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CHAPTER 3: Necessity and Volition - Ludwig von Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science: An Essay on Method 
The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science: An Essay on Method, ed Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
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Necessity and Volition
Negation, the notion of the absence or nonexistence of something or of the denial of a proposition, is conceivable to the human mind. But the notion of an absolute negation of everything, the representation of an absolute nothing, is beyond man’s comprehension. So is the notion of the emergence of something out of nothing, the notion of an absolute beginning. The Lord, teaches the Bible, created the world out of nothing; but God himself was there from eternity and will be there in eternity, without a beginning and without an end.
As the human mind sees it, everything that happens, happens to something that existed before. The emergence of something new is seen as the evolution—the coming to maturity—of something that was potentially already present in what existed before. The totality of the universe as it was yesterday included already potentially the totality of the universe as it is today. The universe is an all-comprehensive context of elements, a continuity stretching back and forward into infinity, an entity to which to ascribe either an origin or an end is beyond the mental capacity of man.
Everything that is, is such as it is and not something different, because what preceded it was of a definite shape and structure and not of a different shape and structure.
We do not know what a superhuman, wholly perfect mind would think about these issues. We are merely men equipped with a human mind and cannot even imagine the potency and capacity of such a more perfect mind, essentially different from our mental powers.
The Ultimate Given
It follows that scientific research will never succeed in providing a full answer to what is called the riddles of the universe. It can never show how out of an inconceivable nothing emerged all that is and how one day all that exists may again disappear and the “nothing” alone will remain.
Scientific research sooner or later, but inevitably, encounters something ultimately given that it cannot trace back to something else of which it would appear as the regular or necessary derivative. Scientific progress consists in pushing further back this ultimately given. But there will always remain something that—for the human mind thirsting after full knowledge—is, at the given stage of the history of science, the provisional stopping point. It was only the rejection of all philosophical and epistemological thinking by some brilliant but one-sided physicists of the last decades that interpreted as a refutation of determinism the fact that they were at a loss to trace back certain phenomena—that for them were an ultimately given—to some other phenomena. Perhaps it is true, although not likely, that contemporary physics has at some points reached a barrier beyond which no further expansion of knowledge is possible for man. But however this may be, there is in all the teachings of the natural sciences nothing that could in any way be considered as incompatible with determinism.
The natural sciences are entirely based upon experience. All they know and deal with is derived from experience. And experience could not teach anything if there were no regularity in the concatenation and succession of events.
But the philosophy of positivism tries to assert much more than can be learned from experience. It pretends to know that there is nothing in the universe that could not be investigated and fully clarified by the experimental methods of the natural sciences. But it is admitted by everybody that up to now these methods have not contributed anything to the explanation of the phenomena of life as distinguished from physico-chemical phenomena. And all the desperate efforts to reduce thinking and valuing to mechanical principles have failed.
It is by no means the aim of the preceding remarks to express any opinion about the nature and structure of life and of the mind. This essay is, as has been said in the first words of its preface, not a contribution to philosophy. We have to refer to these problems only in order to show that the treatment that positivism accords to them implies a theorem for which no experimental justification whatever can be provided, viz., the theorem that all observable phenomena are liable to a reduction to physical and chemical principles. Whence do the positivists derive this theorem? It would be certainly wrong to qualify it as an a priori assumption. A characteristic mark of an a priori category is that any different assumption with regard to the topic concerned appears to the human mind as unthinkable and self-contradictory. But this is certainly not the case with the positivist dogma we are dealing with. The ideas taught by certain religious and metaphysical systems are neither unthinkable nor self-contradictory. There is nothing in their logical structure that would force any reasonable man to reject them for the same reasons he would, e.g., have to reject the thesis that there is no difference and distinction between A and non-A.
