Saturday, November 19, 2005

Invisible Hand no 24

Don Boudreaux (18 November) write a Blog piece: “Are Humans Genetically Disposed to Pray to the State?” commenting on an article in Atlantic Monthly by Paul Bloom suggesting that ‘our minds are evolved to anthropomorphize events and institutions.”

Don Boudreaux writes:

“Just as it is perhaps inevitable that most people will continue to believe in a supernatural god, it is likely that most people will remain blind to the invisible hand. (It’s not called the "invisible hand" for nothing.) And just as it is appropriate to insist on scientifically sound explanations for natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, and acne outbreaks, it is appropriate to insist on scientifically sound explanations for complex phenomena such as rising prices, trade patterns, and differences in incomes across households. Explaining such economic patterns by resort to intentions (such as “greed”) is religion, not science.”

I find the first sentence rather odd (please read the whole article because my comments concentrate on a very small part of it and it very interesting:

Belief in “a supernatural god” is often attributed to Adam Smith partly because he is associated in popular thinking with using Shakespeare’s metaphor of the invisible hand (Macbeth, 3:2) in “Wealth of Nations” (though only once and not directly about how markets work). His use of the invisible hand metaphor is quoted a ‘proof’ of Smith being at least a Deist, if not a believer in the Christian religion.

This is not evidence, I would have thought, of Smith, or anyone else, being ‘blind to the invisible hand’. If anything it must be a case of the reverse: belief in supernatural beings and invisible hands seem to go together. I am referring here to the connection in the sense of the attribution made by the many who talk of the ‘miracle’ of markets and such like (which I regularly criticize here).

The second part of the paragraph is correct in my view and accords with Adam Smith’s philosophy as expressed in his “History of Astronomy” (written between 1743-48). Smith saw philosophers searching for the ‘connecting events’ between phenomena and his work from then on until he died was precisely based on that objective.

All supernatural beings are beyond scientific study; they are based on faith that an invisible being, or beings, with ‘invisible hands’ operate or operated to initiate natural phenomena operating in ways which can be studied scientifically, though the invisible beings cannot. Apparently, religions believe that the closed system of the natural universe had an unseen first cause (maybe with a continuing role).

Given the scathing comments of Smith in his essay, the “History of Astronomy”, on “vulgar superstition”, I am not convinced that he was even a Deist.


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