St. Anselm’s Ontology, Normal Science & Irrational Voters

by Bruce Webb

What do these three things have in common and what possible relevance do they have to the debate over the Stimulus Bill?

The short answer is belief systems. Over at Krugman’s blog there was a certain amount of baffled debate over issues connected with the Treasury View. From the outside in these views seem to be irrational and counter-factual, people simply don’t react in the real world in ways that would be necessary. Which leads some of us to wonder if they are lying, ignorant, or insane. And the answer is two-fold and paradoxical-none of the above and all of the above. It is a question of where you stand.

Those interested in some amateur philosophy can follow me below the fold. Warning plenty of pretentious pedantry ahead.
St. Anselm of Canterbury, a towering giant in the political, intellectual and theological worlds of the 11th century is known today, if known at all, as one of the earliest proponents of the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God. While the argument itself is interesting (and not so obviously right or obviously wrong as it appears at first glance) I am not so much focusing on it as on the circumstances under which it was formed. Anselm was not a Seeker, not a Doubter and neither was much of his intended audience. His personal belief in the existence of God was unshakeable and not really the product of logic at all and his argument was not intended to proof anything, instead it was a way to further justify belief. That is if you presented him with a line of argumentation to prove that God did not exist he would seek to find the flaw. Similarly if his own argument seemed to fail he would not have changed his belief, instead he would have started his argument over. Because accepting the conclusion would be unthinkable.

Generally most of us have learned to live with people whose religious belief systems are not from the outside totally explicable. Some of the more uncharitable of us mock people of faith, but only a few fanatics seriously try to directly convert them to pure secularism, because secularism is a belief system of its own with its own blind spots. But once we push beyond the realm of religious faith we tend to lose sight that there are all kinds of belief systems out there that bind us in one way or another. We just don’t see that any given ‘counterfactual conclusion’ might really be that the conclusion is just incompatible with your particular belief system. Which doesn’t make you a liar necessarily, nor does it mean you are ignorant in the sense of unaware of the data in question, nor does it make you crazy in any sense that wouldn’t apply to any other Believer. But it might make you blind to the fact that your conclusion is ultimately faith based. St. Anselm was a great man in every sense of the word, and a brilliant intellect, but your chances of using any mode of argumentation to prove that God didn’t exist, or even to cast some doubt on the question to him would have been vanishingly small.

Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that most of what we know as science is simply the product of working within a belief system. In fact he calls the work product of this ‘Normal Science’. The above link is to a synopsis of Kuhn by Prof. Frank Pajares who introduces the subject as follows:

A scientific community cannot practice its trade without some set of received beliefs. These beliefs form the foundation of the “educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice”. The nature of the “rigorous and rigid” preparation helps ensure that the received beliefs are firmly fixed in the student’s mind. Scientists take great pains to defend the assumption that scientists know what the world is like…To this end, “normal science” will often suppress novelties which undermine its foundations. Research is therefore not about discovering the unknown, but rather “a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education”.

A shift in professional commitments to shared assumptions takes place when an anomaly undermines the basic tenets of the current scientific practice These shifts are what Kuhn describes as scientific revolutions – “the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science” New assumptions –”paradigms” – require the reconstruction of prior assumptions and the re-evaluation of prior facts. This is difficult and time consuming. It is also strongly resisted by the established community.

The much abused word ‘paradigm’ is roughly equivalent to ‘belief system’. In particular practitioners of Normal Science first and natural reaction to anomalies that don’t fit into the paradigm is to assume error in data collection or analysis. Only grudgingly will they admit that the paradigm is itself faulty and even then the impulse is not to adandon it but to adjust it. To the outside observer this can end up with results that seem obsessive. Kuhn’s first major work and the inspiration of ‘Scientific Revolutions’ was Copernican Revolution (a book I have not actually read) was devoted in part to a defense of the Ptolemaic Astronomers. These people were not simply in denial, they certainly were not ignorant, and not crazy. They were though embedded in a particular belief system in much the same way Anselm was. Heaven like God had to be perfect, Earth had to be at the center of the universe, and the most perfect of all shapes is the circle. That the resulting system was to the modern observer fantastically convoluted to the believer is a feature and not a bug. Medieval Astronomy like Medieval Theology like Talmudic Scholarship was extraordinarily complicated, but for believers that complexity was just a feature, nobody ever promised anybody that Truth comes in easy packages.

Which finally gets us back to Libertarianism and Classical Liberal Economics. To the extent you can distinguish between the two the practitioners tend to insist that they are just engaging in rational scientific practice. Some of them push this idea to the extreme, for people like Prof. Bryan Caplan rejecting his conclusions make you by definition irrational. For example take two short passages from his Intellectual Autobiography

Matt read Atlas Shrugged. One day he turned around in his chair and told me “Read this part. You’ll like it.” It was Francisco d’Anconia’s speech on money, and I rushed through it in fifteen exciting minutes. But for unclear reasons, I didn’t begin reading Atlas until the last week of summer before my senior year. If memory serves me, I raced through its thousand-plus pages in three largely sleepless days.

I would not call myself an instant convert. But I did start what I call “trying on her ideas for size.” When opportunity presented itself – or when I cornered my parents or friends or teachers or random fellow students – I played devil’s advocate for Rand’s Objectivism. After a couple of months – a long time in the intellectual life of a teen-ager – I was not playing devil’s advocate any longer. I was convinced that her philosophy was by and large correct.


As I digested the stock of libertarian insight, I noticed a phenomenon central to my mature research: Most people violently rejected even my most truistic arguments. Yes, I was a shrill teen-ager, but it seems like anyone should have recognized the potential downside of drug regulation once I pointed it out. Instead, they yelled louder about Thalidomide babies. True, it was not a complete surprise – I had already experienced the futility of trying to convert my family and friends to atheism during the prior year. But I was frustrated to find that human beings were almost as dogmatic about politics and economics as they were about religion and philosophy.

There are words for people who believe that Faith precedes Reason, that using the latter to justify the former is just the normal course of logical and even scientific thinking. Some of those words are pretty unkind, when I read libertarians my first judgment is ‘crazy as a bedbug’. But I am willing to give St. Anselm and the Ptolemaic Astronomers a pass, they were simply engaged in the Normal Science of their day.

St. Anselm would have been happy to admit he was hemmed in by the limits of his belief systems. Certain things had been established by the Early Doctors of the Church at the eight Great Ecumenical Councils and going outside those limits was heretical and at times and places subject to punishment by being burned alive. What fundamentally distinguishes people of openly religious faith and believers in Economics as Science is that most of the latter simply refuse to acknowledge that they have converted to a particular belief system and so are constrained by it. This is something they share with most Normal Scientists who tend still to reject Kuhn’s sociological analysis really on the basis that it challenges the very basis of their (to them) invisible belief system.

So yes Economics is scientific, just as Medieval Scholasticism was scientific, and as Ptolemaic Astronomy was scientific. None of which makes its conclusions true for all time. Einstein went to his death bed still struggling with the implications of Quantum Mechanics. He simply wouldn’t believe that in the end much of the Universe could only be explained by God Playing Dice.

I am not at all claiming that the Republican Senators and their enablers are Saints, or Scholars. And God knows none of them are Einstein. I am just saying that you have to understand that like the medieval scholars they are trapped within a fundamentally faith based model that insists that Markets are Perfect. If they have to insert a few epicycles into their theory (or in this case accept the Treasury View) to make it work well that is just the way it is. Nobody said Faith was supposed to be Easy.