The Neuroscience of Freedom and Creativity

Earlier this year I trailed Joaquín Fuster’s latest book that he so kindly sent me as an uncorrected galley. I’m pleased to report that the book is now finally available. Not surprisingly, Hayek features in this work. If anyone suitably qualified would like to review this book for The Journal of Mind and Behavior or Cognitive Systems Research, please let me know. Pat Churchland has given it a resounding thumbs up.

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Hayek in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

It’s about time that Hayek had a dedicated entry in the SEP. I’ve been “lobbying” for FAH’s inclusion for some time now. Here is the stated brief of the article:

This essay concentrates on this enduring theme [spontaneous order] of Hayek’s work, and a question: why would the scholar who did more than anyone in the twentieth century to advance our understanding of price signals and the emergence of spontaneous orders also be driven to claim that social justice is a mirage?

This is fine but it really should only be a subsection to an entry that has FAH as the title. It’s a shame that a broader conspectus isn’t on offer much like the entries on Popper and Berlin. How can one  appreciate the depth of Hayek’s social theory without taking cognizance of The Sensory Order (1952)? – there is a link between Hayek’s philosophical psychology and spontaneous order. Also missing, again from 1952, is The counter-revolution of science: Studies on the abuse of reason - surely an important work for Hayek’s philosophy of social science.

There is nothing wrong with the entry – it’s just disappointing for the novice to Hayek (or the preconceived caricatures that abound) that Hayek’s full breadth and depth is not made apparent (maybe there are supplementary articles in the works). And why is there a reference under “Other Internet Resources” to Matt Zwolinski’s “Libertarianism” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy? Arguably one of the best internet resources (if not the best) is Greg Ransom’s aptly titled site Taking Hayek Seriously.

Spontaneous order, as a species of emergent phenomena, is not at all dealt with in an analytical way as befits the SEP. The concept is perhaps Hayek’s most problematic and contentious concept notwithstanding being one of the slipperiest of terms within philosophy at large. The concept is a critical element of the five-faceted cornerstone of Hayek’s philosophy of social science: the others being complexity, the dispersion of knowledge, rationality and methodological individualism.

Speaking of long overdue SEP entries how about Herbert Simon and Michael Oakeshott?

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Philanthropic Institutional Design and the Welfare State

Here is the abstract to David’s and my paper just published in Conversations on Philanthropy, Vol. IX: Law and Philanthropy

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The topic of philanthropy has a great deal of philosophical interest because it exists at the nexus of issues surrounding distributive, remedial, and commutative justice, perennial issues in political philosophy (Ealy 2010, vi). It is perhaps because of this that, conceptually speaking, philanthropy seems to have a twilight existence, typically laboring under one of the most prevalent confusions—the synonymous usage of the terms “nonprofit” and “philanthropy” (McCully 2010). Yet, discussion of the philosophy of philanthropy is surprisingly neglected. The present discussion examines the relationship between private philanthropy and the welfare-oriented state: Is it possible for the philanthropic sphere and/or indeed the philanthropic impulse to coexist in an expansive governmental environment that sees health care as a natural part of its administrative monopoly? We answer with a qualified “yes.” Our paper, however, is not concerned with an appraisal of welfarism in its many guises nor with recommendations for reform, but with the pragmatics of operating within such an environment. As such we: (a) assess the philosophical presuppositions that animate recent discussion of the “Big Society” and the role philanthropy is accorded within it; and (b) offer practical guidance about protecting and encouraging the philanthropic impulse when a climate of welfarism prevails.

Constructivist and Ecological Rationality in Economics

All those interested in extended mind/externalist/situated type thought should be aware of the field of Behavioral Economics (BE) in general and the work of Vernon Smith in particular. BE is a body of literature that was ploughing this trough some twenty years before the hypothesis of extended cognition took root in cognitive science. It is interesting to note that the Clark and Chalmers thesis took some inspiration from Herbert Simon (Clark & Chalmers, 1998). Simon writes:

Human beings, viewed as behaving systems, are quite simple. The apparent complexity of our behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which we find ourselves . . . [I] would like to view this information-packed memory less as part of the organism than as part of the environment to which it adapts . . . (Simon, 1996, 53, cf.8, 62, 99, 110).

But what is remarkable about this is that Simon in turn credits and endorses Hayek for this view:

No-one has characterized market mechanisms better than Friedrich von Hayek . . . [His] defense did not rest primarily upon the supposed optimum attained by them but rather upon the limits of the inner environment – the computational limits of human beings (Simon, 1996, 34).