The gulf that in epistemology separates the events in the field investigated by the natural sciences from those in the field of thinking and acting has not been made narrower by any of the findings and achievements of the natural sciences. All we know about the mutual relation and interdependence of these two realms of reality is metaphysics. The positivist doctrine that denies the legitimacy of any metaphysical doctrine is no less metaphysical than many other doctrines at variance with it. This means: What a man in the present state of mankind’s civilization and knowledge says about such issues as the soul, the mind, believing, thinking, reasoning, and willing does not have the epistemological character of natural science and can in no way be considered as scientific knowledge.
An honest man, perfectly familiar with all the achievements of contemporary natural science, would have to admit freely and unreservedly that the natural sciences do not know what the mind is and how it works and that their methods of research are not fit to deal with the problems dealt with by the sciences of human action.
It would have been wise on the part of the champions of logical positivism to take to heart Wittgenstein’s advice: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”1
Statistics is the description in numerical terms of experiences concerning phenomena not subject to regular uniformity. As far as there is discernible regularity in the succession of phenomena, no recourse to statistics is needed. The objective of vital statistics is not to establish the fact that all men are mortal, but to give information about the length of human life, a magnitude that is not uniform. Statistics is therefore a specific method of history.
Where there is regularity, statistics could not show anything else than that A is followed in all cases by P and in no case by something different from P. If statistics show that A is in x% of all cases followed by P and in (100 − x)% of all cases by Q, we must assume that a more perfect knowledge will have to split up A into two factors B and C of which the former is regularly followed by P and the latter by Q.
Statistics is one of the resources of historical research. There are in the field of human action certain occurrences and events characteristic features of which can be described in numerical terms. Thus, e.g., the impact of a definite doctrine upon the minds of people does not permit of any numerical expression. Its “quantity” can be ascertained only by the method of the specific understanding of the historical disciplines.2 But the number of people who lost their lives in struggles to arrange, by means of wars, revolutions, and assassinations, social conditions in agreement with a definite doctrine can be precisely determined in figures if all the documentation required is available.
Statistics provides numerical information about historical facts, that is, about events that happened at a definite period of time to definite people in a definite area. It deals with the past and not with the future. Like any other past experience, it can occasionally render important services in planning for the future, but it does not say anything that is directly valid for the future.
There is no such thing as [a] statistical [law]. People resort to the methods of statistics precisely where they are not in a position to find regularity in the concatenation and succession of events. The most celebrated statistical achievement, mortality tables, does not show stability, but changes in the mortality rates of the population. The average length of human life changes in the course of history, even if no changes were to emerge in the natural environment, because many factors that affect it are the result of human action, e.g., violence, diet, medical and prophylactic measures, the supply of foodstuffs, and others.
The concept of [a] “statistical law” originated when some authors, in dealing with human conduct, failed to realize why certain statistical data change only slowly and, in blind enthusiasm, hastily identified slowness of change with absence of change. Thus, they believed themselves to have discovered regularities—laws—in the conduct of people for which neither they themselves nor anybody else had any other explanation than the—as must be emphasized, baseless—assumption that statistics had demonstrated them.3 From the shaky philosophy of these authors physicists borrowed the term “statistical law,” but they gave to it a connotation that differs from that attached to it in the field of human action. It is not our task to deal with the meaning these physicists and later generations of physicists attached to this term or with the services statistics can render to experimental research and to technology.
The orbit of the natural sciences is the field in which the human mind is able to discover constant relations between various elements. What characterizes the field of the sciences of human action is the absence of constant relations apart from those dealt with by praxeology. In the former group of sciences there are laws (of nature) and measurement. In the latter there is no measurement and—apart from praxeology—no laws; there is only history, including statistics.
Man is not, like the animals, an obsequious puppet of instincts and sensual impulses. Man has the power to suppress instinctive desires, he has a will of his own, he chooses between incompatible ends. In this sense he is a moral person; in this sense he is free.
