Postmodern mumbo jumbo

29 August, 2017 at 17:19 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 3 Comments

MUMBO-JUMBO1The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Judith Butler

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The right kind of realism

22 August, 2017 at 16:08 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 2 Comments

Some commentators on this blog seem to be of the opinion that since yours truly is critical of mainstream economics and ask for more relevance and realism I’m bound to be a ‘naive’ realist or empiricist.

Nothing could be further from the truth!

bhaskarIn a time when scientific relativism is expanding, it is important to keep up the claim for not reducing science to a pure discursive level. We have to maintain the Enlightenment tradition of thinking of reality as principally independent of our views of it and of the main task of science as studying the structure of this reality. Perhaps the most important contribution a researcher can make is revealing​ what this reality that is the object of science actually looks like.

Science is made possible by the fact that there are structures that are durable and are independent of our knowledge or beliefs about them. There exists a reality beyond our theories and concepts of it. It is this independent reality that our theories in some way deal with. Contrary to positivism, I cannot see that the main task of science is to detect event-regularities between observed facts. Rather, the task must be conceived as identifying the underlying structure and forces that produce the observed events.

The problem with positivist social science is not that it gives the wrong answers, but rather that in a strict sense it does not give answers at all. Its explanatory models presuppose that the social reality is ‘closed,’ and since social reality is fundamentally ‘open,’ models of that kind cannot explain anything about​ what happens in such a universe. Positivist social science has to postulate closed conditions to make its models operational and then – totally unrealistically – impute these closed conditions to society’s real structure.

In the face of the kind of methodological individualism and rational choice theory that dominate positivist social science we have to admit that even if knowing the aspirations and intentions of individuals are necessary prerequisites for giving explanations of social events, they are far from sufficient. Even the most elementary ‘rational’ actions in society presuppose the existence of social forms that it is not possible to reduce to the intentions of individuals.

archerThe overarching flaw with methodological individualism and rational choice theory is basically that they reduce social explanations to purportedly individual characteristics. But many of the characteristics and actions of the individual originate in and are made possible only through society and its relations. Society is not reducible to individuals, since the social characteristics, forces, and actions of the individual are determined by pre-existing social structures and positions. Even though society is not a volitional individual, and the individual is not an entity given outside of society, the individual (actor) and the society (structure) have to be kept analytically distinct. They are tied together through the individual’s reproduction and transformation of already given social structures.

What makes knowledge in social sciences possible is the fact that society consists of social structures and positions that influence the individuals of society, partly through their being the necessary prerequisite for the actions of individuals but also because they dispose individuals to act (within a given structure) in a certain way. These structures constitute the ‘deep structure’ of society.

Our observations and theories are concept-dependent without therefore necessarily being concept-determined. There is a reality existing independently of our knowledge and theories of it. Although we cannot apprehend it without using our concepts and theories, these are not the same as reality itself. Reality and our concepts of it are not identical. Social science is made possible by existing structures and relations in society that are continually reproduced and transformed by different actors.

Explanations and predictions of social phenomena require theory constructions. Just looking for correlations between events is not enough. One has to get under the surface and see the deeper underlying structures and mechanisms that essentially constitute the social system.

The basic question one has to pose when studying social relations and events are​ what are the fundamental relations without which they would cease to exist. The answer will point to causal mechanisms and tendencies that act in the concrete contexts we study. Whether these mechanisms are activated and what effects they will have in that case it is not possible to predict, since these depend on accidental and variable relations. Every social phenomenon is determined by a host of both necessary and contingent relations, and it is impossible in practice to have complete knowledge of these constantly changing relations. That is also why we can never confidently predict them. What we can do, through learning about the mechanisms of the structures of society, is to identify the driving forces behind them, thereby making it possible to indicate the direction in which things tend to develop.

The world itself should never be conflated with the knowledge we have of it. Science can only produce meaningful, relevant and realist knowledge if it acknowledges its dependence of the​ world out there. Ultimately that also means that the critique yours truly wages against mainstream economics is that it doesn’t take that ontological requirement seriously.

