Here is a skeptical take on the insights supposedly offered by the rise of behavioral economics as represented by Daniel Kahneman and others. Since I’m in the process of reviewing Kahneman it will be interesting to see if Levine’s take on behavioral economics jibes with my take on Kahneman in particular and behavioral economics in general – I have a strong sense that is unlikely to be the case.
I see that the publisher now has a fully detailed page up for a volume that I’ve been privileged to be a part of. The Foreword is by a very nice chappie going by the name of V.Smith and includes luminaries such as McCloskey, Boettke, Gintis, Steel and others. My abstract:
Mindscapes and Landscapes: Hayek and Simon on Cognitive Extension
Hayek’s and Simon’s social externalism runs on a shared presupposition: mind is constrained in its computational capacity to detect, harvest, and assimilate “data” generated by the infinitely fine-grained and perpetually dynamic characteristic of experience in complex social environments. For Hayek, mind and sociality are co-evolved spontaneous orders, allowing little or no prospect of comprehensive explanation, trapped in a hermeneutically sealed, i.e. inescapably context bound, eco-system. For Simon, it is the simplicity of mind that is the bottleneck, overwhelmed by the ambient complexity of the environmental. Since on Simon’s account complexity is unidirectional, Simon is far more ebullient about the prospects of explanation. Hayek’s social externalism functions as a kind of distributed “extra-neural” memory store manifest as dynamic spontaneous orders. Simon’s organizational rule-governed externalism negotiates the “inner” world (the mind) with the “outer” world through a homeostatic interface that offloads the cognitive burden into the environment. Their respective externalisms may differ in detail but not in spirit in that it ameliorates their shared presupposition of cognitive constraint. Even though any “optimization talk” for Hayek and Simon is objectionable, knowledge acquisition can be represented by a contextualized stigmergic swarm optimization algorithm that gives due emphasis to both the individual and the environment. The key insight is that “perfect” knowledge is unnecessary, impracticable and indeed irrelevant if one understands the mechanism at work in complex sociality, a stigmergic sociality that in effect augments or scaffolds cognition.
In anticipation of a talk I’m giving later on in the week on Oakeshott’s so-called “dispositional conservatism”, here is a nice little piece by my chum Gene Callahan serving as a good introduction to RIP.
The British philosopher and historian Michael Oakeshott is a curious figure in twentieth-century intellectual history. He is known mostly as a “conservative political theorist,” although he rejected ideology and his conservatism was primarily temperamental. Furthermore, his work on politics was only a fraction of his output, which comprised idealist philosophy, aesthetics, religion, education, the philosophy of history, and even horse racing. His popularity reached its zenith in the 1950s and early 1960s, when he was well known on both sides of the Atlantic, appearing on the BBC and becoming the favorite philosopher at National Review. But he never seemed to seek popularity, and did little or nothing to boost his own when it subsequently faded. Today, despite the growing interest in Oakeshott since his death in 1990, even his best-recognized work, his essay “Rationalism in Politics,” is, I contend, not appreciated widely enough—thus, this article.
Lovers of liberty should keep Oakeshott’s work on rationalism in mind for at least two reasons. First, it offers a complementary but still significantly different critique of planning to those of Mises and Hayek. However, at the same time, it provides a warning to the advocates of freedom not to fall into the rationalist quagmire themselves. The relevance of the latter point is demonstrated by, for example, the tendency of many development economists, even those who are “market oriented,” to attempt to impose their theoretical schemes for taking a shortcut to westernization on some Third World country, while running roughshod over all the traditions, customs, and morals native to the place, which, whatever their short-comings, at least managed to sustain the society in question over previous centuries. Freedom cannot be “imposed” on a people according to some preconceived scheme. We all need to watch out for “the rationalist within.”
Just under a week until the CI2012 shindig – as it so happens I’m busy co-writing a paper and co-editing a themed issue of Cognitive Systems Research on a species of CI – surprise, surprise “stigmergy.”
