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CHAPTER 7: The Epistemological Roots of Monism - 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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The Epistemological Roots of Monism
The Nonexperimental Character of Monism
Man’s world view is, as has been pointed out, deterministic. Man cannot conceive the idea of an absolute nothing or of some thing originating out of nothing and invading the universe from without. The human concept of the universe comprehends everything that exists. The human concept of time knows neither of any beginning nor of any end of the flux of time. All that is and will be was potentially present in something that was already existing before. What happens was bound to happen. The full interpretation of every event leads to a regressus in infinitum [process of tracing an event back endlessly step by step].
This unbroken determinism, which is the epistemological starting point of all that the experimental natural sciences do and teach, is not derived from experience; it is a priori.1 Logical positivists realize the aprioristic character of determinism and, faithful to their dogmatic empiricism, passionately reject determinism. But they are not aware of the fact that there is no logical or empirical basis whatever for the essential dogma of their creed, their monistic interpretation of all phenomena. What the empiricism of the natural sciences shows is a dualism of two spheres about the mutual relations of which we know very little. There is, on the one hand, the orbit of external events about which our senses convey information to us, and there is, on the other hand, the orbit of invisible and intangible thoughts and ideas. If we not only assume that the faculty to develop what is called mind was already potentially inwrought in the original structure of things that existed from eternity on and was brought to fruition by the succession of events that the nature of these things necessarily produced, but also that in this process there was nothing that could not be reduced to physical and chemical events, we are resorting to deduction from an arbitrary theorem. There is no experience that could either support or refute such a doctrine.
All that the experimental natural sciences up to now have taught us about the mind-body problem is that there prevails some connection between a man’s faculty of thinking and acting and the conditions of his body. We know that injuries to the brain can seriously impair or even entirely destroy man’s mental abilities and that death, the total disintegration of the physiological functions of the living tissues, invariably blots out those activities of the mind that can be noticed by other people’s minds. But we know nothing about the process that produces within the body of a living man thoughts and ideas. Almost identical external events that impinge on the human mind result[,] with different people and with the same people at different moments[,] in different thoughts and ideas. Physiology does not have any method that could adequately deal with the phenomena of the mind’s reaction to stimuli. The natural sciences are unable to employ their methods for the analysis of the meaning a man attaches to any event of the external world or to other people’s meaning. The materialistic philosophy of La Mettrie and Feuerbach and the monism of Haeckel are not natural science; they are metaphysical doctrines aiming at an explanation of something that the natural sciences could not explore. So are the monistic doctrines of positivism and neopositivism.
In establishing these facts one does not intend to ridicule the doctrines of materialistic monism and to qualify them as nonsense. Only the positivists consider all metaphysical speculations as nonsense and reject any kind of apriorism. Judicious philosophers and scientists have admitted without any reservation that the natural sciences have not contributed anything that could justify the tenets of positivism and materialism and that all these schools of thought are teaching is metaphysics, and a very unsatisfactory brand of metaphysics.
The doctrines that claim for themselves the epithet of radical or pure empiricism and stigmatize all that is not experimental natural science as nonsense fail to realize that the allegedly empiricist nucleus of their philosophy is entirely based upon deduction from an unwarranted premise. All that the natural sciences can do is to trace back all the phenomena that can be—directly or indirectly—perceived by the human senses to an array of ultimately given data. One may reject a dualistic or pluralistic interpretation of experience and assume that all these ultimate data might in the future development of scientific knowledge be traced back to a common source. But such an assumption is not experimental natural science. It is a metaphysical interpretation. And so is the further assumption that this source will also appear as the root out of which all mental phenomena evolved.
