Quotes on paradigm shifting

People who are searching for truth in a complex and evolving world do not believe in theories.

Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist

Anonymous. This quote is often attributed to the economics writer Kenneth E. Boulding, but I have not been able to find a source document.

The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widely spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.

Bertrand Russell from Love and Marriage

What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.

Anonymous. This quote is usually attributed to Mark Twain but I have not found a source document.

Words, the counters for ideals, are, however, easily taken for ideas. And in just the degree in which mental activity is separated from active concern with the world, from doing something and connecting the doing with what is undergone, words, symbols, come to take the place of ideas. The substitution is the more subtle because some meaning is recognized. But we are very easily trained to be content with a minimum of meaning, and to fail to note how restricted is our perception of the relations which confer significance. We get so thoroughly used to a kind of pseudo-idea, a half perception, that we are not aware how half-dead our mental action is, and how much keener and more extensive our observations and ideas would be if we formed them under conditions of a vital experience which required us to use judgment: to hunt for the connections of the thing dealt with.

John Dewey from Democracy and Education. I took this quote from the Project Gutenberg version of Dewey’s book.

Frequently bringing up limits to growth causes one to be dismissed as either a fanatical socialist ‘comrade’ and/or as a tree hugging hippie sentimentalist who has no understanding of the practical realities of human nature. My perception is that the people who make such accusations are resisting (for very understandable reasons) the prospect of a major discontinuity in our prevailing social institutions, but they are not responding to the actual substance of limits to growth arguments and the implied serious problems which need to be addressed. The reality of the economic and environmental crises which we face can be understood independently of political ideology. The fact that once that understanding is achieved very uncomfortable conclusions about the fate of our current social institutions immediately follows does not in any way tend to falsify the underlying fundamental truths.

Roger Brown (Yours truly, from my book Eight Economic Truths )

MANKIND has ever been ready to discuss matters in inverse ratio to their importance, so that the more closely a question is felt to touch the hearts of all of us, the more incumbent it is considered upon prudent people to profess that it does not exist, to frown it down, to tell it to hold its tongue, to maintain that it has long been finally settled, so that there is now no question concerning it…

It is not difficult indeed to show that, instead of having reason to complain of the desire for the postponement of important questions, as though the world were composed mainly of knaves and fools, such fixity as animal an vegetable forms possess is due to this very instinct. For if there had been no reluctance, if there were no friction and vis inertae to be encountered even after a theoretical equilibrium had been upset, we should have had no fixed organs or settled proclivities, but should have been daily and hourly under going protean transformations, and have still been throwing out pseudopodia like the amoeba. True, we might have come to like this fashion of living as well as our more steady-going system if we had taken to it millions of ages ago when we were yet young; but we have contracted other habits which have become so confirmed that we cannot break with them. We therefore now hate that which we perhaps should have loved if we had practiced [sic] it. This, however, does not affect the argument, for our concern is with our likes and dislikes, not in the manner in which those likes and dislikes have come about. The discovery that organism is capable of modification at all has occasioned so much astonishment that it has taken the most enlightened part of the world more than a hundred years to leave off expressing its contempt for such a crude, shallow, and preposterous conception. Perhaps in another hundred years we shall learn to admire the good sense, endurance, and thorough Englishness of organism in having been so averse to change, even more that its versatility in having been willing to change so much.

Nevertheless, however, conservative we may be, and however much alive to the folly and wickedness of tampering with settled convictions-no matter what they are-without sufficient cause, there is yet such a constant though gradual change in our surroundings as necessitates corresponding modifications in our ideas, desires, and actions. We may think that we should like to find ourselves always in the same surroundings as our ancestors, so that we might be guided at every touch and turn by the experience of our race, and be saved from all self-communing or interpretation of oracular responses uttered by the facts around us. Yet the facts will change their utterances in spite of us; and we, too, change with age and ages in spite of ourselves, so as to see the facts around us as perhaps even more changed than they actually are. It has been said “Tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis.” The passage would have been no less true if it had stood, “Nos mutamur et tempora mutantur in nobis.” Whether the organism or the surroundings began changing first is a matter of such small moment that the two may be left to fight it out between themselves; but whichever view is taken, the fact will remain that whenever the relations between the organism and its surroundings have been changed, the organism must either succeed in putting the surroundings in harmony with itself, or itself into harmony with the surroundings; or must be made so uncomfortable as to unable to remember itself as subjected to any such difficulties, and therefore to die through inability to recognize [sic] its own identity further.

Samuel Butler from God the Known and God the Unknown. This quote is taken from the Project Gutenberg version of Butler’s essay.

