Imposing Law Upon the World, One of Two (Metaphysics)

I was asked to talk about an article that tries to explain the Greek financial crisis using a Monty Python sketch about (Ancient) Greek versus (Modern) German philosophy. The Greeks are the good guys here, and the winners of the soccer match, but the author's whole point is to explain how the Germans are focused on trying to establish and enforce rules.

Unfortunately, I don't think the author correctly describes the philosophy, which is going to make it harder to understand. Here's what he says:

The basic question for all these thinkers is whether the patterns we see in the world around us really reflect patterns that exist in nature or are simply attempts by our minds to structure what we see. For many German philosophers, a key effort was to understand the principles governing societies.

This is a particular issue for economists, who seek patterns in the mass of statistics coming out of stock markets and labor surveys. It's not always enough, though, to look at how markets and prices behave and describe the mathematical patterns they seem to follow. In practice, there always seem to be exceptions to the rules, sometimes catastrophic ones, which suggest that those maybe patterns have more to do with our minds than the natural world itself.

"Anglo-Saxon economists are guided by the utilitarian philosophy of John Stuart Mill or Jeremy Bentham, asking merely if a policy works," The Economist recently wrote. "Germans side with Immanuel Kant, believing that nothing works except through law, and are horrified when the [European Central Bank] strays from its narrow mandate."
Kant is described as giving an account by which nothing happens except through law, and indeed he does say that in the Groundwork. However, Kant's already talking about the world as understood within the mind. What Kant argues in his first critique is that we can't understand the world as it really is, but only as it appears to us, at which it is already being filtered through what he called a "transcendental apperception." For example, your mind takes sound waves and light waves and a sensation of gravity and tactile sensations, and these are all coming in from different organs on different nerves. But it presents you a picture of a soccer game in which you are participating. Is there really a soccer game? You can't know that even in principle. You can only know about the appearances in the mind.

There is some truth to this position, as is made clear by the example of the banana. If the body were simply a physical instrument, such that the eyes were merely receiving light waves which were merely translated into images by the brain, bananas would change color with changing light conditions like other things do. That's the way this article from LiveScience describes the process, and it's what would be true if the process works the way they think it does: if the body was a machine, so to speak.

In fact, under any natural lighting condition, your mind will report it to you as banana yellow.
What color is a banana? A banana is yellow in the sunlight and in the moonlight. It is yellow on a sunny day, on a cloudy day, on a rainy day. It is yellow at dawn and at dusk. The color of the banana appears constant to the human eye under all these conditions, despite the fact that the actual wavelengths of the light reflected by the surface of the banana under these varied conditions are different. Objectively, they are not the same color all the time. However, the human eye and color recognition system can compensate for these varied conditions because they all occurred during the course of the evolution of the human vision system, and can perceive the objectively varied colors as constantly yellow.

So a banana looks yellow under all conditions, except in a parking lot at night. Under the sodium vapor lights commonly used to illuminate parking lots, a banana does not appear natural yellow. This is because the sodium vapor lights did not exist in the ancestral environment, during the course of the evolution of the human vision system, and the visual cortex is therefore incapable of compensating for them.
So the law we infer -- "if it is a banana, then it is yellow" -- is actually not a product of the world, but a product of the mind. The evolved mind is coloring the fruit in a lawlike way. Once we move to kinds of lighting that our eyes didn't evolve to see, the law turns out not to be real. It was only a product of our minds.

Now, the first thing you'll notice is that Kant isn't quite right: we have just managed to learn something about the thing itself, the thing outside of our minds. And we've managed to find, through science, an example of a place in which the apparent laws are products of the mind and not of the thing. There's this huge division in German philosophy since Kant, between those who think that lawlike ideas are real (Hegel) and those who think that ideas about the world are often totally unreliable (Wittgenstein). The science gives us a middle way.

Greek philosophy, being much older, believes the laws are in the things, and the things are real. If you kick a ball something different will happen than if you kick a dog, and the reason for the difference is that the ball and the dog have different natures. The things are different, and their natural or essential differences will produce different results.

