Saturday, December 21, 2013

Science, finance and magic

It must be something in the air again. Here are some good posts from elsewhere on some of the recent topics we’ve been discussing

First, reader Vera points out the latest Archdruid Report also takes a look at the origin of modern science and the thinking that underlies it:
Quantitative measurement, experimental testing, and public circulation of the results of research: those were the core innovations that made modern science possible. The dream of conquering nature, though, was what made modern science the focus of so large a fraction of the Western world’s energies and ambitions over the last three hundred years. The role of the myth wasn’t minor, or accidental; I would argue, in fact, that nothing like modern science would have emerged at all if the craving for mastery over the nonhuman world hadn’t caught fire in the collective imagination of the Western world.

I mentioned last week that Carl Sagan devoted a passage in the book version of Cosmos to wondering why the Greeks and Romans didn’t have a scientific revolution of their own. The reason was actually quite simple.  The Greeks and Romans, even when their own age of reason had reached its zenith of intellectual arrogance, never imagined that the rest of the universe could be made subordinate to human beings.  Believers in the traditional religions of the time saw the universe as the property of gods who delighted in punishing human arrogance; believers in the rationalist philosophies that partly supplanted those traditional religions rewrote the same concept in naturalistic terms, and saw the cosmos as the enduring reality to whose laws and processes mortals had to adapt themselves or suffer.  What we now think of as science was, in Greek and Roman times, a branch of philosophy, and it was practiced primarily to evoke feelings of wonder and awe at a cosmos in which human beings had their own proper and far from exalted place.

It took the emergence of a new religious sensibility, one that saw the material universe as a trap from which humanity had to extricate itself, to make the conquest of nature thinkable as a human goal. To the Christians of the Middle Ages, the world, the flesh, and the devil were the three obnoxious realities from which religion promised to save humanity. To believers in progress in the post-Christian west, the idea that the world was in some sense the enemy of the Christian believer, to be conquered by faith in Christ, easily morphed into the idea that the same world was the enemy of humanity, to be conquered in a very different sense by faith in progress empowered by science and technology. 
Strip away some of the more abstruse talk about Wolfram, and what his post is, is basically a critique of reductionist science – the idea that we can draw a circle around just a certain area of creation and study it in a detached form from everything else. It's an old complaint, and one that is very valid.

Second, the latest post at Magic, Maths and Money covers similar ground. It posits (to oversimplify) that the difference between religion and magic is that religion is practiced in the open, by everyone, while magic is practiced in secret by initiates. So while we talk about economics as a religion, high finance is actually closer to high magic – it’s an esoteric art practiced by small set of people and is subject to complicated, abstruse rules to make it easy to bamboozle the general public.
In the 1902  Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert wrote in A General Theory of Magic

     The magician is a person who, through his gifts, his experience or through revelation, understands nature and natures... Owing to the fact that those magicians came to concern themselves with contagion, harmonies, oppositions, they stumbled across the idea of causality, which is no longer mystical even when it involves properties which are no way experimental
The two distinguish magic and science by observing that magic is based on belief in a set of rituals.  A person will only consult a magician if they  have faith in the actions that the magician will perform.  Science is not based on belief in its theorems, the equivalent of magic's rituals, but on a belief in the process by which science is created.  This is a subtle point, but the effect is that magic is necessarily static, a contemporary astrologer would have more authority if they claimed to be experts in ancient knowledge.  Similarly, most religions claim to encapsulate what is permanent in a changing world. On the other hand, science is necessarily  dynamic, we trust modern science's explanations of cosmology more than  those of the Babylonians.

The implication of this  distinction is that either mathematics exists independently of human thought and mathematicians discover theorems,  Platonism or `Mathematical Realism' and  mathematics is immutable, as Augustine claimed, or mathematics is created by living, breathing, mathematicians in response to the world around them.  The advantage of Platonism is that it provides scientists with a stable framework in which they can work, and is regarded as many scientists, such physicists Roger Penrose,  as an invaluable tool.  On the other hand, the implication of Anti-Platonism is that mathematics is dependent on society's attitudes, and its claims to certainty are as strong as the claims to certainty of the social sciences.

