Patrick asks me to respond to this critique here.
This is a passage from the Hans-Hermann Hoppe (Hoppe 2007: 33–34), and Hoppe is a defender of Kantian synthetic a priori knowledge as the epistemological foundation of epistemology and Misesian praxeology.
The proposition that is the epistemological foundation for classical and modern moderate empiricism, as Hoppe notes, is this:
“This is empiricism’s central claim: Empirical knowledge must be verifiable or falsifiable by experience; and analytical knowledge, which is not so verifiable or falsifiable, thus cannot contain any empirical knowledge. If this is true, then it is fair to ask: What then is the status of this fundamental statement of empiricism? Evidently it must be either analytical or empirical.” (Hoppe 2007: 33).Hoppe notes that this must be defended and classified as either (1) analytic a priori or (2) synthetic a posteriori.
So which one is it? The answer is that it can be rationally and easily defended as a synthetic a posteriori proposition (that is to say, an empirical proposition).
But, according to Hoppe, this somehow leads to this:
“So perhaps we should choose the other available option and declare the fundamental empiricist distinction between empirical and analytical knowledge an empirical statement. But then the empiricist position would no longer carry any weight whatsoever. For if this were done, it would have to be admitted that the proposition – as an empirical one – might well be wrong and that one would be entitled to hear on the basis of what criterion one would have to decide whether or not it was. More decisively, as an empirical proposition, right or wrong, it could only state a historical fact, something like ‘all heretofore scrutinized propositions fall indeed into the two categories analytical and empirical.’ The statement would be entirely irrelevant for determining whether it would be possible to produce propositions that are true a priori and are still empirical ones. Indeed, if empiricism's central claim were declared an empirical proposition, empiricism would cease altogether to be an epistemology, a logic of science, and would be no more than a completely arbitrary verbal convention of calling certain arbitrary ways of dealing with certain statements certain arbitrary names. Empiricism would be a position void of any justification.” (Hoppe 2007: 34).Huh? No longer “carry any weight whatsoever”?
If that were true, then all human natural or social science of any kind based on foundational empirical propositions or assumptions would not “carry any weight whatsoever.” This is nonsense.
The standard ideas we presuppose in either the natural sciences or social sciences (or indeed in everyday common sense) can indeed be justified empirically, by experience, inductive argument and inference to the best explanation (which is just another non-deductive, or inductive form of reasoning) by long debates and arguments in philosophy or in the natural and social sciences too.
At the most basic level, there are all sorts of assumptions that are epistemological foundations of our beliefs and scientific theories (including economics), such as the following:
(1) the real existence of other human minds;And of course we can keep listing such propositions too as we move from natural science to the social sciences.
(2) the real existence of an external world of matter and energy that is the causal origin of our sensory data (= an indirect realist ontology);
(3) that the past had real existence (and is not some figment of our imagination);
(4) the existence of a set of physical and chemical laws that have been discovered by the natural sciences that account for the order and nature of the universe;
(5) the view that our earth is about 4.54 billion years old;
(6) the view that all livings things on our earth are the product of a Darwinian process of evolution by natural selection (and, if one wants to be technical, also by (i) sexual selection and (ii) artificial selection by humans);
(7) the human mind is the product of the physical activity of the brain, and so on.
None of these assumptions can be justified as analytic a priori or as Kantian synthetic a priori knowledge. They are all empirical propositions. Does the admission that they are not 100% certain make science impossible? No.
For example, we have the empirical proposition that:
“the earth and the planets of our solar system revolve around the sun.”This is an empirical proposition, which is contingent, known a posteriori, and its truth is probabilistic.
That is to say, even though there is an enormous amount of empirical evidence in its favour, it could be that this proposition is wrong, because as a contingent and probabilistic truth, it is not 100% certain and never can be. It’s not impossible that it might be false, though it seems extremely improbable given all we know.
We must always be open to the possibility that new evidence might suddenly emerge that would throw doubt on our belief, even if (again) this seems extremely improbable.
But, at present, we have overwhelming evidence that it is true. The proposition therefore stands as a rational and defensible foundational assumption of any branch of cosmology studying solar systems.
There is no profound epistemological problem with this state of affairs, or with the foundation of the physics of solar systems, because we never said that the empirical propositions were 100% certain, nor do we need them to be, in order to get empirical knowledge whose truth is probabilistic and rationally defensible as true on the current evidence.
We accept the truth of all empirical propositions only as long as the weight of current evidence demonstrates that we have a good or very good case to think they are true. E.g., we have no good reason to doubt that gravity will suddenly stop operating 5 seconds from now, though it’s not impossible that it might for some unknown reason. Is that any reason to jump out of a 100 story building now and expect to float to the ground unharmed?
It is the same, broadly speaking, with the foundational proposition of moderate empiricism.
Our defence of the original epistemological principle is empirical and its truth is only probable or highly probable, but the lack of certainty produces no such epistemological crisis for empiricism, for the reason that it never aimed at absolute necessary truth in the first place, as Hoppe demands. Our best scientific theories do not have apodictic truth, nor does the inductive method yield absolute certainty, yet modern science is incredibly successful.
The rejection of dogmatism and the willingness to regard any scientific theory as capable of revision or falsification are what give modern scientific epistemology its great strength.
But if we adopted the same type of argument used by Hoppe, then we must conclude that modern science must “no longer carry any weight whatsoever” and “would cease altogether to be an epistemology.”
Secondly, the legitimate response of an empiricist to a Rationalist that “all heretofore scrutinized propositions fall indeed into the two categories analytical and empirical” can be defended as true. Hoppe’s point here carries no weight.
