Mises Wire

The Reality of Human Action

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The concept of reality is questioned by the notion, as László Krasznahorkai expressed it, that there are “many realities, or none at all.” By contrast, in Human Action, Ludwig von Mises offers a clear concept of reality, which he describes as “the whole complex of all causal relations between events, which wishful thinking cannot alter.” Building on this idea, Murray Rothbard argues that the entire science of human action can be deduced from a few basic axioms that are true about the real world. Real in this context means, as Mises says, “in the eyes of man, all that he cannot alter and to whose existence he must adjust his action if he wants to attain his ends.”

Rothbard’s argument is that in the real world, some inescapable basic truths are self-evident, and from these basic axioms, we can derive further true principles based on the logic that “if A is true, and A implies B, then B is true.” For example, praxeologists assert that “individuals engage in conscious actions toward chosen goals.” From this basic axiom, which praxeologists take to be absolutely and universally true, they deduce further principles about human action. Rothbard argues

(a) that the fundamental axioms and premises of economics are absolutely true;

(b) that the theorems and conclusions deduced by the laws of logic from these postulates are therefore absolutely true;

(c) that there is consequently no need for empirical “testing,” either of the premises or the conclusions; and

(d) that the deduced theorems could not be tested even if it were desirable.

Leaving aside debates about whether these axioms have any empirical content, some critics have countered that praxeologists cannot possibly know whether their fundamental axioms and premises are absolutely true in the first place, as stated in Rothbard’s proposition (a). After all, a good Popperian knows that no scientific principle can be stated as absolutely true because a scientist could come along tomorrow and show that it is not true after all. The lesson to be derived from the awkward business involving Galileo Galilei and the Roman Catholic Inquisition, so the critics assert, is that we should never assume anything to be absolutely true. This contestation is summarized by Rothbard as follows:

In physics, therefore, postulated explanations have to be hypothesized in such a way that they or their consequents can be empirically tested. Even then, the laws are only tentatively rather than absolutely valid. 

. . . On the other hand, economics, or praxeology, has full and complete knowledge of its original and basic axioms. These are the axioms implicit in the very existence of human action, and they are absolutely valid so long as human beings exist.

Praxeologists are clear that they make no claim to be omniscient. In Human Action, Mises explains: “The honest and conscientious truth-seekers have never pretended that reason and scientific research can answer all questions. They were fully aware of the limitations imposed on the human mind.” Nor do they claim to be infallible, as Mises explains that “human reason is not infallible, and that man very often errs in selecting and applying means.”

In that case, retort the critics, if praxeologists concede to making errors just like other mere mortals, it follows that they could therefore be mistaken about their original and basic axioms—and it would follow logically that all the deductions derived from those erroneous axioms would probably also be wrong. An argument logically derived from a mistaken premise could well be valid, but its truth is not guaranteed. The critics’ argument is that praxeologists cannot possibly be absolutely certain that men act. We cannot even be certain that men exist at all. As in the famous example, for all you know, you might not even be a man but just a butterfly dreaming that you are a man. What conclusive proof do you have that you are not actually a butterfly dreaming that you’re reading this article?

A story tells that Zhuang Zhou once dreamed he was a butterfly, flitting and fluttering around, happy, and doing as he pleased. As a butterfly, he did not know he was Zhuang Zhou. All of a sudden, he awoke and found he was Zhuang Zhou, solid and unmistakably human. But then he did not know whether he was Zhuang Zhou dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou.

If you cannot even prove that you are not a butterfly dreaming that you’re trying to prove yourself to be human, you certainly cannot prove that “individuals engage in conscious actions toward chosen goals.” This inability to be certain about reality is what gender ideologues advert to when they say doctors cannot know for sure what sex people are at birth so they just guess. All doctors can do is make their best guess as to what sex the baby probably is, but that can change over time because sex is a “spectrum.” After all, any child might wake up tomorrow and “feel” like a different gender, or so their teachers would have them believe. As explained by a doctor from St. Louis, Missouri, advising teachers to “affirm” a class of fifth-grade girls who all decided they were actually boys, “The best we can do is affirm, validate and allow for exploration.”

In addition to truth being unknowable, a related criticism of praxeology is that it is unwise to derive universal principles through human reason because human beings are not always reasonable. In making choices, human beings are prone to irrationality, and our decisions are often influenced by our emotions or personal idiosyncrasies. Perceptions of reality are often mistaken; therefore, nobody can know for sure, beyond any doubt, what is real.

Rothbard acknowledges that we are all prone to error, we often wrongly perceive reality, and we do not always choose to follow the dictates of reason. Nevertheless, he argues that we must acknowledge that it is only through reason and rationality that we are able to live: “It is not, of course, that Mises believes that men will always listen to reason, or follow its dictates; it is simply that, insofar as men act at all, they are capable of following reason, and that pursuing such a course is literally the last best hope for mankind.” Rothbard’s point is that it is only through reason that we can forge a path through life:

Man is born with no innate knowledge of what ends to choose or how to use which means to attain them. Having no inborn knowledge of how to survive and prosper, he must learn what ends and means to adopt, and he is liable to make errors along the way. But only his reasoning mind can show him his goals and how to attain them.

Ultimately, the reason why Zhuang Zhou must accept the evidence of his own eyes and take it to be absolutely true that he is a man and not a butterfly is that it is not possible for a sane person persistently to evade reality. As Rothbard observes in “Praxeology: The Methodology of Austrian Economics”:

Of course, a person may say that he denies the existence of self-evident principles or other established truths of the real world, but this mere saying has no epistemological validity. As Toohey pointed out, “A man may say anything he pleases, but he cannot think or do anything he pleases. He may say he saw a round square, but he cannot think he saw a round square. He may say, if he likes, that he saw a horse riding astride its own back, but we shall know what to think of him if he says it.”

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