What Simon has grasped is the corollary to Hayek’s spontaneous order externalism – “cognitive closure” (or in Simon’s terminology “bounded rationality” was a key presupposition to all Hayek’s work and set out in its most technical form in Hayek (1952/1976). Cognitive closure is the idea that the human mind is constitutionally delimited – a condition that can be ameliorated if the social and artifactual world functions as a kind of distributed extra-neural knowledge store.

Through the work of Vernon Smith (the provenance going back to his classical namesake, Adam), ecological or situated/bounded rationality has received its most recent and finest articulation. Unlike some Nobel Laureates (no names) Vernon is not a prima donna. He is exceedingly approachable, very kind, generous, modest and open-minded. I was lucky enough to meet  Vernon in Tucson and he put me at ease very quickly as did his charming wife. Recently, Vernon gave me an inscribed copy of his Rationality in Economics: Constructivist and Ecological Forms along with his autobiography Discovery – A Memoir, the former deeply informing my work; the latter interest taking wing from my talking to him about his Kansas youth.

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Hayek in Beijing

This from the WSJ 

“The Road to Serfdom.” Hayek’s book, he explains, was originally translated into Chinese in 1962 as “an ‘internal reference’ for top leaders,” meaning it was forbidden fruit to everyone else. Only in 1997 was a redacted translation made publicly available, complete with an editor’s preface denouncing Hayek as “not in line with the facts,” and “conceptually mixed up.”

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Hayek

Born on this day in 1899. It’s to analytical (social) epistemology’s (and philosophy of mind’s) impoverishment and shame that Hayek is not that well-known beyond the tiresome caricatures. For all my Hayekana see here. The featured image was very generously given to me by the highly exceptional Walt Weimer.

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Sage Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Social Sciences

My chum Byron Kaldis’ big project has been brought to fruition. Bravo! My contribution: Hayek and the “Use of Knowledge in Society”. As you will see there is a terrific lineup – this is an exciting area to be in these days what with CogSci meeting social science – another project of Byron’s in the works.

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Getting to the Hayekian Network

Extracts from Troy’s paper:

In many ways this paper is necessarily an introduction. I want to introduce away to understand F. A. Hayek’s ideas on both spontaneous orders and the brain by understanding network structures. More, I want to distinguish between networks that emerge top-down in organizations and cellular regulatory networks and those that emerge bottom-up in self-organizing systems and spontaneous orders, whose relations to each other follow similar patterns.

Socialists argue, contrary to Adam Smith’s thesis that the economy self-organizes from the bottom-up (1776), that the economy should be consciously designed and given goals. Hayek modernized Smith with spontaneous order theory. At the same time, self-organization theory emerged in physics and chemistry, complex adaptive systems (CAS) theory emerged in biology, and network theory emerged in several disciplines; these are all in the same conceptual family as spontaneous order theory. Hayek was part of the 20th century revolution of bottom-up self-organization theorizing that sees the universe emerging on its own through natural processes.

If everything in the universe is self-organized, where do we get this idea, resurrected by socialists, that conscious design is the norm? Humans, like most animals, evolved to immediately, instinctively recognize the signs of others of their species. With wolves, lions, and other strongly territorial species, scent signs mark territory to warn off others. But humans are more visual, so we leave visual evidence of order. As a consequence, we associate the presence of order with an orderer or designer, and the development of  creationist theories to explain nature, soul theories to explain the mind, and governments to order society. Darwinism and self-organization theories replaced creationist theories (for most people); top-down soul theories, including Descartes’ homunculus theory, evolved into CAS theories of the brain’s network structures, out of which the mind emerges; top-down social theories (where the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church was reproduced in other Western social structures, for example) gave way to Adam Smith’s bottom-up self-organizing ‘‘invisible-hand’’ theory. While life and mind have continued to evolve toward theories of self-organization, our social theories took a u-turn when socialism emerged as a respectable theory of economic ordering. The designer fallacy, increasingly abandoned in theories of life and mind, was readopted in our social theories.

When humans evolved in the African savannahs, there was little question about whether or not we designed the environment in which we built our social hierarchies. We did, however, tend to attribute the order of nature to nature spirits, gods, and goddesses, and, later, a creator God. We attributed top-down ordering of the world to external forces. Since it was the natural world, there was no question as to our having had a hand in designing it: if there was a designer, it wasn’t us. But then our numbers and density grew to give rise to new kinds of social ecosystems: spontaneous orders. As a tribal species, we assumed social structures were man-made; yet here was a social order not of anyone’s making, but emergent from our interactions. While language was a spontaneous order, its ancientness prevented us from considering it ‘‘man-made.’’ The same cannot be said of the catallaxy. While each order has roots in our evolved human behaviors, it seems the more recently a particular order emerged, the more likely we are to try to control it. Few try to control language (notable exceptions being constructivist efforts by the French and political correctness); the arts face fewer attempts at control (notable exceptions being constructivist Communist countries and conservative theocracies); religion and government both decentralized and became more heterogeneous in many places – though these typically required revolutions to precipitate the changes. The internet is the most recent spontaneous order to emerge, and we are only now facing people trying to control it.

