities with values. But since, in this frame of reference, values must be totally different from facts, the humanities have been thought to deal only with fancies. Values have thus come to be understood to be the product of fancy, not of facts, and so not any part of factual knowledge" (64).

David Barash argues too that imagination is a necessary ingredient for reaching scientific knowledge. Every theory is of course a story explaining a group of facts, out of which come hypotheses that one can test to acquire more facts, which in turn inform the story. But the story is at the center of it all. And, as a story, it is not and cannot be value-free.

Indeed, one may wonder where the is and the ought lie in such a scenario.

Recent work showing the evolutionary origins of ethical behavior also do away with the is-ought barrier. They show that whatever protects the social group in social mammals (and we are a species of social mammal), is considered to be ethical by that species.

I know of course where the is-ought barrier argument comes from. We know, for example, that racism among humans is natural. But does that argue that we ought to therefore be racists? Of course not. But we forget that xenophilia is also natural, and it turns out that xenophilia has the benefit of expanding our social world, making life better for everyone in a xenophilic society than in a xenophobic one. We have a choice between two "is"es -- and knowing what the consequences are of each, which one do you think we ought to take? I would argue for the one that IS going to create more complex, more just, more beautiful society -- meaning, the xenophilic route. Both are two real options available to human beings, but only one of these two behaviors is ethical in modern society.

All in all, I would argue that any ought that cannot map well on what is (regardless of what we think is, which is different than what is), is an ought we ought not to have.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Troy Camplin for Texas State Representative

It's official: I am running for Texas State Representative in District 112 against Angie Chen Button.

Now, here's the fun part: I'm the ONLY person running against her.

I'm going to give it the ol' college try and see if I can win.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Moral Order

The Cato Unbound discussion of spontaneous order is continuing, with Bruce Caldwell finally chiming in, pointing out that Hayek on ethics was in fact a postmodernist. And, as an antifoundationalist, he most certainly was. He argued that spontaneous orders were separate from our instincts -- something I have argued against at the FSSO conference. I think Hayek was right to a great degree, but I think he went to far in separating one kind of evolutionary system (mind and biology) from another (ethics, economics, etc.). Caldwell's observation that Hayek wasn't so much a bad moral philosopher as a postmodern one caused Hasnas to retract his argument that Hayek was in fact a bad moral philosopher, which I argued against below. Of course, I also argued that Hayek's ideas don't have to remain antifoundational to have a certain validity, that his explanation of morals can easily be mapped onto a naturalistic explanation of morals as moral instincts. More, I still think that moral reasoning, which Hasnas and Sandefur seem to think is foundational, in fact is emergent from the evolutionary logic of the moral spontaneous order.

Thus, the map should be understood as such:

moral instincts --> moral spontaneous order --> moral reasoning

Of course, once moral reasoning emerges, it in turn informs the moral spontaneous order. The moral instincts remain as a tether, keeping the spontaneous order within bounds. It may not be impossible that after a while a moral spontaneous order would affect the moral instincts, as those whose moral instincts allow them to fit well into the order in question might have a selective advantage (and those who do not would of course have a selective disadvantage). In fact, we would expect a changing environment to have a biological, evolutionary effect on those living in and making up the environment. But that's on a longer time scale, of course, meaning slower, and acting as a foundation in relation to the faster-evolving spontaneous order.