Another way of looking at it…

For your edification, let’s attempt a synthesis of economics, free will and Intelligent Design. Maybe it will kick off a whole new academic discipline. Or maybe not.


As I wrote in my recent post the “evolutionary economics” being proclaimed in the 2012 BBC Reith Lectures is conceptually flawed. Far from being the result of blind evolutionary forces, everything in economics is the direct result of free human choices, which is where economists ought to look for understanding.

Ah, someone might say – but what about unforeseen, chaotic events such as the runs on banks that triggered the crash of the last few years? Are they not emergent properties beyond the matter of human choice? Well, unforeseen they were, but that was from human ignorance and, probably more significantly, willful blindness to the consequences of people’s own actions. Let’s look more closely at decision making.

I’ve recently dipped into philosopher Jonathan Edwards’ writing about free will. I downloaded his work when involved in discussing the matter on Uncommon Descent with “tragic mishap”, but didn’t get round to reading it. He does an excellent job of showing the incoherence of the arbitrary free will that is so often demanded as a necessity nowadays (as it was by the new Arminian thinkers of Edwards’ own day). He points out that if the will is simply determined by itself, one must ask what determines that determination, to which the only answer can be “the will”. And that determination too must be the decision of the will, leading to an infinite regress.

The only alternative to that is that some random process results in a completely arbitrary determination of the will. Although some such idea must lie behind the prevalent conflation of “free will” with “randomness” in much TE discussion, it’s obvious that it simply robs us of all real freedom and makes us purely the victims of chance. It would make the alternative to the most rigid (and misrepresentative) form of Calvinism, in which God unilaterally determines our eternal destiny, a system in which chance similarly determines our fate. Not an attractive choice, but I think I’d rather go with a rational and loving God than a blind dice-thrower, if I had to choose, which I only could if both alternatives are false!
Edwards proposes instead that our wills are determined simply by our strongest motivations. Which is self-evident. Even if we deliberately act in an arbitrary and irrational way to prove our freedom, our strongest motivation is proving a point. That’s why how we cultivate our motivations governs our long-term moral and spiritual state.

So in “evolutionary economics”, the panics and see-saws are caused by most people’s dominant motivation being fear of impoverishment, self-interest etc, rather than a dispassionate and rational desire to keep the economy stable. The more the motivations for those choices are understood, the better the systems can be. But underlying it all is the fact that the whole of economics is the result of the free choices of individual human beings. It is, in fact, a throughly intelligently designed human system. Ferguson may put many of those choices down to the “hard wired fallibility” of humans, but they’re nevertheless as much free choices as those made by humans in bondage to sin in Christian theology.

But here we have a problem. For Niall Ferguson, a leading thinker in the human science of Economics, though he actually acknowledges the human core of economics (suggesting in some ways it’s more Lamarckian than Darwinian), still sees blind evolutionary mechanisms as the best model for the unpredictability and messiness, as well as the successes, of the money system. Yet every part of the system has been planned with purposes in view – it’s just that being human in origin, those purposes often fail or incur unforeseen consequences. If he has trouble seeing the centrality of choice in a human science, why might the same phenomenon not occur in biological evolution? How would natural scientists see intelligent agency if it were there, if conditioned to an ateleological evolutionary viewpoint?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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One Response to Another way of looking at it…

  1. Gregory says:

    “let’s attempt a synthesis of economics, free will and Intelligent Design.”

    In that case, you would surely want to start with the de-capitalised version: intelligent design.

    FYI, George Gilder, known for his ‘supply-side economics’ in the book Wealth and Povery, was one of the co-founders of the Discovery Institute. He is far from being an ‘evolutionist,’ but I’ve not read anything of his that promotes ‘intelligent design economics.’ You might want to look into the burgeoning field of ‘neuro-economics’ for the ‘free will’ topic you raise.

    In regard to acknowledging the centrality of human choice in human-social sciences, we are obviously on the same page. It makes me wonder where you are gleaning some of these ideas from! ; )

    Ferguson is an historian, rather than “a leading thinker in economics.” There is a small, but growing legion of practising economists from whom he is borrowing his ‘evolutionary economics’ ideas (cf. European Association of Evolutionary Political Economy). Ferguson’s new wife is also an interesting, yet controversial thinker, associated with the death of Theo van Gogh.

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