The Economics of Good and Evil: Part 1 March 11, 2010

With temperatures rising steadily of late, I think we have put the bitter cold behind us at last. No more Thursday nights bundled to the teeth. At least for awhile. The inevitability of the seasons will bring us back around, but for now, we can relax and enjoy the first touches of spring as it begins to shoulder winter out of the way. We toasted each other and the coming spring with the fine 12-year Old Pulteney single malt.  After saying our mantra in unison, Ralph read a selection from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac about leisure. Speaking of leisure, this is quite a long post, so settle back and enjoy. It is basically a conversation between a prominent Czech economist named Tomáš Sedláček and Jerry. I recorded the conversation because I found it fascinating. I hope you do as well.

Tomáš Sedláček is a leading Czech economist who teaches at the 650-year-old Charles University in the Czech Republic. For three years, Tomáš was the economic advisor for Václav Havel, playwright, last president of  Czechoslovakia and first president of the  Czech Republic. Tomáš  is in Wheaton to translate his  book Economics of Good and Evil from Czech into English for Oxford University Press. The book deals with economic philosophy and mythology. In every society there are prophets. In an age when everybody is engaged in materialism, the prophets become the economists.

Tomáš described the book. “The book begins with the epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest story we have, and this is the first time an economist has written about it. One of the things I’m doing is looking on science as modern mythology. In the beginning, the basic structure of interpretation in the world was a myth.  People didn’t take it as a truth, they took it with a pinch of salt. They knew it was a story to explain natural phenomenon. We don’t take science, another version of a story,  with a pinch of salt today. We’re more serious than we’ve ever been. I’m trying to decode what you see on TV, how they create these myths, how they do make-believe, and I’m using mathematical models and comparing them to the parables of Jesus, for example. So you can explain a similar phenomenon with a parable or with a mathematical model that we are more inclined to use, but at the end of the day, it’s the same yeast, so to speak.

The book has become very controversial. The name of the book is  Economics of Good and Evil, which is something economists are not allowed to talk about because we are supposed to be a positive science. So a scientist is not supposed to talk about morality or morale. But my argument is that there is hardly anything else that we talk about.  Take an analyst on the TV.  They ask him, “what’s the inflation?”  He says “3.4,” which doesn’t mean anything and the next question is:  “Is that good or bad?” That same economist who doesn’t believe in morals in science will say, it’s good or it’s bad. The number itself has no meaning; you have to put it in the context and that’s what you need a scientist for. One of the other arguments is that there is no such thing as a positive science. All science is valued-laden.

The ultimate aim or purpose of this book is admitting the myth of economics. We can’t live without a myth, we can’t live without a story. I try to use modern myths like The Matrix; the body cannot live without the story. That’s why they had to play that matrix into the brains of these people. We can’t function without a going version of the explanation of what’s going on. There are stories going through our brains. That’s why we sit here, because we believe in the story and we want to follow a certain pattern that we have.  I’m also trying to legitimize religion and myth, putting it on the same level and saying ‘this is as adequate as science.’  And science is really now returning to admitting the supernarrative or metanarrative, which is really a myth. And I’m studying how to create a metanarrative and how we create reality.”

Jerry: The academic world seeks to find patterns and exceptions.  A pattern is a generalization that makes it possible for us to communicate a body of knowledge to another person. It is a kind of myth. It’s  not real, that’s why it’s not good if you don’t account for the exceptions to the generalization. But when they start to generalize data and come up with an explanation, that is in some sense a falsehood. It’s kind of right, but it’s not utterly right. Until somebody comes along with a better generalization.

Tomáš: It’s a going version of truth that you make real by believing it. The brain can only take things that it understands. In an extreme version of that story, Newton didn’t discover gravity, but it invented it.

Jerry: In the middle ages they didn’t believe in gravity, but homesickness. Every thing has its natural home, and unimpeded it wants to go to its home. If you take a rock and let go it falls because it wants to go home. C.S. Lewis says if you ask a medievalist if they really believed that, they would say “of course not, but I’m trying to explain the phenomenon.” If you asked him “why do you call it a homing instinct?” he would ask “why do you call it gravity? Do you actually believe that the stone recognizes that there is a directive assigned to it and it is prudential that it follows the directive and moves to the ground?” It’s just different metaphors.

Tomáš: You could call it gobbledygook. No one understands gravity, we give it a name to classify it. It’s a great mystery. Gravity probably doesn’t exist, because gravity is faster than the speed of light. It reacts immediately, because the laws of physics– well, actually I made a mistake, there are no laws of physics– because Einstein’s myth doesn’t allow it.

Jerry: So his myth is waiting to be superceded by a better myth.

Tomáš: Yeah. It’s really a battle of myths. So the myth of creation has been one-upped in our society by the myth of the big bang.

