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On Phil Pilkington’s question concerning whether there could be an economic induced psychosis August 14, 2014

Posted by larry in Culture, economics, Mind, Philosophy, Psychology, Science.
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Link to Phil’s post: http://fixingtheeconomists.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/is-there-such-thing-as-an-economics-based-psychotic-delusion/#comment-7078

I take Phil’s question to be an important, though unusual, one. But in order to approach an answer, we need to set up our framework. First, we need to define what a psychosis is. And I think it reasonable to define a psychotic state as one where the individual suffers from neurological malfunctioning of the brain that results in them seeing and/or hearing things that are not there, that is, that do not exist.

Second, we need to distinguish between the mind and the brain. We could go into great detail but for our purposes here it should be sufficient to use the term ‘brain’ to refer to the neural connections and activity of this organ’s neurons. (For anyone who has difficulty with this, I recommend a look at Gordon Shepherd’s Foundations of the Neuron Doctrine (1991), and the term ‘mind’ to refer to what we ordinarily consider to be mental activity and conceptions. There is an entire literature on this in both psychology and philosophy.

Third, we need to divide economics into two, possibly overlapping, spheres. One would be economics qua conceptual construct (or idea or belief or the like). The other would be economics qua economic activity. The first is a mental construct, while the second is a behavioral activity. They are naturally related, though any causal link could go in either direction.

We now have two related questions before us. 1) Can having a particular economic idea or conceptual construct drive a person into having a psychotic delusion? 2) Can engaging in a particular kind of economic activity drive a person into having a psychotic delusion? The film, Gaslight, involves both, as the husband places ideas in his wife’s head while simultaneously engaging in certain kinds of behavior, all designed to drive her into having a psychotic delusion, in terms of the film, the delusion that she is insane whereas there is, in fact, nothing wrong with her. In the terms which we have set, she does not exhibit either the types of behavior typical of someone who does have a psychosis or have a malfunctioning brain in the sense defined above.

Now Phil has rightly raised the specter of certain religious notions. Would we want to claim that someone, perhaps an entire group of people, even an entire society, was psychotically deluded because they have a belief in a god of some sort? Are they psychotic because they indulge in a communal ritual of communion, which, in principle, involves the doctrine of transubstantiation?

Let us leave religion and consider the Nazis. We assume, for which there is evidence, that there existed true believers. One of their beliefs was that there was such a thing as a pure Aryan race. Another was that there was a Jewish conspiracy to destroy Germany qua its racial essence. Is anyone who holds such beliefs or even virtually an entire society holding such beliefs and engaging in the activities indicated as being appropriate by the beliefs in the grip of a psychotic delusion?

Most people would probably answer No to the former case and Yes to the latter. But what is the difference between them? Both involve engaging in activities and entertaining conceptions for which there is no empirical evidence that would justify either and, indeed, there is (and was) abundant evidence to the contrary. Both cases involve people believing falsehoods and acting on them, blatant or otherwise. Surely, we would not wish to contend that anyone in the grip of a false belief is ipso facto in the grip of a psychotic delusion.

The answer, it seems to me, lies in our original definition of ‘psychosis’. With respect to either case, is it reasonable to ‘believe’ that an entire society, that is, its members, could be more or less simultaneously experiencing a particular brain malfunction? We need another term, I think, to describe what is going on in cases such as these.

The case that Phil really has in mind is the neoclassical economic paradigm, which has true believers and for which there is abundant contrary evidence. Are followers of this ‘false’ paradigm in the grip of a psychotic delusion? I honestly do not know the answer, but it is possible that Phil has asked the wrong question. And the answer concerning what question he ought to have asked instead depends on what term we replace ‘psychosis’ with. And to that conundrum, I have no real answer at the present time.

Necessary & Sufficient conditions: A Medical Example March 22, 2014

Posted by larry in Logic, Medicine, Science.
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A sufficient condition A for B is one where A being the case is sufficient for bringing about B.

A necessary condition B for A is one where if B is not the case, then A won’t be either.

Logically it looks like this. A is sufficient for B: if A, then B.

B is necessary for A: if not-B, then not-A.

Ex. of a necessary condition: oxygen (B) is necessary for being able to breathe (A). Therefore, if not-B, then not-A.

It is easier to come up with necessary conditions than it is sufficient conditions. For instance, what is sufficient for being able to breathe?

A set of necessary and sufficient conditions for A is often considered to be equivalent to, or for, A.

A slightly more realistic and complicated way of expressing this set of relationships is this. A is sufficient for D and B is necessary for D. This translates to (if A, then D) and (if D, then B). The contrapositive of each yields (if not-D, then not A) and (if not-B, then not-D). It is relatively clear, I think, that A and B each have a distinct relationship to D (I am ignoring the issue of transitivity illustrated in the example.). The potential complexity of this relationship is borne out is the following medical example from research into the dementias.

Here is a quote from a medical investigation of causes of Alzheimer’s and other dementias (from Daily Kos).

“Researchers have found that a protein active during fetal brain development, called REST, switches back on later in life to protect aging neurons from various stresses, including the toxic effects of abnormal proteins. But in those with Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment, the protein — RE1-Silencing Transcription factor — is absent from key brain regions.”

“Our work raises the possibility that the abnormal protein aggregates associated with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases may not be sufficient to cause dementia; you may also need a failure of the brain’s stress response system,” said Bruce Yankner, Harvard Medical School professor of genetics and leader of the study, in a release.”

While the situation is more complicated than the simple example I gave initially, the logic is the same.

From the quote, we have: protein aggregate A; failure brain stress response system B; absence of RE1 (=R); dementia D.

Second paragraph of the above quote may be saying that A & B is sufficient for D.

