Sunday, February 09, 2020

The Society Most Conducive to Problem Solving

The Independent Review,  "A Journal of Political Economy," has published my essay "The Society Most Conducive to Problem Solving: Karl Popper and Piecemeal Social Engineering."

The paper was presented first at the 2014 Symposium on Karl Popper & the Open Society held at Lebanon Valley College, Annville, PA (video of the presentation may be found at the symposium link) followed by the presentation of an expanded version at the 2015 Austrian Economics Research Conference at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, AL. Subsequently, the paper was further expanded and revised to address referees' comments and criticisms before final publication.

At this time the article is only available for purchase in the context of the complete issue. Within 9 months or so it should be available as an individual pdf.

Please feel free to comment below.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Are Societal Structures Really "… the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design?"

This phrase from Adam Ferguson (quote in context here) is bandied about quite a bit by supporters of markets and, specifically, in the context of Friedrich Hayek's views of markets and society. The phrase brings to mind the inductivist view that science proceeds first by observations"just observe." However, in the case of creating social structures, "just act." This formulation can lead one to think that in science any random observation can lead to knowledge, or in society, any action will contribute to the spontaneous order. Such thinking denigrates the individual and minimizes such achievements as Newton's laws of motion and Mises's work on socialism's calculation problem.

If we accept Mises's definition of human action, "purposeful behavior" (Human Action, p 11), we take it that each action is rational and aimed at a certain end (this is not to say that impulsive or instinctual actions involve thought processes, but that the ones that concern us in economics and social interaction do). Therefore we can say that each action is designed by the individual for a specific purpose. When individuals act with a purpose in mind they are supported by the entire background of biological and societal evolution that preceded them. For that reason, actions are not random but are stochasticly targeted in the sense Denis Noble describes in Dance to the Tune of Life (194-197), varying only part of the theoretical structure.

In acting, each person impinges upon the plans of others. As each person adjusts their plans to mesh with others' their actions produce effects that feed back into the system, producing new effects unanticipated by the original actors. These new effects produce plan revisions, and so on. The pattern is the same as Karl Popper's tetradic schema:

P1 → TT → EE → P2
 Where P1 is the initial problem state, TT is a tentative solution or theory, EE is the error-elimination process applied to the theory, and P2 represents the new problem state that has been generated by the process.

This concise representation is simply that of a Darwinian or evolutionary approach to knowledge, reflecting the iterative process of markets that is so foreign to the state and political governance.

New knowledge is created at the frontier by trial-and-error based upon what we currently believe to be true. Individuals produce the mutations to our theoriesscientific and socialthat make progress possible. These mutations are tested against reality and retained or discarded based on the results. Sometimes, when problems with an accepted theory become too great science takes a step back, and we discover we "know what ain't so."

At this moment in history, it appears that what we are in such a position with economics and society. In economics we are in the grips of the neoclassical synthesis, which provides an intellectual argument for the state, an institution that already resists falsification through power and violence. In society the failed arguments of natural rights have opened the floodgates to identity politics and the intellectually sterile ad hoc strategy of resistance to it. It would seem that we are heading for a giant reset in which one hopes for a rethinking of the whole project of governance resulting in institutions developed through the trial-and-error of what I have called evolutionary liberalism. Only then might we have Peace on Earth.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Thoughts on Popper's World Three

In Popper's concept of three worlds (see here for a brief discussion), he characterizes world 3 as "autonomous," and restricts it generally to humans with some minor exceptions, like spiders' webs and birds' nests. However, it seems to me that world three exists at multiple levels in living organisms.

Organisms need a way to pass on their learning through time if progress is to be made and so must search for a world 1 representation of world 3 knowledge to serve this purpose. I suggest that DNA is the representation of world 3 knowledge for cells, while the brain is such a repository for organisms with central nervous systems. In mankind we see, for the first time due to the phenomenon of language, knowledge represented outside of the organism, while it is still within the evolving organic social system. This idea means that we have multiple world 1 representations of world 3 within us (e.g., within the immune system), and that many of them may so far be undiscovered.