Jerry: Lewis wrote a whole book on that called The Discarded Image. He talks about the medieval worldview. And he talks about it being a work of art. And he said, “I’m not in any way trying to say that the medieval worldview was accurate, but it is a great work of art and we need to appreciate it as such, but also because it was superceded, we need to remember that eventually all worldviews will be discarded images.”

Tomáš: A good description of a myth is that a myth is something that never happens, but it’s happening all the time. We don’t believe it, but we live it.

Jerry: If the Norse see lightning, and they say “why does it occur?” Well, there’s a god somewhere named Thor and he pounds his hammer and it makes lightning. The lightning is real, actually happening, but the explanation is some myth to describe the natural phenomenon.

Tomáš: We now explain that with electricity.

Jerry: Electricity becomes our modern Thor.

The question was asked: Where do you draw the line between the Platonic ‘there is an absolute truth and we come up with theories to connect to it’ and ‘truth is what your theory is?’

Tomáš: That’s the core of the debate between Plato and Aristotle. Plato believed there is an objective superstructure that we discover within us.

Jerry: Plato believes these ideas come down to us somehow. So the philosopher’s role is one of  midwife, to help a person give birth to the ideas that are already in him. If he gives birth to a bad idea, he calls it a wind-egg, which is basically an intellectual fart. Aristotle looks at 156 city-state constitutions, he looks at what’s common to all of these and comes up with a definition for the state by virtue  of the generalization of observation.

Tomáš: So Aristotle believed that we create those. If you  see a state or a cat or a fire– you could also look at it from the evolution of a child– and Aristotle would say that it is discovering structures or categories.  Thus, Aristotle believes we create those structures while Plato believes we discover those structures.

Jerry: They both seek to come up with a definition.

Tomáš: Most of reality doesn’t have a name. Only the things you’ve seen you give a name to. You observe 10,000 phenomena right now that you don’t have a name for, so you ignore them. Take the first time you fell in love. I think it’s an insult to give it a name because every falling in love is absolutely different. But because we’ve all experienced it, we kind of rape that feeling and call it love. And then we can talk about it. Another examples is that most of the numbers don’t have a name. There are some we give names to, but there are an infinite amount of numbers between one and two. To simplify it, if an angel flew through here, we wouldn’t see it because we don’t have a structure that is receptive to it.

Jerry: The word definition means ‘of the finite,’ de finis. So the thing we define, the pipe, the cup, the fire, these are each finite and they are small enough that I can wrap words around them and distinguish them from something else. But then how do I define God, who is infinite? I have to engage in similitude, in the simile. The medieval scholastics called it the way of analogy.

Tomáš: When they said that Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the truth in that is 0.0 percent. He doesn’t have an average lifespan of nine years and he doesn’t sleep half the day. The only thing that is similar is power. But we all understand that. If we say of a woman that she is a flower, well, women and flowers have nothing in common, only that they are fragile or beautiful, or whatever we mean by that.  And in some cultures it could be insulting. What do you mean? She produces photosynthesis, you need to water her?

Jerry: Robert Burns says his love is like a red, red rose. She’s bright and bold. But Wordsworth talks about his love as if she were a pansy, peeking out from behind a stone, shy, retiring, beautiful.

Tomáš: Eventually it’s a lie, every poetry is a lie Your love is NOT a red red rose.

Jerry: Plato says the poets are liars.

Tomáš: Yeah they are. Terrible liars.

Jerry: The people who follow Plato theologically are the ones who end up not liking the arts. So of all the myths from Gilgamesh to the moderns, which one do you find most emotionally satisfying?

Tomáš: I like the old testament a lot, but also modern physics is fascinating. The parables of Jesus are also beautiful.

The talk drifted into a discussion or definition of heroes. Tomáš  has discovered five archetypes of a hero, which I think, but am not sure, he describes in his book. I’m also not sure of the connection to the preceding discussion, but what the heck. We all want to see ourselves as heroes in some capacity, large or small, do we not?

1) Trickster: Acknowledges he would never win face to face, unethical, uses his brain. Examples: Most of the heroes of the Old Testament, Odysseus, Brer Rabbit from the Uncle Remus stories, C3PO, Prometheus, Tom Bombadil, Samwise Gamgee. When the other superheroes fail, and there is a trying moment, then these small, weak tricksters shine and win the whole story over. There are also negative, tragic tricksters such as Joker and Judas.

2) Muscle guy: Always confronts

3) Bringer of Culture

4) Twins: the internal fight between good and evil. Examples: Batman and Joker, Romulus and Remus, Neo and Agent Smith, Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

5) Hero sufferer: They are weak in other definitions of strength, but their strongest point is their morality. Their strength is their weakness. They will not budge, but will carry it to the end and that’s how they twist the vectors of history. Examples: Jesus, Vaslav Havel, Gandhi, Job.

Well, there you have it. Next time, I’ll make it short and sweet. Until then, peace.

The Economics of Good and Evil, Part 2