There is a fairly new video series on Youtube making its way across the Internet. It is about an area called praxeology, and it is hosted by a women with the username Praxgirl. The show has, at the time of this writing, 23 episodes in the play list, covering a variety of topics from philosophy to economics.
As we will see in this article, the ideology of praxeology is more or less anti-empirical and consists mostly of a priori arguments. I will show why many of these falter even if we exclusively stick with a priori arguments, the problem with anti-empiricism and discuss additional limitations of Praxgirl’s positions. I do not know that much about economics as a subject, and it is not among my main interests, so I will probably not discuss some of the more specific economic arguments. I will, however, focus on areas that I think are poorly supported.
According to her blog, praxeology is
[...] the youngest and (in my opinion) the most intruiging [sic] of all sciences.
and that she and others working with her have:
[...] a passion for the science and felt that human action is often misunderstood. The current economic crisis played a part as well. We have been witnessing the so-called ‘intellegentsia’ [sic] often claiming things that are counter to basic logic for as long as we’ve understood the axiom ‘human action is purposeful behavior’. We’ve been working hard around the clock to write episodes, film them and get them online. The goal is to hopefully have a new show every week. They keep getting better as we write them and find a flow in the dissemination of the knowledge.
So Praxgirl is putting forward the claim that praxeology is a science and that her videos are dissemination knowledge. That is interesting. A core feature of science is testability. Let us see if this can be united with a strict a priori approach to reality.
What exactly is praxeology?
The first episode of the video series is an introductory video. She describes it like this (0:52):
I study the logic of human action, a science called praxeology. Praxeology is a framework for understanding the purposeful behavior of human beings. It gives us the universal laws of actions.
Historically, praxeology grew out of economics. When it was realized that economic logic didn’t just explain prices and other market phenomena, but also the nature of all human decision making.
Now, you are asking yourself: “Why should I want to study praxeology?” The same could be asked of all other sciences, such as chemistry and physics, but the answer is pretty clear: because of their usefulness in explaining the world we live in.
Likewise, praxeology gives us the tools to think about human action beyond just what is seen.
I must say that there are a few things here that makes me initially skeptical:
(1) Praxeology is put forward as a science of understanding the purposeful behavior of humans. Don’t we already have that? Isn’t it called social psychology or behavioral economics? What qualitatively new insights can praxeology bring to the table that is not already covered by these and similar fields? To anticipate an objection, it is worth pointing out that neither neurobiology or psychology is exclusively focused on internal processes, but also on behavior and the relationship between these two factors.
(2) Praxeology is also put forward as a sort of grand theory of everything; it promises to explain the “nature of all human decision making”. This is usually a red flag, as all scientific models are limited to fairly narrow areas and any grand explanation has a strong burden of evidence to fulfill before we can accept it as reasonable.
(3) It is also curious to see that praxeology is placed within the same category as physics and chemistry; it is considered a hard science. It will be interesting to see what empirical evidence exists for this “new science”.
(4) In a similar fashion, praxeology is described as a way of analyzing human action “beyond just what is seen”. What exactly does this mean? How will it work in practice?
Perhaps later videos will clarify these concerns.
The methodology of praxeology
In the second video, Praxgirl takes on the methods of praxeology and attempts to contrast these with the natural sciences (0:30).
Unlike the sciences of chemistry or physics, when approaching human beings, praxeology has to employ a method of acquiring knowledge that does not rely on observation, but on discursive reasoning. Or we may say, logical deduction.
Wait a minute. Praxeology is a science, but it does not rely on observation, but rather logical deduction? That would, by any reasonable definition of science, makes praxeology a non-science. Perhaps “philosophy position” would be a more accurate description. It is therefore strange that Praxgirl decides to call praxeology a science, yet later deny the crucial element common to all of science. One explanation is that Praxgirl is trying to dress up her philosophical positions and make it appear as if it was science, when it really was not. This is partly the definition of pseudoscience. However, I am hesitant to push for this conclusion this early. Maybe additional videos will clarify this issue: in what way is praxeology a science?
In contrast, psychology or behavioral ecology both use observational data to draw conclusions about human behavior and decision making. So why doesn’t praxeology use observation? No matter how stringent you believe your a priori arguments are, it is always possible to be mistaken somewhere. Empirical evidence allows us to check our a priori arguments (that spawn inside our brains) against the world around us to see if they hold up. Why does praxeology appear to be unwilling to do this?
