Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Where do experts come from?


Over the weekend, Brigitte Nerlich published a piece on the origin of the ‘deficit model’.
The ‘deficit model’ is the idea that if the public understood scientific concepts they would accept the judgements of scientists. Or, if scientists shout loud enough eventually people will agree with them. Or, people don’t like GMOs/fracking/climate change science because they are dumb.
This is a hot-topic in the aftermath of the US Presidential Election and theUK’s EU Referendum, when ‘experts’ were widely ignored and her contribution has been well received.
My reaction to Brigitte’s tweet was “Spinoza of course”, but there was no reference of the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher in her piece.
My interest is as part of my remit as the RCUK Academic Fellow for Financial Mathematics between 2006 and 2011 was the ‘publicunderstanding of Financial Mathematics’, or at least the ‘public engagement with Financial Mathematics’. This introduced me to the issue of the ‘deficit model’ over a period in time dominated by the ‘Great Financial Crisis, which started 10 years ago yesterday.
For almost ten years I have been trying to figure out what is the relationship between finance, mathematics and ethics. To me, a significant contributor to the GFC was the belief that ‘science’ had some how tamed financial risk. Therefore to understand the GFC it was necessary to understand where the faith in scientific determinism originated, and I think the source (in European science at any rate) is in Spinoza. The argument is presented in the book I am finishing off for Palgrave
and I have extracted two relevant sections, separated by some 27,000 words and 125 years.
Baruch Spinoza would produce the most influential development of Descartes’ philosophy that incorporated ideas from de Groot and Hobbes during the ‘Dutch Golden Age’. Spinoza’s family were Portuguese Jews, marranos, who had been forcibly converted to Christianity in the sixteenth century. They had immigrated to the United Provinces in 1593, taking advantage of Calvinist toleration and Baruch’s father became a prominent, and wealthy, citizen of Amsterdam. Baruch was born in 1632, his first language was Portuguese and he grew up studying in Spanish and Hebrew and he only studied Latin in his twenties. His understanding of Greek philosophy came primarily through Judaic and Islamic interpretations, rather than from the Scholastics.
Spinoza became involved with the Collegiants, a sect that had emerged as a successor to the Arminians, and was eventually excommunicated by his synagogue in 1656, changing his name to Benedictus. The excommunication did not worry Spinoza too much and he developed a reputation as a teacher, writer and a lens-grinder, a skilled profession closely associated with the important new science of optics. Supported, in part, by a pension from de Witt, he developed his philosophy and in 1670 moved to The Hague where he would witness de Witt’s murder in 1672. He died in 1677, probably of tuberculosis.
Spinoza’s most influential work, his Ethics, was published posthumously in 1677. Spinoza echoed Plato, Augustine and Descartes in arguing that mathematics provided the means of discerning truthi and the text presented a deductive chain that proved propositions having started with definitions and axioms. The key step that Spinoza took in developing Descartes’ work was to collapse the three types of substance: matter, mind and God, into one. This was captured in his phrase Deus sive natura, ‘God or nature’, indicating that there is only a single substance2 that, when viewed from one perspective is nature but from another is God. This solved the problem of how Descartes’ mind interacted with matter at the cost of prohibiting contingency3 because if everything was connected to God, it could not happen by chance. This also meant that emotions were not part of the mind, and so could not be rationalised, but were governed by the laws of nature4, as Hobbes had implied.
Spinoza argued that people believed themselves to possess free-will and had autonomy because they did not see the complete picture, being only finite5. Spinoza believed that the purpose of the individual was to lift themselves out of a mundane perspective in order to comprehend the totality of creation, coming to understand the true nature of God’s will: the laws of nature. The ethical nature of the Ethics was in describing how different actions helped, or hindered, the individual in approaching God6, which would give the correct perspective on everyday phenomena. Spinoza believed that at the most basic level people had direct knowledge of nature through their senses. This could be improved into a scientific knowledge of the world that identified connections between phenomena and so was able to make generalisations. The ultimate aim was to have direct knowledge of the generalisations7, not mediated by ‘finite’ ideas or concepts and this knowledge delivered true freedom8.
Spinoza’s contribution to western philosophy was in suggesting that humans were capable of attaining a complete picture of the universe that provided certain knowledge. This was novel to Europeans rooted in the Scholastic tradition that synthesised Aristotle and Augustine. However, it was reminiscent of Jewish and Islamic mysticism. Jewish mysticism Kabbalah had become prominent in the thirteenth century through Moshe ben Naiman Girondi, from Catalonia, while Sufi thought was legitimised in the eleventh century by the Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Muhammad al Ghazali. Both these scholars challenged Hellenistic philosophy, with al-Ghazali’s repudiation of Aristotle in The Incoherence of the Philosophers being pivotal in the development of Islamic thought. Associated with al-Ghazali was the doctrine of occasionalism, that effect follows cause not because of a physical law but only because God’s will. Spinoza echoed this attitude when he argued that a law of nature was simply a consequence of God’s or nature’s consistency9. In Sufi metaphysics there is the concept of ‘Unity of Essence’ (wahdat al-wujud, وحدة الوجود) and the idea that people seek ‘annihilation in God’ (fanaa,فناء‎‎)10 just as for Spinoza people sought a God-like perspective. While Islam and Spinoza both denied contingency, they did not deny the ability of the individual to assert their own will, it was just that asserting one’s will against God or nature would be detrimental to the individual11. This idea of determinism was unusual in European thinking. The Calvinists believed in predestination, that the ultimate fate of a person’s soul was destined for heaven or hell, but an individual had will throughout their life. Spinoza’s argument was that individuals don’t really have a choice in correct action; knowledge guides them to the correct course12. If someone makes an immoral choice, it is through ignorance13. This is less bestial than Hobbes but still rejects autonomy.
