Friday, November 26, 2010

The use of the mind in society

Friedrich Hayek is primarily known for his contributions to economics and political philosophy. Yet one of his best contributions to both of these fields is an underlying theory of social learning. As an economist, he was interested in how it is that civilizations make use of information which is distributed among many individual minds (see, for instance, Hayek's essay, "The Use of Knowledge in Society"). As a political philosopher, he was interested in how institutions come to be, and how these institutions benefit individuals and allow society to progress. In both cases, Hayek finds that people engaged in free exchanges with one another unwittingly contribute to a process of social learning of which they themselves are mostly unaware.

Two paragraphs, one from "The Use of Knowledge in Society," and one from The Constitution of Liberty, will illustrate what I mean, from the economic and then from the political/sociological point of view. The first comes from a discussion of the price system, by which society coordinates the use of resources:
It is worth contemplating for a moment a very simple and commonplace instance of the action of the price system to see what precisely it accomplishes. Assume that somewhere in the world a new opportunity for the use of some raw material, say, tin, has arisen, or that one of the sources of supply of tin has been eliminated. It does not matter for our purpose—and it is very significant that it does not matter—which of these two causes has made tin more scarce. All that the users of tin need to know is that some of the tin they used to consume is now more profitably employed elsewhere and that, in consequence, they must economize tin. There is no need for the great majority of them even to know where the more urgent need has arisen, or in favor of what other needs they ought to husband the supply. If only some of them know directly of the new demand, and switch resources over to it, and if the people who are aware of the new gap thus created in turn fill it from still other sources, the effect will rapidly spread throughout the whole economic system and influence not only all the uses of tin but also those of its substitutes and the substitutes of these substitutes, the supply of all the things made of tin, and their substitutes, and so on; and all this without the great majority of those instrumental in bringing about these substitutions knowing anything at all about the original cause of these changes. The whole acts as one market, not because any of its members survey the whole field, but because their limited individual fields of vision sufficiently overlap so that through many intermediaries the relevant information is communicated to all. The mere fact that there is one price for any commodity—or rather that local prices are connected in a manner determined by the cost of transport, etc.—brings about the solution which (it is just conceptually possible) might have been arrived at by one single mind possessing all the information which is in fact dispersed among all the people involved in the process.
The second is a statement about the development of institutions in society. From The Constitution of Liberty, Chapter Four, Section 2:
Those British philosophers [Hume, Smith, Ferguson, Tucker, Burke, Paley, et al.] have given us an interpretation of the growth of civilization that is still the indispensable foundation of the argument for liberty. They find the origin of institutions, not in contrivance or design, but in the survival of the successful. Their view is expressed in terms of "how nations stumble upon establishments which are indeed the result of human action but not the execution of human design." It stresses that what we call political order is much less the product of our ordering intelligence than is commonly imagined. As their immediate successors saw it, what Adam Smith and his contemporaries did was "to resolve almost all that has been ascribed to positive institution into the spontaneous and irresistable development of certain obvious principles,--and to show with how little contrivance or political wisdom the most complicated and apparently artificial schemes of policy might have been erected."
In both the economic and political realms, society as a whole can be seen as a unit, learning to improve its state much as an individual human does. No individual human being sees what is going on, yet each individual is contributing to the progress of the whole. I can't help but point out a crucial irony here. Hayek's "individualism" is in fact a theory about how society functions as a whole, and it is only by this theory that we can understand why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The collectivist, on the other hand, by emphasizing the whole society at the expense of the individual, in fact makes the whole less than the sum of its parts. The more control of society is placed in the hands of a few individuals, the less of society's potential can ever be realized.

This has critical implications for the use of the individual mind. At least since Plato, we have often been accustomed to thinking of the mind as a tool for obtaining all the knowledge that is useful to know. For Plato, real knowledge was acquaintance with the Forms, or, in modern scientific language, the underlying theory behind everything. From this point of view, all concrete knowledge of particular events is but a shadow of more abstract principles. To ascend toward the divine, we must increase in theoretical understanding until, presumably, we unlock the "theory of everything," the principle underlying all particular phenomena in the universe.

By contrast, Hayek draws on an empiricist tradition to assert that concrete knowledge of particular phenomena is of equal value to theoretical or scientific knowledge. It is not only the right of each individual to make use of his own knowledge of particular circumstances, but it is in fact essential to social progress that each individual does so. The conclusion we may draw from this is that the human mind is in no way an instrument for obtaining all the knowledge which is useful to know. The rationalist may convince himself that he is in an eternal struggle to ascend to the principles governing all things. The empiricist, while not disparaging the value of theoretical knowledge, may humbly point out that this ascension is always necessarily incomplete. Even should one finally obtain a "theory of everything," this would in no way constitute all the knowledge worth having.

As a consequence, the individual human mind, no matter how sophisticated or advanced it may be, is still relatively small. This can cause a considerable amount of frustration. When we see a problem in society that needs to be solved, it is understandable if we are drawn to devising some plan for solving it through collective action. Yet such a plan cannot work unless the one devising the plan has all the information which is in fact distributed among all the people in society. The fact is that none of us has or can ever have this information. In this there is little difference between the most and the least intelligent among us.

There is, however, a way out of this frustration, a principle which can guide us in understanding the inherent value in our actions--so long as we first come to recognize and accept our limitations. Although it is impossible to see progress at work in individual circumstances, all of us together nevertheless act as one body, a living organism composed of individual human beings acting not in unison, but in an unexpected and often incomprehensible harmony. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how our actions, which seem to affect only the tiny spheres to which our individual awareness is limited, could contribute to the growth of society as a whole; yet not only does each individual action contribute, it even contributes more than is immediately seen by that individual. The value of each of our tiny contributions may not be really understood for generations; but the value of our actions does not depend on how well we currently understand what is going on.

