I have recently read some of La civilización del espectáculo by Mario Vargas Llosa. He argues that to lose your culture means to lose your self. Since I just finished reading a book on the self from a neurological perspective, I want to connect the two. In microeconomics, the homo oeconomicus is presented as something that, however abstract, resembles a human being. However, the recent crisis has shown that the use of this figure does not leave room for errors, mistakes, vices, and other human traits that have been instrumental in bringing about this crisis. As I will argue in the following, the way we live now cannot be separated from the problems we see in the real world. The financial crisis has not been an unlikely event, which would have come anyway, which is what certain risk management people would have us think.
Let me begin my exposition with an excerpt from the 2010 Nobel lecture of Mario Vargas Llosa:
At times I wondered whether writing was not a solipsistic luxury in countries like mine, where there were scant readers, so many people who were poor and illiterate, so much injustice, and where culture was a privilege of the few. These doubts, however, never stifled my calling, and I always kept writing even during those periods when earning a living absorbed most of my time. I believe I did the right thing, since if, for literature to flourish, it was first necessary for a society to achieve high culture, freedom, prosperity, and justice, it never would have existed. But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires, and our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables. We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.
The last sentence I find of utmost importance, especially when connecting this idea of living fictions with the findings presented by Antonio Damasio in his recent book When self comes to mind. He writes (p. 177):
Mind is a most natural result of evolution, and it is largely nonconscious, internal, and unrevealed. It comes to be known thanks to the narrow window of consciousness. This is precisely how I see it. Consciousness offers a direct experience of mind, but the broker of experience is a self, which is an internal and imperfectly constructed informer rather than an external, reliable observer. The brain-ness of the mind cannot be directly appreciated either by the natural internal observer or by the external scientist. The brain-ness of the mind has to be imagined in a fourth perspective. Hypotheses have to be formulated on the basis of that imaginary view.
Damasio, and I agree with him, does not argue here for us being not in control. We are in control, but obviously (or not, from an economics perspective) the question how is a very interesting one. However, what the we – the self – consists of is a very interesting question. According to Damasio (p. 188), ‘the entire fabric of a conscious mind is created from the same cloth – images generated by the brain’s map-making capabilities‘. They way we interpret images then leads us the question how language is created. Jerome Feldman in his book From Molecule to Metaphor – A Neural Theory of Language makes the case that language often works through metaphors (p. 233):
Metaphorical mappings [...] take us from abstract domains like economics to embodied knowledge of health, walking. and other activities. A phrase like “France stumbled” evokes a simulation of a metaphorical person encountering difficulty while moving along a path. The consequences of this embodied simulation are then projected back to the economic domain where they are treated as economic difficulties.
Understanding mind, self and language are understood like this, it is now time to turn to the creation and use of knowledge. Is knowledge possible at all, is there hope that we understand reality? Samuel von Pufendorf writes in his book On the Duty of Man and Citizen in 1682:
4. With regard then to the faculty of comprehending and judging things — intellect it is called — we must hold it absolutely certain that any man of mature age and sound mind has enough of natural light to be able, with training and due reflection, to comprehend properly at least those general precepts and principles which make for an honorable and a peaceful life in this world; also to appreciate the fact that they are in conformity with human nature. For if this be not admitted, at least within the competence of the human court, men would be able to shield any misdeeds of theirs by an invincible ignorance, since in the human court no one can be accused of violating a rule which it is beyond his powers to comprehend.
So, yes, comprehension can be achieved, Pufendorf ruled. An English economist said the following three centuries later:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.
What Keynes knew back then is still true today. Because it is not enough to just re-read Keynes and others whose teachings have been forgotten, the new economic thinking is being formulated as you read this. Here. And here. And here. And here. And there and there. And, soon, somewhere close to you, if not yet.