If Judaism can be characterised by the covenant with God and Christianity by God’s caritas for people, in Islam people can be characterised by having an intellect that can discern God’s will14. In this sense Spinoza was introducing Islamic, specifically Sufi, ideas into western philosophy. This was possible because Spinoza was re-presenting tested Islamic philosophy that opposed Aristotle, just as European thought was rejecting Aristotelian ideas.
The influence of Spinoza on western thought becomes significant at the end of the Enlightenment. Romanticism had appeared in English literature in the 1790s. It incorporated Rousseau’s idealisation of the ‘noble savage’, in a ‘state of nature’, and empiricism, which focused on the individual sensation of nature. In Germany, the movement was broader and more significant with a philosophical basis, idealism, in a problem Kant created in trying to resolve the issue of mind-body dualism. Idealism addressed the problems by dissolving the distinction between observers and observed, an approach that was heavily influenced by Spinoza15. A core concept in idealism was the principle that what was observed was dependent on the thinking ‘I’ that, itself, could only exist in the context of society. This spawned the idea that national identity was fundamental to the individual, fusing Spinoza, Rousseau and Kant.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, born in 1749, exemplified the broader Romantic Movement. His fame was established with his 1774 sentimental novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Today Goethe is known for his interpretation of the Faust story, written in 1808, that describes how Mephistopheles suggests that a ruler solved their financial problems by printing paper money, backed by gold reserves, which were yet to be discovered16. In 1775 had been invited to become a civil servant for the small Duchy of Weimar where he would remain a bureaucrat until his death in 1832. Goethe was responsible for some mines and became interested in geology and the natural sciences generally. As a novelist, Goethe was interested in the ‘narrative’ of science rather than brute, individual facts, an approach that coincided with the idealists’ approach to science, Naturphilosophie.
Naturphilosophie was personified by the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt travelled to South America between 1799 and 1804 and gathered observations of nature that he then presented in Ansichten der Natur (Aspects on nature) in 1807. Humboldt aimed at Spinoza’s all-encompassing perspective that transformed an apparently capricious nature into a cohesive whole17. However, this implied that science was fundamentally subjective, with the scientist being part of, not an objective observer of, nature18. To ensure that the ideas coming out of the mind of a scientist, often presented as a solitary genius, were true representations of the world, their observations had to be precise and accurate. Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss, the director of the Göttingen observatory from 1807, addressed the fidelity of scientific observations by developing the Central Limit Theorem into a theory of measurement and the Normal distribution, which is often referred to as the Gaussian distribution.
The Romantics regarded nature as a complex, ‘living’ organism and were concerned with how nature changed, rather than focusing on how it was at any single point in time19. This represented a ‘counter-revolution’ in science, reverting to Aristotelian qualities rather than Cartesian quantities. Some Romantics, notably William Blake, were highly critical of the mechanistic natural philosophy founded on Descartes and Newton20 and stressed the need for human imagination in theory construction. With respect to Malthus, the Romantics saw his argument as reducing people to elements of a machine and they preferred more paternalistic policies, associated with the Tories.
Prussia had initially joined the attacks on Revolutionary France in 1792 but became neutral in 1795, content to see the Holy Roman Empire, ruled by the Austrian Hapsburgs, disintegrate. However, in 1806, as Napoleon presented a greater threat, Prussia declared war on the Empire and was swiftly defeated. In the aftermath of the defeat the Prussian’s began a programme of reorganising the state administration, inspired by Kantian ideals, whereby subjects would become citizens21. During this time, Georg W.F. Hegel developed idealism by arguing that the nation was a living organism, with a purpose, will and rationality22. This contrasted with the dominant view of the eighteenth century that saw the state as a machine designed to deliver ‘interests’, a view that Hegel rejected for the same reasons that the Romantics rejected mechanistic science. Hegel argued that the state’s will was defined by ‘public opinion’ which expressed
the genuine needs and correct tendencies of common life, but also, in the form of common sense, of the eternal, substantive principles of justice23.
Hegel argued that the state and people were indistinguishable, because an individual was formed in the context of culture, and so their aims are necessarily compatible. In addition, he rejected the idea that public opinion developed through discourse could be meaningful, since it would only represent the subjective opinions of a narrow section of the public24. Therefore, like Rousseau, Hegel believed the well-constituted state could not be challenged and the role of education was to ensure people’s subjective opinions conformed to the state’s, Spinozian, objectivity. This perspective can be contrasted with that of Thomas Paine, who had argued at the start of Common Sense, an essay of 1776 and a key inspiration of the American Revolution, that
Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.25