This generalization of Popper's thinking is in line with his ideas of evolutionary knowledge and removes its anthropocentric bias. It would appear that Popper was moving radically in that direction when he wrote, in "Towards an Evolutionary Theory of Knowledge" (1990, p 35)
Can only animals know? Why not plants? Obviously, in the biological and evolutionary sense in which I speak of knowledge, not only animals and men have expectations and therefore (unconscious) knowledge, but also plants; and, indeed, all organisms.
I cannot know if Popper would have embraced this idea of a world of world 3s, as he may have seen some flaw and responded with a conjecture that moved far beyond what I am suggesting. After all, it seems like he spent a lot of time trying to explain world 3 to his audiences. However, what seems beyond dispute is that there are representations of knowledge distributed among the many cooperating systems in our bodies, regardless of whether we assign that knowledge to "world 3."


Popper, Karl R., (1990) . "Towards an Evolutionary Theory of Knowledge" in A World of Propensities, by Karl Popper, 29-51, Bristol, UK: Thoemmes.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Command or Coordination?

A couple of weeks ago, after an online discussion of some of Denis and Raymond Nobles' ideas to be published in a forthcoming paper, I sent them an e-mail inquiring about a statement that had been made in the discussion that seemed to contradict something I had read in another book  Gary Cziko's Without Miracles. In describing the hypermutation to produce antibodies in the immune system, Cziko wrote "Antibodies that are not successful leave no offspring and therefore soon become extinct..." (1995, p 45), while Denis Noble had said they were "told to die." The important part of the e-mail is produced here:
I did want to ask at least one question that was prompted by something you said – that the immune system cells that do not produce successful antibodies are "told to die." My first brush with the amazing workings of the immune system were in Gary Cziko's book, Without Miracles, in which he suggests that the unsuccessful cells simply cannot reproduce and die in the natural course of things. In my mind there is a great difference in the two descriptions, although the end result is the same. The first I would characterize as an authoritarian regime, while the latter would be self-limiting. 
This difference comes to the fore in upward and downward causation, which you say have differences in your paper. I have biases, and maybe even prejudices, towards methodological individualism, acquired through valuing personal freedom and reading economists like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, and finally, Popper who, as you must know, was friends with Hayek. This methodological individualism leads me to see organisms as cooperative entities – even as societies – of cells and/or organs that are coordinated by signals rather than orders. Possibly, there is no way of testing the difference, but I don't see that cells or organs are acting in the ways they do out of fear of punishment, as is the case in what we might call a human authoritarian environment. They generally simply do what they have to do or, if we may anthropomorphize, what they want to do. Negative feedback mechanisms develop to dampen cheating (mentioned in your paper), but they seem to be spontaneous and, again, operate at the individual level. 
This issue comes up in discussing societal evolution, as people like David Sloan Wilson advocate more central planning based upon the idea of downward causation. I have argued that societies expand and contract based upon their attraction to current and potential constituents. If rules are created that reduce the attraction of a society, there will be pressure for changes (voice) or for exit. For example, the USSR and its satellite countries created a large population of people who, without voice, desired to exit, with almost any country in the liberal West being preferable. This desire demonstrated the attractiveness of liberal values relative to Soviet ones. Wilson, on the other hand, believes the purpose of society is to limit personal freedom in such a way that society is not threatened – something that the USSR was clearly in the business of doing. 
My question to you is how you understand the word "control" when using it in the context of downward causation. Is it authority, coordination, or something else?
 At this point I have not received a reply, and have some guesses as to why. One is that I am just not in the same league as Denis and his brother, and there is some merit in that possibility. Denis, at least, has many honors, and we can easily believe that he has many demands on his time that make responding to me of low priority. When I sent him a link to A Popperian View of The Selfish Gene he didn't know me and responded very quickly, but he may have since seen that I have no publications or academic standing and decided that responding, or even entering into a debate, would not provide him any value. That is a choice that I would respect.

Another possibility is that the mention of Mises and Hayek, along with the indirect criticism of David Sloan Wilson, led Denis and his brother to believe that I am a "market fundamentalist." If they tend to agree with an authoritarian view of downward causation an answer could have led to a tedious debate, linking this possibility with the first. It would have been a terrible waste of their time to present arguments to someone with no standing, and not answering nipped the problem in the bud.

Of course, I would like to have known, and if I receive any communication from the Nobles on these subjects, I will follow up in the comments, or edit this post to indicate the change in status. In any case, I have enjoyed reading Denis's and Ray's works, and suggest than anyone who reads this post could benefit by doing the same.