On the other hand, all the attempts of philosophers to demonstrate the existence of a supreme being by mundane methods of thinking, either by aprioristic reasoning or drawing inferences from certain observed qualities of visible and tangible phenomena, have led to an impasse. But we have to realize that it is no less impossible to demonstrate logically by the same philosophical methods the nonexistence of God or to reject the thesis that God created the x from which everything the natural sciences deal with is derived and the further thesis that the inexplicable powers of the human mind came and come into being by reiterated divine intervention in the affairs of the universe. The Christian doctrine according to which God creates the soul of every individual cannot be refuted by discursive reasoning as it cannot be proved in this way. There is neither in the brilliant achievements of the natural sciences nor in aprioristic reasoning anything that could contradict Du Bois-Reymond’s Ignorabimus [“we do not know”].
There cannot be such a thing as scientific philosophy in the sense that logical positivism and empiricism ascribe to the adjective “scientific.” The human mind in its search for knowledge resorts to philosophy or theology precisely because it aims at an explanation of problems that the natural sciences cannot answer. Philosophy deals with things beyond the limits that the logical structure of the human mind enables man to infer from the exploits of the natural sciences.
The Historical Setting of Positivism
One does not satisfactorily characterize the problems of human action if one says that the natural sciences have—up to now, at least—failed to provide anything for their elucidation. A correct description of the situation would have to stress the fact that the natural sciences do not even have the mental tools to become aware of the existence of such problems. Ideas and final causes are categories for which there is no room left in the system and in the structure of the natural sciences. Their terminology lacks all the concepts and words that could provide an adequate orientation in the orbit of the mind and of action. And all their achievements, however marvelous and beneficial they are, do not even superficially touch the essential problems of philosophy with which metaphysical and religious doctrines try to cope.
The development of the almost generally accepted opinion to the contrary can easily be explained. All metaphysical and religious doctrines contained, besides their theological and moral teachings, also untenable theorems about natural events that, with the progressive development of the natural sciences, could be not only refuted but frequently even ridiculed. Theologians and metaphysicians stubbornly tried to defend theses, only superficially connected with the core of their moral message, which to the scientifically trained mind appeared as most absurd fables and myths. The secular power of the churches persecuted scientists who had the courage to deviate from such teachings. The history of science in the orbit of Western Christianity is a history of conflicts in which the doctrines of science were always better founded than those of the official theology. Meekly the theologians had finally in every controversy to admit that their adversaries were right and that they themselves were wrong. The most spectacular instance of such an inglorious defeat—perhaps not of theology as such, but certainly of the theologians—was the outcome of the debates concerning evolution.
Thus originated the illusion that all the issues theology used to deal with could be one day fully and irrefutably solved by the natural sciences. In the same way in which Copernicus and Galilei had substituted a better theory of the celestial movements for the untenable doctrines supported by the Church, one expected future scientists to succeed in replacing all other “superstitious” doctrines by “scientific” truth. If one criticizes the rather naive epistemology and philosophy of Comte, Marx, and Haeckel, one ought not to forget that their simplism was the reaction to the even more simplicist teachings of what is today labeled Fundamentalism, a dogmatism that no wise theologian would dare to adopt any longer.
Reference to these facts in no way excuses, still less justifies, the crudities of contemporary positivism. It merely aims at a better understanding of the intellectual environment in which positivism developed and became popular. Unfortunately, the vulgarity of positivistic fanatics is now on the point of provoking a reaction that may seriously obstruct mankind’s intellectual future. Again, as in the late Roman Empire, various sects of idolatry are flourishing. There are spiritualism, voodoo, and similar doctrines and practices, many of them borrowed from the cults of primitive tribes. There is a revival of astrology. Our age is not only an age of science. It is also an age in which the most absurd superstitions are finding credulous adepts.
The Case of the Natural Sciences
In view of these disastrous effects of a beginning excessive reaction against the excrescences of positivism, there is need to repeat again that the experimental methods of the natural sciences are the only ones adequate for the treatment of the problems involved. Without discussing anew the endeavors to discredit the category of causality and determinism, we have to emphasize the fact that what is wrong with positivism is not what it teaches about the methods of the empirical natural sciences, but what it asserts about matters concerning which—up to now at least—the natural sciences have not succeeded in contributing any information. The positivistic principle of verifiability as rectified by Popper2 is unassailable as an epistemological principle of the natural sciences. But it is meaningless when applied to anything about which the natural sciences cannot supply any information.