Going for the right kind of certainty​ in economics

22 August, 2017 at 16:04 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 1 Comment

64800990In science we standardly use a logically non-valid inference — the fallacy of affirming the consequent — of the following form:

(1) p => q
(2) q
————-
p

or, in instantiated form

(1) ∀x (Gx => Px)

(2) Pa
————
Ga

Although logically invalid, it is nonetheless a kind of inference — abduction — that may be factually strongly warranted and truth-producing.

Following the general pattern ‘Evidence  =>  Explanation  =>  Inference’ we infer something based on what would be the best explanation given the law-like rule (premise 1) and an observation (premise 2). The truth of the conclusion (explanation) is nothing that is logically given, but something we have to justify, argue for, and test in different ways to possibly establish with any certainty or degree. And as always when we deal with explanations, what is considered best is relative to what we know of the world. In the real world all evidence has an irreducible holistic aspect. We never conclude that evidence follows from a hypothesis simpliciter, but always given some more or less explicitly stated contextual background assumptions. All non-deductive inferences and explanations are necessarily context-dependent.

If we extend the abductive scheme to incorporate the demand that the explanation has to be the best among a set of plausible competing/rival/contrasting potential and satisfactory explanations, we have what is nowadays usually referred to as inference to the best explanation.

In inference to the best explanation we start with a body of (purported) data/facts/evidence and search for explanations that can account for these data/facts/evidence. Having the best explanation means that you, given the context-dependent background assumptions, have a satisfactory explanation that can explain the fact/evidence better than any other competing explanation — and so it is reasonable to consider/believe the hypothesis to be true. Even if we (inevitably) do not have deductive certainty, our reasoning gives us a license to consider our belief in the hypothesis as reasonable.

Accepting a hypothesis means that you believe it does explain the available evidence better than any other competing hypothesis. Knowing that we — after having earnestly considered and analysed the other available potential explanations — have been able to eliminate the competing potential explanations, warrants and enhances the confidence we have that our preferred explanation is the best explanation, i. e., the explanation that provides us (given it is true) with the greatest understanding.

This, of course, does not in any way mean that we cannot be wrong. Of course we can. Inferences to the best explanation are fallible inferences — since the premises do not logically entail the conclusion — so from a logical point of view, inference to the best explanation is a weak mode of inference. But if the arguments put forward are strong enough, they can be warranted and give us justified true belief, and hence, knowledge, even though they are fallible inferences. As scientists we sometimes — much like Sherlock Holmes and other detectives that use inference to the best explanation reasoning — experience disillusion. We thought that we had reached a strong conclusion by ruling out the alternatives in the set of contrasting explanations. But — what we thought was true turned out to be false.

That does not necessarily mean that we had no good reasons for believing what we believed. If we cannot live with that contingency and uncertainty, well, then we are in the wrong business. If it is deductive certainty you are after, rather than the ampliative and defeasible reasoning in inference to the best explanation — well, then get in to math or logic, not science.

Habermas and Rorty on intersubjectivity and truth

12 August, 2017 at 12:30 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 4 Comments

We teachers do our best to be Socratic, to get our job of re-education, secularization, and liberalization done by conversational exchange. That is true up to a point, but what about assigning books like Black Boy, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Becoming a Man? The racist or fundamentalist parents of our students say that in a truly democratic society the students should not be forced to read books by such people – black people, Jewish people, homosexual people. They will protest that these books are being jammed down their children’s throats. I cannot see how to reply to this charge without saying something like “There are credentials for admission to our democratic society, credentials which we liberals have been making more stringent by doing our best to excommunicate racists, male chauvinists, homo-phobes, and the like. tolerance-does-not-mean-tolerating-intoleranceYou have to be educated in order to be a citizen of our society, a participant in our conversation, someone with whom we can envisage merging our horizons. So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.”

I have no trouble offering this reply, ​since I do not claim to make the distinction between education and conversation on the basis of anything except my loyalty to a particular community, a community whose interests required re-educating the Hitler Youth in 1945 and required re-educating the bigoted students of Virginia in 1993. I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents.

