A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Founding Formulations

A little over one hundred and fifty years ago biology was a collection of anatomical and taxonomic descriptions and chemistry was a collection of element descriptions and procedures for making a variety of compounds.  Darwin systematized biology with evolution theory, Mendeleev systemized chemistry with the periodic table and, in the 1913, Neils Bohr delivered a satisfactory model of the atom.  Until these additions to the intellectual tool kit there were no primary organizational structures against which to test ideas and actions in these disciplines.  They relied on disorganized and unsatisfactory theories, precedent of action and habit of thought. 

If these pursuits of knowledge are any guide, those areas of thought that do not have a sound systematic fundamental theoretical base will also have large areas of fundamental error.  The social sciences, including economics, are the most important examples.  We act on these sources of knowledge all the time, but there is no systematic organized structure underlying them.  Freudian psychology applies to a tiny part of human behavior and very inadequately.  Keynesian economics is localized.  There are conflict theories, game theories, theories of industrial societies, theories for pre-industrial societies, feminist theories, cognitive theories, motivational theories, Marxist theory, neo-Marxist theory, supply side theories, demand theories; several pages would be required just to name them all.  But there is no general intellectually sound systemic theory or system of theories that gives order to the huge variety of ideas, ‘rules’, explanations and predictions that our political and economic actions must use everyday just to function. 

It has long been recognized that humans have made great changes in their technical use of the world’s opportunities: from atlatls to ballistic missiles, from sandals to 747s.  But our understanding of ourselves and our actions on the world has been abysmal.  We can control the path of a proton in the world’s most incredible machine, but we have no reliable understanding of the economic and social processes presently in action or needed to survive for the next hundred years.  Yes, we have a thousand disjointed theories and thousands of self-serving proposals, but no real soundly based understandings. 

A necessary, while intellectually unsatisfactory, step is to realize what we do not know. Adding that caveat to plans of action and a real willingness to include scientifically valid tests of those plans is vital to our future.  We have just seen the consequences of a politically powerful attempt to enforce ideological certainty on a reality that rightly refused to allow itself to be painted in those colors; the terrible consequences will continue so long as we can make no deep effort to accept uncertainty, find and adapt to biophysical reality.


Michael Dawson said...

If you had to choose, who would you say has come closest to providing a path forward?

I'd say Marvin Harris, the anthropologist who theorized "cultural materialism" and described the basics of human intensification of social and ecology exploitation.

Anonymous said...

This post and your point of origin post thematically approach the idea of recognizing and challenging conventional wisdom for what it is. John Galbraith's book THE AFFLUENT SOCIETY is a wonderfully engaging read. Might I be as bold as to recommend it to both you and Michael?

James said...

I agree that The Affluent Society is an important book in the history of social criticism. Thank you for reminding me of it. The first time I read it was in, probably, 1962. There is no question that many of its offerings are even more directly relevant to today’s dilemmas than in the post WWII era.

Michael Dawson said...

Agreed on Galbraith.

In fact, when he was AEA President in c. 1970, Galbraith delivered the greatest keynote speech in that benighted club's history. It's point was that economics had not yet addressed the issue of the quality of goods and services. G knew that meant not just a deep criticism of capitalist waste, but a leap into ecological issues. You can look this speech up through the AJE archives.

I also think Galbraith's _Culture of Contentment_ remains the best diagnosis of what passes for politics in the USA. It was really his repudiation of Clintonism/money-based Democratic Partying, which obviously is even worse now than then, despite the times.