Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mundus Vult Decipi

I thought it was interesting how Polanyi pointed out that free markets are only one of many systems of self-organization or spontaneous order as we discussed last week. His discussion of science as a spontaneous order emanating from the individual and not a central organization, though lengthy and dry to read, was very pertinent to the theme we've been discussing as a group.

Growing board with 1945 Royal Society issues my mind wandered back to the issue of "rationality". [Sherri cringes here] In my meanderings I seem to have found a consensus that in economics the term "rationality" is related to optimization. A "rational" choice is one that optimizes in pursuit of a goal. This from wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationality

However, there seems to be strong dissent out there about the perfection of the economic assumption of human beings as rational. Last week Josh and I argued in favor of caution in whole-heartedly accepting the notion that human beings act rationally. My view was that you can't apply the theory across the board but that the exceptions are few enough that the general theory holds.

In a sociological journal Milan Zafirovski from the University of North Texas argues somewhat persuasively against the economic theory of rationality, making an interesting observation about utility. We economists (am I allowed to place myself in such a group?) use the concept of utility to explain away people's deviation from rationality. A person who makes a choice that makes them poorer values something other than money and so they maximize their utility for whatever they value more than money by becoming poorer (Camilla will doubtless correct me if I used "utility" wrong). However, we expand the concept of utility to include everything, so therefore it explains nothing, says Zafirovski. You can read the article here:


Note: those who don't want to wade through the entire article see section I. "Are Human Purposes Instrumental?" for the content I referred to.

Now hold on everyone, before you sacrifice me to the gods of the Free Market. I am not repudiating my strong beliefs in the free markets and the emergent order of kosmos, I just think it's valuable to explore alternate views and search for valid arguments with which you might be able to balance or improve your views with.

But what would I know about such things? According to Rich's kind, departing words from last week, people of my persuasion are terrified of things they don't believe in and can't control. We are stumbling around in a dark stupor mortified that someone might come along and present to us an alternate theory that we can't repudiate. Did someone just turn on the Discovery channel? My palms are getting clammy. Was Richard Dawkins mentioned in that newspaper article? Time to hide in my religious fundamentalist cave. And look, I realize insults flow both ways over the fence, but I've made a personal decision to approach the issue with respect and tolerance. Yet all I'm ever met with is derision and insults.

And that's probably enough deviation from economics for one week. :) Cheers everyone. Bring your nails to discussion on Thursday, for I'm sure to be crucified.


  1. Note: should have written "...growing "bored"...." not "board". :)

  2. In my opinion the difference between a religious fundamentalist and someone who is not religious is their attitude toward evidence. The fundamentalist believes that the creator of the universe, in addition to his other godly duties, authored a book. This book, whether it is the koran or bible or whatever, is completely true. When the physical world conflicts with what is written in that book, the book wins. If the fundamentalist believes that the first humans created were Adam and Eve, there is no room in that person's worldview for humans or human artifacts that science says are older then the date of creation given in the holy book.

    This attitude is frustrating to the non religious. Whenever something in the physical world seems to contradict the view held by the fundamentalist, the fundamentalist refuses to believe the physical or scientific consensus. It poses a problem to the non religious. Because the detailed beliefs of the religious aren't intimately known to the non religious, discussing 'science' or the 'real world' can be like walking in a minefield.
    It isn't uncommon for fundamentalists to believe that the creator of the universe will physically punish the unbeliever in the most horrible ways imaginable, and as a result the fundamentalist will look down on the non religious as being damned at best or dangerous and evil at worst.
    To the non religious, being pitied and despised is uncomfortable, as is conversing with someone who values faith over evidence. At the end of the day, no matter how much evidence the non religious brings to the argument, the fundamentalist is very rarely swayed by any of it.

    I grew up in a fundamentalist religious environment, and I am currently an non-theist, so I've felt the frustrations of those on both sides. It's very easy to develop an 'us vs. them' mentality which is dangerous to constructive discourse.

    All that being said, if you are who I think you are, I don't view you as a fundamentalist. You seem to examine the evidence and form your beliefs accordingly, rather then forming your beliefs and looking for evidence for them.

    Anyway, I'll bring my nails just in case. Although whenever crucifixion is performed, it's usually by fundamentalists, to fundamentalists.

  3. Yes indeed,you define utility correct here. As far as rationality is concerned(bum bum bum) the world will never know the definition a concept which seems rational to me. Question? under your explanation of the connection of utility to personal rationality it is rational to be a "fundamentalist" right?