WEN: Empiricism is not enough

The first year of an economics graduate student feels like a year abroad. You spend your days parsing a new language, a mishmash of familiar letters arranged in Byzantine and objectionable ways. You stalk meaning like a hunter stalks deer, sniffing the footprints left by the algebra, looking for telltale signs: ah, yes, a tuft of fur here, a Taylor expansion there. But when at last you glimpse it, the deer turns up its insouciant tail and vanishes, leaving you alone in the darkness of the forest, miles from home.

These days, I wrestle with econometrics proofs over my morning toast and drift to sleep reading notes on stochastic calculus. I feel my identity shifting beneath my feet. You are what you eat, sleep and breathe, after all. I might be the product of a freewheeling liberal arts education, but if he met me today, Isaiah Berlin would surely dub me a hedgehog and not a fox.

I’m glad I braved this journey. The path is strewn with small pleasures: the near-audible click when you solve a general equilibrium problem, the wave of relief when your Matlab code unspools without a hitch. And then there are the moments of sheer joy, of ecstatic flow, when the assumptions of a proof volunteer themselves precisely when needed, when the theorems rally to your side like old friends, when the equations form and re-form like a kaleidoscope in your mind, revealing new symmetries at every turn.

What drives me is the hope that I might someday express some truth about humanity. I have deep faith in the fundamental epistemology of economics: That it is valid and useful to analyze people via quantitative means, and on a more cosmic scale, that empiricism can untangle the mechanisms that govern reality.

Yet — the deeper I dive into this field, the more I long for the others. Loosely speaking, science asks, “How does the universe work?” And while this is undeniably an important and meaningful question, it is not the only important and meaningful question.

To borrow from Schrödinger: Not even a perfect understanding of optometry and visible light could grant a color-blind physicist the sensation of seeing red. Science possesses manifold tools, but the expression of qualia — the visceral experience of being alive, of thoughts buzzing in your head and a pulse thrumming in your chest — falls outside its purview. As asymmetrical, emotional organisms of flesh and bone, we experience non-Euclidian space and ask non-Euclidean questions. We think in narrative, metaphor and allusion, so tractable quantifications will inevitably be reductionist. The signifier can never fully substitute for the signified; only a madman would try to smoke a Magritte.

There is, in short, a fundamental incompleteness to empiricism.

And this incompleteness, this error term, this epsilon, humbles me in my search for truth. As I sit in lecture, contemplating market equilibria, it reminds me that the concept of utility does not exist in an ethical vacuum. It makes concrete the value of the humanities, the disciplines that gird themselves and face the slippery creature of subjectivity head-on. Science is a human endeavor devoted to understanding the syntax of reality, but we must remember that all the syntax in the world will not replace having something to say.

Jaya Wen is a first-year student in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Contact her at jaya.wen@yale.edu .

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