In discussing modern macroeconomics, I’ve have often mentioned my discomfort with a narrow view of microfoundations, but I haven’t commented very much on another disturbing feature of modern macro: the requirement that theoretical models be spelled out fully in axiomatic form. The rhetoric of axiomatization has had sweeping success in economics, making axiomatization a pre-requisite for almost any theoretical paper to be taken seriously, and even considered for publication in a reputable economics journal.
The idea that a good scientific theory must be derived from a formal axiomatic system has little if any foundation in the methodology or history of science. Nevertheless, it has become almost an article of faith in modern economics. I am not aware, but would be interested to know, whether, and if so how widely, this misunderstanding has been propagated in other (purportedly) empirical disciplines. The requirement of the axiomatic method in economics betrays a kind of snobbishness and (I use this word advisedly, see below) pedantry, resulting, it seems, from a misunderstanding of good scientific practice.
Before discussing the situation in economics, I would note that axiomatization did not become a major issue for mathematicians until late in the nineteenth century (though demands – luckily ignored for the most part — for logical precision followed immediately upon the invention of the calculus by Newton and Leibniz) and led ultimately to the publication of the great work of Russell and Whitehead, Principia Mathematica whose goal was to show that all of mathematics could be derived from the axioms of pure logic. This is yet another example of an unsuccessful reductionist attempt, though it seemed for a while that the Principia paved the way for the desired reduction. But 20 years after the Principia was published, Kurt Godel proved his famous incompleteness theorem, showing that, as a matter of pure logic, not even all the valid propositions of arithmetic, much less all of mathematics, could be derived from any system of axioms. This doesn’t mean that trying to achieve a reduction of a higher-level discipline to another, deeper discipline is not a worthy objective, but it certainly does mean that one cannot just dismiss, out of hand, a discipline simply because all of its propositions are not deducible from some set of fundamental propositions. Insisting on reduction as a prerequisite for scientific legitimacy is not a scientific attitude; it is merely a form of obscurantism.
As far as I know, which admittedly is not all that far, the only empirical science which has been axiomatized to any significant extent is theoretical physics. In his famous list of 23 unsolved mathematical problems, the great mathematician David Hilbert included the following (number 6).
Mathematical Treatment of the Axioms of Physics. The investigations on the foundations of geometry suggest the problem: To treat in the same manner, by means of axioms, those physical sciences in which already today mathematics plays an important part, in the first rank are the theory of probabilities and mechanics.
As to the axioms of the theory of probabilities, it seems to me desirable that their logical investigation should be accompanied by a rigorous and satisfactory development of the method of mean values in mathematical physics, and in particular in the kinetic theory of gasses. . . . Boltzman’s work on the principles of mechanics suggests the problem of developing mathematically the limiting processes, there merely indicated, which lead from the atomistic view to the laws of motion of continua.
The point that I want to underscore here is that axiomatization was supposed to ensure that there was an adequate logical underpinning for theories (i.e., probability and the kinetic theory of gasses) that had already been largely worked out. Thus, Hilbert proposed axiomatization not as a method of scientific discovery, but as a method of checking for hidden errors and problems. Error checking is certainly important for science, but it is clearly subordinate to the creation and empirical testing of new and improved scientific theories.
The fetish for axiomitization in economics can largely be traced to Gerard Debreu’s great work, The Theory of Value: An Axiomatic Analysis of Economic Equilibrium, in which Debreu, building on his own work and that of Kenneth Arrow, presented a formal description of a decentralized competitive economy with both households and business firms, and proved that, under the standard assumptions of neoclassical theory (notably diminishing marginal rates of substitution in consumption and production and perfect competition) such an economy would have at least one, and possibly more than one, equilibrium.
A lot of effort subsequently went into gaining a better understanding of the necessary and sufficient conditions under which an equilibrium exists, and when that equilibrium would be unique and Pareto optimal. The subsequent work was then brilliantly summarized and extended in another great work, General Competitive Analysis by Arrow and Frank Hahn. Unfortunately, those two books, paragons of the axiomatic method, set a bad example for the future development of economic theory, which embarked on a needless and counterproductive quest for increasing logical rigor instead of empirical relevance.
A few months ago, I wrote a review of Kartik Athreya’s book Big Ideas in Macroeconomics. One of the arguments of Athreya’s book that I didn’t address was his defense of modern macroeconomics against the complaint that modern macroeconomics is too mathematical. Athreya is not responsible for the reductionist and axiomatic fetishes of modern macroeconomics, but he faithfully defends them against criticism. So I want to comment on a few paragraphs in which Athreya dismisses criticism of formalism and axiomatization.