The cultural elements involved in the theoretical scheme, elements that are of the nature of institutions, human relations governed by use and wont in whatever kind and connection, are not subject to inquiry but are taken for granted as pre-existing in a finished, typical form and as making up a normal and definitive economic situation, under which and in terms of which human intercourse is necessarily carried on. This cultural situation comprises a few large and simple articles of institutional furniture, together with their logical implications or corollaries; but it includes nothing of the consequences or effects caused by these institutional elements. The cultural elements so tacitly postulated as immutable conditions precedent to economic life are ownership and free contract, together with such other features of the scheme of natural rights as are implied in the exercise of these. These cultural products are, for the purpose of the theory, conceived to be given a priori in unmitigated force. They are part of the nature of things; so that there is no need of accounting for them or inquiring into them, as to how they have come to be such as they are, or how and why they have changed and are changing, or what effect all this may have on the relations of men who live by or under this cultural situation.

Thorstein Veblen from the essay The Limitations of Marginal Utility. The quote is copied a collection of Veblen’s essays/articles compiled by Project Gutenberg under the title The Place of Science in Modern Civilization, and Other Essays.

This truth (that human being are dependent on one another) can be regarded as self-evident, but there are a surprisingly large group of people who want to deny it, or who at least regard such dependence as onerous and wish to do everything they can to minimize it. Unfortunately for the people possessed by this idea, the reality is that ever since the beginning of the industrial revolution and the increasingly diverse specialization of labor which accompanied it, the circle of human beings upon whom we are dependent for the economic artifacts of our everyday lives has continually increased in both numbers and in geographical area. This increasing human interdependence is a physically necessary consequence of the scope and methods of modern economic production. The failure to understand this physical necessity is to live in a dream world.

Roger Brown, yours truly, from my book Eight Economic Truths

The distribution and exchange of commodities are necessary to the existence of the State; so necessary that it might be supposed that their regulation would be one of the primary functions of government. Proper systems of distribution and exchange correspond to the digestive processes of the body, on which depend the proper nutrition of all the parts and the real prosperity of the State as a whole; yet any comprehensive plan for their control is still regarded as the most unattainable dream of Utopia, and they are left to carry on as best they can in the interstices of private acquisitiveness.

John Mavorogordato from The World in Chains. This quote is taken from the Project Gutenberg version of Mavorogordato’s book.

That private property is neither beautiful nor noble can be deduced from the fact that in proportion as human souls become attuned to finer, more distinguished, and more intellectual levels they become more and more indifferent to the ‘sensation of ownership’. That private property is an unreal thing can be deduced from the fact that no human being can actually ‘possess’, in a definite, positive, and exhaustive manner, more than he can eat or drink or wear or otherwise personally enjoy.

His ‘sensation of ownership’, over lands, houses, gardens, pictures, statues, books, animals and human beings, is really and actually restricted to the immediate and direct enjoyment which he is able in person to derive from such things. Beyond this immediate and personal enjoyment the extension of his ‘sensation of ownership’ can do no more than increase his general sense of conventional power and importance. His real ‘possession’ of his land is actually restricted to his capacity for appreciating its beauty. His real ‘possession’ of his books is actually restricted to his personal capacity for entering into the living secrets of these things. Without such capacity, though he may call himself the ‘possessor’ or ‘owner,’ he is really no better than an official ‘care-taker’, whose province it is to preserve certain objects for other people to enjoy, or, shall we say, for the permanent prevention of any people ever enjoying them.

John Cowper Powys from The Complex Vision. This quote is taken from the Project Gutenberg version of Powys’s book.

The real science of political economy, which has yet to be distinguished from the bastard science, as medicine from witchcraft, and astronomy from astrology, is that which teaches nations to desire and labour for the things that lead to life; and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things that lead to destruction. And if, in a state of infancy, they suppose indifferent things, such as excrescences of shellfish, and pieces of blue and red stone, to be valuable, and spend large measure of the labour which ought to be employed for the extension and ennobling of life, in diving or digging for them, and cutting them into various shapes,–or if, in the same state of infancy, they imagine precious and beneficent things, such as air, light, and cleanliness, to be valueless,–or if, finally, they imagine the conditions of their own existence, by which alone they can truly possess or use anything, such, for instance, as peace, trust, and love, to be prudently exchangeable, when the market offers, for gold, iron, or excrescences of shells–the great and only science of Political Economy teaches them, in all these cases, what is vanity, and what substance; and how the service of Death, the Lord of Waste, and of eternal emptiness, differs from the service of Wisdom, the Lady of Saving, and of eternal fulness; she who has said, “I will cause those that love me to inherit SUBSTANCE; and I will FILL their treasures.

John Ruskin from the essay Ad Valorem. This quote is taken from the Project Gutenberg version of John Ruskin’s book Unto this Last, and Other Essays on Political Economy.

