The (not very good) art of the impossible

A response to Peter Kindersley’s observation on economics following my article in Colin’ Corner, “Radicals vs. Conventionals, Part II”

Peter wrote:

“At the base of what you are saying Colin is neoliberal economics . . . [is now being used] as the only measure of agriculture and all else. Not many realise that:

“Economics is a unique profession in that it has failed to solve a single one of its problems whether that be poverty, hunger, justice or sustainability”.

Colin replies:

Indeed, Peter! I reckon you have opened a very deep can of worms that deserves exploration in all contexts.  The grand generalization is that nothing, in any field, can be exhaustively understood; and nothing, therefore, can be perfectly controlled or infallibly predicted. But economics is worse than most.

We should not be surprised by this. I reckon the idea that we can understand the world perfectly, and hence control it and predict the likely course of events, is new – and is an illusion: a huge mistake. It began, I suggest, with Francis Bacon and then Rene Descartes in the 17th century. Bacon in The Great Instauration of 1620 suggested that it is humanity’s task in life to recover the absolute wisdom that Adam and Eve sacrificed in The Fall – and implied that we should be able to do this. Descartes a few decades’ later gave the impression that the universe is just a mechanism, akin to clockwork. If we keep cool heads we can see how it all works – and if we knew enough we could predict how it would all turn out, since clockwork is perfectly predictable.

Science over the past three or four centuries has largely proceeded on that basis: that we can in principle pin everything down perfectly if only we do enough research, and do the maths.  The philosophy of logical positivism dating from the early 20th century reinforced this illusion. At least, the logical positivists declared that no idea should be taken seriously unless it was “verifiable”; and in practice, only the ideas that emerge from science – based on repeatable observations and analysed mathematically – should be taken seriously. The speculations of metaphysics are, as A J Ayer put the matter, literal “gibberish”.

Yet Hume and Kant put paid to this conceit in the 18th century – or they should have done. Science is commonly perceived as the exemplar of rationality and Hume, the arch-rationalist, pointed out that rationality has its limits. Some things we just have to intuit. Kant pointed out that all our thoughts are filtered through or engendered by our brains – and the brain too has its limits. Darwin’s ideas in the mid-19th century add fuel to this idea. He suggested in The Origin of Species in 1859 that human beings like every other creature are evolved, and that evolution is driven in the main by natural selection and this goes for the brain, too. Evolutionary biologists since have suggested that our brains did most of their evolving from ape-like to human on the Pliocene-Pleistocene plains of Africa. But the brain is a very expensive organ, energy-wise, and at any point of evolution it has to pay its way. The brain justified its rising importance (so the theory has it) by honing our ancestors’ hunting and gathering skills, and their ability to avoid predators. But it is hard to see how a brain that evolved to help us catch wildebeest and out-smart hyaenas should lead us towards omniscience.

Darwin helped to provide the explanation with his second theory, spelled out in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871: that one of the main drivers of evolution, including the evolution of the brain, is the desire and need to find mates. Men and women prefer partners who are clever – “smarter than the average”, as Yogi Bear used to say; and this they demonstrate by doing tricks and telling jokes and writing learned treatises. In the early 20th century the biologist-statistician R A Fisher came up with “Fisher’s Runaway”. Peafowl show the principle perfectly. Demonstrably, the long tails of the males attract females – but only if the females are attracted by long tails. Generation by generation the tails of the males grow longer and brighter as they compete for attention and the female predilection for long tails grows commensurately stronger as they become more discerning. The males’ long tails are of course a handicap – they make it harder to escape from leopards – but that is part of the point. The males are saying, “See how I can survive the jungle despite my extravagances! What a splendid fellow I must be!” This isn’t an idle boast, either. Birds cannot grow big and beautiful tails unless they are healthy and generally robust.

The same ideas work for brains. Modern theory has it that females prefer males who are smart, so that they have smart offspring. Males therefore need to show how clever they are – which they do with all kinds of tricks and jokes and works of art. Females faced with cavorting and poeticizing males continue to raise the bar. Before too long we have Brahms and Einstein and Picasso with all their many admirers.

Even so, it isn’t obvious why evolutionary processes of any kind should lead us to a state of omniscience. There’s a huge gap between the skills we need to survive, or even to write symphonies and re-write physics, and a complete understanding of all that is. In the end, then, our understanding in all fields is not a complete representation of the world. In the end, everything that we think we understand about the world, down and including the Grand Unified Theory than some physicists dream about, is a story that we tell ourselves – a “narrative”. What we take to be truth is (if you really boil it down) no more than a story that we happen, at the time, to find convincing (often for reasons that are far from “rational”).