Cziko, G. (1995). Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Mises Vanquished

Ludwig von Mises, a giant of 20th century economics and an untiring advocate of true (classical) liberalism, has been vanquished at the institutions most connected with his work. Some of my readers may welcome this event, as they perceive Mises's methodology and epistemology as, at best, inferior, and at worst, damaging to progress in economics. I don't happen to share that view, but my concern at this moment is more for the continuance of his liberal project that even his detractors in economics may support.

Today, I read a disturbing article, Universal basic income: a solution to a looming problem, by Michael Munger, Director of the Philosophy, Politics, & Economics (PPE) program at Duke University. Professor Munger has run for office as a Libertarian and published in the Austrian economics journals, such as the Review of Austrian Economics (see his CV here). In the article, Munger advocates a universal basic income (UBI) as:

  1. An aid to the economic revolution that the "sharing economy" represents,
  2. A cheaper replacement for all of the means-tested welfare programs now in place,
  3. A pacifier for the violent workers that will be injured by the economic revolution (see 1).
Munger says "Poor people aren't lazy," with which I agree. But this is a program to pacify them and encourage them to be lazy. Let us hear from Benjamin Franklin:
“I am for doing good to the poor, but...I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. I observed...that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.”
Alexis de Tocqueville notes in his monograph, Memoir on Pauperism: Does Public Charity Produce an Idle and Dependent Class of Society?:
The countries appearing to be most impoverished are those which in reality account for the fewest indigents, and among the peoples most admired for their opulence, one part of the populations is obliged to rely on the gifts of the other in order to live.
But, what does this have to do with Mises?

Upon reading this article after a couple of weeks of dismay over events surrounding the Ludwig von Mises Institute (LvMI), including the "Cultural Marxism" post of Ron Paul and Tom Woods's lecture to Mises University mixing Austrian School economics with the libertarian movement, it occurred to me that Mises has failed to hold sway in any of the institutions that might carry on his project.

It appears that the Philosophy, Politics, & Economics programs at Duke and other universities, cleave more to Hayek than Mises. After all, Hayek, as did Munger, suggested that a social safety net should be required. This unfortunate fact makes the abandonment of otherwise clear principles, especially for political gain, less problematic. Mises, in his review of Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty, was quite clear. After a number of laudatory remarks he makes the following criticism:
Unfortunately, the third part of Professor Hayek's book is rather disappointing. Here the author tries to distinguish between socialism and the Welfare State. Socialism, he alleges, is on the decline; the Welfare State is supplanting it. And he thinks the Welfare State is, under certain conditions, compatible with liberty.
 In fact, the Welfare State is merely a method for transforming the market economy step by step into socialism.
In light of Munger's defection to the interventionist camp one wonders which "libertarian" institutions to support. Of course, LvMI would never support a UBI, but are they supportive of Mises's liberal project?

In one very significant sense, I have to answer, "no;" and that sense is on immigration. Mises was very much a supporter of the free movement of labor, believing that liberalism would facilitate conditions where workers could move from one country to another without hindrance, contrary to the wishes of labor unions and protectionists. Mises writes (Human Action, 3rd ed., p 377):
[Labor unions] are intent upon restricting the supply of labor in their field without bothering about the fate of those excluded. They have succeeded in every comparatively underpopulated country in erecting immigration barriers. Thus they preserve their comparatively high wage rates. The excluded foreign workers are forced to stay in their countries in which the marginal productivity of labor, and consequently wage rates, are lower. The tendency toward an equalization of wage rates which prevails under free mobility of labor from country to country is paralyzed.
But, in this speech at the Mises Circle in Phoenix that I attended, Lew Rockwell became the mouthpiece of Hans Hermann-Hoppe, the spiritual guide of LvMI, and rejected Mises's view, stating that Rothbard "had begun rethinking the assumption that libertarianism committed us to open borders." It appears that this rejection comes following a wave of antagonism to "illegal" immigrants and panders to the fears of American conservatives and libertarians who find themselves uncomfortable with the consequences of markets. Unfortunately, these attitudes also promote the exclusion of refugees of drug war violence and regime destabilization for which the U.S. government bears a large responsibility.