Richard Rorty

Although Rorty’s view is pointing in the right direction re handling intolerance, his epistemization of the concept of truth makes the persuasive force of the argumentation weaker than necessary. Jürgen Habermas gives the reason why:

As soon as the concept of truth is eliminated in favor of a context-dependent epistemic validity-for-us, the normative reference point necessary to explain why a proponent should endeavor to seek agreement for ‘p’ beyond the boundaries of her own group is missing. The information that the agreement of an increasingly large audience gives us increasingly less reason to fear that we will be refuted presupposes the very interest that has to be explained: the desire for “as much intersubjective agreement as possible.” If something is ‘true’ if and only if it is recognized as justified “by us” because it is good “for us,” there is no rational motive for expanding the circle of members. No reason exists for the decentering expansion of the justification community especially since Rorty defines “my own ethnos” as the group in front of which I feel obliged to give an account of myself.

Here I think one can also invoke Adam Smith’s ‘impartial spectator’ to reduce the risk of making public decisions based solely on history, vested interests, and cultural or religious traditions. The decisions we as ‘reasonable persons’ make for building a ‘good’ society must be justifiable from more than one perspective.

Reasoning and intellectual probing are our most important allies when evaluating different ‘cultural’ and ‘religious’ claims. There is no other justifiable way than the ‘path of reason.’ Even those who don’t want to follow that path have to give reasons for why.

In a global world, we have to go beyond local perspectives and prejudices by taking a ‘view from nowhere.’ Building a just and open society in such a world, considerations of universality and impartiality are always necessary.

Ways in which economists overbid their cards

29 July, 2017 at 17:58 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 1 Comment

 

The raven paradox

4 July, 2017 at 19:03 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 2 Comments

 

Besides illustrating that it is simply not a good description of how we make inferences in science to assume that non-black armchairs confirm the hypothesis that all ravens are black, Hempel’s paradox — at least in my reading of it — makes a good argument for a causal account of confirmation of empirical generalizations. Contrary to positivist theories of confirmation, the paradox shows that to have a good explanation in sciences, we have to make references to causes. Observed uniformity does not per se confirm generalizations. We also have to be able to show that uniformity does not appear by chance, but is the result of causal forces at work (such as e.g. genes in the case of ravens.

Assume you’re a Bayesian turkey (chicken) and hold a nonzero probability belief in the hypothesis H that “people are nice vegetarians that do not eat turkeys and that every day I see the sun rise confirms my belief.” For every day you survive, you update your belief according to Bayes’ Rule

P(H|e) = [P(e|H)P(H)]/P(e),

where evidence e stands for “not being eaten” and P(e|H) = 1. Given that there do exist other hypotheses than H, P(e) is less than 1 and a fortiori P(H|e) is greater than P(H). Every day you survive increases your probability belief that you will not be eaten. This is totally rational according to the Bayesian definition of rationality. Unfortunately — as Bertrand Russell famously noticed — for every day that goes by, the traditional Christmas dinner also gets closer and closer …

Studying only surface relations won’t do. Not knowing the nature of the causal structures and relations that give rise to what we observe, explanations serve us as badly as the one used by the turkey. Not knowing why things are the way they are, we run the same risk as the Russellian turkey.

No causality, no confirmation/explanation.

What kind of realist am I?

14 June, 2017 at 17:51 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | 1 Comment

Some commentators on this blog seem to be of the opinion that since yours truly is critical of mainstream economics and ask for more relevance and realism I’m bound to be a “naive” realist or empiricist.

Nothing could be further from the truth!

bhaskarIn a time when scientific relativism is expanding, it is important to keep up the claim for not reducing science to a pure discursive level. We have to maintain the Enlightenment tradition of thinking of reality as principally independent of our views of it and of the main task of science as studying the structure of this reality. Perhaps the most important contribution a researcher can make is reveal what this reality that is the object of science actually looks like.

Science is made possible by the fact that there are structures that are durable and are independent of our knowledge or beliefs about them. There exists a reality beyond our theories and concepts of it. It is this independent reality that our theories in some way deal with. Contrary to positivism, I cannot see that the main task of science is to detect event-regularities between observed facts. Rather, the task must be conceived as identifying the underlying structure and forces that produce the observed events.

The problem with positivist social science is not that it gives the wrong answers, but rather that in a strict sense it does not give answers at all. Its explanatory models presuppose that the social reality is ‘closed,’ and since social reality is fundamentally ‘open,’ models of that kind cannot explain anything of what happens in such a universe. Positivist social science has to postulate closed conditions to make its models operational and then – totally unrealistically – impute these closed conditions to society’s real structure.

