I’ve taken many introductory classes over the years. As I reflect on this while I’m yet again taking an introductory class, it seems that there is a deeply rooted error in modern methods of teaching.

When I look back at learning physics, I recall that the majority of what I learned was a matter of technical prowess with mathematics. I was given basic laws and rules and derived equations and solved problems. Whether it was a boat moving down stream with an external force from the west, or an electron under electromagnetic forces, or a double pendulum, the question was on solving equations that would quantify certain aspects of the situation.

Never once did I hear a professor ever explain what motion was. The very basic thing we were writing all of these equations for, we never even defined. Matter was presupposed to be that “stuff” that moves. In fact when speaking to a physicist about matter that is literally what they call it, “stuff.” There is no deeper understanding or awareness. Its simply our subject that we spend all our energy to overlook.

As I study economics I see the same thing. I’ve never heard of an attempt to explain what value is or even what property is. What on earth are we talking about? This is entirely overlooked as we derive equations from manifestly false assumptions and produce graphs and solve for intersections. I can solve for the equilibrium but I don’t even know what economics is about.

The emphasis on mathematics is deeply problematic in that it abstracts us from the real world that we are attempting to describe. We don’t talk about the reality that we are trying to model, except in so far as we must admit that are mathematics are only an approximation of that reality.

This produces fertile ground for anti-realism whether it be in quantum and relativistic mechanics (after all the equations say so) or economics. Without a firm grounding in understanding the reality that the equations are attempting to describe, we are bound to make errors such as thinking a particle or property can be a contradiction.

I think of this when I consider the time value of money. The equations as they are written are quite interesting, but it is the interpretation that get us in trouble. Without be grounded in reality, the equations cannot be properly interpreted. It is tempting to think that the equations extend to everything, but this presupposes certain metaphysical and epistemological errors.

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Have you read William Briggs on the “Deadly Sin of Reification?” It sounds a lot like what you’re talking about. The following are might not be bad places to start (for one thing, they’re all fairly short), but very much of what he writes touches on these or related topics:

http://wmbriggs.com/post/18694/

http://wmbriggs.com/post/18859/

http://wmbriggs.com/post/3169/

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Thank you. I’ve read and written about reification before. I’ve also read Dr. Briggs and while I’m often interested in his topics I’ve found his writing style to be difficult to follow and lacking in clarity and precision (not only in his blogs but his professional academic articles).

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