Gloria Zúñiga y Postigo’s intro from her excellent paper.
Friedrich Hayek’s social theory is well known for his articulation of the paradigm of spontaneous orders that challenges the traditional distinction between what is natural and what is artificial. The problem that Hayek saw is that language and other social objects do not fall under either heading completely. Language is, for example, seen as natural since it was not designed by man. At the same time, man has imposed rules of grammar on natural languages as these became formalized and documented. From this perspective, language falls under the category of artificial too. This distinction thus fails in its application not only to language, but also to any other object that is, as Hayek puts it, the result of human action, but not of human design. The paradigm of spontaneous orders, which applies to all social objects, has thus become the hallmark of Hayek’s social theory.
I chanced upon this painting entitled “Cosmos and Taxis“. The inspiration is, of course, as the artist states:
One effect of our habitually identifying order with a made order or taxis is indeed that we tend to ascribe to all order certain properties which deliberate arrangements regularly, and with respect to some of these properties necessarily, possess. Such orders are relatively simple or at least necessarily confined to such moderate degrees of complexity as the maker can still survey; they are usually concrete in the sense just mentioned that their existence can be intuitively perceived by inspection; and, finally, having been made deliberately, they invariably do (or at one time did) serve a purpose of the maker. None of these characteristics necessarily belong to a spontaneous order or cosmos. Its degree of complexity is not limited to what a human mind can master. Its existence need not manifest itself to our senses but may be based on purely abstract relations which we can only mentally reconstruct. And not having been made it cannot legitimately be said to have a particular purpose, although our awareness of its existence may be extremely important for of successful pursuit of a great variety of different purposes.
Check out two forthcoming papers from Rob Rupert, one of the sharpest minds around:
1. Against Group Cognitive States (forthcoming in S. Chant and G. Preyer (eds.), From Individual to Collective Intentionality. No listing on OUP’s website yet).
English users are not fazed by such sentences as “Microsoft intends to develop a new operating system” and “England wants to retain the pound as its unit of currency.” We produce and consume such claims frequently and with ease. One might nevertheless wonder about their literal truth. Does Microsoft — the corporation itself — literally intend to develop a new operating system? Does England — as a single body — genuinely want to retain the pound as its unit of currency. More generally, it is a substantive philosophical and empirical question whether groups of individuals (who themselves instantiate mental states) instantiate mental states properly so called.
Here is a rather scathing review of David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now that the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.
The renaissance of Marshall McLuhan in the era of the Web is disappointing for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its rather dull obviousness. There is little surprise that the quotable, evidence-free, technology-obsessed Canadian English professor would thrive in a technology-obsessed era where pithy quotes about the deep meaning of digital devices too often stands in for evidence. McLuhan, of course, was the master theorist of the medium; beyond the over-used “medium is the message,” McLuhan’s major insight was to argue that socio-technological systems — such as the media — operate on a grand scale, largely independent of the day-to-day interest us mere mortals might have in their actual content. McLuhan’s primary flaw, on the other hand, was to decouple this understanding of socio-technical system from any relationship to economics, politics, or society. As leading communications theorist James Carey put it, “McLuhan sees the principal effect [of communication technology] as impacting sensory organization and thought. McLuhan has much to say about perception and thought but little to say about institutions.”
German philosopher Martin Heidegger is less quoted in Silicon Valley than Marshall McLuhan, and not just because he was a Nazi. McLuhan and Heidegger are equally poor writers, but whereas McLuhan’s inscrutable prose has led to him being more read than he ought to be, unintelligibility has had the opposite outcome for Heidegger. A dazzlingly complex philosopher — probably the greatest of the 20th century — the most important aspect of Heidegger’s thought for our purposes is his understanding that human beings (or rather “Dasein,” “being-in-the-world”) are always thrown into a particular context, existing within already existing language structures and pre-determined meanings. In other words, the world is like the web, and we, Dasein, live inside the links.