While magic and science are distinguished by static or dynamic belief,  Mauss and Hubert distinguish magic and religion by hidden and open belief

    Where religious rites are performed openly, in full public view, magical rites are carried out in secret... and even if the magician has to work in public he makes an attempt to dissemble: his gestures become furtive and his words indistinct.

The suggestion is, for science to be reputable and maintain a divide with magic, it needs to be carried out, like religion, in the open.  As soon as either science or religion takes place out of the public arena, they risk degenerating into magic.  Today, many scientists, in particular social scientists, regard scientific knowledge as 'shared belief', not necessarily 'justified belief', science is less about 'truth' and more about 'consensus' with  an Italian definition of science

    the speculative, agreed-upon inquiry which recognizes and distinguishes, defines and interprets reality and its various aspects and parts, on the basis of theoretical principles, models and methods rigorously cohering

Science is speculative, not certain, and agreed-upon, not secret.  It is on this basis that society can begin to understand the value of science.

So, in response to Stephen Williamson's implication, and it is an implication he does not make the statement,  that finance is more scientific I have two comments.  Firstly I agree that the focus of contemporary finance is about "making money" and this provides a clear objective for the discipline to work towards.  The question I would pose is "making money" a good internal to the practice of finance? I would argue that the good internal to finance is the effective distribution of money to fund economic activities.  The monomania of Wall Street  needs to be challenged and I wonder if a re-orienting of finance to focus on (my view of) its internal goods will result in such a 'scientific' finance.

The second issue is highlighted in the UK Parliament's report on banking.  The document makes few references to the role of mathematics in finance, but where it does it is damning

 89. The Basel II international capital requirements regime allowed banks granted “advanced status” by the regulator to use internal mathematical models to calculate the risk   weightings of assets on their balance sheets. Andy Haldane described this as being   equivalent to allowing banks to mark their own examination papers. A fog of complexity enabled banks to con regulators about their risk exposures:
        [...] unnecessary complexity is a recipe for […] ripping off […], in the pulling of the wool over the eyes of the regulators about how much risk is actually on the balance sheet, through complex models.
The science, the mathematics, is not being used to enlighten finance but to obscure its practices.  Recently the report on J.P. Morgan's London Whale revealed how tweaking their model, the bank could reduce their apparent exposure from around $40  billion to $20 billion.  The Whale report highlights how finance is actually more committed to 'rituals' around risk management than the 'science' of risk management, and this seems to be facilitated by mathematics.

I think there are a variety of factors involved in this obfuscation, not least the culture of associating mathematics with hidden truths: the mathematician has a magical key to financial reality.  There is also a metaphorical issue.  At the start of the seventeenth century Francis Bacon is associated with using the metaphor of Science as masculine probing and taming the feminine Nature. Towards the end of the seventeenth century the metaphor of finance as 'Lady Credit' similarly emerges, and I think there has been a similar sense that a masculine Science can tame the fickle and unruly Lady Credit.  I think both relationships could improve by becoming less dysfunctional.  Ultimately, and untypically, I associate the failures of contemporary finance not with its own unruliness but with the interference by a deterministic scientific ethos.  Economics might appear  incoherent, but it is finance's coherence in the wrong direction, that causes more real problems.
One quibble on Bacon is that there are several phrases in Bacon where he contends that the understanding of nature is to be undertaken so that we can submit to her will, not dominate her. That is, Nature can only be commanded by obeying her dictates. Here are some passages from Novum Organum via Wikiquote:
Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature. Beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything.

Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule.

There is a great difference between the Idols of the human mind and the Ideas of the divine. That is to say, between certain empty dogmas, and the true signatures and marks set upon the works of creation as they are found in nature.
 Now the empire of man over things depends wholly on the arts and sciences. For we cannot command nature except by obeying her.

And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.

There are also Idols formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other, which I call Idols of the Market Place, on account of the commerce and consort of men there.

The human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds.