Hayek developed his theory of spontaneous order to counter the designer fallacy. He argues, with Kauffman (1993), that the evolution of complex systems is essentially ‘‘lawless’’ (Hayek, 1991, p. 261), meaning one cannot predict future states. These lawless systems arise naturally, from the bottom-up, the interacting elements creating a network. They do not need a designer. Yet, this goes against our instincts. As humans evolved more social behaviors, our ability to detect intentions in others improved, becoming almost instantaneous. One result is ‘‘Our ancestral sociality endowed us with a hair-trigger when it comes to detecting intentions, even where there are none. When confronted with impersonal processes, we prefer to see design, purpose and agency’’ (Tonaka, 2010, p. 8). For Hayek ‘‘the sensory order is an imperfect representation of the physical order, and there are limits to what the human mind can know, as knowledge is acquired from experience’’ (Wenzel, 2010, p. 63). The presence of such built-in modes of thought/world maps such as the belief that order requires an orderer (the source of all top-down theories of cosmic and social order) also contribute to ‘‘an imperfect representation of the physical order’’ that can be overcome with sufficient experience. Since each person is born with this cognitive bias, each person must learn the natural world is not ordered top-down. This bias results in errors in understanding the economy, society, culture, and even the brain. It is perhaps ironic that the tendency to see intentionality everywhere, an evolved behavioral trait that can be traced to the brain’s structures, has been one of the primary barriers to understanding the brain’s structures, or similar networks. It is overcome only through understanding complex networks. This is what Hayek’s spontaneous order theory gives us. It may seem odd we are biased against understanding how the real world actually works, but if we understand the environment in which we evolved, it makes sense. Someone who thought a village could emerge naturally would end up killed by the villagers; those who believed if there is order, there is an orderer, would expect dangerous humans about. Unfortunately, that same bias is no longer adaptive.

Our hypersensitivity to intention may make it difficult to persuade belief in spontaneous orders. We want to believe in creationism or intelligent design, whether in cosmology, biology, government, or economy. Yet, science helps us understand the world beyond how we are programmed to see it (Hayek, 1952, p. 5.42). It is important we have the right science for the right system to create the right model. Without the right model, we make mistakes understanding the world. Widespread use of the wrong model will result in the same mistakes because ‘‘similar Hayekian maps (mental models) will lead to similar descriptions of the world among individuals with similar backgrounds and will thus never have exactly identical minds (Hayek, 1952, p. 5.28)’’ (Wenzel, 2010, p. 64). This is built on the speciesspecific structures that also unify us. It is thus possible to pile error upon error. And the more complex the data – such as economic data – the more open it is to interpretation and to confirmation bias.

Nevertheless, it seems that if spontaneous orders are human social environments, with parallels in the natural environment, then in a real sense human beings are preadapted to living in spontaneous orders. This hardly means there won’t be people trying to control those social environments any more than people have tried to control their natural environments – as ancient dams, irrigation, and rain dances prove. These controls are not without consequence, though. When you irrigate, you accidentally salt the earth, eventually decreasing soil fertility. Some, like rain dances, are simply ineffectual. Economic equivalents would be the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing in response to the Great Recession (where they ‘‘irrigated’’ the economy with money, with the likelihood that it will soon ‘‘salt the earth’’) and the stimulus packages (the economic equivalent to ‘‘rain dances,’’ since they are based on a belief that the economy is controlled by ‘‘spirits’’). Interfering with the natural evolution of spontaneous orders has negative consequences when one does not understand the processes involved. And even if you do, you won’t be able to predict when a transformation will take place in a TCAS. Such processes are inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Our evolved general intelligence allows us to adapt to any physical environment, but it is our other mental orders that restrict the kinds of social environments we can thrive in. This is why understanding the human brain is vital to the work of social scientists. To understand the neurological basis of the various elements of our various cultures and societies, ‘‘a series of bridging laws must ultimately anchor cultural constructions to their relevant brain networks. These bridging laws must integrate, rather than eliminate, the laws of human psychology. They must also include the historical, political, and economic forces that shaped human society’’ (Dehaene, 2010, p. 304). Indeed, in writing The Sensory Order, is this not Hayek’s challenge to all of the social sciences?