Further Thoughts on The Sensory Order

December 4, 2010

by Roger Koppl

Over at Austrian Addiction, Dan D’Amico responds to my recent post on The Sensory Order.  Dan wants to know “what Hayek’s theory of neuorscience is really adding here that a more basic understanding of subjective preferences does not already imply?”  Dan is not the only one with this question.  I think enthusiasts for The Sensory Order have given pretty good answers to Dan’s question, but it seems clear that we need to do a better job.

I think even Austrian economists who never stray from the confines of literary economics should be enthusiastic for The Sensory Order. If you begin and end in “humanism” without engaging “science,” then any economist who wants to be scientific has no incentive to read about your “humanistic” vision.  Zero. None. (I’m using the words “humanism” and “science” loosely.  Literary economics can be perfectly scientific.) Hayek starts in “science,” far from any hint of “humanism.” As he builds up his argument, however, he is driven, by science to find a necessary place for “humanism.” Any attempt to be, somehow, purely “scientific” falls apart.

Thus, with Hayek we get something like an even-if argument:  Even if we somehow prefer “science” to “humanism,” we cannot avoid a substantial “humanistic” element in our “scientific” economics.  Hayek’s way of arguing here might be compared to Mises’ claim that economics is about means and not ends.  Mises would accept the political goals of those he disagreed with, but argue that their preferred policies would not achieve their stated goals.  (That’s really just the economic way of thinking, but Mises was unusually clear about the logic of such arguments.)  Hayek did something similar in methodology.  He accepted the scientific worldview, but argued that this worldview does not imply the exclusive use of mathematical and formal methods; it requires instead the use of methods sometimes disparaged as “humanistic” or otherwise less than scientific.

Hayek’s The Sensory Order shows that any attempt to somehow spurn or disparage literary economics as unscientific is itself unscientific.  A thoroughgoing pursuit of the scientific worldview obliges us to recognize the limits of the methods we might think of most characteristically “scientific” and the impossibility of dispensing entirely with literary methods.  In my bones I don’t understand why more Austrians are not excited by such “neuro-Hayekianism.”

18 Responses to “Further Thoughts on The Sensory Order”

  1. Troy Camplin Says:

    TO understand a social system, you have to understand the underlying agents and their interactions. To understand the agents, you have to understand the way their brains work.

    When I was a biology major, I was required to take biochemistry and molecular biology, organic chemistry and chemistry, and physics. Why? Surely one can understand organisms without knowing about their underlying mechanisms and interacting parts, right? Well, you can, but you will have a greatly impoverished understanding of living things. You might even think that there is a vital essence or that you need some outside creator to organize all this complexity one sees in nature. If, instead, you understand the underlying parts and their interactions, neither hypothesis is necessary — self-organization and natural selection become self-evident.

  2. Greg Ransom Says:

    Awesome.

    Larry Wright does something equivalent with the whole domain of teleological explanation — offering a refutation of the received view of (scientific) explanation.

    Note well — Hayek’s SO many-many problem blocks reduction in the same way David Hull’s many-many problem blocks reduction in Darwinian biology.

    This fact really is the massive game changer about the nature of science, one recognized by Kuhn.

  3. Greg Ransom Says:

    I’m similarly perplexed that all of them remain ignorant of Larry Wright’s work –‘the most significant ideas on teleological explanation since Aristolte, in the view of Alex Rosenberg.

    If they pretend to be serious about the study of purposive action and it’s role in scientific explanation, actions speak louder then words.

    “In my bones I don’t understand why more Austrians are not excited by such “neuro-Hayekianism.”

  4. Gene Callahan Says:

    ‘If you begin and end in “humanism” without engaging “science,” then any economist who wants to be scientific has no incentive to read about your “humanistic” vision. Zero. None.’

    But Roger, if one understands that ‘science’ and ‘humanism’ are simply two different modal understandings of the same underlying reality, then we could equally well say that ‘if you begin and end in “science” without engaging “humanism,” then any economist who wants to be humanistic has no incentive to read about your “scientific” vision. Zero. None.’

    Because, in fact, these are not competing explanations within the same view of reality, where one or the other could win out as ‘true’ or ‘correct.’ Instead, they are different cameras shooting the same scene from different vantage points: Each is true, given the pre-suppositions of that vantage point. And, in explaining how the world looks from its vantage point, neither camera-view is in any way required to incorporate what might appear salient from a different perspective.

  5. Troy Camplin Says:

    I would (sort of?) agree with Gene here in the sense that if we look at each science as studying a different level of complexity, then it is science all the way up and down: physics to chemistry to biology to psychology to the humane/social sciences to the humanities. We are merely dealing with different levels of complexity, with each having its own level-appropriate language. If we understand this nested hierarchy, it still makes sense to understand the brain to understand the economy, and it still makes sense to argue for a more literary approach to economics, since it is a science closer in complexity to the humanities, including literature, than it is to the simpler sciences, such as physics or chemistry (even biological metaphors, which I often use, have their limits).

  6. koppl Says:

    Separate but equal, Gene? Hayek favored integration, and I agree. Anyway, I put the “humanism” and “science” in scare quotes precisely because I don’t think there is such a difference between them. The symmetry you note is there, but which of Snow’s two cultures has the ascendency in economics?

  7. Greg Ransom Says:

    The results of Hayek, Edelman, Wittgenstein, and Wright shows us that the “human” domain not only exists, it is reducible and ineliminable — we know it and experience it in a different way from other domains, there is getting rid of it, and we can’t “model” it the way we can the non-human relm.

