Lighten Up on the Enlightenment Framing

Nice essay surfaced by my friend and brilliant thinker, Abigail Devereaux. This is a super tight essay about economics. Pointing out that economics is a philosophy — a theoretical thinking exercise — and not a quantitative science or statistical subject.

Economists would find more fruitful paths in approaching things like a biologist does rather than following in the physicist tradition.

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The essay doesn’t touch on the wider issue of Enlightenment Thinking but I will. Western society has integrated the “enlightenment” idea that the universe is fundamentally a machine of causes and effects and that mathematics is the language of God and the instruction manual. Physicists routinely, still, claim that we’ve basically got the major details worked out for how the universe works. Computer folks still believe AI of super human strength is just around the corner. Politicians assume Technology Will Always Progress To Meet The Challenges. Bankers and economists purport they have their hands on the levers of the economic system. Many citizens are calm in disassociating markets from climate from religion from politics from biology.

None of this enlightenment framing is justified other than by the assumption, the philosophical act of defining the basis, that the world is mechanical, predictable and largely controllable via knobs of cause and effect. This is, of course, a thought experiment. For if any enlightenment thinker were to look at the evidence, the actual signal from the world, with a fuller lens of complexity, they would see that the basis they choose intellectually does not bear out. Within a few “casual inferences” most of the economic, physics and computational models of anything remotely complex diverge and have little correspondence. No one really has their hands on the levers of human society or nature. The distinctions between facets of the human experience are categories we make up as we theorize, they do not exist in the wider universe or in some objective out there engine of existence. Biology, physics, economics, industry, math, stats, etc… no one seriously trying to figure out what reality might be puts any of these frames as the basis or root from which all analysis and synthesis flows.

I’ve spent a good chunk of my life asking experts in different domains simple questions about basic human experience. Sensations of love, religion and religious experiences, why earth and not somewhere else, why humans should inherit the future and not other creatures, free will vs no free will, randomness, is the scientific method a social contract etc. etc. These questions are almost universally put in a box of “well, yeah, we can’t really say much about that”… which really does give away the game. Enlightenment thinking is an economic framework and economics is a philosophy of “how should humans live” — a moral hypothesis. When that frame is applied over everything you can justify via cherry picked quantitive observations or cherry picked mechanical methods of investigation (“scientific method”) that the world, is in fact, a machine to be optimized towards Enlightenment Human Ends. That is, Enlightenment Thinking is a Sales Pitch.

For those economists and physicists still reading… PRICE is a Moral Sales Pitch, not a property of an object or a property of some phenomena. Price is The Basis of Observation from within this Frame of Reference. Price is how the game is framed, price is the game board. But price is not the end game, the only game, the game of all games. Enlightenment inspired modern analytic models are having trouble keeping pace with our ever undulating hyper connected world because economic philosophic definitions have divorced from our lived experience. (Physics has same challenge. Prediction is a Sales Pitch. Price and Prediction are blood brothers — comfort blankets for those observing the void from a safe distance.)

There is no root “human nature”. There is no such thing as “intelligence”. There is no such thing as “maximization”. Ideas like “value” and “rational choice” and “slow and fast thinking”… are not real. Cause and Effect are not the basis. Law of the Excluded Middle is not a law outside a very small conception of logic. All of those are definitions within tiny small frames of reference. Perhaps even Popper would agree that we ought to be far more humble than we are now… science and related enlightenment approaches cannot say what is true. They might help in enumerating a partial set of what probably isn’t true.

It is very fun to try to figure things out. It is fun and helpful to ask big questions, pose crazy answers. It’s energizing to put out models and see how they relate to various aspects of our experiences. These are exciting and humane and often justice increasing things. But these are not the only ways in which things go or can go in the universe. Many many living and non living (we lack a good definition of “life”) things in the universe exist, persist and thrive without any of these frames.

Yes, many rebut this by saying, yes but everything is bound by the Laws of Nature. Problem is… per all the above, these laws are not actually laws. The laws most of us would cite are like horoscopes. They are so vague and broad that they really serve only as framing — philosophic apparatus. Humans have come up with lots of frames that fit lived experience well enough to keep things going for them. Humans have even figured out, as my friend Abigail points out often, that our most complete inferentially powerful, strongest casual reasoning logical and computational systems cannot even prove all their own statements.

Frame away. Keep framing. Find new novel frames. But don’t get stuck thinking we’ve found The One Frame. One thing I am moderately confident in, despite all these words of caution… if you read this whole post you probably haven’t found The One Frame, as it would not include this insane post on this insane platform. OR WOULD IT?

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I be doing stuff. and other stuff. More stuff. I believe in infinite regression of doing stuff.

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