It seems that in PPE programs, and possibly others supported by the Kochs, and in the institute founded in his name, Mises's voice is lost. It's not that Mises was right on everything, but he had no successors that rose to his level. Although Hayek and Rothbard added to his work, they also subtracted, leaving us with an ideological mess and, at least in my case, a feeling of deep despair.

Monday, June 11, 2018

A Popperian View of The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene
The Selfish Gene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Problem

Richard Dawkins, in the "Preface to the 1976 edition" of The Selfish Gene wrote:
We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment. Though I have known it for many years, I never seem to get fully used to it. (1989, v)
Although I never finished the book, I read enough of it years ago to understand, and accept, what Dawkins was selling—that these inanimate molecules were selfishly controlling evolution.

I believed this narrative for many years—actually, until recently. Then, having become ever more familiar with Karl Popper's philosophy and his evolutionary epistemology, I came to believe Dawkins's narrative was false for reasons I will attempt to explain.

For those readers who are not familiar with Popper's work, some introductory remarks are in order. For a wider review of Popper's most important works, see Rafe Champion's Popper: The Champion Guides.

The Tetradic Schema

Popper expressed his evolutionary, trial-and-error epistemology in a "tetradic schema":

     P1 → TS → EE → P2

This schema may be read as Problem situation 1 produces Tentative Solutions that undergo Error Elimination, leading to the new Problem situation 2. The schema represents an infinite process, as each new P2 becomes a new P1. Note that TS may represent an array of possible solutions.

Popper linked his thinking to Darwinian evolution in his early works, writing in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, "We choose the theory which best holds its own in competition with other theories; the one, which by natural selection, proves itself the fittest to survive" (1959, 108). In his  "Of Clouds and Clocks," Popper made the connection between his tetradic schema and evolution, writing that it describes "the fundamental evolutionary sequence of events" (1972, 243).

Three Worlds

Popper divided the world into three categories:
  1. World 1: the world of physical objects.
  2. World 2: the world of mental states.
  3. World 3: the world of objective—that is, intersubjectively criticizable—knowledge.
Much as Mises discussed action in the context of humans, Popper focused on the human component of these categories, while acknowledging a glimmer of world 3 in the preconscious animals. Examples of the latter would be a spider's web (1972, 112) or a bird's nest (1972, 117). He did assert a connection between animal knowledge and genetic information:
This statement of the situation is meant to describe how knowledge really grows. It is not meant metaphorically, though of course it makes use of metaphors. The theory of knowledge which I wish to propose is a largely Darwinian theory of the growth of knowledge. From the amoeba to Einstein, the growth of knowledge is always the same: we try to solve our problems, and to obtain, by a process of elimination, something approaching adequacy in our tentative solutions. (1972, 261)
World 3 in a human context contains the consciously-constructed results of conjecture and refutation that Popper called objective knowledge. For the process of refutation or error correction, the conjectures being evaluated must be in a form to be criticized. For that reason, world 3 objects are generally represented in world 1 objects like books or recordings. I believe, in the case of humans, they may also be represented in myths and ballads that are passed on through retelling and memory.

Genetic Dualism

In "Evolution and the Tree of Knowledge" (1972, p 256-284) Popper proposes a conjecture:
"The problem to be solved by [my conjecture] is the old problem of orthogenesis versus accidental and independent mutation—Samuel Butler's problem of luck or cunning. It arises from the difficulty of understanding how a complicated organ, such as the eye, can ever result from the purely accidental co-operation of independent mutations.
"Briefly, my solution of the problem consists in the hypothesis that in many if not all of those organisms whose evolution gives rise to our problem—they may include perhaps some very low organisms—we may distinguish more or less sharply [at least] two distinct parts: roughly speaking a behavior-controlling part like the central nervous system of the higher animals, and an executive part like the sense organs and the limbs, together with their sustaining structures." (p 273)
Popper calls this conjecture "genetic dualism" and suggests that it "strongly resembles mind-body dualism."
In the cases which we wish to explain, certain inherited dispositions or propensities like those of self-preservation, seeking food, avoiding dangers, acquiring skills by imitation, and so on, may be regarded as subject to mutations that do not as a rule induce any significant change in any organs of the body, including the sense organs, except those organs (if any) which are the genetic carriers of the dispositions or propensities referred to. (p 273)
Popper goes on to explain that changes in the executive part that occur independently of the behavior-controlling part are likely to be unfavorable, while changes in the behavior-controlling part prepare the way for taking advantage of later changes in the executive part. He concludes, now referring to the behavior-controlling part as the "central propensity structure":
Once a new aim or tendency or disposition, or a new skill, or a new way of behaving has evolved in the central propensity structure, this fact will influence the effects of natural selection in such a way that previous unfavourable (though potentially favourable) mutations become actually favourable if they support the newly established tendency. But this means that the evolution of the executive organs will become directed by that tendency or aim, and thus 'goal-directed'. [emphasis in original] (p 278)
If we consider the context of all known living organisms, the possibility that world 3 is not simply a human phenomenon, and the conjecture of genetic dualism we find an argument against Dawkins's theory.

