Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hayek and Science: A Liberty Fund Conference

Recently, I received approval to direct a Liberty Fund conference on "Hayek and the Scientific Study of Economics, Politics, and Morality."

If you have ever been to a Liberty Fund conference, you know that it's great fun. I think it's the most intellectually stimulating way to organize an academic conference.

15 participants are invited to a resort hotel in a beautiful setting. They are given a set of readings related to a specified topic prior to the conference. The conference lasts for two and a half days. The participants meet for six discussion sessions. They also have all of their meals together. Some of the best conversations arise over good food and drinks. The afternoons are free for relaxation. Liberty Fund pays for all of the expenses and also pays each participant an honorarium. All that's required is that each participant study the readings in advance and then contribute to the discussions.

The purpose is to provoke a lively discussion of important topics related in one way or another to the idea of liberty. There is no predetermined outcome. Participants are free to follow the conversation wherever it leads.

Some of the most satisfying intellectual activity of my life has come from Liberty Fund conferences.

The topics for my upcoming conference will center on Friedrich Hayek and science. Much of the power of modern science comes from the dream of a complete unification of all knowledge through the scientific method. Fulfilling this dream might require a science of social life and human conduct that would have the same mathematical precision and predictive power as is now achieved in the physical sciences. And yet Hayek and other critics of this dream have warned that this is not true science but "scientism"--the false presumption that social phenomena can be known by the methods that prevail in the physical sciences.

According to people like Hayek, scientism is not only an intellectual mistake but also a moral and political problem, because it assumes that a perfected social science would be able to rationally plan social order, which denies the individual liberty necessary for the spontaneous orders of social life.

The participants in this colloquium will investigate this Hayekian argument through reading some writings by Hayek alongside some writings by Michael Oakeshott and Leo Strauss, which argue that social and political knowledge requires practical judgment and common-sense understanding that cannot be reduced to the sort of technical knowledge sought in the physical sciences.

We will also consider the suggestion of Ernst Mayr that evolutionary biology avoids this mistakes of scientism and provides an intellectual bridge between the physical sciences and the social sciences.

We will conclude with some essays by Hayek and Paul Zak on the evolution of markets and morality.


Greg Ransom said...

Hayek's definition of "scientism" was the attempt by the social sciences to imitate a MISTAKEN picture of the physical sciences.

Hayek's exemplars of scientism were Neurath and Bacon -- and it is clear that he was also thinking of Schumpeter's adoption of Mach's picture of "science" as the "method" for economics. Note well that Samuelson adopted his teacher Schumpeter's picture, and helped spread various versions of it throughout the profession.

Greg Ransom said...

Hayek's argument is that empirical PROBLEMS are the beginning of science, and the problem of design-like order can be found in both Darwinian biology and in economics -- and in both sciences a systematic causal mechanism explains the existence of that order.

In the case of economics, Hayek identifies entrepreneurial learning in the context of changing relative prices and local conditions as the causal explanatory factor explaining the generation of plan-like order in the overall extended economy of coordinated production and consumption plans.

W. Bond said...

"Liberty Fund and Hayek" lead me to hope that one day I will get to hear you interviewed by Russ Roberts on EconTalk.


Anonymous said...

Hayek shared Nobel prize with Gunnar Myrdal. While very dissimilar in thought both wrote about this problem. Some of Myrdal's thinking is available in his "The Political Element in the development of Economic Theory."