October 9, 2015

Demarcation works, but it takes longer in economics

Comment on Asad Zaman on ‘The rise and fall of logical positivism’


You sum up: “The rise and fall of logical positivism is the most spectacular story of 20th century philosophy.” (See intro)

In 1977 Suppe gave a condensed account titled ‘Swan Song for Positivism’ (1977, pp. 619-624). The summary had been followed by an outline of the subsequent developments. To be sure, the fundamental question of logical positivism — how can science be demarcated from non-science? — is still at the center of epistemology and methodology.

“... it is a central aim of science to come to knowledge of how the world really is, that correspondence between theories and reality is a central aim of science as an epistemic enterprise and crucial to whatever objectivity scientific knowledge enjoys ...” (1977, p. 649)

The actual consensus is that the answer to the demarcation problem is not as straightforward as logical positivists at first thought. “... the fundamental problem in philosophy of science — making sense of and determining how science has arrived in a justified way at its present, extremely weird, beliefs about how the world is. ... Thales and Aristotle could not have arrived at quantum theory; no naive examination of experience could have suggested such a view of the world.” (Suppe, 1977, p. 684)

Clearly, Asad Zaman misses the crucial point of methodology. While science is about the sharp demarcation between justified weirdness and metaphysical nonsense, he blurs the distinction again by playing with the word faith. “An obvious answer would be that religion requires faith in the unseen — heavens, angels, afterlife, God, while science deals with the real world around us. However, this runs into the problem that science also requires faith in positrons, quasars, gravity, electromagnetic fields, and many other un-observables.”

There is no problem at all as we know from history. Newton introduced the ‘occult’ concept of gravity but at the same time he deduced a testable formula from the set of axioms which he stated on the first pages of Principia. And this formula was successful beyond the wildest dreams.

There is obviously an important difference between faith in angels and faith in gravity. “It does not matter that moos and goos cannot appear in the guess. You can have as much junk in the guess as you like, provided that the consequences can be compared with experiment.” (Feynman, 1992, p. 164)

The application to economics is rather straightforward. Orthodoxy is based on nonentities like utility, equilibrium, and others, which have the same real world content as angels or the Easter Bunny, that is, zero.* Therefore, orthodox economics is a proto-science and there is no hope that it will ever be accepted as a science. The acceptance by many economists only disqualifies them as incompetent scientists.

The task of Heterodoxy is to lift economics above the proto-scientific level and not to kick the dead horse of positivism or to replace one metaphysical nonsense with another.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

Feynman, R. P. (1992). The Character of Physical Law. London: Penguin.
Suppe, F. (1977). Afterword–1977. In F. Suppe (Ed.), The Structure of Scientific Theories, pages 615–730. Urbana, IL, Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

* For more details see ‘The intelligent layperson’s guide through vacuonomics