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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

You Choose, I Choose, We Choose!

Jim, Mary, and I are each sitting at our own homes, wondering what to do. Without any communication, each of us happens to look in the paper and see that Source Code is playing nearby. We each leave our home and walk to the theater.

A good description of what happened: "I decided to go see Source Code, and so, by chance, did Jim and Mary."

Jim, Mary, and I are each sitting together at a bar. We are thinking we should head somewhere else, and Mary decides to look in the paper and see what movies are showing. She shows Jim and me the listings and asks, "Have you heard anything about any of these?" Several minutes of discussion ensues. The upshot of it all is that the three of us head off together to see Source Code.

A good description of happened: "We decided to go see Source Code."

That was a group decision. The central tenet of methodological individualism, that only individuals choose, is plainly false.

"Wow, wait a second," you say, "each of those individuals had to reach that decision in his/her own head."

So what? That is akin to objecting to someone saying "He hit the baseball out of the park" by claiming "Baseballs don't move -- only atoms move!"

Of course, for a baseball to be moving, the atoms in it must be moving. Of course, for a group to reach a decision, the individuals in it must be reaching decisions. The first truth does not mean that baseballs don't move, and the second does not mean that groups don't choose.

29 comments:

  1. Atoms have no will.

    Your friends are a non-coercive group so your word magic won't cause any dangerous variances between thought and reality.

    If you start suggesting I have something to do with American foreign policy, well, your map won't fit the territory. Methodological individualism will keep your observations accurate. Now I do admit it will probably keep you poorer. This is why economists have been trading truth for comfortable government jobs ever since there was such a profession.

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  2. "Atoms have no will."

    Uh... Yes, and?

    "Your friends are a non-coercive group so your word magic won't cause any dangerous variances between thought and reality."

    Word magic? Saying "we choose to go to the movies" is plain, simple, commonsense, everyday English. No magic involved. In fact, I think pretty much anyone not infected with the idea of methodological individualism recognizes that groups choose.

    "Methodological individualism will keep your observations accurate."

    Well, as I just demonstrated in my post, no, it won't. It will blind you to the obvious fact that "we chose to go to the movies."

    "This is why economists have been trading truth for comfortable government jobs ever since there was such a profession."

    I love this dodge. Whenever one of Rothbard's acolytes began to think for himself, Rothbard would claim "He's sold out to the State!"

    Do economists who hold to methodological individualism do so just to get comfortable investment bank jobs?

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  3. How would you typically respond to those who say that international trade happens between countries?

    Isn't that typically the point where we have to ask, "No, no, wait we have to be a little more specific about who is trading here"?

    I mean, if we were talking about South Asia and East Africa and trade of goods across the two regions 500 years ago, it would be misleading to say that South Asia trades with East Africa, because most of both regions were rural, remote, subsistence economy villages. The trade here only involved a small group of textile producers across the west coast of South Asia and a small group of Arab merchants across the east coast of Africa.

    To say that two entire groups traded here would make it seem like every East African was trading and benefitting from South Asian trade.

    I think it's pretty reasonable to expect clear specific language in serious discourse. And group-based references tend to blur things.

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  4. But Prateek, just because sometimes it is sensible to talk of a group doing something or choosing, does not mean it is always sensible to do so! Sometimes it is best to talk at the level of the earth's climate, sometimes the weather front, sometimes the cloud, sometimes the water droplet, and sometimes the H2O molecule. You can get muddled talking at the wrong level, e.g. "South Asia trades with East Africa" or "Is that molecule windy?"

    I think that means we have to be clear about what level we are working on, but I can't see why it means we have to stick to one level.

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  5. Gene,

    Have you read any of Searle's work on the construction of social reality?

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  6. Funny you ask: I was just reading a paper of his on that topic. And I was puzzling a bit about his "it's all language" thesis. If the job of "captain" of a team is created merely by designating someone the captain, what is the meaning of a sentence like, "John was elected captain, but we all knew the real captain was Bill"?

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  7. Gene,

    I'm afraid I don't understand the context of the statement about John and Bill. Is it that John may be nominally the captain but Bill is really doing the job? Or is the claim that election isn't really the proper way to pick a captain (e.g. "the usurpers 'elected' John as king, but everyone knew that the rightful claimant to the throne was Bill.") Or am I totally off base?

    P.S. While for some reason Blogger identifies me as Edward on your site, I am in fact the same person who comments at Bob's blog under the name Blackadder.

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  8. Gene, I've never thought of methodological individualism like that. My idea of methodological individualism is something which should be better titled "methodological reductionism". In fact, every "collective phenomenon" can be traced back ultimately by individual interactions.

