Maxims matter more than maximization. Much in life isn’t quantifiable, much less numerically maximizable. Words, logic, images, and patterns all can express more than numbers can. Numbers and mathematics do different things in physics than in evolution and economics. Economists, perhaps “in slavish imitation of...physicists,” unwisely ignore that evolution fitted us for maxims, not maximizations, to manage life’s complexities, uncertainties, and contradictions.
Galileo in grounding heliocentricity, promoted a mathocentric physics. Since he declared his faith that “the Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics,” physics has largely seen math as the one-true-way, the universal hammer that nails all truths. But physics has it easy. Its math describes simple, consistent behaviors, reliable direct forces, and closed causalities.
Evolution, though its core idea is captured in Herbert Spencer's simple maxim “Survival of the fittest,” gets very complicated. Evolution is like language, an open generative process. The grammar (or rules of the game) of its processes is fixed, but it has open and indirect kinds of causality, that makes it less predictable. Evolutionary biologists use comparatively little math, typically for experimental statistics, rather than for causal equations.
Economics and the social sciences face trickier tasks than physics. They suffer uncertainties unknown in physics, of types that would frighten Heisenberg. People vary far more than atoms. Nothing in physics chooses. Or innovates. Or can so easily change its behavior. The math of the social sciences should be considered less closedly causal, less psychics-y.
Terence Burnham in a paper on “caveman economics,” finds it useful to write: “Economists may benefit by incorporating the insights of natural scientists”—especially distinguishing between ultimate and proximate causes. What makes sense proximally (e.g. a bird parenting rule: Feed any open mouth in your nest) can become ultimately anomalous (e.g. if others put their eggs in your nest, the preferred parenting strategy of brood parasites, such as cuckoos. Physics deals in direct causality, leaving no space for such indirectness and incoherence.
But life teems with indirect complex causes and seeming inconsistencies. Fortunately we are born “biologically prepared” to automatically acquire, without training, behavioral guidelines encoded in maxims or proverbs. These are anthropological human universals, found in all known cultures. Maxims are universal, and universally include contradictory pairs. “Many hands make light work” but “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Contradictory maxims survive where single rules of thumb don’t work. Lacking one true rule, we carry many and mix-and-match for particular situations. Physics’ capacity for universal mathematical laws, doesn’t yet fit all of life.
The mathocentric faith of Galileo’s disciples can be unwise. Wisdom means knowing how to choose rightly, for example picking the thinking tool fittest for each task. Economists who rely mainly on numbers to define rational behavior unwisely ignore that we aren’t by nature calculators. Math takes training. Maximizing narrow monetary self-interest isn’t a fit proxy for evolutionary success (for a highly interdependent species).
Numbers and mathematics have no monopoly on precision or truth. Words, logic, images, and patterns can be qualitatively exact. Only poor-quality thinking ignores that mathematics can’t yet be counted on to add up to the sum of all human wisdom. Reason and prudence dictate that we keep different kinds of thinking tools in our cranial toolboxes.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
Previously in this series: