Science, Human Action, The Search for “Truth”, and Consequences | Part 12: A Science of Two Parts Forms a Whole

Thinking on the Potential Dangers of Science Myopia (Photo: Joao Silas,

© 2018, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved.

Ludwig von Mises drew a sharp distinction between two types of study, one being non-teleological events in the world of inanimate matter, and the other being teleological human events that rest on the “human faculty of thinking, cognizing, and acting” (The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, 11). He noted: “There is within the infinite expanse of what is called the universe a small field in which man’s conscious conduct can influence the course of events” (ibid.).

Mises referred to the study of non-teleological events as “natural sciences” and the study where conscious human cognition was an aspect of the subject matter as the social sciences, or “the sciences of human action.” He included his own field of study, economics, in this latter category.

The nature of the two domains of natural science and human science is such that each requires a separate, distinct, and appropriate methodology of study.

The study of human action requires a methodology appropriate for the study of means and ends in the context of chosen goals. The study of the inanimate objects has no such need to take the pursuit of chosen goals and ends into account. The historical mistake, asserts Mises, was the attempt by philosophers “to reduce mental phenomena to the operation of factors that were not specifically human” (ibid, 12), and by doing so, to obliterate awareness and attribution of the uniquely human “ability to think, to will and to act to an invisible and intangible factor he calls his mind” (ibid, 11).

The critical and dangerous mistake, Mises points out, is to deny the fundamental importance of the distinction between sentient and non-sentient entities. Where this distinction is denied, the result is the collapse of science into a single unitary methodology thought to be justified by its overwhelmingly successful and fully appropriate application in the study of physics, and the subsequent application of this experimental methodology of discovery to an entirely different class of entities: humans. The contention is in the unfounded rejection by the adherents of positivism of the demonstrated claim that human behavior cannot be reduced to replicable experiments and the discovery of universal laws of cause and effect that can be articulated by mathematical symbols.

Whether intended or not, the reduction of all science in the pursuit of knowledge and truth to positivism whilst wishing out of existence the axiomatic domain of human consciousness results in excluding the recognition and importance of an entire category of study: human action. Where science is reduced and limited to positivism, it negates human action altogether and relegates it out of existence.

And yet the purpose of science, itself an artifact and discovery of the human mind, is to serve human wellbeing, not to snuff it out and abandon it. Human beings cannot flourish without a sound science of the discovery of valid laws and principles of rational thinking and human action, to which the methodologies so appropriate to the natural sciences can not discover nor contribute.

In this way, scientific monism limited to the claims of positivism is self-refuting and invalid. That it can stand on a valid epistemological foundation to substantiate its claims is impossible, and is why Hayek rightly identified such claims as a logical fallacy (the fallacy of scientistic prejudice).

NEXT: Part 13. Volitional and Mechanical Causation: Science or Sciences?

Mises: The A Priori Nature of Human Action (pdf)

Barry Linetsky has learned a considerable amount from the writings of Mises and Hayek. Barry makes his living specializing in value-driven strategic management, and is the author of the acclaimed business biography The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press, 2017) and Free Will: Sam Harris Has It (Wrong), both available from amazon. He frequently blogs at and has been published in the Ivey Business Journal and Rotman Magazine. Twitter @BizPhilosopher.

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