It is not the task of this essay to deal with the claims of any metaphysical doctrine or with metaphysics as such. As the nature and logical structure of the human mind is, many a man is not satisfied with ignorance concerning any problem and does not easily acquiesce in the agnosticism in which the most fervent search for knowledge results. Metaphysics and theology are not, as the positivists pretend, products of an activity unworthy of Homo sapiens, remnants of mankind’s primitive age that civilized people ought to discard. They are a manifestation of man’s unappeasable craving for knowledge. No matter whether this thirsting after omniscience can ever be fully gratified or not, man will not cease to strive after it passionately.3 Neither positivism nor any other doctrine is called upon to condemn a religious or metaphysical tenet that does not contradict any of the reliable teachings of the a priori and of experience.
The Case of the Sciences of Human Action
However, this essay does not deal with theology or metaphysics and the rejection of their doctrines by positivism. It deals with positivism’s attack upon the sciences of human action.
The fundamental doctrine of positivism is the thesis that the experimental procedures of the natural sciences are the only method to be applied in the search for knowledge. As the positivists see it, the natural sciences, entirely absorbed by the more urgent task of elucidating the problems of physics and chemistry, have in the past neglected and may also in the near future neglect to pay attention to the problems of human action. But, they add, there cannot be any doubt that once the men imbued with a scientific outlook and trained in the exact methods of laboratory work have the leisure to turn toward the study of such “minor” issues as human behavior, they will substitute authentic knowledge of all these matters for the worthless palaver that is now in vogue. “Unified science” will solve all the problems involved and will inaugurate a blissful age of “social engineering” in which all human affairs will be handled in the same satisfactory way in which modern technology supplies electric current.
Some rather significant steps on the way to this result, pretend the less cautious harbingers of this creed, have already been made by behaviorism (or, as Neurath preferred to call it, behavioristics). They point to the discovery of tropisms and to that of conditioned reflexes. Progressing further with the aid of the methods that brought about these achievements, science will one day be able to make good all the promises of positivism. It is a vain conceit of man to presume that his conduct is not entirely determined by the same impulses that determine the behavior of plants and of dogs.
Against all this impassioned talk we have to stress the hard fact that the natural sciences have no intellectual tool to deal with ideas and with finality.
An assured positivist may hope that one day physiologists may succeed in describing in terms of physics and chemistry all the events that resulted in the production of definite individuals and in modifying their inborn substance during their lives. We may neglect raising the question whether such knowledge would be sufficient to explain fully the behavior of animals in any situation they may have to face. But it cannot be doubted that it would not enable the student to deal with the way in which a man reacts to external stimuli. For this human reaction is determined by ideas, a phenomenon the description of which is beyond the reach of physics, chemistry, and physiology. There is no explanation in terms of the natural sciences of what causes hosts of people to remain faithful to the religious creed in which they were brought up and others to change their faith, why people join or desert political parties, why there are different schools of philosophy and different opinions concerning a multiplicity of problems.
The Fallacies of Positivism
Consistently aiming at an improvement of the conditions under which men have to live, the nations of Western and Central Europe and their scions settled in overseas territories have succeeded in developing what is called—and more often smeared as—Western bourgeois civilization. Its foundation is the economic system of capitalism, the political corollary of which is representative government and freedom of thought and interpersonal communication. Although continually sabotaged by the folly and the malice of the masses and the ideological remnants of the precapitalistic methods of thinking and acting, free enterprise has radically changed the fate of man. It has reduced mortality rates and prolonged the average length of life, thus multiplying population figures. It has, in an unprecedented way, raised the standard of living of the average man in those nations that did not too severely impede the acquisitive spirit of enterprising individuals. All people, however fanatical they may be in their zeal to disparage and to fight capitalism, implicitly pay homage to it by passionately clamoring for the products it turns out.
