Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Be Suspicious of Stories

Tyler Cowan warns us to Be Suspicious of Stories. Stories have plots; spontaneous orders do not. Of course, he is really warning against simple -- and the "moral of the story is . . ." -- stories. Of course, complex stories, such as novels, do take a long time to get through and contemplate. We should be novelists, not short story writers, of our lives.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Inductive Reasoning and Stories

Plato: "Those who tell the stories rule society."

I believe those interested in learning more about stories and storytelling, about why we tell stories and want to hear stories told, have much to teach economists and other social sciences. This is one of the main places where my interests overlap. And my interest in stories and economics both are why I subscribe to the Austrian school of economics.

Mainstream economics is a deductive science (involving logic and math). And it is for this reason that it repeatedly fails to accurately describe any actual economy that has ever existed -- or will exist. The reason for this is that economies are made up of agents who primarily engage in inductive reasoning, creating very complex patterns. Inductive reasoning allows one to see complex patterns, meaning the system that emerges from agents using inductive reasoning is best understood through the same approach. An economy of deductive computers would be more likely to be understood using deductive methods. And even that would have to involve very complex math. An economic science should of course have deduction -- but it should have the right deductions. But a complex science will also need -- will indeed require -- induction as well. The most inductive school of economics is the Austrian school.

Eric Beinhocker, in The Origin of Wealth, argues that "Stories are vital to use because the primary way we process information is through induction. Induction is essentially reasoning by pattern recognition. It is drawing conclusions from a preponderance of evidence" (126). This should sound familiar to those familiar with Hayek's argument that all we can ever really do is engage in pattern predictions, not actual predictions. We are pattern-recognizing, pattern-making, pattern-predicting machines, and as such are able to deal with complexity far, far, far better than do deductive computers (or mathematical methods). And stories help us to do this.

What are stories for? "We like stories because they feed our inductive thinking machine, they give us material to find patterns in -- stories are a way in which we learn" (127). The study of literature allows us to concentrate on how stories work, how they teach us. History is primarily transformed into stories. And if you want to really drive home a point in the social sciences, you tell a story. Stories are so powerful that they can be used to override statistically significant data (induction beats deduction). I can talk about how over 90% of the population has health insurance and are happy with their insurance, but the guy with the story about the mother who dies because she doesn't have insurance wins the argument -- not because his argument is in fact better, but because he is taking advantage of the fact that humans are primarily inductive, not primarily deductive (129). As any good rhetorician knows, you need both, but the balance should lean heavily toward stories and anything else that takes advantage of our inductive reasoning. Learning how stories work thus allows us to learn how to be more persuasive in politics or when doing scholarly work for the social sciences.

Patterns and pattern-recognition are central to our thought processes and, thus, to our actions:
Humans particularly excel at two aspects of inductive pattern recognition. The first is relating new experiences to old patterns through metaphor and analogy making. [...]

Second, we are not just good pattern recognizers, but also very good pattern-completers. Our minds are experts at filling in the gaps of missing information. The ability to complete patterns and draw conclusions from highly incomplete information enables us to make quick decisions in fast moving and ambiguous environments. (127)
This again points to the importance of understanding literature. It is through literary studies that we learn about metaphors and analogies. And one of the contributions of poststructuralist theory is its emphasis on narrative gaps, at where there is incomplete information, and thus to the different ways we fill in those gaps. Why do authors leave gaps? Perhaps they do so precisely because we perceive a world full of gaps, that we learn to fill to make sense of the world. Stories reflect the world even at this level of structure.

