The Living Thing / Notebooks :

Metis, .*-rationality and the cash value of belief

and spontaneous order, legibility, the Great Society and local knowledge

Spontaneous order, local knowledge, strategic belief, and other castings of the question about what it means to believe true things or not, which are foibles of the social orders which are studied by people other than me. I have no original thoughts on this, but I like to keep these links where I can see them so they don’t bite me.

Aside: Explainerism

David A. Banks, Podcast Out is not a great essay for its central thesis about methodological individualism per se, (Is public radio really so good at erasing discourse on social structure? Compared to?) but it does identify a tendency which I think needs a name, and the amusingly castigatory tone is a bonus pleasure. The theme is his least favourite “explainerist” podcasts/radio shows:

Each show delivers an old anecdote from an economist or a new study from a team of neuroscientists that shows “we may actually be hardwired to do” exactly what we feel comfortable doing. Cue the same word repeated by a dozen whispering voices, or a few bars of a Ratatat rip-off ambient band, and we’re on to a new book that argues organic food is not only good for you, it might make you a better person too. Finally, there’s a brief introspective monologue delivered in the exact same cadence of someone breaking up with you (“I decided that I needed to figure out who I really was so I sent my DNA samples to this guy who turns genetic data into floral arrangements.”) Ten minutes later you’re listening to the credits read by a guest into a voicemail inbox. NPR’s podcasts depoliticize important issues by recasting them as interesting factoids to be shared over cocktails […]


The function of belief

Anyway, Banks’s diatribe does perhaps illustrate a particular kind of strategic self-justifying strategic belief: “[Radiolab recasts] the political as endlessly unresolved scientific controversies, and act as science concern trolls,” he claims.

So these “explainerist” nuggets of satisfying factiness - why are they addictive? I mean, one specific answer is that they are a good marker of membership in a tribe that likes a certain kind of cocktail conversation. But I mean, more generally, what kind of beliefs prosper in society? What is the function of our truth claims?

When should you believe “true” things, and what are true things anyway?

Goal: find a way of navigating pragmatic functions of belief that sidestep the divisions in this anecdote:

I know this sounds like a story from some bad conservative novel, but it is not unheard of for rooms full of PhDs to applaud when someone says that, for example, witchcraft is just another way of knowledge and that disputing factual claims to its power is cultural hegemony.

To my ear’s it’s only the emphases that make this sound uncomfortable. On one hand I think that empirical fact is special in having a reality independent of human existence. On the other hand, none of our epistemological methods give us perfect access to the reality I posit. And does human knowledge transmission at large deal mostly in transmission of precise factual claims about physics? I don’t think it does, except sometimes, maybe, so we do need the tools to unpack the other propensities in the uses of language, and disentangle what is going on somewhere. Hell, science at its most precise still uses emotion and metaphor to do communicative work.

TBD, quote Lou Keep, The Use and Abuse of Witchdoctors for Life and Constantin, In defense of individualist culture, and Hayek’s “constructivist fallacy”, and Berkes and Folke’s “local knowledge”, pragmatist notions of a belief’s “cash value”, Local versus global truth, and all the other dissections of these problems, and wonder about idiosyncratic spontaneous group order etc. Discuss Social Capital and other economic framings as a method for making metis “legible”.


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