mtvessel: (Default)
Aug 2012
Thinking Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman - Penguin, 2012 (Kindle edition)
* * *
One of the most attractive features of the collection of just-so stories that we call the physical sciences is its self-consistency. Biology derives from chemistry, chemistry from physics, physics from maths and maths from logic. Each supports the other. A chemical model that requires electrons to behave in ways that contradict the laws of quantum mechanics is (almost certainly) false. Likewise, if Stephen Hawking were to propose a form of string theory that predicts atomic behaviour that prevents, say, the formation of DNA strands, we would be perfectly justified in telling him that he is wrong - his theory is refuted by millions of biological observations. The self-reinforcing and interlocking nature of the standard biological, chemical and physical models and the surprising absence of obvious counter-examples (when searched for) strongly suggest that, imperfect and provisional as they are, we can regard them as about as near as humans can get to objective knowledge.

But what of the disciplines that study aspects of the human world - medicine, economics and psychology? Here things are more opaque. There are, certainly, models that are solidly based in biology and chemistry, particularly in medicine. But a number of theories in these areas seem to exist in their own little conceptual bubbles,only loosely connected (if at all) to the mainstream of the physical sciences. Freud's theory of the superego, ego and id is one example. Macroeconomic theories such as Keynsianism or Monetarism are another - they are nice mathematical models, but their assumptions about human behaviour and biology are hopelessly simplistic (as Kahneman shows). Such bubbles of theory can be beautiful, they can elegantly explain observations, they can even have been tested with experiments that follow good scientific practice, but without clear consistency with the models of the physical sciences, one has to be suspicious, for many such beautiful ideas - phlogiston, the aether, the four humours, vitalism - have not stood the test of time.

I fear that the model of thinking that Kahneman promotes in this book is a similar bubble of theory. It may merge into the mainstream of science, or it may drift away and pop. Certainly it should not be hailed as true. Not yet, anyway.
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