Re: CAMREC: Power-laws, teleology and econophysicsboundary=

From: the Campaign for Real Economics (
Date: Sun Mar 25 2001 - 17:14:37 BST

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    From: the Campaign for Real Economics <>
    Date: Sun, 25 Mar 2001 17:14:37 +0100
    Subject: Re: CAMREC: Power-laws, teleology and econophysicsboundary=

    This is one of those questions that artificial intelligence has wrestled
    with long and hard. Summarising, simplifying and going out on a limb,
    the conclusions drawn were that :
     a) These questions of where intentionality, motives and consciousness
    come from are deep ones which we do not yet know the answers to.
     b) It doesn't really matter; we can talk of intentions anyway.

    This is Dennett's 'intentional stance'. It argues that we may ascribe
    intentions to anything - be it an object, an agent or a more abstract
    system such as an economic entity - whenever it helps give us an
    understanding of that thing's behaviour. This understanding being
    measured in terms of
        (a) explaining the known data
    and (b) making accurate predictions
    (ie. empirically).
    Perhaps the essence of the intentional stance is to see intentions as a
    useful and powerful metaphor to allow us to understand complex systems.
    The use of intentions in theories does not then make any philosophical
    claims about the consciousness of the objects analysed. It is simply a
    language we can use that people have an innate understanding of.(1)

    So we could explain gravity in terms of objects wanting to be close
    together. Similarly, if an idea from physics gives a good explanation
    for a phenomenon, than we may use it as a metaphor. This is done without
    committing ourself to any claim that the two systems have the same
    underlying nature; merely that they have the same structure, thus
    allowing an analogy to be drawn.

    You say you would have a hard time ascribing intentions to anything
    lower than a cell. However it is common practice to explain evolution in
    terms of the intentions of genes. No-one really thinks of genes as
    having motives, but the language of intentions gives such a good
    description of their behaviour (try explaining evolution without; your
    explanantion will be far clumsier).

    In economics, agents often represent people - who we're pretty sure do
    have intentions. However it is less clear whether a company/society/etc.
    can be said to have intentions. The best 'scientific' approach is
    probably to use the language and ideas of intentions, but carefully;
    only where it can be shown to give good explanations. We should judge
    theories couched in terms of intentions exactly the same as theories
    couched in terms of say, energy and pressure: how well do they explain
    the data.

    Hope that is of some help.
     - Dan

    1) There is a danger here, in that the language is very evocative, but
    not very well defined. It possibly has a bad effect in a field such as
    AI where the use of anthropomorphic language makes systems sound much
    more impressive than they really are. Also, unlike mathematical
    language, it can allow a theory to be 'fuzzy' and open to interpretation
    (to quote Russell, mathematical language is used in science because only
    in mathematics can you say as little as you mean).

    the Campaign for Real Economics wrote:
    > Power-laws and teleology:
    > I've been interested in Econophysics for some time, seems a natural way to
    > view human activity. I've been surprised by the lack of interest expressed
    > by economists, though.
    > It seems that blending economics and physics may have deeper philosophic
    > differences than I thought. Economics must explicitly acknowledge that
    > competitive agents act with 'intent.' Physics has no formal notion of
    > 'agent intent.' The existence of intent adds teleology and metaphysics
    > prior to the epistemological level. I doubt that physics even uses the
    > notion of 'agents', there are only 'objects.' On a billiard table, one only
    > needs initial conditions to predict system behavior. The billiard balls
    > have no 'intent.' Teleology has been exorcised from physics.
    > This leads me to ask what it is that we demonstrate when systems of
    > 'intending agents' and' un-intentional objects' both exhibit power-law
    > distributions. Power-law distributions are regularly seen in biological
    > populations, human societies and quantum physics. What does it mean for a
    > stockmarket to display power-laws despite the high degree of freedom agents
    > possess, where every agent seems to have complete freedom to pursue any
    > strategy (including withdrawal)? Can we construct a mechanistic simulation
    > model that successfully demonstrates agent behavior in both intentional and
    > unintentional styles?
    > It looks like this is the same problem facing molecular biologists. They
    > can describe every reaction in terms of pure (unintentional) physical
    > chemistry, but this begs the question of where intentionality emerges? At
    > what point can one hook intentionality to an organizational unit?
    > We don't have any trouble assigning intention to humans. Most would say
    > dogs and cats have intentions. Some would say the heart intents to pump
    > blood and lungs intend to obtain oxygen from the air. A few might say white
    > blood cells intend to destroy foreign proteins. Personally, I'd have a hard
    > time ascribing intention at a lower level than a cell, but others go much
    > further.
    > Where is the epistemological justification for an econophysicist to hook
    > intention to simulated agent?

    "The time has come," the Walrus said,
    "To talk of many things:
    Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
    Of cabbages--and kings"

    Daniel Winterstein 2F1 6 Mansfield Place Edinburgh, EH3 6NB 0131 556 2187 / 650 2724

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