Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Mises Test of External Reality

By Alexander Baker

Do intellectual objects exist in the external world?

The nature of existence has plagued philosophers for eons. Physical matter, external to our minds, appears self-evident. We see and feel things, hear them, taste and smell them. We rely on our senses to understand the nature of reality. It is no coincidence that the word “sense” means both “a faculty by which the human body perceives an external stimulus” and also “a judgment derived by reason”, as in “that makes sense to me”. Claims that defy the senses do not make sense.

But is it enough to say that matter is self-evident? Or, as existentialists challenge, could not our sensory perception of external reality be merely that – a perception? Is it “all in our minds?” Can we prove the existence of matter? If so, how? And crucially here, what happens if we then attempt the same proof for the existence of intellectual objects? Do intellectual object really exist outside the perception of each individual human mind?

Ludwig von Mises met and conquered the existentialist challenge with praxeology – the logic of human action.

The starting point of praxeology is a self-evident truth, the cognition of action, that is, the cognition of the fact that there is such a thing as consciously aiming at ends. [1]

The Mises Test of External Reality

A thing is real if it can condition the outcome of human events.

Humans act purposefully. To deny this would be a performative contradiction, since the act of denial is purposeful. Only humans can deny, so a denial of human action would actually represent a denial of one’s own humanity, an impossibility. It is literally undeniable that humans act purposefully.  Mises then applies that fact to the question of material existence, in “Human Action”, and  a section titled “The Reality of the External World”:

From the praxeological point of view it is not possible to question the real existence of matter, of physical objects and of the external world. Their reality is revealed by the fact that man is not omnipotent. There is in the world something that offers resistance to the realization of his wishes and desires. Any attempt to remove by a mere fiat what annoys him and to substitute a state of affairs that suits him better for a state of affairs that suits him less is vain. If he wants to succeed, he must proceed according to methods that are adjusted to the structure of something about which perception provides him with some information. We may define the external world as the totality of all those things and events that determine the feasibility or unfeasibility, the success or failure, of human action.[2]

Clearly, intellectual objects can meet Mises’ conception of “things” in the “external world”, because they can affect the success or failure of people’s goals. For example, consider a book about automobile repairs. The know-how contained in the book may have a major impact on whether someone can successfully replace their carburetor, or just makes a bigger mess of things. Mises continues making the case for external reality:

The much discussed question whether physical objects can or cannot be conceived as existing independently of the mind is vain. For thousands of years the minds of physicians did not perceive germs and did not divine their existence. But the success or failure of their endeavors to preserve their patients' health and lives depended on the way germs influenced or did not influence the functioning of the patients' bodily organs. The germs were real because they conditioned the outcome of events either by interfering or by not interfering, either by being present in or by being absent from the field.[3]

From this we can derive “The Mises Test of External Reality”. A thing is real if it can condition the outcome of human events.

Read the rest here.

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