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  9. 'My idea of methodological individualism is something which should be better titled "methodological reductionism".'

    So then why stop at individuals? Why not trace everything back to, say, biochemical interactions?

    And if we could trace everything back to individual behaviour, why does that mean we should do so? Or, if it doesn't mean we should, then why call it individualism?

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  10. Blackedward -- it's funny, you used to be blackadder here, too, I wonder what happened? -- what I mean is this: I think it is a puzzle for Searle's theory that we could make such a statement. If we named John the captain, well, per Searle, that's that. I suspect that there is something about "being the captain" that is not merely language-created.

    By the way, although I appear as "Gene Callahan" here, I am really Alasdair MacIntyre!

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  11. Gene,

    I should probably go back and look at the book again before commenting, but I *think* Searle's theory of designation is a bit more supple. You can say, for example, that the word "apple" refers to an apple because we designate it as such, yet it would still be sensible to say something like "we all decided to call it an apple, even though we all knew it was really an orange."

    As for why Blogger has decided to designate me as Edward when we all know I'm really Blackadder, the Internet gods are a capricious lot.

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  12. Blackward -- h, I like that portmanteau word! -- all I read of Searle on this was a brief paper. I remember having this worry about the paper, but perhaps the book clears it up.

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  13. "So then why stop at individuals? Why not trace everything back to, say, biochemical interactions?"

    Right, I see your point here and I agree.

    "And if we could trace everything back to individual behaviour, why does that mean we should do so?"

    Depends on the nature of what you're analyzing, its all a practical matter! But given that we suppose that individual agents have free-will (even acknowledging that determinism is still possible), methodological individualism may serve as the most accurate method by which we can study social phenomena.

    In fact, there is no conclusion you can arrive with any method in the social sciences that can't be achieved with methodological individualism (which may be quite difficult and tedious to apply it consistently through all the analysis).

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  14. "In fact, there is no conclusion you can arrive with any method in the social sciences that can't be achieved with methodological individualism (which may be quite difficult and tedious to apply it consistently through all the analysis)."

    Well, so you claim, but, on what evidence? Let's again look at the weather, a less contentious topic, and then proceed by analogy. Could you even see a tornado analyzing individual molecules? I think you would need to add in the patterns coordinating their movements to even see the tornado, at which point your no longer reductionist.

    Now, bu analogy: Could you really even understand that there was a Battle of the Bulge, a German counter-offensive, in WWII, by noting, "This soldier ran that way, and that one got in a tank a drove this way..." I'm not saying it would merely be very tedious to do that analysis; I'm wondering how in the world, at the end, you'd arrive at the notion of "German counter-offensive" if you never raise your glance above the individual level to the patterns the individuals compose together.

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  15. Well, I would say that by the means of abstraction. You can tell the pattern of molecules by taking into account their position and other physical characteristics. You can tell that those men running and driving tanks were born in that region of Europe, in a given historical context, and so on, are, in fact, member of the German Army and whatever other conclusions it may lead.

    But I guess that you mean that even the action of abstracting goes against methodological individualism. If that's what you mean, you win.

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  16. Well, what I mean is, once you have to take into account patterns of individuals, you are looking at something larger than individuals and not reducible to the level of individuals. So yes, then you have abandoned methodological individualism.

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  17. (My apologies if I have already sent this.)

    "So then why stop at individuals? Why not trace everything back to, say, biochemical interactions?"

    I do not see your point. As the very first comment from August stated: "Atoms [and biochemical interactions] have no will." That is why we do not trace everything back beyond the will of the individual.

    "Could you really even understand that there was a Battle of the Bulge, a German counter-offensive, in WWII, by noting, "This soldier ran that way, and that one got in a tank a drove this way..." I'm not saying it would merely be very tedious to do that analysis; I'm wondering how in the world, at the end, you'd arrive at the notion of "German counter-offensive" if you never raise your glance above the individual level to the patterns the individuals compose together."

    I do not think the issue is "never raising your glance above the individual level." People in the military have made an individual decision to put the group ahead of their own individual choice. Any group that has formed by individual choice, with said individuals holding to "majority rules" or "something else rules" -- with that "something else" being anything other than their own decision-making -- is fair game to be analyzed on a larger (greater than individual) scale.

    This applies to any team or group formed by free will. In the example of the movie: if Jim, Mary, and Gene all meet and discuss what movie they want to see, the only way the group moves in unison is if the group has committed to "majority rules" or "unanimity rules" or "something else rules" (like Gene is paying for everyone's ticket so he get's to pick). Again, it is the person who must make the individual choice to allow someone or something else to occupy the seat of decision-maker.