However, it is not permissible to interpret this freedom as independence of the universe and its laws. Man too is an element of the universe, descended from the original x out of which everything developed. He has inherited from the infinite line of his progenitors the physiological equipment of his self; in his postnatal life he was exposed to a variety of physical and mental experiences. He is at any instant of his life—his earthly pilgrimage—a product of the whole history of the universe. All his actions are the inevitable result of his individuality as shaped by all that preceded. An omniscient being may have correctly anticipated each of his choices. (However, we do not have to deal with the intricate theological problems that the concept of omniscience raises.)
Freedom of the will does not mean that the decisions that guide a man’s action fall, as it were, from outside into the fabric of the universe and add to it something that had no relation to and was independent of the elements which had formed the universe before. Actions are directed by ideas, and ideas are products of the human mind, which is definitely a part of the universe and of which the power is strictly determined by the whole structure of the universe.
What the term “freedom of the will” refers to is the fact that the ideas that induce a man to make a decision (a choice) are, like all other ideas, not “produced” by external “facts,” do not “mirror,” the conditions of reality, and are not “uniquely determined” by any ascertainable external factor to which we could impute them in the way in which we impute in all other occurrences an effect to a definite cause. There is nothing else that could be said about a definite instance of a man’s acting and choosing than to ascribe it to this man’s individuality.
We do not know how, out of the encounter of a human individuality, i.e., a man as he has been formed by all he has inherited and by all he has experienced, and a new experience definite ideas result and determine the individual’s conduct. We do not even have any surmise how such knowledge could be acquired. More than that, we realize that if such knowledge were attainable for men, and if, consequently, the formation of ideas and thereby the will could be manipulated in the way machines are operated by the engineer, human conditions would be essentially altered. There would yawn a wide gulf between those who manipulate other people’s ideas and will and those whose ideas and will are manipulated by others.
It is precisely the lack of such knowledge that generates the fundamental difference between the natural sciences and the sciences of human action.
In referring to the free will we are pointing out that in the production of events something can be instrumental about which the natural sciences cannot convey any information, something that the natural sciences cannot even notice. Yet our impotence to ascertain an absolute beginning out of nothing forces us to assume that also this invisible and intangible something—the human mind—is an inherent part of the universe, a product of its whole history.4
The traditional treatment of the problem of free will refers to the actor’s vacillation before the final resolution. At this stage the actor wavers between different courses of action each of which seems to have some merits and demerits that the others lack. In comparing their pros and cons he is intent upon finding the decision that conforms to his personality and to the specific conditions of the instant as he sees them and thus upon satisfying best all his concerns. This means that his individuality—the product of all that he has inherited at birth from his ancestors and of all that he himself has experienced up to the critical moment—determines the final resolution. If later he reviews his past, he is aware of the fact that his comportment in any situation was fully determined by the kind of man he was at the instant of the action. It is immaterial whether in retrospect he himself or an unaffected observer can clearly describe all the factors that were instrumental in forming the past decision.
Nobody is in a position to predict with the same assurance with which the natural sciences make predictions how he himself and other people will act in the future. There is no method that would enable us to learn about a human personality all that would be needed to make such prognostications with the degree of certainty technology attains in its predictions.
The way in which historians and biographers proceed in analyzing and explaining the actions of the men with whom they are dealing reflects a more correct view of the problems involved than voluminous sophisticated treatises of moral philosophy. The historian refers to the spiritual milieu and the past experiences of the actor, to his knowledge or ignorance of all the data that could influence his decision, to his state of health, and to many other factors that could have played a role. But then, even after full attention has been paid to all these matters, something remains that defies any attempts at further interpretation, viz., the personality or individuality of the actor. When all is said about the case, there is finally no other answer to the question why Caesar crossed the Rubicon than: because he was Caesar. We cannot eliminate in dealing with human action reference to the actor’s personality.
Men are unequal; individuals differ from one another. They differ because their prenatal as well as their postnatal history is never identical.