The better we learn to understand stories, the better our inductive reasoning will become:
induction is essentially a problem-solving tool that an agent uses to further its goals. The collection of rules, shaped by feedback from the agent's environment, creates an internal model of the agent's external world. The agent then uses this internal model to make predictions about what will be the best responses to the various situations that it encounters in pursuit of its goals. (130)
Reading or hearing a story also creates this internal model such that one can learn from others' experiences. Our ability to empathize combined with this ability to create internal models allows us to experience others' experiences, to essentially have an experience without doing so in the real world. It wold certainly be safer for us to learn to avoid dangerous situations by hearing someone's story about having been in that dangerous situation than to have to each experience such a situation ourselves. The more internal models we have, the better able we are to act in the world and to understand that world. Indeed, the more stories we have, the more complex we understand the world to be. One of the dangers of this is that we can misunderstand this complexity as demonstrating incommensurablility among the different patterns. This is where many postmodernists have taken the high level of complexity in their heads. However, it may be that they don't have enough data, enough stories. It may be that one needs a truly astronomical number of stories from a variety of cultures to see both the differences and the commonalities. Without understanding both, we do not really (and cannot really) understand the social world.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Social Conditions for Creativity

Philosophy is part of the gift economy, and as such, what we can learn about the sociology of philosophies is equally applicable to the other spontaneous orders (the sciences, the arts, etc.) within the gift economy.

Given this fact, consider what Randall Collins has to say about the necessary conditions for creativity. He points out that "A conflict theory of intellectual life emphasizes opposition as the generator of creativity" (162), but then notes that there were strong periods of intellectual conflict in China during which there was little creativity. Thus, agonistic relations is necessary, but not sufficient, for creativity.

We have abundant evidence that conflict is sometimes creative. The law of small numbers gives a structural shape to this struggle. The issue is to show what kinds of structural rivalry drive innovation by opposition, with associated shifts upward in the level of abstraction and critical self-reflection, and what kinds of conflict have the opposite effect on intellectual life, producing stagnation and particularism. (163)
There are two things of note in this section. One is that Collins notes the importance of institutions in whether or not a period is creative. This of course only raises the question of what institutions are important for periods of creativity. The other is that focusing on small changes is the definition of intellectual stagnation. We see this in the arts at the present time, where all the new developments of Modernism are being exhaustively investigated in Postmodernism. How, then, do we move to a new era of creativity?

It turns out that during creative eras, class is not an important factor; but when class does become an important factor in a society, creativity drops off:

I have argued that class determination is not a very useful theory for dealing with the highest levels of creativity, the sequences of abstractions produced within the core of the intellectual community; but class determination is applicable in periods when structural bases of autonomy are absent. These are typically periods of intellectual stagnation for an abstract discipline such as philosophy. What innovation occurs will be at a more concrete and particularistic level (164)

Autonomous individuals are more creative than those tied to class or other collectives.

Left to themselves, intellectuals produce their own factions and alliances. Their competition over intellectual attention space leave behind a trail of abstractions which constitute the inner history of ideas. When intellectual autonomy is low, this self-propelling dynamic is absent. Instead, new ideas occur at the moments when the class structure changes, when there are new external bases for intellectual life---new political conditions fostering religious movements, new economic and administrative conditions raising or lowering the salience of court aristocrats, state bureaucrats, or propertied gentry, and other such shifts. These changes in external conditions are much more episodic. Intellectual changes, typically in the form of concrete religious doctrines or of lifestyle ideologies, come about when a new kind of structure is created. (164-5)

Periods of social stability are bad for cultural creativity; periods of social instability are good for cultural creativity. This may go a long way to understanding the progressive-conservative division in the concept of culture. This is why creative types are typically progressive in the sense of change for the sake of change, and why conservatives defined as those who want to conserve what we have, no matter what it is, are typically perceived as anti-intellectual and anti-art. In any case, those who are freed from what has been the stable structures and institutions of a society are most creative. This is not surprising, if we consider the move from one stable era to another as a move from one equilibrium to another, through a far-from-equilibrium state.

The far-from-equilibrium state is the most creative, whether we are talking about biological processes, mental processes, or social processes. It is not impossible to remain in a far-from-equilibrium state, however. It is likely our brains are in such a state. But it is clear that our societies can be in equilibrium or far-from-equilibrium states (or even multiple equilibria or cyclical). If a society is at equilibrium, negative feedback processes have been dominating. If positive feedback processes dominate, you get boom-bust cycles and/or multiple equilibria. If you have bipolar feedback -- that is, if agonal paradoxical tensions dominate -- you get a far-from-equilibrium, or high creativity, state.