It is not possible to run a course aright when the goal itself has not been rightly placed.
You might find these same sentiments argued by an ecologist or ecological economist today. Whether Bacon actually meant these things is open to debate, but that's how I interpret him, anyway, and why I think we've actually gone off course from the original intent.

It's possible that reductionist science was a necessary phase we must go through. To get an idea of what the next evolution should be, you may want to look at the work of Kenneth Boulding.

I flagged this article from Slate a while back which takes on the canard bandied about these days that "science is just another form of religion::
So scientists don’t have a quasi-religious faith in authorities, books, or propositions without empirical support. Do we have faith in anything? Two objects of scientific faith are said to be physical laws and reason. Doing science, it is said, requires unevidenced faith in the “orderliness of nature” and an “unexplained set of physical laws,” as well as in the value of reason in determining truth.

Both claims are wrong.

The orderliness of nature—the set of so-called natural laws—is not an assumption but an observation. It is logically possible that the speed of light could vary from place to place, and while we’d have to adjust our theories to account for that, or dispense with certain theories altogether, it wouldn’t be a disaster. Other natural laws, such as the relative masses of neutrons and protons, probably can’t be violated in our universe. We wouldn’t be here to observe them if they were—our bodies depend on regularities of chemistry and physics. We take nature as we find it, and sometimes it behaves predictably.

What about faith in reason? Wrong again. Reason—the habit of being critical, logical, and of learning from experience—is not an a priori assumption but a tool that’s been shown to work. It’s what produced antibiotics, computers, and our ability to sequence DNA. We don’t have faith in reason; we use reason because, unlike revelation, it produces results and understanding. Even discussing why we should use reason employs reason!

Finally, isn’t science at least based on the faith that it’s good to know the truth? Hardly. The notion that knowledge is better than ignorance is not a quasi-religious faith, but a preference: We prefer to know what’s right because what’s wrong usually doesn’t work. We don’t describe plumbing or auto mechanics as resting on the faith that it’s better to have your pipes and cars in working order, yet people in these professions also depend on finding truth.
No Faith in Science (Slate)

I saw a book entitled The Closing of the Western Mind, arguing that the fusion of Christianity to state government suppressed all other modes of thought as well as corrupted Christianity. I wonder if we could argue a similar thing with modern science - the closing of the modern mind happened when science became inextricably fused to large corporations and used exclusively as a tool to further their goal of endless profit. It is this profit-seeking that is destroying the world, not science.

Finally, a podcast from What Now with Fritjof Capra - Learning from Leonardo. A good quote that sums it up:
“I want to come back to what can we actually learn from Leonardo today. I would say there are two things that are important for our time. The first is his persistent endeavor to put life at the very center of his art, science and design. And this is what we need to do now because most of our businesses and our sciences and our technologies are not life-enhancing but life-destroying. So we need to put life into the very center, and this is what sustainability is all about – to live in such a way that we do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. And that’s very much something that Leonardo’s art and science can inspire us for.”

“And the second one, as I mentioned already, is the recognition that all natural phenomena are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent, which is the core of systemic thinking. the energy crisis ,for example, is not just a crisis of energy, it’s also an economic crisis, a health crisis, a food crisis, a climate crisis, and so on. As social crisis. So this is all interconnected. And this is very much how Leonardo worked, and something we can really learn from him.”

“So we see today that our sciences and technologies have become increasingly narrow in their focus and are unable to understand our systemic problems from a larger perspective. And so we urgently need a science and technology that honor and respect the unity of all life and recognize the mutual interdependence of all phenomena. And also a science and technology that reconnect us with the living earth. Well this is exactly the science and technology that Leonardo developed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.”
Finally, I'd recommend the books Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, and Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals for critiques of the Western World's obsessions with reason and dominance over nature.


  1. Interesting:
    Finance is magic.
    Magic is discredited.
    Therefore, an essential part of society/governance falls out of view, into the hands of magicians who are unaccountable and hiding in the fog of mystification and gobbledygook.

  2. I had my own reaction to last week's Archdruid Report, which I posted as A conversation with The Archdruid for the Solstice.


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