There’s more. The world itself has turned out to be far harder to pin down, far more elusive, than it did in Descartes’s day. A whole string of observations and ideas both from science and philosophy lead us to conclude (or they should lead us to conclude!) that in the end for all our science and what Huckleberry Finn called figgerin’, life and the universe are beyond our ken; not merely a problem to be solved, but a mystery that we can never get to the bottom of.

The key insight from science is Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. He showed that it is impossible even in theory to measure the momentum of a fundamental particle and its position in space both together, with absolute precision. That is, if you measure the momentum precisely, you cannot as a matter of principle also pin down its position: and vice versa. Since then – or indeed since the early 20th century; or perhaps more accurately since the observations of James Clerk Maxwell in the mid-19th century — the universe has grown weirder and weirder. The main point, though, for present purposes, is that the universe is innately unpredictable.

Philosophy meanwhile has been throwing ever more doubt on our ability to understand anything at all – and maths itself, commonly perceived to be the ultimate arbiter of truth, turns out to be no such thing. The people who I think between them make the case are J S Mill, Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Popper, Sir Peter Medawar, and the mathematician Kurt Godel.

John Stuart Mill simply pointed out in the mid-19th century that however much we know, or think we know, we can never we sure that we haven’t missed something. About a century and a half later US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reminded his colleagues that there are “unknown unknowns” – things we don’t even know we don’t know; and this summarizes the point nicely. Karl Popper from the 1930s onwards showed that science cannot in fact prove anything beyond all possible doubt. It can only disprove, beyond all possible doubt. So much for verifiability and the logical positivists. Sir Peter Medawar, great mid-20th century biologist and a fan of Popper, said that the reason that science seems to provide such bedrock certainties is that scientists are careful to explore only those questions (mainly material questions) that they think they have a reasonable chance of answering in a reasonably convincing fashion. In short, he said, science can only ever be “the Art of the Soluble”.

The Austrian-American mathematician Kurt Godel changed the world forever in the 1930s when he published his “incompleteness” theorems. He showed that it is impossible – absolutely, literally – to provide arithmetical statements of any kind that are certain, complete, and internally consistent all at the same time. It is possible fulfil two of these requirements, but not all three, simultaneously. We can reasonably conclude from this that mathematics itself has an arbitrary quality and is not the infallible arbiter of truth that it is commonly taken to be (successful though it very obviously is).

Put all these thoughts together, and we see that the dream of more innocent times that we can one day understand everything there is, if only we gather enough data and do enough research, is seriously misguided, not to say absolutely wrong. Our brains are not up to the task; we are bound to miss things – but not know what we have missed; and even the material, observable world, so much easier to deal with than wild speculations of a metaphysical or a theological nature, will forever elude our attempts to get to grips with it. In short, we can never be more than story-tellers, picking a path through the thickets of reality: a giant exercize, to put the matter at its lowest, in joining the dots.

None of these observations detract from the wonder of science, which continues to show how extraordinary life and the universe really are, and how lucky we are to be alive in such a privileged corner of the universe, and to have the brains to explore what’s going on, however imperfectly. It’s obvious, too, that the special “high” technologies that derive from science, from vaccines and anaesthetics to IT, can immensely enrich our lives and could, if sensibly deployed, make the world safer for us and for our fellow creatures.

The observations and insights of the past 100 years or so do, however, show the fatuousness of “scientism” – the old-fashioned belief, which some scientists still cling to, that science really can, in time, explain everything beyond equivocation; and of gung-ho technophilia – the assumption that high tech will enable us to do anything we choose, and to dig ourselves out of any hole we dig ourselves into, and that high tech in general represents progress, and that progress is ipso facto good, and that high tech solutions (like, say, GMOs) are intrinsically superior to traditional approaches (like, say, sensible husbandry). Many politicians are technophiles – especially, it seems, those like Tony Blair (though perhaps it’s unfair to single him out) who came to science and technology late in life and have no feel for, or understanding of, the limitations and the caveats.

Yet science – “the art of the soluble” – sets out as a matter of strategy to address only those questions that ought in principle to be the most tractable; questions that relate to the material universe, which can be observed repeatedly and reliably, and measured, and manipulated under controlled conditions so we can find out more, which is what “experiment” means. No other field of inquiry can offer anything like such certainties or such rigorous methods of inquiry.