All that happens was, under the prevailing conditions, bound to happen. It happened because the forces operating on its production were more powerful than the counteracting forces. Its happening was, in this sense, inevitable.
Yet the historian who in retrospect speaks of inevitability is not indulging in a pleonasm. What he means is to qualify a definite event or array of events A as the moving force producing a second event B; the proviso: provided no sufficiently powerful counteracting factor appeared, is self-understood. If such a counterpoise was lacking, A was bound to result in B, and it is permissible to call the outcome B inevitable.
In forecasting future events, apart from the field covered by praxeological law, reference to inevitability is a meaningless flower of speech. It does not add anything to the conclusive force of a prediction. It merely attests the infatuation of its author. This is all that needs to be said with regard to the prophetic effusions of the various systems of philosophy of history.5 The “inexorability of a law of nature” (Notwendigkeit eines Naturprozesses) which Marx claimed for his prophecy6 is just a rhetorical trick.
The momentous changes occurring in the course of cosmic and human history are the composite effect of a multitude of events. Each of these contributing events is strictly determined by the factors that preceded and produced it and so is the part each of them plays in the production of the momentous change. But if and as far as the chains of causation upon which the occurrence of these various contributing events depends are independent of one another, a situation may result that has induced some historians and philosophers to exaggerate the role chance plays in the history of mankind. They fail to realize that events are to be graded according to their size from the point of view of the weight of their effects and of their cooperation in the production of the composite effect. If only one of the minor events is altered, the influence upon the total outcome will also only be small.
It is a rather unsatisfactory way to argue: If the police in Sarajevo* had been more efficient on June 28, 1914, the archduke would not have been murdered and the World War and all its disastrous consequences would have been avoided. What made—in the sense referred to above—the Great War inevitable was the irreconcilable conflicts among the various linguistic groups (nationalities) of the Habsburg Monarchy, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the German endeavors to build a navy strong enough to defeat the British naval forces. The Russian revolution was bound to come, as the Tsarist system and its bureaucratic methods were passionately rejected by the immense majority of the population; the outbreak of the war did not accelerate its coming; it rather delayed it for a short time. The fiery nationalism and etatism of the European peoples could not but result in war. These were the factors that made the Great War and its consequences inevitable, no matter whether the Serbian nationalists succeeded or failed in their attempts to murder the heir to the Austrian throne.
Political, social, and economic affairs are the outcome of the cooperation of all people. Although there prevail considerable differences with regard to the importance of the various individuals’ contributions, they are commensurable and by and large capable of being replaced by those of other individuals. An accident that eliminates the work of an individual, be he even a rather eminent one, diverts the course of events only slightly from the line they would have followed if it had not occurred.
Conditions are different in the field of the greatest intellectual and artistic performances. The feat of the genius is outside the regular flow of human affairs. The genius too is in many regards determined by the conditions of his environment. But what gives to his work its specific lustre is something that is unique and cannot be duplicated by anyone else. We know neither what combination of genes produces the innate potentialities of the genius nor what kind of environmental conditions are needed to bring them to fruition. If he succeeds in avoiding all the dangers that could harm him and his accomplishments, the better for mankind. If an accident annihilates him, all the people lose something irreplaceable.
If Dante, Shakespeare, or Beethoven had died in childhood, mankind would miss what it owes to them. In this sense we may say that chance plays a role in human affairs. But to stress this fact does not in the least contradict the a priori category of determinism.
[1. ]L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (New York, 1922), pp. 188 ff.
[2. ]See below, p. 66.
[3. ]About the most eminent instance of this doctrine, that of H. Th. Buckle, see Mises, Theory and History, pp. 84 ff.
[4. ]About these problems, see Mises, Theory and History, pp. 76–93.
[5. ]About philosophy of history, see Mises, Theory and History, pp. 159 ff.
[6. ]Marx, Das Capital, Vol. I, ch. xxiv, point 7.
[* ]Site of the June 28, 1914, assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which led to the outbreak of the First World War.