Natural science has made significant progress by proceeding axiomatically and mathematically, and whether or not we [economists] will achieve this level of precision for any unit of observation in macroeconomics, it is likely to be the only rational alternative.
First, let me observe that axiomatization is not the same as using mathematics to solve problems. Many problems in economics cannot easily be solved without using mathematics, and sometimes it is useful to solve a problem in a few different ways, each way potentially providing some further insight into the problem not provided by the others. So I am not at all opposed to the use of mathematics in economics. However, the choice of tools to solve a problem should bear some reasonable relationship to the problem at hand. A good economist will understand what tools are appropriate to the solution of a particular problem. While mathematics has clearly been enormously useful to the natural sciences and to economics in solving problems, there are very few scientific advances that can be ascribed to axiomatization. Axiomatization was vital in proving the existence of equilibrium, but substantive refutable propositions about real economies, e.g., the Heckscher-Ohlin Theorem, or the Factor-Price Equalization Theorem, or the law of comparative advantage, were not discovered or empirically tested by way of axiomatization. Arthreya talks about economics achieving the “level of precision” achieved by natural science, but the concept of precision is itself hopelessly imprecise, and to set precision up as an independent goal makes no sense. Arthreya continues:
In addition to these benefits from the systematic [i.e. axiomatic] approach, there is the issue of clarity. Lowering mathematical content in economics represents a retreat from unambiguous language. Once mathematized, words in any given model cannot ever mean more than one thing. The unwillingness to couch things in such narrow terms (usually for fear of “losing something more intelligible”) has, in the past, led to a great deal of essentially useless discussion.
Arthreya writes as if the only source of ambiguity is imprecise language. That just isn’t so. Is unemployment voluntary or involuntary? Arthreya actually discusses the question intelligently on p. 283, in the context of search models of unemployment, but I don’t think that he could have provided any insight into that question with a purely formal, symbolic treatment. Again back to Arthreya:
The plaintive expressions of “fear of losing something intangible” are concessions to the forces of muddled thinking. The way modern economics gets done, you cannot possibly not know exactly what the author is assuming – and to boot, you’ll have a foolproof way of checking whether their claims of what follows from these premises is actually true or not.
So let me juxtapose this brief passage from Arthreya with a rather longer passage from Karl Popper in which he effectively punctures the fallacies underlying the specious claims made on behalf of formalism and against ordinary language. The extended quotations are from an addendum titled “Critical Remarks on Meaning Analysis” (pp. 261-77) to chapter IV of Realism and the Aim of Science (volume 1 of the Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery). In this addendum, Popper begins by making the following three claims:
1 What-is? questions, such as What is Justice? . . . are always pointless – without philosophical or scientific interest; and so are all answers to what-is? questions, such as definitions. It must be admitted that some definitions may sometimes be of help in answering other questions: urgent questions which cannot be dismissed: genuine difficulties which may have arisen in science or in philosophy. But what-is? questions as such do not raise this kind of difficulty.
2 It makes no difference whether a what-is question is raised in order to inquire into the essence or into the nature of a thing, or whether it is raised in order to inquire into the essential meaning or into the proper use of an expression. These kinds of what-is questions are fundamentally the same. Again, it must be admitted that an answer to a what-is question – for example, an answer pointing out distinctions between two meanings of a word which have often been confused – may not be without point, provided the confusion led to serious difficulties. But in this case, it is not the what-is question which we are trying to solve; we hope rather to resolve certain contradictions that arise from our reliance upon somewhat naïve intuitive ideas. (The . . . example discussed below – that of the ideas of a derivative and of an integral – will furnish an illustration of this case.) The solution may well be the elimination (rather than the clarification) of the naïve idea. But an answer to . . . a what-is question is never fruitful. . . .