In the face of the kind of methodological individualism and rational choice theory that dominate positivist social science we have to admit that even if knowing the aspirations and intentions of individuals are necessary prerequisites for giving explanations of social events, they are far from sufficient. Even the most elementary ‘rational’ actions in society presuppose the existence of social forms that it is not possible to reduce to the intentions of individuals.

archerThe overarching flaw with methodological individualism and rational choice theory is basically that they reduce social explanations to purportedly individual characteristics. But many of the characteristics and actions of the individual originate in and are made possible only through society and its relations. Society is not reducible to individuals, since the social characteristics, forces, and actions of the individual are determined by pre-existing social structures and positions. Even though society is not a volitional individual, and the individual is not an entity given outside of society, the individual (actor) and the society (structure) have to be kept analytically distinct. They are tied together through the individual’s reproduction and transformation of already given social structures.

What makes knowledge in social sciences possible is the fact that society consists of social structures and positions that influence the individuals of society, partly through their being the necessary prerequisite for the actions of individuals but also because they dispose individuals to act (within a given structure) in a certain way. These structures constitute the ‘deep structure’ of society.

Our observations and theories are concept-dependent without therefore necessarily being concept-determined. There is a reality existing independently of our knowledge and theories of it. Although we cannot apprehend it without using our concepts and theories, these are not the same as reality itself. Reality and our concepts of it are not identical. Social science is made possible by existing structures and relations in society that are continually reproduced and transformed by different actors.

Explanations and predictions of social phenomena require theory constructions. Just looking for correlations between events is not enough. One has to get under the surface and see the deeper underlying structures and mechanisms that essentially constitute the social system.

The basic question one has to pose when studying social relations and events is what are the fundamental relations without which they would cease to exist. The answer will point to causal mechanisms and tendencies that act in the concrete contexts we study. Whether these mechanisms are activated and what effects they will have in that case it is not possible to predict, since these depend on accidental and variable relations. Every social phenomenon is determined by a host of both necessary and contingent relations, and it is impossible in practice to have complete knowledge of these constantly changing relations. That is also why we can never confidently predict them. What we can do, through learning about the mechanisms of the structures of society, is to identify the driving forces behind them, thereby making it possible to indicate the direction in which things tend to develop.

The world itself should never be conflated with the knowledge we have of it. Science can only produce meaningful, relevant and realist knowledge if it acknowledges its dependence of  the world out there. Ultimately that also means that the critique yours truly wages against mainstream economics is that it doesn’t take that ontological requirement seriously.

Economic modeling — a realist perspective

28 May, 2017 at 13:37 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | Comments Off on Economic modeling — a realist perspective

411WDSW5BRL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_To his credit Keynes was not, in contrast to Samuelson, a formalist who was committed to mathematical economics. Keynes wanted models, but for him, building them required ‘ a vigilant observation of the actual working of our system.’ Indeed, ‘to convert a model into a quantitative formula is to destroy its usefulness as an instrument of thought.’ That conclusion can be strongly endorsed!

Modern economics has become increasingly irrelevant to the understanding of the real world. The main reason for this irrelevance is the failure of economists to match their deductive-axiomatic methods with their subject.

In mainstream neoclassical economics internal validity is almost everything and external validity next to nothing. Why anyone should be interested in that kind of theories and models is beyond yours truly’s imagination. As long as mainstream economists do not come up with export licenses for their theories and models to the real world in which we live, they really should not be surprised if people say that this is not science, but autism.

Studying mathematics and logics is interesting and fun. It sharpens the mind. In pure mathematics and logics we do not have to worry about external validity. But economics is not pure mathematics or logics. It’s about society. The real world. Forgetting that, economics is really in danger of becoming — as John Maynard Keynes put it in a letter to Ragnar Frisch in 1935 — “nothing better than a contraption proceeding from premises which are not stated with precision to conclusions which have no clear application.”

Why diversity trumps ability

12 May, 2017 at 08:40 | Posted in Economics, Theory of Science & Methodology | 1 Comment

 

Logical fallacies — the case of Donald Trump

8 May, 2017 at 09:08 | Posted in Theory of Science & Methodology | Comments Off on Logical fallacies — the case of Donald Trump

 

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