‘There are no absolutes,’ – this is easy enough to see through, I hope. To respond to this one can ask ‘Are you absolutely sure about that?’ or ‘Is that an absolute?’ If it is an absolute, then the truth of this statement must necessarily be destroyed by its own meaning. If it is true that there are no absolutes, and if it is further true that this statement is an absolute, then the statement itself must be incorrect. However, if it is false (which it has to be) then we can just regard it as we would regard any other string of words which together make no sense. It is by examining the meaning of our opponents speech that we can prove them to be wrong, and it is rather fun.
How about this next one? ‘We can’t know anything,’ – Oh, really? In response, you could say ‘How do you know that?’ or ‘Is that knowledge?’ If the statement is true, then consequently we cannot know it to be true since it must be true that nothing is true and thus it is of no value to us. If it is not true, then we can carry on with our lives as normal. Both of the examples are incorrect because they contradict their premises, essentially.
There is, though, perhaps a need to examine one statement which is made all too often by scientists and indeed philosophers. ‘The only way we can know anything about the real world is by using the scientific method,’ is a quote I can actually attribute to Stefan Molyneux. This shocked me, particularly because Molyneux has expressed support for Austrian economics over other schools. Whether or not he really does believe this – and all that follows from it – or whether he said it in order to simplify the complex area of epistemology, I do not know. But, he said it all the same and it simply won’t do.
The statement ‘The only way we can acquire knowledge is through the scientific method’ is false. If it were true, then we would not have any way of knowing that it was true. To put it differently, the statement is saying the following: ‘it is a priori true that nothing can ever be a priori true’. Or, to formulate it differently once more, ‘it is known without testing that nothing can be known without testing’. And so, the anti-apriorists must concede that a priori statements are valid in order to say that they are invalid. If the ‘ground-rule’ or axiom of empiricism were actually correct, then even their ground-rule would need to be subject to continuous testing and reformulation.
So what does this refutation of empiricism imply? It means that there exist statements ‘about the real world’ which can be known to be true without empirical testing, that is to say that they aren’t hypotheses but are simply true a priori. Thus, as well as definitions (a priori analytic) and hypotheses (a posteriori synthetic) there exists another category of knowledge: a priori synthetic knowledge (knowledge about the external world which is not empirical).
Of course, sometimes the distinctions between ‘definitions’ and ‘a priori synthetic’ statements may be hard to see. A definition will tell you that ‘A bachelor is not a married man’, yet this also does tell you something about real world phenomena and so it could be said that it is a priori synthetic knowledge that ‘If a man is a bachelor, then he will not have a spouse’. Sometimes, though, the distinction will be easier. Consider the following propositions:
If the volume of goods and services remains constant while the money supply increases, inflation will result
If the minimum wage is increased to £1million per hour, mass unemployment will result
When two people enter into an exchange voluntarily, they expect to make a profit
Are these simply hypotheses? No, as it seems rather absurd to say that we can only know if these propositions are true if we actually go out and, say, increase the minimum wage to £1million an hour and then conduct a study of its effects. Are these propositions only true because of the manipulation of words and their meanings? No. If you changed the definitions of ‘money supply’ and ‘inflation’, the same phenomenon would take place regardless of our linguistic conventions. These are statements, whose truth we can know without empirical testing.
A matter of semantics? I don’t think so. A priori synthetic knowledge is a fundamental concept to Austrian economics and an understanding of it is essential when dealing with the philosophies of Popper, Kant, Wittgenstein, Hume etc. So, remember, we CAN know things without using the scientific method. Praxeology studies real world phenomena just as empirical studies do. Whats-more, praxeology can determine apodictically whether or not something is true while empirical studies must always be ongoing and are subject to error.