    Note well that the eliminitive materialist view is the only real rival still on the scene — the reductionist program is completely dead.


  8. [...] Further Thoughts on The Sensory Order, by Roger Koppl [...]

  9. Lord Keynes Says:

    Hayek did something similar in methodology. He accepted the scientific worldview, but argued that this worldview does not imply the exclusive use of mathematical and formal methods

    When Hayek rejected Mises’ pure apriorism as a methodology and accepted elements of Popper’s falsificationism, with a role for empirical evidence, he was surely moving closer to the mainstream methodology for economics. Certainly Lachmann though Hayek and Keynes were similar on methodology.

    Also, in relation to the previous post (What Austrian Economics IS and What It Is NOT), I have written a classification of Austrian economics on my blog, which might be of interest:

    http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2010/12/different-types-of-austrian-economics.html

  10. Current Says:

    I think it would be wrong to say that Mises advocated “pure apriorism” as a methodology. He has a lot of space for empiricism.

    What these controversy’s are about is what the space for empiricism is like. There about how it plugs into and relates to aspects of theory.

  11. koppl Says:

    @LK:

    I’m not getting the link between the bit you quoted from me and your follow-on remark. My post addressed “humanistic” vs. “scientific” methods, not empiricism vs. apriorism. The issues are linked, but I’m not sure how you are making the connection.

    I would agree that there is a gap between Mises and Hayek on apriorism, but I think it is a smaller gap than Hutchison made out, whereas the gap between Popper and Hayek is larger than he thought. To add to the complications, in the concluding philosophical chapter of TSO he has a strong defense of a kind of apriorism applicable to natural science. He explicitly says that Locke’s Nihil est in intellectu quod non antea fuerit in sensu (Nothing is in the understanding that was not earlier in the senses) implies that some of our categories are therefore not subject to empirical control by further experiences. In other words, he pulls a kind of fallible apriorism out of a Lockean starting point. Thus, “empricism” and “apriorism” converge in Hayek’s system. Here too, then, a familiar and, perhaps, comfortable dichotomy falls apart, making it harder to categorize Hayek than we might have thought initially.


  12. @Greg Ransom
    RE: Larry Wright
    Greg, there is almost nothing meaningful out there on Wright. His books are impossible to find, although partially available in google books. In reading what I can find online, I understand the quotations I can find, but I can’t quite figure out what you’re seeing there that’s so informative for you.

    Is there anything you can point me at that I can access and try to understand what you’re suggesting?

  13. greg ransom Says:

    The literaure on functional and teleological is rife ith references to Wright’s seminal work.

    But there is no subtitute for Wright’s book.

    One point is that we directly perceive teleological phenomena — and the perception identification is directly explanatory.

  14. greg ransom Says:

    There is no subtitute for Wright’s book.

    One point is that we directly perceive teleological phenomena — and the perception identification is directly explanatory.

  15. greg ransom Says:

    Any survey article on functional explanation will have a discussion of Wright.

  16. complexphenom Says:

    Different methodologies should apply in describing different levels of complexity if your intention is to gain a “useful” perspective. You can argue that:

    “these are not competing explanations within the same view of reality, where one or the other could win out as ‘true’ or ‘correct.’ Instead, they are different cameras shooting the same scene from different vantage points: Each is true, given the pre-suppositions of that vantage point. And, in explaining how the world looks from its vantage point, neither camera-view is in any way required to incorporate what might appear salient from a different perspective.”

    as Gene does and consider such subjectivism desirable; but if your intention is to yield a dependable model of “reality” such that it has predictive value and various other practical applications it is important to consider and differentiate between explanations of inferior and superior perspective and methodology.

    If we take the “usefulness” of an explanation as our guide for choosing the methods to be applied in a given field of study it becomes apparent that certain methodologies work “better” at explaining certain levels of complexity than others.

    Social scientists should ask themselves what they want to get out of their perspective and then plan accordingly.

  17. Troy Camplin Says:

    This is absolutely correct. Do we use the same crtiera for biolgy as quantum physics? We don’t even use the same criteria for chemistry as for quantum physics. We don’t use the same criteria for quantum physics as for macrophysics. Different levels fo complexity have their own methodologies for a reason. I will say, though, that some divisions (cultural studies, anthropology, sociology, and economics, for example) may be somewhat, if not entirely, arbitrary.

    I point to the work of J.T. Fraser to some useful divisions — which he bases on time experience of different levels of complexity.

  18. complexphenom Says:

    koppl wrote: “I put the “humanism” and “science” in scare quotes precisely because I don’t think there is such a difference between them”

    There isn’t as big of a difference as many would like for us to believe but there are indeed vital differences in method, results etc. I would agree that both viewpoints derive from the same human instinct that makes us want to make sense of the world, but I would agree with Hayek in acknowleding that mathematics is terribly limited in its ability to lend itself usefully to the social/humanistic sciences as it does so well with physics and chemistry. There are reasons for this dichotomy that can be explained by referencing the three body problem, the unsolvability of most non-linear multivariable differential equations, Godel’s incompleteness theorem => Turings theorem etc.

    But I wholly agree with you that this difference does not disqualify any attempt at “making sense of the world” as being unscientific. Mathematical applicability should not be a requirement for considering inquiry of any sort scientific. Or as you put it: “any attempt to somehow spurn or disparage literary economics as unscientific is itself unscientific. A thoroughgoing pursuit of the scientific worldview obliges us to recognize the limits of the methods we might think of most characteristically “scientific” and the impossibility of dispensing entirely with literary methods.”

    Recognizing the limits of the applicability of certain methods in a given field, now that’s scientific!


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