Monday, July 09, 2007

Will "economics" go the way of "religion"?

Aristotle has kicked me, as foals do their mothers when they are born. Plato

A few millennia ago a teenager gained admittance to one of the leading schools of his era. His name was Aristotle, his teacher was Plato and the school was the Academy in Athens.

As is often the case when views are transmitted from the older generation to the younger, the student looked to poke holes in the views of the master. As the opening quote relates, Plato thought his student was acting as infants do, without awareness of the effect of their actions.

Although there are many disagreements between these two giants of Philosophy the one on which this essay will focus is in epistemology- the study of what is means to know something.

For Plato, (crudely stated in exaggerated form for purpose of discussion) knowledge was found in the ideal forms and applied to the material world. Tables were tables because of their resemblance to the ideal table.

For Aristotle (also crudely stated) the arrow of causation ran the other way. The material world was real and the world of thought was filled thereby. The 4 legged piece of wood which holds my computer is a table and other things like it are also tables.

As one might surmise given the differences between the two approaches, Aristotle, the observer, was much more a scientist than Plato. Dogs did whatever dogs did and swine likewise. To observe a thing is to know a thing.

Over the intervening centuries western thought has taken its direction from both views, first leaning Platonic and then Aristotelian and then back again to start the cycle anew.

I see merit in both approaches depending on the goal. If you are trying to learn what swine do you should observe them. If, however, you are trying to learn what a "religious" man, a "reasonable" man, or, say a "conservative" man should do than Plato's approach seems a better path.

This is so, it seems to me, because reason, religion, conservatism, or justice are far more difficult to point to and study than is a table.

Plato's approach assumes that material world manifestations will be but dim reflections of the ideal. From that perspective, Christianity (or Islam) is not necessarily besmirched because a so called Christian (or Muslim) does something horrible.

For Plato, whose awareness was awoken, in large part, when he watched his mentor Socrates first sentenced to death and then (no commutation here) executed, the idea that Justice was not sullied by the acts of those considered by many, just, was crucial. His Republic explores this theme in great detail.

Currently it seems to me that Aristotelianism is the preferred mode of thought in these matters.

Christopher Hitchens' and Richard Dawkin's recently published polemics on religion both use the Aristotelian perspective to prove their points- not without justification. Popular religious leaders proclaim themselves Christians, Muslims or Hindus. Thus, as one might do when studying swine, observations of the actions of those proclaiming to be Christians, Muslims or Hindus informs the empirically minded of the content of those faiths. Under that head the Crusades becomes a Christian endeavor (the blowback from which resulted in Suleiman battering the walls of Vienna) while the attack on the World Trade center becomes a Muslim endeavor.

Religion, under this head, poisons everything, to borrow from Mr. Hitchens.

And the semantic confusion doesn't stop there.

President Bush proclaims himself a political conservative. Therefore, under the Aristotelian head, all his actions are considered to be conservative. Platonists take a different view, as this essay from Jim Lobe relates.

Economists, who have usurped the place of religious leaders in modern society, are also classed in this manner. The tenets of Keynesianism, Monetarism or Austrianism are discerned by observation of those wearing their denominational labels. If Mises wrote it, it must be Austrian. If Stephen Roach wrote it, and he wears an "I believe in Keynes" t-shirt, it must be Keynesian. More broadly, at least to the general public, if an economist urges a policy it is considered economically sound, and therefore, good.

This is so because "economics" and "finance" is given high regard by many. Some complain about their experiences with bankers or brokers but in general the industry, and by Aristotelian extension, the tenets thereof are thought to be the path to the good.

But what if economists lead the world astray?

7 centuries ago, when Catholicism was held in the same regard as economics is now, the Black Death swept through Europe killing millions. Adding insult to injury, the plague kept reappearing and people kept dying.

It wasn't long before people began to question the virtues of Catholicism, after all hadn't they been led to their fate by good Catholics?

The great schism of Christianity soon followed and the long slow decline of religion as moral guide began in the West.

Economics, which used to fall under the head of Catholic morality (for example the search for the just price for a thing) was now considered in its own right.

But economics is not immune to the perils of being the moral guide. Should peak oil theory prove true, global warming lead to a significant rise in sea levels or even another plague begin to prey on mankind, those held in high regard and their theories may lose their attraction- the glamour may fade.

Alternatively, and with greater risk for "economics", the global economy might seize up, trade might decline precipitously and people will have some justification for turning away from the discipline.

Or, (hopefully) we might begin a shift back to Platonism and realize that "justice" is not necessarily what the judge dispenses but an ideal which man can only imperfectly manifest. We might realize that Christianity (or Buddhism, Islam or Hinduism) is not necessarily what Jerry Falwell preached but an ideal which man can only imperfectly manifest. We might realize that sound economics is not necessarily what Greenspan or Bernanke proposed but an ideal which man can only imperfectly manifest.

Of course, a shift to Platonism would be greatly assisted if the leaders of the discipline in question didn't insist on cloaking themselves in the mantle of purity and infallibility, which, in my view, was the great mistake of the Popes.

If the Central Bankers of the world start issuing proclamations of their infallibility along with threats and sentences of excommunication (or as we would put it, being cut off from the world's financial system, as has already happened to a few nations recently) then watch out.

Under the empirical head, human nature is to be brutal and thuggish. Under the Platonic head, we can dream that there are higher motivations which might guide us if we would but listen.

I pray for the latter as the former is the path to a dark age.

And few want that.


GwenP said...

Hey hey,

As a philosopher, I would take issue with the simplification that Aristotle is a lover of the natural (characterized as the brutish, or status quo), and that Plato is a lover of the better nature of humans/human possibility.

As a scholar of Hobbes, who is typically characterized as the anti-Arisotle and a worshipper of the baser human instincts (a characterization with which I would also disagree), there is plenty of evidence that Aristotle is anything but an anti-idealist.

But as a lover of philosophy and a ponderer of all things human and ideal, I think you are absolutely onto the right questions. Good luck to you!


Dude said...

It has been long enough since I typed this essay that I had, after receiving your comment via email, to check and make sure it contained the obligatory (crudely stated in exaggerated form for purpose of discussion)...and it does.

Perhaps, though, the disclaimer is not required in an essay, which, means, from the French (essai) to try, experiment.

To quote Montaigne: I put forward formless and unresolved notions, as do those who publish doubtful questions to debate in the schools, not to establish the truth but to seek it.