All of this requires that we, as a society, be united by a certain set of underlying principles--not by any particular plan of action. Those principles have been said to primarily consist of a respect for human life, a belief that each individual ought to be free to pursue his own ends, and a respect for individual property. I won't insist that this is necessarily a complete list of principles to which we must hold, but these are certainly the three main ones, as far as I can see. But the point is that while we will not be able to predict the outcome of holding to these principles, yet they are sufficient for us to exist together as a society, to grow and learn as one connected body.

The individual mind, then, is free to explore the world as he experiences it. Nothing should prevent him from working to solve the problems he sees as most pertinent--so long as he abides by the principles we have just described. And nothing should prevent him from creating whatever he finds most beautiful, or working at whatever occupation he finds most satisfying, so long as he is willing to accept responsibility for whatever risks may be associated with his endeavors. He will not be acting in a vacuum; others will see him and learn from him, they will support him if they believe in him, they will criticize him if they disapprove of him, and ultimately they will benefit from him, whether it is through reaping the fruit of his labor (which he will give them in exchange for something else) or through learning from his mistakes. Each individual action creates a ripple effect in which information is carried through the entire society. The sum of these ripples is what we might call social learning.

I thought it would be interesting to meditate on this theory of learning in the Christian tradition. The more I read, the more I consider how divided Christians are within themselves on the question of knowledge. There seem to be both Platonist and anti-Platonist strains of Christian thought. What I would like to defend here is what one might call Christian empiricism.

To the question of whether all knowledge worth having is theoretical knowledge, the Christian is forced to answer an emphatic no. Without the concrete knowledge of God becoming man in Jesus Christ, without the testimony of his death and resurrection, Christianity would have nothing to say to the world. No one can ascend to this knowledge, since it is a witness to particular events in history.

Even more interesting to ponder, however, is the individual's knowledge of God and how this relates to the church. Paul speaks of the church as a body with many parts, each performing different functions. I do not mean to draw my theology from Hayek (who was not a Christian), and I do not mean to make comparisons which may appear to some as irreverent; yet there really is a fascinating similarity between the free society as Hayek describes it and the New Testament's vision of the church united under the "law of liberty" (cf. James 2:12). The unity of Christians is a given; all are united in Christ. Yet the conscience of each individual Christian is free. Each one may use his gifts and talents as he wishes.

But I'm particularly interested in the use of the Christian mind. Here is where I have been particularly attracted in recent years to the Eastern Orthodox rejection of western rationalist tendencies. Whereas in the West we have tended to systematize everything, the East has tended to emphasize experience. Yet this experience is tied to tradition, which is rightly to be expected if one truly rejects the rationalist point of view. Again, I'm not treating Hayek as a theologian here, but it is striking that he makes this comment:
To the empiricist evolutionary tradition, on the other hand, the value of freedom consists mainly in the opportunity it provides for the growth of the undesigned, and the beneficial functions of a free society rests largely on the existence of such freely grown institutions. There probably never has existed a genuine belief in freedom, and there has certainly been no successful attempt to operate a free society, without a genuine reverence for grown institutions, for customs and habits and "all those securities of liberty which arise from regulation of long prescription and ancient ways." Paradoxical as it may appear, it is probably true that a successful free society will always in a large measure be a tradition-bound society. (The Constitution of Liberty, Chapter Four, Section 5)
When an individual accepts the limitations of his own mind, he opens himself up to experience the world directly, yet not in such a way that his own experience trumps the experience of all those who have come before him. Acknowledging himself to be but one small part of a much greater whole, he realizes that his contribution to the progress of the society must build on what he has inherited. The church is a society that seeks to make her life with God, and to increase in her knowledge of him. This knowledge increases as each of us individually experiences his presence, yet not separately from one another; we build on what has been passed down.

We Protestants have done a bad job on both counts. Either we have utterly rejected experience as a trustworthy guide to real knowledge of God, or we have detached the experience of God from tradition. In both cases, it appears we're essentially rationalists: we believe that each individual independently is capable of learning all that is worth knowing about God. I wouldn't say I'm ready to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. The structure of the Eastern Orthodox Church seems a bit too rigid to allow for a full expression of Christian liberty. I only humbly suggest that their approach to knowing God is in certain respects far superior to ours.

I believe that in many ways Christians have much to teach the world about freedom, the value of the individual, and his relationship to society, but only if we critically reflect on our own tradition. Sometimes it doesn't hurt to have the input of those outside the Christian tradition. (Hayek himself acknowledges that many of his principles can be traced back to Christian thought.) These are ideas worth thinking about, not only within the church, but in society in general. Our minds are great gifts, but it is far from certain that we have been using them in the best way!

1 comment:

  1. One day, we'll have to have a fascinating discussion on Eastern Orthodoxy because studying its teachings and how they saw Christian life gave me a new perspective that truly saved my faith. Eventually I ended up Catholic (which is an equally long story), but seeing the Eastern Orthodox Church in the Middle East, please rest assured they are anything but rigid. :) One just has to know what's going on, I think, and especially *why* they do what they do. (Sometimes, the things that might seem rigid are usually in place because of very deep-seated theological values they wish to express.) I love the Eastern Church SO much. In fact, if you like podcasts, check out It's an Eastern Orthodox media site that does blogs, podcasts, etc.

    -- Joanna Henzel


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