What are the social conditions and institutions that result in negative feedback dominating? What are the social conditions and institutions that result in positive feedback dominating? What are the social conditions and institutions that result in bipolar feedback dominating? And if the latter is in fact most creative, is it possible to create such conditions without having conditions like the pre-Han Warring States in China, the time of the ancient Greeks warring with Persia through the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath, the wars and social upheaval of the Renaissance, and WWI and WWII giving rise to Modernism?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Happy Birthday Hayek

Today is F. A. Hayek's birthday.

Were it not for the work of Hayek, this blog would not exist.

While I was introduced to free market economics by my undergraduate Intro. to Philosophy professor, Ronald Nash, it was in Frederick Turner's "Game Theory and the Humanities" where I was introduced to Hayek, through his essay "Individualism: True and False." I had been interested in self-organizing systems before, and Hayek's spontaneous order theory fit well into that interest.

However, it was really when I went to a Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders conference that I was really put on the path to becoming a Hayekian. I presented a paper comparing ecosystems to economies, and after the discussion, Steve Horwitz pointed out that I had not cited Hayek, suggesting that I should, since "We are all Hayekians here." I then found myself invited to a Liberty Fund colloquium on Hayek (not coincidentally attended by Steve). The following FSSO conference, I wrote a paper on "The Spontaneous Orders of the Arts," which, in combination with the Cantor-Cox book, lay the groundwork for this blog.

Since then, most of my published works have been on spontaneous order theory. For me, it is the sociological theory to use. I think with it as much as I think with evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. I think them both in conjunction, in fact. Without Hayek, I might have a job, but I would hardly be the scholar I am, thinking the things I do, understanding the world as it is, in its full complexity.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Out of the wilderness

The New Criterion has an interesting article by Charles Murray on the conditions necessary for a renewal of the arts. Among the things he finds necessary is economic wealth. Indeed, this is something Frederick Turner finds necessary for there to be a gift economy. Without large amounts of transferable wealth, one cannot have a vibrant gift economy. And the arts and sciences are part of that gift economy.

A major stream of human accomplishment is facilitated by growing national wealth, both through the additional money that can support the arts and sciences and through the indirect spillover effects of economic growth on cultural vitality.
He also identifies cities as an important element of high cultural creativity, which should not be surprising to those who understand urban economics:

A major stream of human accomplishment is fostered by the existence of cities that serve as centers of human capital and supply audiences and patrons for the arts.
He also argues that there needs to be new organizational structures. In literature, we had the novel really driving things for a while. Now, he argues, it is film. It might be interesting to think of what other possibilities there are or could be. Of course, the one who invents the next new organizational structure for any given kind of art will be considered one of the greatest artists of all time. And recognizing such things is difficult, usually taking place long after it has been established. Nevertheless, he argues, we are limited by our own evolution: "Human traditions of storytelling suggest that humans are hard-wired to prefer certain narrative conventions."

There is a lot more of interest in the piece. Interestingly, he lists a few artistic movements, mentioned by Steven Pinker, that Frederick Turner is a part of.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Separation of Art and State

David Boaz of the Cato Institute has written a piece for the New York Times on the Separation of Art and State. Much of what he says is familiar: people should not be forced to pay for art they do not approve of, and artists should not want government support since "He who pays the piper calls the tune." And since "the NEA’s budget is about 0.2 percent of the total amount spent on the nonprofit arts in the United States," it is obvious that federal funding of the arts in the U.S. wouldn't even be missed.

The Founders recognized that the divine economy ought to be separated from the political economy (separation of church and state). On similar grounds, it makes sense to recognize that the gift economy ought to be separated from the political economy (separation of art/science/philanthropy and state), and that the market economy ought to be separated from the political economy (separation of catallaxy/money and state).