I suspect students of Spinoza and Hegel will object to my caricature, but I think the essential point that " Spinoza’s contribution to western philosophy was in suggesting that humans were capable of attaining a complete picture of the universe that provided certain knowledge." is important in understanding why 'science' believes in the 'deficit model'.

1 (Spinoza 2002, 240)
2 (Spinoza 2002, I.P14, 224)
3 (Spinoza 2002, I.P26, 232)
4 (Spinoza 2002, 277-278)
5 (Spinoza 2002, 238-241)
6 (Spinoza 2002, IV.P28, 334)
7 (Spinoza 2002, V.P25, 375)
8 (Spinoza 2002, 378-379)
9 (Spinoza 2002, 239)
10 (Davis 1984, 12)
11 Qu’ran 4:79, (Spinoza 2002, 359-362)
12 (Spinoza 2002, V.P42, 382)
13 (Spinoza 2002, IV.P27,334)
14 (Schuon 1976, 19-22)
15 (Frank 2003, 55-76), (Förster and Melamed 2012),
16 (Wennerlind 2003, 234), (Binswanger 1994)
17 (Daston 2010)
18 (Fara 2009, 215-218)
19 (Brush 1976, 655)
20 (Christensen 1982)
21 (Clark 2006, 327-344)
22 (Hegel 1952, Secs. 257-258), (Clark 2006, 451)
23 (Hegel 1952, Sec. 317), (Habermas 1991, 120)
24 (Habermas 1991, 119)
25 (Paine 1998, 5)


Brush, S. G. 1976. The Kind of motion we call heat: A history of the kinetic theory of gases in the 19th century. North-Holland.
Christensen, B.J. 1982. “The Apple in the Vortex: Newton, Blake and Descartes.” Philosophy and Literature 6 (1&2): 147-161.
Clark, C. 2006. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600--1947. Penguin.
Daston, L. J. 2010. “The Humboltian Gaze.” In Cultures and Politics of Research from the Early Modern Period to the Age of Extremes, by M. Epple and C. Zittel, 45-60. Walter de Gruyter.
Davis, D. 1984. “Introduction to The Conference of the Birds.” In The Conference of the Birds, by Farid ud Din Attar, 9-26. Penguin Classics.
Fara, P. 2009. Science: a four thousand year history. OUP.
Förster, E., and Y. Y. Melamed, . 2012. Spinoza and German Idealism. Cambridge University Press.
Frank, M. 2003. The Philosophical Foundations of Early German Romanticism. Translated by E. Millán-Zaibert. SUNY Press.
Habermas, J. 1991. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by T. Burger and F. Lawrence. MIT Press.
Hegel, G.W.F. 1952. “Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.” Edited by T.M. Knox. Clarendon Press. Accessed September 2016. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/pr/philosophy-of-right.pdf.
Paine, T. 1998. Rights of Man, Common Sense and other Political Writings. Edited by M. Philip. Oxford University Press.
Schuon, F. 1976. Understanding Islam. Unwin.
Spinoza, B. 2002. “Ethics.” In Spinoza: Complete Works, edited by M. L. Morgan, translated by S. Shirley, 213-382. Hackett Publishing.
Wennerlind, C. 2003. “Credit-Money as the Philosopher's Stone: Alchemy and the Coinage Problem in Seventeenth-Century England.” History of Political Economy 35 (5): 234-261.

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