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  18. "if the group has committed to "majority rules" or "unanimity rules" or "something else rules"

    I misspoke. I should have said "if the INDIVIDUAL has commited to . . ."

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  19. 'I misspoke. I should have said "if the INDIVIDUAL has commited to . . ."'

    No, antiwhatevertherestofthoselettersare, you at first spoke completely correctly: the group had decided. That is the natural way all humans not infected by the ideological doctrine of methodological individualism will describe the situation. Then your ideology kicked in, you suddenly realized you had expressed this in the simple, commonsense way, and came back and corrected yourself.

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  20. "I do not see your point. As the very first comment from August stated: "Atoms [and biochemical interactions] have no will." That is why we do not trace everything back beyond the will of the individual."

    OK, antiwhatever, what is this "will"? Are you a materialist? Then this "will" has to be just a congeries of lower level interactions, so there is absolutely no reason to stop there. If you are not, then there may be more of interest to discuss here.

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  21. LOL! Well played, sir.

    I agree -- that is the way most people talk. That is also the general way that I express things. But, in general, I am not trying to explain methodological individualism or other somewhat esoteric concepts.

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  22. No, I am definitely not a materialist.

    I may be in over my head since we are talking quasi-philosophical concepts, but when I used the word "will," I was trying to address things such as thought, reason, agency.

    I think that we will have to agree to disagree since I am pretty sure that I am not going to convice you, and, after reading your blog post and comments on ThinkMarkets regarding this very topic, I do not think that you will convince me. Of course, I could be wrong.

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  23. Well, given you are not a materialist, I believe you have open to you the most convincing justification for methodological individualism out there: there is something new at the level of the individual that is not present at lower levels, and nothing similar emerges at higher levels. But that doesn't settle the issue: the Catholic Church is definitely not materialist, but it (ah! a group identity!) has the concept as "the Church as the body of Christ."

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  24. I think I understand you, Gene. You may also argue that when an economist talks about "money", "supply and demand", "goods" and so on, he has also abandoned methodological individualism.

    Others might say that methodological individualism is the idea of building social explanation from the ground up, and not the other way around (for instance, starting the analysis in terms of groups). You'll say that from the moment you have departed from the individual analysis and seeing everything from a macro perspective, you are not a methological individualist anymore.

    What caught my attention was the "ideological doctrine of methodological individualism". Do you consider it as an ideological doctrine? Or you just made up that because it takes a good deal of dogma and faith?

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  25. "the Church as the body of Christ."

    In my first comment, I considered addressing the issue of the church but did not do so for two reasons: First, I had not given it enough thought. (I still haven't, so readers beware.)

    Second, when I did think about the church, it seemed to add weight to what I was saying: The church can be addressed as a group -- the body of Christ -- because individuals have made the decision that "something else" rules in place of their own decision-making. This "something else," for the Christian, is actually "Someone else." The individual makes this decision through the public and rather notorious act of baptism.

    Not to go off on a tangent, but I used to think blogs were a waste of time. Now, I realize that some of them are quite useful. While they may not necessarily change a person's mind, they allow for a vigorous discussion of ideas, and ideas are powerful.

    For instance, your last comment to me helped to remind/enlighten me to the fact that the spiritual, although not recognized by some, needs to be considered in any philosophical analysis. For that, thank you vey much.

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  26. antiahithophel, glad you got something from our discussion.

    By the way, what is that name you're using?

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  27. Yes, ivanfoofoo, look at money: it makes no sense at all for Crusoe-type analysis. Money can only exist as part of a larger pattern of social interactions. Certainly individuals and their preferences enter into understanding money, but something more has to as well.

    Methodological individualism came about, I think, as an antidote to the holisms of class, race, nation, and so on. They needed an antidote, but it's been applied and done its job. Can't we now get past that battle and say, "Let's analyze of social problem on whatever level provides illumination."

    It makes perfect sense to look at a battle in terms of what "the 5th German Armored Division" were up to.

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  28. Good morning, Dr. Callahan.

    "Ahithophel" was one of King David's advisors, but he was an unfaithful scoundrel. Thus, I inserted the "anti" -- since I think that I am a pretty faithful friend.

    When I recently re-read the account, he was even more of a scoundrel than I remembered; so, maybe I will change my moniker.

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  29. '"Ahithophel" was one of King David's advisors, but he was an unfaithful scoundrel.'

    Sorry, I was raised Catholic -- I wouldn't know about any of that Bible business.

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