Given American-Crackpot Justin's really commendable and interesting recent posts on one of my own favorite bugaboos, economics, I thought it might be illuminating to turn to Auden's introduction to the old Portable Greek Reader:
The great difference between the Greek conception of Nature and later ones is that the Greeks thought of the universe as analogous to a city-state, so that for them natural laws, like human laws, were not laws of things, but laws for things. When we speak of a falling body "obeying" the law of gravitation, we are unconsciously echoing Greek thought; for obedience implies the possibility of disobedience. To the Greeks this was no dead metaphor; consequently, their problem was not the relation of Mind to Matter, but of Substance to Form, how matter became "educated" enough, so to speak, to conform to law.Justin struggled to make clear that the failure of economics as a scientific worldview is that economics is not scientific in any meaningful modern sense. (I don't, by the way, mean to imply that Justin's writing fell short of making this point, but that the casual readers who happened by to comment struggled to understand it.) Whereas a "law" of physics will surely be descriptive and ideally also be predictive, it is not prescriptive. To use Auden's phrase: there is no possibility of disobedience. As Justin points out, in economics, this situation is often reversed. The observable universe breaks economic law; human behavior is neither accurately described nor accurately predicted by the models and formulas of economists.
The non-regular commenters don't appreciate the distinction, and here is a telling and typical example:
It is easy enough for me to agree that the Tennessee fire episode was both loathsome and stupid.I propose to you that the notion one would apply economic models to this reasonable question is functionally equal to applying alchemy to the lead paint at your neighborhood playground.
But ... given that fires are not put out by a generous human spirit, but by firefighters, suitably equipped with firetrucks, firehoses, and such - how should those things actually be arranged for?