Hayek's The Sensory Order

This is, I think, an overrated book. It begins by trying to solve a non-problem: "A precise statement of the problem raised by the existence of sensory qualities must start from the fact that the progress of the physical sciences has all but eliminated these qualities from our scientific picture of the external world."

This is nonsense. The physical sciences quite deliberately abstracted from the sensory world only those aspects of it which could be quantitatively measured. The "problem" Hayek sets out to solve is like the "problem" of where all the potholes went in a road map of New York State.

What he goes on to attempt to show is how consciousness "arises" as an emergent property of a complex system of neurons. But what we get is a description of neural classification through patterns of connections of neurons, and then... magic! Consciousness!

But Hayek shouldn't be blamed for failing here: as T. H. Green (among many other philosophers) demonstrated, consciousness, being what it is, can't be the outcome of some sequence of spatio-temporal events. What can "emerge" from any such sequence is only another item in the sequence. But consciousness can take in the whole sequence, and see it as a unity. So it cannot be another item in the sequence.

An analogy: lots of things can emerge from the sequence of plays in a basketball game. We may see, for instance, the defense respond with a certain pattern of positioning in response to made shots. But what can never emerge from such a sequence is an ESPN story describing the game.


  1. I've never read Hayek or Mises except for bits and pieces of their writings. Which one would you say is more valuable?


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