3 The problem, more especially, of replacing an “inexact” term by an “exact” one – for example, the problem of giving a definition in “exact” or “precise” terms – is a pseudo-problem. It depends essentially upon the inexact and imprecise terms “exact” and “precise.” These are most misleading, not only because they strongly suggest that there exists what does not exist – absolute exactness or precision – but also because they are emotionally highly charged: under the guise of scientific character and of scientific objectivity, they suggest that precision or exactness is something superior, a kind of ultimate value, and that it is wrong, or unscientific, or muddle-headed, to use inexact terms (as it is indeed wrong not to speak as lucidly and simply as possible). But there is no such thing as an “exact” term, or terms made “precise” by “precise definitions.” Also, a definition must always use undefined terms in its definiens (since otherwise we should get involved in an infinite regress or in a circle); and if we have to operate with a number of undefined terms, it hardly matters whether we use a few more. Of course, if a definition helps to solve a genuine problem, the situation is different; and some problems cannot be solved without an increase of precision. Indeed, this is the only way in which we can reasonably speak of precision: the demand for precision is empty, unless it is raised relative to some requirements that arise from our attempts to solve a definite problem. (pp. 261-63)
Later in his addendum Popper provides an enlightening discussion of the historical development of calculus despite its lack of solid logical axiomatic foundation. The meaning of an infinitesimal or a derivative was anything but precise. It was, to use Arthreya’s aptly chosen term, a muddle. Mathematicians even came up with a symbol for the derivative. But they literally had no precise idea of what they were talking about. When mathematicians eventually came up with a definition for the derivative, the definition did not clarify what they were talking about; it just provided a particular method of calculating what the derivative would be. However, the absence of a rigorous and precise definition of the derivative did not prevent mathematicians from solving some enormously important practical problems, thereby helping to change the world and our understanding of it.
The modern history of the problem of the foundations of mathematics is largely, it has been asserted, the history of the “clarification” of the fundamental ideas of the differential and integral calculus. The concept of a derivative (the slope of a curve of the rate of increase of a function) has been made “exact” or “precise” by defining it as the limit of the quotient of differences (given a differentiable function); and the concept of an integral (the area or “quadrature” of a region enclosed by a curve) has likewise been “exactly defined”. . . . Attempts to eliminate the contradictions in this field constitute not only one of the main motives of the development of mathematics during the last hundred or even two hundred years, but they have also motivated modern research into the “foundations” of the various sciences and, more particularly, the modern quest for precision or exactness. “Thus mathematicians,” Bertrand Russell says, writing about one of the most important phases of this development, “were only awakened from their “dogmatic slumbers” when Weierstrass and his followers showed that many of their most cherished propositions are in general false. Macaulay, contrasting the certainty of mathematics with the uncertainty of philosophy, asks who ever heard of a reaction against Taylor’s theorem. If he had lived now, he himself might have heard of such a reaction, for his is precisely one of the theorems which modern investigations have overthrown. Such rude shocks to mathematical faith have produced that love of formalism which appears, to those who are ignorant of its motive, to be mere outrageous pedantry.”
It would perhaps be too much to read into this passage of Russell’s his agreement with a view which I hold to be true: that without “such rude shocks” – that is to say, without the urgent need to remove contradictions – the love of formalism is indeed “mere outrageous pedantry.” But I think that Russell does convey his view that without an urgent need, an urgent problem to be solved, the mere demand for precision is indefensible.
But this is only a minor point. My main point is this. Most people, including mathematicians, look upon the definition of the derivative, in terms of limits of sequences, as if it were a definition in the sense that it analyses or makes precise, or “explicates,” the intuitive meaning of the definiendum – of the derivative. But this widespread belief is mistaken. . . .
Newton and Leibniz and their successors did not deny that a derivative, or an integral, could be calculated as a limit of certain sequences . . . . But they would not have regarded these limits as possible definitions, because they do not give the meaning, the idea, of a derivative or an integral.
For the derivative is a measure of a velocity, or a slope of a curve. Now the velocity of a body at a certain instant is something real – a concrete (relational) attribute of that body at that instant. By contrast the limit of a sequence of average velocities is something highly abstract – something that exists only in our thoughts. The average velocities themselves are unreal. Their unending sequence is even more so; and the limit of this unending sequence is a purely mathematical construction out of these unreal entities. Now it is intuitively quite obvious that this limit must numerically coincide with the velocity, and that, if the limit can be calculated, we can thereby calculate the velocity. But according to the views of Newton and his contemporaries, it would be putting the cart before the horse were we to define the velocity as being identical with this limit, rather than as a real state of the body – at a certain instant, or at a certain point, of its track – to be calculated by any mathematical contrivance we may be able to think of.
The same holds of course for the slope of a curve in a given point. Its measure will be equal to the limit of a sequence of measures of certain other average slopes (rather than actual slopes) of this curve. But it is not, in its proper meaning or essence, a limit of a sequence: the slope is something we can sometimes actually draw on paper, and construct with a compasses and rulers, while a limit is in essence something abstract, rarely actually reached or realized, but only approached, nearer and nearer, by a sequence of numbers. . . .
Or as Berkeley put it “. . . however expedient such analogies or such expressions may be found for facilitating the modern quadratures, yet we shall not find any light given us thereby into the original real nature of fluxions considered in themselves.” Thus mere means for facilitating our calculations cannot be considered as explications or definitions.
