Is Praxeology a Pseudoscience?
Note: This article is a critique of Praxeology’s methodology and epistemology as presented by Mises and developed by Rothbard, Hoppe and others, not a criticism of Austrian Economics as a whole.
According to Popper what differentiates science and pseudoscience is that scientific hypotheses and theories a) are falsifiable & b) haven’t been falsified. How does praxeology fit into both criteria?.
a) Is Praxeology Falsifiable?
Praxeology invokes a different methodology for economics from that of the natural sciences, it considers economics to be a “deductive science” more akin to logic and mathematics than the experimental sciences. It begins with the axiom of action and economic theory is deduced through the aid of logic, if deduced without error, the economic theories will have the same aprioristic character as the axiom itself. In other words, the validity of the axiom of action is of utmost importance, since the soundness of any logical argument rests upon its truthfulness, let’s take a look at it:
“Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals….” Mises, Human Action.
And on the epistemic status of the action axiom, Mises claims the following:
“No laboratory experiments can be performed with regard to human action … Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts.” Mises, Human Action.
Mises puts the axiom of action in the same category as the premises of logic and mathematics. However, the propositions of logic and mathematics deal with how we think, not how things are in the world, in this sense, they are apodictic because once exposed to them, we cannot conceive of a possible world in which they don’t hold. The action axiom is entirely different since it actually makes a claim about how things are in the real world, namely about the way in which real humans act. Furthermore, it isn’t a necessary truth, we can perfectly conceive a world in which humans don’t act intentionally (See philosophical zombie thought experiments that show coherent models of the world in which individuals act randomly lacking volition or intentionality).
Since the action axiom makes a claim about how humans act in the real world it is incorrect to claim that it is “not subject to verification or falsification on the grounds of experience”. This was made clear by many philosophers and scientists, including Einstein:
“Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and end in it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality” Einstein, On the Method of Theoretical Physics.
b) Has the action axiom been falsified?
Praxeology claims the axiom is arrived at through intuition & introspection, however, if the history of science as shown us anything, it is that many intuitive truths that seemed self-evident and beyond dispute where eventually proven to be false. Think about the geocentric conception of the universe or the apparent solidity and uniformity of the material world, which has been proven to be a mere illusion since more than 99.99% of matter has been proven to be empty space.
One might even argue that the axiom could be falsified intuitively: By paying attention to one’s own experience, it might become clear that one doesn’t always act with a clear “telos” in mind, in fact one might occasionally act against one’s ends (anyone who’s tried to commit to a diet knows how easy it is to inadvertently end up buying and eating that chocolate bar, effectively acting against one’s ends). However, this argument would fall prey to the obvious objection which we have already alluded and which can also be raised against the action axiom; One’s own introspection or intuition is not a reliable source of knowledge about the world.
Over the past decades, research in the fields of neuroscience, behavioral economics and experimental psychology has shown that human action, in the real world, simply doesn’t conform to the action axiom. The work of Dan Ariely, Alex Pouget, Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein and many other experimental scientists has shown that much of human action is unconscious and rationalized by the conscious mind after the fact. The research shows that many of our choices and actions are unconscious and hence they cannot be intentional, effectively falsifying the central premise of Praxeology, the action axiom.
Some Common Defenses of Praxeology
1- The action axiom is like the truths of logic or mathematics, it doesn’t require empirical verification. This has already been addressed in “section a”, the action axiom doesn’t make claims about how we think but about how the world is, hence it requires empirical testing.
2- The complexity of human action makes it impossible to run scientific experiments.
The world of science in general is complex, there’s always variables one can’t control and unexplained variance, observations are imperfect. Just because running experiments is difficult doesn’t mean science should dispense with them all together.
3- People prove the action axiom every time they try to refute it.
This has to be the worst arguments in defense of praxeology, it basically states that if you try to deny the action axiom (that humans act intentionally) you are yourself acting intentionally and contradicting yourself supposedly proving the validity of the axiom. This is quite frankly, absurd, just because I happen to be acting intentionally when I reject the action axiom doesn’t mean I always acted intentionally in the past or that I will act intentionally in the future. Very sloppy logic here.
It is clear that unlike the truths of logic and mathematics, the action axiom not only can be falsified but also has been falsified. Studies in the experimental sciences show that individuals don’t always act according to the action axiom (e.g. if they sometimes act unconsciously and come up with a justification for their actions after acting), rendering praxeology a pseudoscience.
It could be argued that all economists rely on assumptions that are not well-grounded in empirical evidence, however, most of them are willing to modify their assumptions and premises when the evidence doesn’t support them. What makes Praxeology unique is that it considers it’s premises to be apodictic and irrefutable and refuses to allow for their empirical verification. This attitude closes the door to the virtuous cycle of skeptical inquiry, testing and constant refinement that characterizes the scientific process.
Praxeology’s attempt to use a separate methodology for economics from that of the natural sciences is a mistake and it’s adherents would do well following Hayek’s steps in abandoning Mises’s methodological dualism, embracing the scientific method as the true source of knowledge in economics. In doing this they’d be re-connecting with the roots of the Austrian School of Economics and its original commitment to the scientific method. “There are no essential difference between the ethical and the natural sciences”. Menger, 1871.
Ariely, Dan, Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions 2010
Crespo, Causality, Teleology and Explanation in Social Sciences, 2006
Einstein, Albert., “On the Method of Theoretical Physics”, 1934
Lagueux, Von Mises’ apriorism and Austrian economics: From Menger to Mises, 1996
Linsbichler, Alexander, Austrian economics without extreme apriorism: construing the fundamental axiom of praxeology as analytic, 2019.
Mises, Ludwig V. Human Action, 1949
Menger, Carl, Principles of Economics,1871
Pouget, Alex, Our unconscious brain makes the best decisions possible, University of Rochester, 2008
Russell, Bertrand., The Problems of Philosophy, 1912.