But from the first paragraph, we also have absence of R (RE1) as a necessary condition for D. I.e., if D, then not-R (absence of RE1).

So, A&B is sufficient for D, hence (if A&B, then D). But, not-R is necessary for D. Or, equivalently, (if R, then not-D). I.e., R is sufficient for not-D.

Similarly as in the simple example: A, B, and R are related in a complex way to D, a relationship that is not entirely spelled out in the quote.

We are, therefore, left with an important question: what is status of A & B with respect to R? Is R a component of either A or B? The quote doesn’t link all these factors together. While this may be obvious from the quote, the logical situation underlying this hiatus may not be clear. Hopefully, it now is and also clearer what additional relationships need to be explored in order to lead to better understanding of the dementias, particularly Alzheimer’s, and thereby better control of their onset and progression if not complete defeat.

Economics, Logic & Science January 9, 2011

Posted by larry in economics, Logic, Science.
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I would like to reflect on Bill Mitchell’s observation on Sunday, 9 January in his blog, that “Macroeconomics is hard to learn because it involves these abstract variables that are never observed”, such as the interest rate and the aggregate price level.

This is undoubtedly true. However, it seems to me that there are at least three other factors involved. I also want to propose a more useful set of models as a salutary basis for a scientific grounding for economic theory.

First: the abstractions economists use are not often tied closely enough to concrete examples. Take the difference between nominal GDP and real GDP. While I understand that Bill is being concise and assuming a certain level of understanding when he refers to these, many people don’t understand the difference without practical illustrations. [See * fn below]

Second: one economist can take a given set of data and conclude A, while another, taking the same data, may conclude not-A and never mention why it would be wrong to conclude A on the basis of the data at hand.  Consider what is going on re the current crisis. This latter propensity does tend to make economics look more like an ideological enterprise than a rationalist, scientific one (a la Lakatos).  I am not suggesting Bill does the latter, only that it is often done.  For someone not trained in a social science, both of these factors combined can make economic discourse look like exercises in nonsense.  (Part of the reason for this lies in the values that are smuggled in, explicitly or implicitly, in assessments of the economic state of a society at a given point in time.  These values form part of a complete economic explanation, but I must leave this aside for the moment.)

Third: A further contributing factor in certain circumstances is where economists give the impression that economics is like physics. This looks premature at best. Given that a standard formalization of physics, by no means complete, is in terms of an extensional predicate calculus of fourth order and that certain economic explanations need to refer to psychological states of actors, economic formalization would need to be intensional in character, i.e., non-extensional (non-truth functional).  There are a number of intensional logics, but none developed with economics in mind.  This renders physics a misleading guide for economics.

Finally – and more positively – I want to propose that theoretical ecology might be a more relevant mathematical scenario for economists to refer to as a guide.  Ecological models tend to be quite specific to certain species and environments or to specific activities found in certain predator-prey relations (such as the Lotka-Volterra equations that some economists refer to).  This would suggest specific models for specific situations over general models. Ecological models don’t include the psychological states of the animals, or not directly. They deal with the animals’ behavior, not their mental states, whatever these may be.

Ecologists know that in dealing with human behavior, they need to take mental states into account in some way.  This can’t be done with the current mathematical tools that are available.  Thus, they are unable to completely mathematize these accounts.  Since most of their work does not need to take account of human mental states, most of their modeling can safely ignore this. But they can’t say that it is thereby irrelevant altogether in a complete account that included human activity.  Which is what might be concluded were physics considered to be the field to be “mimicked”.  Hence, if economists were to view their theoretical activity as analogous to that of ecologists, it might be easier to view whatever degree of mathematization that is carried out as an incomplete approximation and, thus, where and what further developments are needed.

My point, which is not a deep one, is that it isn’t only the abstractness of the discussion that makes economic discourse hard for the uninitiated to follow, it is also the lack of clear, concrete applications employed as explanatory aids in an appropriate logical context.


*I want to take this a bit further, simplifying if I may, using the predicate calculus as an example and, in particular, the definition of “if, then” or “if …, then ___”.  In the propositional calculus, as I expect you know, the variables range over sentences. Hence, where A and B are arbitrary sentences, “if A then B” is also a sentence. Now, these are not just any old sentences, but declarative sentences, such as “John is a large man”, or “the man in the car is carrying a gun”.  It also helps if one explains the ‘use-mention’ distinction.

In the predicate calculus, we have individual variables and predicate variables, covering nouns, pronouns, and adjectives (adverbs are explicitly avoided).  We then have the universal and existential quantifiers, for which I shall use A and E.  I’m sure you are familiar with all this.  (But a superb discussion of logical grammar can be found in Belnap, “Grammatical Propadeutic”, in Anderson and Belnap, Entailment (vol. 1).)

At this point, the general reader benefits greatly from a concrete example. If a character in a B-western is wearing a black shirt and a black hat, then this character in such a film is a villain. If this character in such a film is a villain, then this character will either end up dead or in jail at the end of the film.  Simplifying, we can restate the situation this way. Every character in a B-western wearing a black shirt and a black hat is a villain.  Every villain in a B-western ends up dead or in jail at the end of the film.

This can be formalized as: Ax(if Wx then, Bx); Ax(if Bx, then Jx).  We can conclude from this, via certain rules of inference and other assumptions, that Ax( Wx, then Jx), that is, every character in a B-western wearing a black shirt and a black hat will end up dead or in jail at the end of the film. While this is logically trivial, it may not be trivial in a setting where someone is trying to figure out how to do this sort of thing.  It is not logically trivial, however, to formalize the following:  it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

ADDENDUM: To see a rather concise, albeit incomplete, discussion of the complexity of the scientific enterprise, one can do no better than to have a look at Patrick Suppes’ Models of Data from 1962.

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