When No Argument Can Save You

This week I had the pleasure of listening to my friend Noah appear on EconTalk to discuss the status of economics as science with my former professor in that discipline, Russ Roberts.

I would characterize neither of them as epistemologists or philosophers of science, but perennial practitioners. The chief difference between them, other than age or Noah’s ability to draw on a knowledge of physics as well as economics, is one of faith.

Noah himself brought this up: all science requires a leap of faith somewhere, as he put it. The example he used was Galileo’s experiment demonstrating that two balls of different mass will fall at the same rate. There’s only so far you can go to prove that this represents a universal law, or even a very general one. What if it only applies in our part of the universe? What if it only applies when there is a human observer?

Noah isn’t saying this makes us helpless or that we have to willfully ignore such thought experiments—nor should we.

The arc that Russ Roberts has gone through on this subject since I took his class during the crash in 2008 to the present can be characterized as a loss of faith—rather than the embrace of a given intellectual framework.

Russ has become unwilling to make that leap of faith when it comes to economic methods and arguments. But more importantly, he has lost faith in the sense of trust—trust in his fellow economists. Most importantly of all, he has lost faith in his own judgment.

The questions that he seems to come to again and again—why economists can’t agree on the effect of the 2009 stimulus, whether any study has ever completely won over people whose perspective was at odds with its conclusions—are attempts to establish, or prove once and for all the absence of, the credibility of economics as a field.

I’m not sure there’s an answer that could satisfy him. There’s a certain self-fulfillingness to losing trust in this way, much as widespread generosity in granting trust seems to perpetuate itself. How such trust can get established in the first place is a mystery, one that I’m certainly not going to get to the bottom of in a blog post.

Speaking With Certainty

A while back, after my propertarian piece (which isn’t much at all about property), someone challenged me to write a follow-up piece on ancient religious views on property, making sure to account for slavery. I immediately agreed to the challenge, but I was paralyzed.

The Judeo-Christian writing called Leviticus, which is a part of the traditional text known as the Pentateuch, or the Five Scrolls of Moses, or just “Moses,” speaks at length concerning property distribution, property rights, and compensation for irregularities and violations. It is a writing which depicts a vigorous society in motion, a book which Jesus summarizes with the well-known apothegm, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The very word “neighbor” evokes property and other notions of personal sovereignty.

Nevertheless, it is practically impossible for me to write a general piece touching on Leviticus or Levitical principles because, with respect to its provenance, I am neither a minimalist nor a maximalist, nor am I some sort of milquetoast via media advocate, either. I happen to take a scholarly, evidence-based approach to the provenance of this book, which is a standard view, but is contrary to what is taught in universities both secular and religious or parochial.

In secular universities, and those religious universities whose worldview is formed by Nineteenth Century Continental philosophy, the minimalist Documentary Hypothesis is still taught as de rigueur, a hypothesis which posits that the books of Moses, especially the Levitical material, were fabricated by a power-mongering priestly caste during the Judahite exile in Babylon during the Fifth Century BCE. I am under the impression that this hypothesis is presented as ironclad secular scholarship, i.e., the truth, when it is essentially the telos of the Sacramentarian movement which came to dominate Enlightenment Era religiosity.

Religious fundamentalism, deeply offended by this radical minimalism, developed a response which became reflexively maximalist, in defiance of all evidence (even internal evidence) to the contrary, namely that Moses wrote every jot and tiddle of his five scrolls somewhere between 1550 BCE and 1440 BCE, and never shall a true Christian vary from that view lest he deny the efficacy of the Word of God.

In public discourse, there is no middle ground. One can write classroom papers and discuss privately a more nuanced view, which is based on the evidence–OK, let’s be fair: I would say that, now wouldn’t I? Here: a nuanced view which assembles the evidence guided by a particular view of history, scholarship, science, and philosophy. So I begin again: there is no middle ground in public discourse.

I presented a paper at a regional meeting of the Society For Biblical Literature once upon a time, a radical deconstructive view of methodology with respect to the academic discipline known as “biblical studies.” In it I noted that the disciplines of the pure sciences, linguistics, philosophy, and history had all evolved drastically over the past two hundred years, but biblical studies still labored under the precepts of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, and I actually stated that, if this were any other discipline aside from the contentious religious discipline it is, our colleagues in every other department in all universities across the world would remove us with extreme prejudice.

A professor from Harvard was in attendance, so, naturally, I was intimidated. I mean, I still had aspirations to one day maybe hopefully if-miracles-come-to-pass apply for a position at Harvard or one of the Ivy League schools, or even Michigan University, so I really wanted to come off as bright and snappy. He asked, “What do you do with history?”

Without thinking, I blurted out, “I just ignore it,” which is true, in one sense because of my deep respect for the science of linguistics, but not quite right, again, out of a deep respect for post-modern philosophical currents. What I was getting after was the primary importance of community in interpretation, but I didn’t say as much, so the entire room burst into laughter. I tried salvaging my point, but, you know how these things go.

Then I heard a fellow in the front row mutter, “Why do we have to bring ourselves into resonance with other academic disciplines [a phrase from my paper] when we already know what history is?” [his emphasis].

Well, that was the entire point of my paper, which had failed to convince the Harvard University types: we don’t really know history. I did not go so far as to radicalize my view inasmuch as to say that we construct history wholesale, but it is certainly true that we arrange data within a certain framework until we are pleased with the outcome.

A healthy skepticism of the self is thereby necessary. What am I up to? Can I identify my biases? What are my external influences? Why is this emotionally significant to me? Moreover, when it comes to historical realities (for a lack of a better term), an academic humility is very helpful, namely that we don’t know very much at all, and we know that we don’t know very much at all because we don’t have much physical evidence, and we are, most assuredly, arranging evidence as taught, not as is obvious. We make a convincing case, that is all.

So when we speak of Levitical principles, it is nigh impossible to speak on the same ground. If these principles have their origins in a nomadic group of people who had recently escaped from Thirteenth Century Egypt, drawing heavily on Hittite suzerain-vassal arrangements and the attendant societal characteristics, then our vocabulary will be significantly different than if they have their origins in a cynical repristination drawn from a vaguely Babylonian and/or Syrian religion-society.

That last paragraph should be the lead paragraph when I write my propertarian follow-up.

Of Subjects and Object

If you’ll forgive me for subjecting you to another lengthy post, I’ve got a subject I’d like to explore a bit: the subject-object distinction. Before you object, let me say that my primary objection is how few people even see it as a distinction, rather than revealed truth. In an argument a few weeks ago, I was accused of magical thinking simply for asserting the existence of what Deirdre McCloskey calls “conjective,” Searle’s “institutional facts,” or Habermas’ “intersubjective.”

The idea of something not purely subject or object seems impossible in our post-Enlightenment world. Even the religious largely argue for the existence of an objective world that is affirmed by God.

So I’d like to subject the subject-object distinction to some much merited scrutiny.

Continue reading “Of Subjects and Object”