The wealth capitalism has brought to mankind is not an achievement of a mythical force called progress. Neither is it an achievement of the natural sciences and of the application of their teachings for the perfection of technology and therapeutics. No technological and therapeutical improvements can be practically utilized if the material means for its utilization have not been previously made available by saving and capital accumulation. The reason why not everything about the production and the use of which technology provides information can be made accessible to everybody is the insufficiency of the supply of capital accumulated. What transformed the stagnant conditions of the good old days into the activism of capitalism was not changes in the natural sciences and in technology, but the adoption of the free enterprise principle. The great ideological movement that started with the Renaissance, continued in the Enlightenment, and in the nineteenth century culminated in Liberalism4 produced both capitalism—the free market economy—and its political corollary or—as the Marxians have to say, its political “superstructure”—representative government and the individuals’ civic rights: freedom of conscience, of thought, of speech, and of all other methods of communication. It was in the climate created by this capitalistic system of individualism that all the modern intellectual achievements thrived. Never before had mankind lived under conditions like those of the second part of the nineteenth century, when, in the civilized countries, the most momentous problems of philosophy, religion, and science could be freely discussed without any fear of reprisals on the part of the powers that be. It was an age of productive and salutary dissent.
A countermovement evolved, but not from a regeneration of the discredited sinister forces that in the past had made for conformity. It sprouted from the authoritarian and dictatorial complex deeply inwrought in the souls of the many who were benefited by the fruits of freedom and individualism without having contributed anything to their growing and ripening. The masses do not like those who surpass them in any regard. The average man envies and hates those who are different.
What pushes the masses into the camp of socialism is, even more than the illusion that socialism will make them richer, the expectation that it will curb all those who are better than they themselves are. The characteristic feature of all utopian plans from that of Plato down to that of Marx is the rigid petrification of all human conditions. Once the “perfect” state of social affairs is attained, no further changes ought to be tolerated. There will no longer be any room left for innovators and reformers.
In the intellectual sphere the advocacy of this intolerant tyranny is represented by positivism. Its champion, Auguste Comte, did not contribute anything to the advancement of knowledge. He merely drafted the scheme of a social order under which, in the name of progress, science, and humanity, any deviation from his own ideas was to be prohibited.
The intellectual heirs of Comte are the contemporary positivists. Like Comte himself, these advocates of “Unified Science,” of panphysicalism, of “logical” or “empirical positivism,” and of “scientific” philosophy did not themselves contribute to the advancement of the natural sciences. The future historians of physics, chemistry, biology, and physiology will not have to mention their names and their work. All that “Unified Science” brought forward was to recommend the proscription of the methods applied by the sciences of human action and their replacement by the methods of the experimental natural sciences. It is not remarkable for that which it contributed, but only for that which it wants to see prohibited. Its protagonists are the champions of intolerance and of a narrow-minded dogmatism.
Historians have to understand the political, economic, and intellectual conditions that brought about positivism, old and new. But the specific historical understanding of the milieu out of which definite ideas developed can neither justify nor reject the teachings of any school of thought. It is the task of epistemology to unmask the fallacies of positivism and to refute them.
[1. ]“La science est déterministe; elle l’est a priori; elle posture le déterminisme, parce que sans lui elle ne pourrait être.” Henri Poincaré, Dernières pensées (Paris, 1913), p. 244.
[2. ]See above, p. 68–69.
[3. ]“L’homme fait de la métaphysique comme il respire, sans le vouloir et surtout sans s’en douser la plupart du temps.” E. Meyerson, De l’explication dans les sciences (Paris, 1927), p. 20.
[4. ]The term Liberalism as employed in this essay is to be understood in its classical nineteenth-century connotation, not in its present-day American sense, in which it signifies the opposite of everything that it used to signify in the nineteenth century.