We need only look at the way Kant’s original synthetic a priori knowledge, such as Euclidean geometry, necessary and deterministic causation, or certain laws of logic have either been refuted by modern science or seriously questioned.
Hoppe’s next statement that the empiricist’s classification of knowledge “would be entirely irrelevant for determining whether it would be possible to produce propositions that are true a priori and are still empirical ones” is also a non sequitur, since, on the contrary, it is a defensible starting point for analysing all statements and all future statements and determining whether they could possibly provide synthetic truth but be known a priori. If, for example, some Rationalist asserts that statement x is a synthetic a priori truth, but we discover that the real world produces overwhelming empirical evidence against the proposition, then it is the Rationalist who is faced with an epistemological crisis.
In essence, there are very good reasons why most analytic philosophers have rejected Kantian synthetic a priori knowledge, as follows:
(1) The paradigmatic type of synthetic a priori knowledge that was Euclidean geometry, when asserted as a universally true theory of space, has been shown to be severely contradicted by the empirical evidence – and this is not what we would expect to find if this theory really was necessarily true and an irrefutable theory of reality.If any Kantian or libertarian has any further nor new example of an alleged Kantian synthetic a priori statement, then he or she can make it, and we can scrutinise any and all such proposed propositions and see whether the claim is convincing. I’ve not yet seen any such proposed or credible proposition. For example, the idea that the human action axiom is a synthetic a priori truth collapses like a house of cards when seriously scrutinised.
(2) We can eliminate the problem of virtually all proposed synthetic a priori knowledge by carefully separating pure maths/pure geometry (which is analytic a priori and necessarily true, but not describing reality) from applied maths/applied geometry (which is asserted as true of reality but is synthetic a posteriori and contingent).
For example, most of mathematics can be clearly explained as an analytic a priori system, as derived from pure logic and set theory (Schwartz 2012: 19), as shown by the work of Frege, Russell, and Whitehead.
(3) From (1) and (2), we can satisfactorily explain proposed synthetic a priori knowledge either as (i) analytic a priori or (ii) synthetic a posteriori, eliminating a complex and unnecessary category.
Ultimately, we can reject synthetic a priori knowledge by inference to the best explanation and Ockham’s razor.
Hoppe, Hans-Hermann. 2007. Economic Science and the Austrian Method. Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn. Ala.
Schwartz, Stephen P. 2012. A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy: From Russell to Rawls. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, UK.
For anyone interested in understanding why Misesian praxeology and Kantian synthetic a priori epistemology is wrong, see my posts here:
“Mises’ Praxeology: A Critique,” October 1, 2010.I’m on Twitter:
“Limits of the Human Action Axiom,” February 28, 2011.
“Hayek on Mises’ Apriorism,” May 23, 2011.
“Mises and Logic,” August 26, 2011.
“Karl Popper’s View of Mises,” October 2, 2012.
“My Post on Praxeology gets some Attention,” March 7, 2012.
“Mises Flunks Evolution 101,” April 2, 2013.
“What is the Epistemological Status of Praxeology and the Action Axiom?,” July 27, 2013.
“Barrotta’s Kantian Critique of Mises’s Epistemology,” July 28, 2013.
“David Friedman versus Robert Murphy,” August 4, 2013.
“Mises Fails Philosophy of Mathematics 101,” August 30, 2013.
“Bob Murphy All At Sea on Geometry and Economic Epistemology,” August 31, 2013.
“Mises’s Non Sequitur on synthetic a priori Knowledge,” September 2, 2013.
“Tokumaru on Mises’s Epistemology,” September 3, 2013.
“Reply to a ‘Red Herring on Praxeology,’” September 6, 2013.
“Mises versus the Vienna Circle,” September 7, 2013.
“Mises’s Flawed Deduction and Praxeology,” September 8, 2013.
“Hoppe’s Caricature of Empiricism,” September 10, 2013.
“Hoppe on Euclidean Geometry,” September 11, 2013.
“Robert Murphy gets Mises’s Epistemology Wrong,” September 13, 2013.
“Hoppe on Euclidean Geometry, Part 2,” September 14, 2013.
“Mises on Kant and Praxeology,” September 15, 2013.
“Mises was Confused about the Analytic–Synthetic Distinction,” September 15, 2013.
“What is the Epistemological Status of the Law of Demand?,” September 19, 2013.
“A Simple Question for Austrian Apriorists,” November 20, 2013.
“Mises, Action and Uncertainty,” December 4, 2013.
“Córdoba on Praxeology and Economics,” December 7, 2013.
“Schuller’s Challenge to Misesian Apriorists has never been answered,” December 7, 2013.
“Mises versus Ayer on Analytic Propositions and a priori Reasoning,” March 16, 2014.
“David Gordon on Praxeology and the Austrian Method: A Critique,” March 13, 2014.
“Why Mises’s Praxeological Theories are not Necessarily True of the Real World,” March 15, 2014.
“Mises and Empiricism,” April 17, 2014.
“Mark Blaug was Right on Mises’ Method,” April 30, 2014.
“Why Should we reject the Existence of Synthetic a priori Knowledge?,” May 23, 2014.
“Detlev Schlichter on Mises’ Apriorism,” June 5, 2014.
“Robert Taylor versus David Ramsay Steele on Praxeology,” June 6, 2014.
“John Quiggin on Apriorism in Austrian Economics,” July 28, 2014.
“Hutchison on the History of Hayek’s Views on Economic Methodology,” August 2, 2014.
“Hayek on Prediction in the Social Sciences,” August 6, 2014.
“Are all Facts Theory-Laden?,” December 21, 2014.
“Walter Block’s An Austrian Critique of Mainstream Economics: A Critique on Epistemology,” October 8, 2015.
Lord Keynes @Lord_Keynes2