You cannot see a wind; you can only see that there is a wind. So, also, you cannot see a revolution; you can only see that there is a revolution. And there never has been in the history of the world a real revolution, brutally active and decisive, which was not preceded by unrest and new dogma in the reign of invisible things. All revolutions began by being abstract. Most revolutions began by being quite pedantically abstract.

G. K. Chesterton from Tremendous Trifles, Chapter XII: The Wind and the Trees

When the great innovation appears, it will almost certainly be in muddled, incomplete and confusing form. To the discoverer… it will be only half understood…. For any speculation which does not at first glance look crazy, there is no hope.

Anonymous. I have seen this quote attributed both to Freeman Dyson and to Niels Bohr, but I have been unable to find a source document.

The finite nature of the earth’s resource base is self-evident. However it is possible to doubt the relevance of this fact to any short term limitation on the business as usual operation of global capitalism on two different grounds:

  1. The earth is a very large place and provides a very large pool of resources. Even if the finite nature of this pool will eventually limit human economic expansion the hour of this dismal event is still far distant. Gentlepersons, keep your engines running.
  2. The relationship between resource input and economic output is not fixed. Advances in science and manufacturing technology are enabling us to produce more economic output with a given amount of resources. Therefore even if physical constraints start to raise the costs of increasing resource extraction, human technological cleverness will compensate for the increasing cost of raw materials and keep the growth engine running.

Both of these arguments are attempts to help the current generation of human beings escape from any necessity of achieving economic maturity. We can chase more dollars and increase the variety and sophistication of our toys and recreational amusements and let some future generation worry about limits to growth.

Roger Brown, Yours truly from my unpublished book Eight Economic Truths

Before proceeding with this discussion, however, I would like to briefly discuss a serious psychological problem which often arises in any attempt to discuss alternative modes of economic organization. In many people’s minds the following two equations concerning economic growth are valid descriptions of reality:

Economic Growth = Life and Progress

Lack of Economic Growth = Stagnation and Death

If one accepts these equations as true, then there is no point in thinking about alternative methods of economic organization. We should grow as long as we possibly can, and when we cannot grow any more then society will descend into chaos and misery. Voluntarily embracing chaos and misery before external necessity forces us to do so is obviously an act of insanity. Clearly I do not agree that the above equations represent eternal and unchanging truths or I would not have bothered to write this book. However, like many false formulas these two contain elements of truth. Suppose we rewrite them thusly:

Aesthetic and Intellectual Growth = Life and Progress

Lack of Aesthetic and Intellectual Growth = End of Modernity

In this form I think that the equations can potentially be used to approach a post growth society without horror and fear. I have substituted “the end of modernity” for the more extreme claim of “stagnation and death”. The available evidence does not indicate that primitive peoples who held no conception of progress in the modern sense regarded their lives as a form of miserable monotonous slavery, and the idea that their overall psychological health was superior to that of civilized humanity has been promoted by a number of observers including Thomas Jefferson. However, the possibility of completely turning our backs on modernity as a response to the ecological and resource crises that we are facing does not seem like a practical option.

Roger Brown, Yours truly from my unpublished book Eight Economic Truths

Many people seem to think that a single well defined theory called ‘socialism’ exists and either one believes in it or one does not. I think that this claim is false. In the first place I think that over a long period of time in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a complex of ideas grew up out of the perceived defects of the existing economic and political system. The natural human tendency to attach a kind of mystic significance to verbal formulas made many of the people who participated in this intellectual and social ferment willing to accept the label of ‘socialist’ but to claim that this ferment converged to a single uniform theory of economic organization and governance is, as far as I can tell, not true. I personally found Marx’s Capital to be mostly unreadable and I have never attempted to read Lenin, but nevertheless I think that it is clear that the Marxist-Leninist claim to have reduced the movement of human social development to an objectively established scientific discipline is one of the great intellectual absurdities of history.

Secondly people who are searching for truth in a complex and evolving world do not believe in theories. At best a theory (including theories of social organization) is accepted as a tentative hypothesis and is then tested against data to see to what extent it is verified or falsified by experience. In the case of human social theories, for better or for worse, it is impossible to do controlled repeatable experiments changing one variable at a time as is done the natural sciences. Reading history can shed some amount of light on the relative merits of various types of social organization, but real innovations in social organization proceed via thought experiments and then by risky changes in the real organization of currently existing human associations. Of course, a natural conservatism exists which resists such innovations in existing social conventions, but the pressure of changing circumstances sometimes triumphs over such conservatism and established human associations change their forms and/or new human associations with new rights and privileges come into existence.

Roger Brown, Yours truly from my unpublished book Eight Economic Truths