Are We Slaves of Libraries*?

Just as humans need books, and by extrapolation, libraries, to pass on knowledge, so too must cells have the capability to encode their knowledge to pass on an organism's characteristics. To do so, cellular processes must have discovered or even created DNA and used it to store genetic information. Perhaps this discovery occurred through random combination, or through some method yet to be understood that might be called "unconscious intelligence." In relation to the latter there are a number of competing hypotheses including vitalism, panpsychism, holism, etc., all of which are speculative and might be called "skyhooks" by the likes of Daniel Dennett. The primary point here is that the acting or behavior-controlling part is cellular processes, while genes fulfill the role of the executive part. Applying Popper's conjecture to cells, genes would be relegated to a passive role in the same relationship to cellular processes and libraries are to humans. The question then becomes, are we slaves of libraries?

In Denis Noble's book, The Music of Life, he presents two possible alternatives for genes. The Dawkins version is that living things are the slaves of genes, while the other is that genes are the prisoners of organisms. Each of these choices seems somewhat silly (as Denis Noble has informed me, they were meant to be, as alternatives between which there was no way to choose through experiment). After all, are we slaves of our libraries, or are libraries our prisoners? I would suggest that neither is the case, and that we create libraries as world 3 extensions of ourselves with which we interact, enhancing our survival (Popper, 1994).

Evidence for Genetic Dualism

In the second part of the Homage to Darwin debate held at Oxford (41:36) (also documented in (MacAllister, 2009, p 16)) Noble points out that implanting a genome of one species in the egg cell from another is only able to develop so far before "freezing."
There are extremely few cases of cross species cloning that lead to a living organism. What that tells me is that the genetic 'program' --if we can use that metaphor--lies as much in the cell as in the genome.
I suspect that this observation is in agreement with Popper's genetic dualism in that the control apparatus, the cellular processes, are not able to process the DNA presented to them.


Whatever Dawkins may have thought he was doing when he wrote The Selfish Gene, he fostered a belief that there was some control of evolution exhibited by genes. But when we apply Popper's thinking to the problem, we come to a completely different conclusion—that cellular processes are the world 2 behavior-controlling part that makes evolution appear goal-directed while the world 1 object, DNA, performs the world 3, "library" function.

*I use the word "libraries" to represent those world 3 objects that are represented in world 1 form.

MacAllister, James (2009). "A Commentary on Homage to Darwin Debate." Retrieved June 5, 2018 from NanoPDF:
Popper, Karl R., (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Popper, Karl R., (1972). Objective Knowledge. Oxford: at the Clarendon Press.
Popper, Karl R., (1994). Knowledge and the Body-Mind Problem: In defence of interaction. (M. A. Notturno, Ed.), London: Routledge.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

A Popperian View

English: Karl Popper in 1990.
English: Karl Popper in 1990. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I intend to write a few posts that use ideas drawn from Karl Popper's work which will have the title "A Popperian View of [fill in the blank]." While these posts will be applications of Popper's ideas, there is no argument that he would endorse the conclusions or agree that the ideas could be applied as I do. After all, I think my view of society is Popperian, but it is quite different from that of Popper's.

I also recognize that others who consider themselves to be Popperians may have different takes and might severely criticize and reject my conclusions, possibly even going so far as to call then non- or even anti-Popperian. I choose to assume in advance that any such differences are simply attempts to arrive at a closer approximation of the truth.

These caveats are not meant to imply that I am tentative about the ideas and arguments I will put forward. They are meant to clear away, in the minds of readers, the idea that I am arguing from authority or that they would not benefit from reading Popper themselves and applying his ideas to these issues and others.