This was the view of all mathematicians of the period, including Newton and Leibniz. If we now look at the modern point of view, then we see that we have completely given up the idea of definition in the sense in which it was understood by the founders of the calculus, as well as by Berkeley. We have given up the idea of a definition which explains the meaning (for example of the derivative). This fact is veiled by our retaining the old symbol of “definition” for some equivalences which we use, not to explain the idea or the essence of a derivative, but to eliminate it. And it is veiled by our retention of the name “differential quotient” or “derivative,” and the old symbol dy/dx which once denoted an idea which we have now discarded. For the name, and the symbol, now have no function other than to serve as labels for the defiens – the limit of a sequence.
Thus we have given up “explication” as a bad job. The intuitive idea, we found, led to contradictions. But we can solve our problems without it, retaining the bulk of the technique of calculation which originally was based upon the intuitive idea. Or more precisely we retain only this technique, as far as it was sound, and eliminate the idea its help. The derivative and the integral are both eliminated; they are replaced, in effect, by certain standard methods of calculating limits. (oo. 266-70)
Not only have the original ideas of the founders of calculus been eliminated, because they ultimately could not withstand logical scrutiny, but a premature insistence on logical precision would have had disastrous consequences for the ultimate development of calculus.
It is fascinating to consider that this whole admirable development might have been nipped in the bud (as in the days of Archimedes) had the mathematicians of the day been more sensitive to Berkeley’s demand – in itself quite reasonable – that we should strictly adhere to the rules of logic, and to the rule of always speaking sense.
We now know that Berkeley was right when, in The Analyst, he blamed Newton . . . for obtaining . . . mathematical results in the theory of fluxions or “in the calculus differentialis” by illegitimate reasoning. And he was completely right when he indicated that [his] symbols were without meaning. “Nothing is easier,” he wrote, “than to devise expressions and notations, for fluxions and infinitesimals of the first, second, third, fourth, and subsequent orders. . . . These expressions indeed are clear and distinct, and the mind finds no difficulty in conceiving them to be continued beyond any assignable bounds. But if . . . we look underneath, if, laying aside the expressions, we set ourselves attentively to consider the things themselves which are supposed to be expressed or marked thereby, we shall discover much emptiness, darkness, and confusion . . . , direct impossibilities, and contradictions.”
But the mathematicians of his day did not listen to Berkeley. They got their results, and they were not afraid of contradictions as long as they felt that they could dodge them with a little skill. For the attempt to “analyse the meaning” or to “explicate” their concepts would, as we know now, have led to nothing. Berkeley was right: all these concept were meaningless, in his sense and in the traditional sense of the word “meaning:” they were empty, for they denoted nothing, they stood for nothing. Had this fact been realized at the time, the development of the calculus might have been stopped again, as it had been stopped before. It was the neglect of precision, the almost instinctive neglect of all meaning analysis or explication, which made the wonderful development of the calculus possible.
The problem underlying the whole development was, of course, to retain the powerful instrument of the calculus without the contradictions which had been found in it. There is no doubt that our present methods are more exact than the earlier ones. But this is not due to the fact that they use “exactly defined” terms. Nor does it mean that they are exact: the main point of the definition by way of limits is always an existential assertion, and the meaning of the little phrase “there exists a number” has become the centre of disturbance in contemporary mathematics. . . . This illustrates my point that the attribute of exactness is not absolute, and that it is inexact and highly misleading to use the terms “exact” and “precise” as if they had any exact or precise meaning. (pp. 270-71)
Popper sums up his discussion as follows:
My examples [I quoted only the first of the four examples as it seemed most relevant to Arthreya's discussion] may help to emphasize a lesson taught by the whole history of science: that absolute exactness does not exist, not even in logic and mathematics (as illustrated by the example of the still unfinished history of the calculus); that we should never try to be more exact than is necessary for the solution of the problem in hand; and that the demand for “something more exact” cannot in itself constitute a genuine problem (except, of course, when improved exactness may improve the testability of some theory). (p. 277)
I apologize for stringing together this long series of quotes from Popper, but I think that it is important to understand that there is simply no scientific justification for the highly formalistic manner in which much modern economics is now carried out. Of course, other far more authoritative critics than I, like Mark Blaug and Richard Lipsey (also here) have complained about the insistence of modern macroeconomics on microfounded, axiomatized models regardless of whether those models generate better predictions than competing models. Their complaints have regrettably been ignored for the most part. I simply want to point out that a recent, and in many ways admirable, introduction to modern macroeconomics failed to provide a coherent justification for insisting on axiomatized models. It really wasn’t the author’s fault; a coherent justification doesn’t exist.