Hubris and Humility

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David Brooks is beginning to get it. His last column [I fixed this link] is a critique of economics, but I see it as having much deeper implications—the issue of the very way we interpret and act in the world. His argument is that when we fail to understand the whole story about what it is to be human we make serious mistakes in any ‘science’ that rests on that understanding. He writes that we will have to rewrite the story we tell about economics.

Act I in this history would be set in the era of economic scientism: the period when economists based their work on a crude vision of human nature (the perfectly rational, utility-maximizing autonomous individual) and then built elaborate models based on that creature.

The end of the new story will come when “In Act IV, in other words, economists are taking baby steps into the world of emotion, social relationships, imagination, love and virtue. In Act V, I predict, they will blow up their whole field.”

His explanation for the shortcomings of economics is:

Economics achieved coherence as a science by amputating most of human nature. Now economists are starting with those parts of emotional life that they can count and model (the activities that make them economists). But once they’re in this terrain, they’ll surely find that the processes that make up the inner life are not amenable to the methodologies of social science. The moral and social yearnings of fully realized human beings are not reducible to universal laws and cannot be studied like physics.

He attributes this change to perhaps reflecting the “humility” of earlier times when economists didn’t get Nobel prizes. The recognition of our human limits was well-known to the great Greek thinkers who invented the term, hubris, to describe our over-reaching when we believed we knew more about the world than we really did.

A few days ago he wrote another column that began with “The United States is becoming a broken society.” I wrote about it in this blog. I don’t know if he sees the strong link between these two, but he should. The society is broken for the same reasons that economics doesn’t work well and that get us into deep doodoo when we rely on its models to design the institutions we live within.

Yes, our understanding of what it is to be human is deeply flawed, but it is not because we fail to understand human nature. The very idea that humans have a nature that can be abstracted and made into models creates the problem. Abstraction is by its definition a reduction of experience; it always leaves something out. And when that something is essential to an understanding of the world, our actions based on it will almost always produce unintended consequences. Brooks sees the flaw as giving us a broken society. I see it as giving us a broken world beyond any national borders.

So many people around the globe have noticed this situation that is has gotten its own name, unsustainability or global warming or fisheries collapse, genocide, abject poverty, injustice and on and on. All are at least in part the result of our hubristic belief that we can reduce the world to a set of laws that we manipulate to manage the globe to do our bidding. When our machinations fail, we look for new fixes, ad infinitum.

But like the drunk searching for the lost car keys under the street light, we are laboring in the wrong factory. The story about how the world works is wrong at the core. Human beings may not have the mind and nature we attribute to them via the same process we construct models in economics. Sustainability, the appearance of the threats we are observing now, can arise only if and when we change these stories to a new tale that works. Call it a paradigm change, a cultural revolutions or whatever, it is easier to fathom as a new story.

The plot of that story has to shift to an understanding of what it is to be human more like Heidegger claims, that is, being that cares about the world and copes through embodied competence acquired by the living process itself. Detached observation and reflective induction to produce abstractions is a part of that way of being, but only a special and not central part. Brooks comes close in arguing that economists need to include such human traits as love, emotions, or relationships.

Human being is only a part of the larger world of life and of nature. We may not be successful in shaping that world to our visions and aspirations, but we are not as likely to get blindsided by the unintended consequences if we accept that our abstracted models are always less than perfect and complete. The technical word for this is complexity, a belief that we can never fully write down the laws that describe occasional unpredictable behavior of living systems such as the planet and many of its subsystems.

Again pointing to synchronicity as evidence of happenings that cannot be predicted, I have been leading a course at my institute for learning in retirement (I mention this from time to time.) on exactly this general subject—the failure of abstract, objective knowledge to capture enough of reality to provide us with the rules to live by morally or mechanically. Brooks has said in a direct and accessible way what one of the texts we use—A. N. Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World—explores in a largely off-putting and difficult manner. His efforts are, nonetheless, memorable; it is still being read almost a hundred years after he wrote it.