Zakaj ni (ne more biti) splošne teorije vsega

Čudovita zgodba Simona Critchleya v New York Timesu o svojem profesorju filozofije Franku Cioffiju (1928-2012), ki je sovražil “velike teorije”. Natančneje, na podlagi nepremostljivega prepada med znanostjo in humanistiko, med naravoslovjem in družbo, je bil prepričan, da ni (ne more biti) splošne teorije vsega. Naravoslovne znanosti s svojim kavzalnim pojasnjevanjem ne morejo pojasniti subjektivnih dogajanj in družbenih pojavov vse tja do najmanjše podrobnosti, pač pa je slednje mogoče pojasniti le z globljim, bogatejšim verbalnim opisom. Vloga filozofije naj bi bila po Cioffijevem mnenju prav v razumevanju zmote “scientizma”, da je vse mogoče pojasniti s fizikalnimi zakonitostmi, in v sposobnosti razlikovanja med tem, kaj je mogoče pojasniti z znanostjo in kaj s humanistiko. To pa zahteva sposobnost presoje.

Tako je tudi v ekonomiji. Kljub pretenziji mnogih, morda celo večine kolegov, da je mogoče naše ekonomske aktivnosti zapisati in natančno opredeliti v enačbah ter nato dobro predvideti naša ravnanja prek ekonomskih modelov. Le še znanost in računalniki se morajo dovolj razviti, da bodo to zmogli. Tudi v ekonomiji je potrebna sposobnost presoje, kdaj nam teorije (modeli) ter kateri modeli lahko nekaj pojasnijo in kdaj se moramo zanesti na svojo intuicijo. In prav to sposobnost presoje in intuicije se mi zdi, da je sodoben tehnicističen študij ekonomije na podiplomski ravni uničil. Doktoranti po končanem drilu v veliki večini nimajo nobenega občutka za realnost, pač pa poskušajo vsak pojav opisati z eno izmed stotin čistih ad hoc parcialnih teorij, ki izključuje ostale možne razlage. No, še hujši so tisti, ki stavijo na eno veliko teorijo, denimo na neoklasični model splošnega ravnotežja v denimo real business cycles ali pa DSGE inkarnaciji, ki naj bi z dramatično redukcijo naših aktivnosti na nekaj enačb in na enega ali nekaj reprezentativnih agentov bila sposobna pojasniti in predvideti dogajanje v prihodnosti. Ali pa tisti, ki živijo v zablodi “računovodske vizije”.

No, ampak preberite si to čudovito zgodbo Simona Critchleya:

Despite the astonishing breadth of his interests, Frank’s core obsession in teaching turned on the relation between science and the humanities. More particularly, his concern was with the relation between the causal explanations offered by science and the kinds of humanistic description we find, say, in the novels of Dickens or Dostoevsky, or in the sociological writings of Erving Goffman and David Riesman. His quest was to try and clarify the occasions when a scientific explanation was appropriate and when it was not, and we need instead a humanistic remark. His conviction was that our confusions about science and the humanities had wide-ranging and malign societal consequences.

Let me give an example. Imagine that you depressed, because of the death of a loved one, heartbreak or just too much hard and seemingly pointless work. You go to see a doctor. After trying to explain what ails you, with the doctor fidgeting and looking at his watch, he exclaims: “Ah, I see the problem. Take this blue pill and you will be cured.” However efficacious the blue pill might be, in this instance the doctor’s causal diagnosis is the wrong one. What is required is for you to be able to talk, to feel that someone understands your problems and perhaps can offer some insight or even suggestions on how you might move forward in your life. This, one imagines, is why people go into therapy.

But let’s flip it around. Let’s imagine that you are on a ferry crossing the English Channel during a terrible winter storm. Your nausea is uncontrollable and you run out onto the deck to vomit the contents of your lunch, breakfast and the remains of the previous evening’s dinner. You feel so wretched that you no longer fear death — you wish you were dead. Suddenly, on the storm-tossed deck, appears R.D. Laing, the most skilled, charismatic and rhetorically gifted existential psychiatrist of his generation, in a blue velvet suit. He proceeds to give you an intense phenomenological description of how your guts feel, the sense of disorientation, the corpselike coldness of your flesh, the sudden loss of the will to live. This is also an error. On a ferry you want a blue pill that is going to alleviate the symptoms of seasickness and make you feel better.

Frank’s point is that our society is deeply confused by the occasions when a blue pill is required and not required, or when we need a causal explanation and when we need a further description, clarification or elucidation. We tend to get muddled and imagine that one kind of explanation (usually the causal one) is appropriate in all occasions when it is not.

What is in play here is the classical distinction made by Max Weber between explanation and clarification, between causal or causal-sounding hypotheses and interpretation. Weber’s idea is that natural phenomena require causal explanation, of the kind given by physics, say, whereas social phenomena require elucidation — richer, more expressive descriptions. In Frank’s view, one major task of philosophy is help us get clear on this distinction and to provide the right response at the right time. This, of course, requires judgment, which is no easy thing to teach.

This is the risk of what some call “scientism” — the belief that natural science can explain everything, right down to the detail of our subjective and social lives. All we need is a better form of science, a more complete theory, a theory of everything. Lord knows, there are even Oscar-winning Hollywood movies made about this topic. Frank’s point, which is still hugely important, is that there is no theory of everything, nor should there be. There is a gap between nature and society. The mistake, for which scientism is the name, is the belief that this gap can or should be filled.

One huge problem with scientism is that it invites, as an almost allergic reaction, the total rejection of science. As we know to our cost, we witness this every day with climate change deniers, flat-earthers and religious fundamentalists. This is what is called obscurantism, namely that the way things are is not explained by science, but with reference to occult forces like God, all-conquering Zeus, the benign earth goddess or fairies at the bottom of my garden. Now, in order to confront the challenge of obscurantism, we do not simply need to run into the arms of scientism. What is needed is a clearer overview of the occasions when a scientific remark is appropriate and when we need something else, the kind of elucidation we find in stories, poetry or indeed when we watch a movie or good TV […]

Vir: Simon Critchley, New York Times

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