That's more like the scientific position, oddly enough, than the Modern position is. It's why we can say that bananas aren't "really" yellow the way we think they are: we look at the thing, find out what wavelengths of light its skin are reflecting, and then see that our eyes are treating those wavelengths differently in some cases than in banana cases. Thus, we say (as the Greeks) that the nature of the banana produces skin that reflects light of a certain wavelength, but that it's our nature -- our evolved nature -- that makes us see a favored food source as brightly outlined in all the lighting conditions our ancestors would experience. Both are lawlike: the banana's genetics reliably produces skin of a certain kind, and our evolved nature reliably produces minds of a certain kind. The important question for answering the German problem is figuring out where the law is.


james said...

I think the "banana" effect is better described as the result of auto-correcting sensors. "Given ambient light conditions as calculated from other references in the field of view, process the color spectrum returned from the object and return what it would be in the reference light conditions." (recall that dress that made such a stir a couple months ago)

Where exactly this processing happens in the chain from eye to ego I couldn't tell you, but would be the opposite of a "this is a banana, therefore it is yellow" process.

Grim said...

Except, of course, that the auto-correcting depends on natural lighting -- not because there's some law that says it does, but because there's a fact about our nature that allows us to 'correct' (interesting choice of words -- are you sure it's "correct"?) in conditions similar to those of our evolution.

There's an Australian philosopher whose name was D. M. Armstrong, and he wrote a book called What is a Law of Nature? He says we can't be sure we know any, but we know that they'd have one of three forms:

1) It is a law that Fs are Gs
2) It is a law that an F has a certain probability (>0, <1) of being a G
3) It is a law that the quantities P and Q co-vary in such a way that Q is a certain function of P (Q = f(P)).

'It is a law that bananas are yellow' is quite wrong -- the banana is what it is, but what makes it yellow in the particular way that it is yellow is a fact about us. The yellowness comes about only as a result of the interaction of two things, each of which have their own natures. The law is a kind of phantom that we've inferred from experience, but it's as much about us as about anything.

Type 2 and 3 laws may or may not exist -- we have examples that might point to something real (e.g., spooky probability laws in quantum theory, functional laws like the Ideal Gas Law -- only where do you find an ideal gas? And in any case a gas is already a kind of thing, such that a gas made of water will exist only in certain ranges of temperature or pressure). Supply and Demand is very similar to the ideal gas law: it's a functional "law" that obtains only under conditions that never really exist.

His type 1 laws almost certainly don't exist.

MikeD said...

The most telling part of the article (to me) was the following passage:
"Several Nobel Prize winners say it has been exacerbated, time and again, by an unnecessarily rigid approach by Germany, Europe's economic powerhouse and decision-maker. Greece simply cannot repay its debts, economists argue, no matter how much the country slashes public services or raises taxes. So by insisting it keep on trying, the thinking goes, Germany seems to be intent on punishing Greece."

How DARE the Germans actually ask the Greeks to pay back money Germany has loaned them!?!? Don't they know they're just making the Greeks feel bad (punishing them) by demanding they try? And just because they won't ever pay back what they've already borrowed, that's no excuse for Germany to refuse to loan them more money so the Greeks can continue spending it without regard to how they'll repay the debt.


Just goes to show, "several Nobel Prize winners" can be just as big of idiots as anyone else.

Grim said...

There's an interesting division in liberal economists this time, though. Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty came down on very different answers to the problem. In fact, they diagnose the problem quite differently. Krugman is talking about 'stopping the bleeding,' and thinks exit from the euro is the best of available options. Piketty thinks that there's a real opportunity for an economic miracle in Greece, provided that Germans and others realize that such economic miracles in the past have followed debt forgiveness and restructuring (he has an interesting historical argument that Germans, especially, have "never" paid their national debts).

I think the first thing they need to do is abandon the idea that this is something they can control as if it were a game, where outputs can be predicted from inputs. Economics is more like war than like soccer: it's a fully human enterprise, with all that entails.

MikeD said...

For perhaps the first time ever, I find myself agreeing with Paul Krugman. In order to save the EU (or forestall its inevitable collapse), they have to cut the Greeks loose. For Greece to get out of this death spiral, they need to hit rock bottom. Clearly, they're in denial about the root of the problem (hint: it's their own damn fault), and until they're cut off from their enablers they don't have a chance of realizing that they need to grow up and operate their government less like Santa Claus and more like a responsible set of adults.

Texan99 said...

"I find myself agreeing with Paul Krugman"