Nicolas Copernicus’s de Revolutionibus, in which he advocated his theory that Earth revolved ar ound the sun, was first printed just before Copernicus’ death in 1543. It therefore fell on one Andreas Osiander to write the introduction. Here is a passage from the introduction:
[An astronomer] will adopt whatever suppositions enable [celestial] motions to be computed correctly from the principles of geometry for the future as well as for the past…. These hypotheses need not be true nor even probable. On the contrary, if they provide a calculus consistent with the observations, that alone is enough.
In other words, the purpose of the astronomer’s study is to capture the observed phenomena — to provide an analytic framework by which we can explain and predict what we see when we look at the sky. It turns out that it is more convenient to capture the phenomena by assuming that Earth revolved around the sun than by assuming, as the Greek astronomers did, a geo-centric epicyclical planet motion. Therefore let’s calculate the right time for Easter by making this assumption. As astronomers, we shouldn’t care whether this is actually true.
Whether or not Copernicus would have endorsed this approach is disputable. What is certain is that his book was at least initially accepted by the Catholic Church whose astronomers have used Copernicus’ model to develop the Gregorian Calendar. (Notice I said the word model btw, which is probably anachronistic but, I think, appropriately captures Osiander’s view). The person who caused the scandal was Galileo Galilei, who famously declared that if earth behaves as if it moves around the sun then, well, it moves around the sun. Yet it moves. It’s not a model, it’s reality. Physicists’ subject matter is the nature, not models about nature.
What about economists ? Econ theorists at least don’t usually claim that the components of their modeling of economic agents (think utilities, beliefs, discount factors, ambiguity aversions) correspond to any real elements of the physical world or of the cognitive process that the agent performs. When we say that Adam’s utility from apple is log(c) we don’t mean that Adam knows anything about logs. We mean — wait for it — that he behaves as if this is his utility, or, as Osiander would have put it, this utility provides a calculus consistent with the observations, and that alone is enough.
The contrast between theoretical economists’ `as if’ approach and physicists’ `and yet it moves’ approach is not as sharp as I would like it to be. First, from the physics side, modern interpretations of quantum physics view it, and by extension the entire physics enterprise, as nothing more than a computational tool to produce predictions. On the other hand, from the economics side, while I think it is still customary to pay lip service to the `as if’ orthodoxy at least in decision theory classes, I don’t often hear it in seminars. And when neuro-economists claim to localize the decision making process in the brain they seem to view the components of the model as more than just mathematical constructions.
Yep, I am advertising another paper. Stay tuned :)