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The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science
Ludwig von Mises

2
The Activistic Basis of Knowledge

2. Finality

What distinguishes the field of human action from the field of external events as investigated by the natural sciences is the category of finality. We do no know of any final causes operating in what we call nature. But we know that man aims at definite goals chosen. In the natural sciences we search after constant relations among various events. In dealing with human action we search after the ends the actor wants or wanted to attain and after the result that his action brought about or will bring about.

The clear distinction between a field of reality about which man cannot learn anything else than that it is characterized by a regularity in the concatenation and succession of events and a field in which purposeful striving after ends chosen takes place is an achievement of a long evolution. Man, himself an acting being, was first inclined to explain all events as the manifestation of the action of beings acting in a way that was essentially not different from his own. Animism ascribed to all things of the universe the faculty of action. When experience moved people to drop this belief, it was still assumed that God or nature acts in a way not different from the ways of human action. The emancipation from this anthropomorphism is one of the epistemological foundations of modern natural science.

Positivist philosophy, which nowadays styles itself also scientific philosophy, believes that this rejection of finalism by the natural sciences implies the refutation of all theological doctrines as well as that of the teachings of the sciences of human action. It pretends that the natural sciences can solve all the "riddles of the universe" and provide an allegedly scientific answer to all the questions that may trouble mankind.

However, the natural sciences did not contribute and cannot contribute anything to the clarification of those problems with which religion tries to cope. The repudiation of naive anthropomorphism that imagined a supreme being either as a dictator or as a watchmaker was an achievement of theology and of metaphysics. With regard to the doctrine that God is wholly other than man and that his essence and nature cannot be grasped by mortal man, the natural sciences and a philosophy derived from them have nothing to say. The transcendent is beyond the realm about which physics and physiology convey information. Logic can neither prove nor disprove the core of theological doctrines. All that science—apart from history—can do in this regard is to expose the fallacies of magic and fetishistic superstitions and practices.

In denying the autonomy of the sciences of human action and their category of final causes, positivism enounces a metaphysical postulate that it cannot substantiate with any of the findings of the experimental methods of the natural sciences. It is a gratuitous pastime to apply to the description of the behavior of man the same methods the natural sciences apply in dealing with the behavior of mice or of iron. The same external events produce in different men and in the same men at different times different reactions. The natural sciences are helpless in face of this "irregularity." Their methods can deal only with events that are governed by a regular pattern. Besides, they do not have any room for the concepts of meaning, of valuation, and of ends.

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