To return finally to Peter’s point: economics has often aspired to be a science but even if it was, or could be, its insights and explanations would still be far from perfect. In reality, even though economists adopt some of the methods of science (the maths grows fancier and fancier and they are very good at graphs), they will always fall far short.

For a start, the worlds of trade and money that economists deal with are shot through with unknowns and unknowables. We never know what’s going to happen next – and anything that does happen, out of the blue, can affect the economy: volcanoes; tsunamis; global warming; epidemics (in people or animals or crops); political wrangling of all kinds; the whims of presidents and oil sheikhs; the Ukrainians’ search for independence; everything that happens in Africa; Donald Trump; Brexit; and, everywhere and at all levels, there is corruption, which often doesn’t come to light until far too late, and can and does make nonsense of all our plans and forecasts.

Economists, though, are fine story-tellers. Like scientists, they build grand narratives on what they do know, or think they know. But they don’t know as much as scientists do – the world of commerce and human interaction is harder to pin down than the material world – and they cannot do experiments of a repeatable kind on a grand enough scale to provide robust conclusions. Their stories – whether those of Karl Marx or Milton Friedman – are based on observations that are obviously limited and swayed by their own experiences, and cannot be subjected to rigorous experiment on a worthwhile scale. Their narratives may be wonderfully rounded and convincing, but the foundations are very shaky indeed.

But once a particular narrative is in place, it becomes policy – and then it becomes the only acceptable truth: the dogma. Some people, life’s ideologues, truly believe that the narrative of the day, whatever it may be, really is the answer to all our problems. Mrs Thatcher was one such, or so it seems: “There is no alternative” (to the neoliberal global market economy), she told us. Among other things, neoliberal economics is clearly unsuited to farming; but anyone who points this out, as many including me have been doing for the past 30 years, is told that the alternatives are “unrealistic” and that their advocates are out with the fairies if not downright subversive – even though the status quo, which apparently is realistic, is clearly hastening the world’s demise, and some at least of the alternatives demonstrably work very well when given half a chance. More broadly, even Milton Friedman conceded that “the free market does not deliver social justice”. He wasn’t a bad man (I believe) and truly thought that social justice was desirable (he was the son of poor Jewish immigrants who knew what injustice looks like). But he was a believer. Stalin clearly believed that Marxist communism was humanity’s destiny (although Marx denied being a “Marxist” and would surely have disowned Stalin’s version of his ideas had he lived to see it). Others who advocate the economic dogma of their day are not ideologues. They are simply doing well out of the status quo, whatever it may be, and don’t want to change it. “Don’t rock the boat”, radicals are told (though I haven’t heard this expression for some time).

In short, economics falls a long way short of science, and always will; and science falls a long way short of omniscience, and always will. In fact I could have saved myself a lot of time (and you, if you have read this far) simply by quoting Leonardo DiCaprio’s line from The Wolf of Wall Street:  “No-one has the slightest idea how any shares will do – least of all the traders!”

Colin Tudge, October 24 2017

2 thoughts on “The (not very good) art of the impossible

  1. A characteristically magisterial response Colin. Just splendid ~ replete with illuminating cogency. Very few possess such broad-based, erudite skills, and the inestimable virtue of dispensing with (not just dispensing) irrelevant bullshit ~ a tendency that invariably amounts to artfully dodging the otherwise “difficult bits.”

    I am a shameless enthusiast for your rapier wit and peerless maturity of mind. If only Pablo P. were still around to enjoy such wisdom. At least we can confidently now claim, that one fluently English-speaking member of our distinguished gender has achieved the distinction of humbly elucidating the fundamental mysteries of Zero, 1, 2 and 3, with exemplary adequacy. Bravo maestro! This is an ineffable banquet, tastefully prepared, brimming with nourishing relevance…

    …more than enough, Id say, to satisfy any wholesome appetite, especially those appreciative of the culinary skill that satisfies by restoring the capacity to seek more, by judiciously avoiding satiety.

    So far as rocking the boat goes, I may be incurably optimistic, & unless it is simply an evolutionary law of intelligence, but it seems to me Oxford and its university has more than it’s statistically distributed share of highly commendable, progressive luminaries…or maybe it’s just that they get noticed more, although, ‘naturally’ enough, not necessarily heeded sufficiently to warrant our nation’s off-shore magnates, from investing heavily in such an apparently successful politico-pedagogical paradigm.

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