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The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science
Ludwig von Mises

1
The Human Mind

6. The Paradox of Probability Empiricism

Empiricism proclaims that experience is the only source of human knowledge and rejects as a metaphysical prepossession the idea that all experience presupposes a priori categories. But starting from its empiricistic approach, it postulates the possibility of events that have never been experienced by any man. Thus, we are told, physics cannot exclude the possibility that "when you put an ice cube into a glass of water, the water starts boiling and the ice cube gets as cold as the interior of a deep-freezing cabinet."[11]

However, this neoempiricism is far from being consistent in the application of its doctrine. If there is no regularity in nature, nothing justifies the distinction between various classes of things and events. If one calls some molecules oxygen and others nitrogen, one implies that each member of these classes behaves in a definite way different from the behavior of the members of other classes. If one assumes that the behavior of an individual molecule can deviate from the way in which other molecules behave, one must either assign it to a special class or one must assume that its deviation was induced by the intervention of something to which other members of its class had not been exposed. If one says that one cannot exclude the possibility "that some day the molecules of the air in our room, by pure chance, arrive at an ordered state such that the molecules of oxygen are assembled on one side of the room and those of nitrogen on the other,"[12] one implies that there is nothing either in the nature of oxygen and nitrogen or in the environment in which they are dwelling that results in the way in which they are distributed in the air. One assumes that the behavior of the individual molecules in all other regards is determined by their constitution, but that they are "free" to choose the place of their dwelling. One assumes quite arbitrarily that one of the characteristics of the molecules, viz., their movement, is not determined, while all their other characteristics are determined. One implies that there is something in the nature of the molecules—one is tempted to say: in their "soul"—that gives them the faculty of "choosing" the path of their wanderings. One fails to realize that a complete description of the behavior of the molecules ought also to include their movements. It would have to deal with the process that makes the molecules of oxygen and nitrogen associate with one another in the way in which they do in the air.

If Reichenbach had lived as a contemporary of magicians and tribal medicine men, he would have argued: Some people are afflicted with a disease having definite symptoms that kills them; others remain healthy and alive. We do not know of any factor the presence of which would cause the suffering of those stricken and the absence of which would cause the immunity of others. It is obvious that these phenomena cannot be dealt with scientifically if you cling to the superstitious concept of causality. All that we can know about them is the "statistical law" that X% of the population were afflicted and the rest not.

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[11] Cf. Reichenbach, op. cit., p. 162.

[12] Ibid., p. 161.

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