Over at Division of Labor, Noel Campbell picks a fight with Austrian fans of Mises. “I always conceived of Mises’ efforts as attempting to build a logically correct and (therefore) irrefutable description of human behavior. As such, I always viewed Human Action as a work of philosophy, not science.” Noel hints that he doesn’t want to be answered with a lot of philosophy of science. I might whine about how unfair it is to contrast Mises’ “philosophy” with “science” and then expect a response that doesn’t get into the philosophy of science. But Noel seems to be a nice guy with a sincere question, so I’ll take a stab at it anyway.
Noel is mistaken about what Mises was trying to do. Mises gets some of the blame for Noel’s misunderstanding. He front-loaded Human Action with all that stuff about “apodictic certainty,” “praxeology,” and so on. That really gives you the idea that he’s more interested in methodology than results. No, he was more interested in results than methodology.
Speaking of methodology, if I were allowed to discuss philosophy of science I’d go on about how Mises anticipated Lakatos and others, how he never gets credit for being way ahead on methodology, and so on. But I said I’d stick with science.
Okay, so science says we have common biological history and, therefore, a common mental structure. In particular, we seem to have a “theory of mind module” that lets us interpret other humans with the same categories we use to interpret ourselves. They have minds just like I do; their emotions are like mine; his green is the same as my green; and so on. This is how we can understand each other: we are preprogrammed for it. Thus, the agents within our models should be modeled as using those biologically endowed categories to understand one another. Those categories are pretty much empty until we add in “empirical facts” (that it, facts) about people such as the disutility of labor at the margin, positive time preference, and uncertainty about the future.
Those facts and categories already spell out testable propositions about society if we reason carefully. If our reasoning were perfect the test would always be about whether the “if” part applies where we thought it might, but our reasoning is imperfect. Anyway, you can go pretty far in social science just thinking carefully about what people are like. You need to check whether your carefully worked out story fits the apparent facts. If so, you might be right. If not, you need to see where you went wrong. It could be that your logic is flawed or the “if” part doesn’t really apply.
It could be, however, that the “facts” were not reported correctly. If we learn that prices in some European port city fell when the Spanish landed with their American gold, we could say “so much for demand and supply!” More likely, however, we would question the accuracy of the historical record. St. Joseph of Cupertino might have been able to levitate, but I think it is more likely that reports of his flying abilities are somehow mistaken.