She continues (1:22):
The starting point of praxeology is the undeniable truth itself and a very easy one to remember: human action is purposeful behavior. It is from this undeniable fact that all of praxeology, as a science, is deduced. This fact, or axiom, is undeniable because, as we stated before, if you try to deny that human action is purposeful, you would be acting purposeful yourself.
This argument is confused. It is perfectly consistent to say that some human action is not purposeful, yet agree that many forms of human action is indeed purposeful (including the act of delivering this argument). There are more positions than “all human action is purposeful” and “no human action is purposeful”. This is clearly a false dichotomy. If this fallacy represents the “undeniable fact” that all of praxeology is based on, well, then that does not bode well for praxeology.
There are many clear examples of human action that is not purposeful (which I interpret as “intentional”), such as fetal movements, sleepwalking, intestinal motility, reflexes, heart beats etc. This means that, besides being an obvious false dichotomy, it also fails empirically. Of course, defining “action” as purposeful makes the entire argument circular and quite unimpressive.
Praxgirl moves on:
It should be easy to see why logical deduction is the only necessary and fitting method to come to this conclusion.
Before I go on, you might be asking yourself: “It is appropriate to study human action through observation, or what scientists like to call induction?” To answer this, we need only to consider the separation between the objects that sciences like chemistry or physics study and the unique characteristic of human beings that we stated before in our axiom. These sciences can plot out the course of stones, atoms or planets through cause and effect. But humans differ categorically in one key way: human beings act. They have goals and purposes and they try to achieve those goals; stones, atoms, planets have no goals or preferences hence they either move or are moved. They cannot chose or select paths of actions or change their minds. Men and women can and do.
Sciences like chemistry or physics are able to investigate objects and classify them to their minutest detail. They can turn our observable world into bits of data to quantify. People, on the other hand, cannot be quantified. Every day people learn, adopt new values and goals and change their minds. People cannot be slotted and predict as objects without minds are without the capacity to learn and chose.
The action axiom shows that the uniqueness of all individuals is the logically necessary starting point for for studying human behavior. There have been so called scientists who have tried to disprove this notion and claimed that the methods of the natural sciences are the only true way to acquire knowledge of man and reality. But we can easily see how silly and futile their attempts are.
Conveniently, Praxgirl decides to only discuss chemistry or physics. What about, say, neurobiology? Social and cognitive psychology? Behavioral economics? All of these areas are able to explain and predict human behavior and evidence supports them.
The position expressed by Praxgirl is also vaguely dualistic. As it turns out, human values and goals are not categorically unique. Other animals have values and goals and they strive to attain those goals. Human cognitive faculties is a function of the brain. We know this because damage to the brain damages cognitive abilities in predictable ways, drugs that inhibit certain areas or functions of the brain inhibit certain cognitive functions, brain specialization and specialization of cognitive ability follow in the diverse world of chordates with brains and so on.
It is also not correct to say that the natural sciences is primarily about induction. Rather, scientists often make models of the available evidence and then derive testable predictions from that model. These are then tested against empirical reality to see if they hold up. This is known as hypothetico-deductive model.
Perhaps more worrying, Praxgirl is launching a direct attack against neurobiologists, cognitive scientists, psychologists and behavioral economists. Instead of providing evidence-based arguments in favor of her notion that “how silly and futile” the attempts of these scientists in empirically investigating human behavior, she just refers to her proposed axiom (that was revealed to be a false dichotomy in the previous section). Hardly an intellectually rigorous approach. Obviously, natural (and social) sciences are not the only ways to investigate human behavior, but it is a very powerful way that cannot be dismissed out of hand by reference to some half-baked philosophical principle that does not even stand up to a priori, let alone empirical, scrutiny.
To try and box humans into the type of predictable data and statistics that work in sciences such as biology, astronomy or geology is not only completely inappropriate, but is essentially a denial of the action axiom. A contradiction. Praxeology’s method is one kept in the realm of thinking, precisely because, as human beings, we already contain the tools necessary to understand the purposefulness of action. what should also become apparent is as certain as praxeology is of the uniqueness of all people, its explanations are also limited in scope by this fact. Logically, the search for complete predictability in the realm of human action is the search for the impossible and is therefore profoundly unscientific.
But we know that the same methods used in natural and social sciences actually can predict, analyze and explain human behavior and actions. This has been demonstrated in every single study ever done in areas such as neurobiology, behavioral economics and psychology.
As we have seen, the “axiom of action” is a false dichotomy, and therefore invalid. Even so, the quest for a scientific understanding of human behavior through the methods of the natural sciences is fully compatible with the notion that human action is purposeful. Human beings can predict the likely consequences of their actions and avoid those that produce unfavorable outcomes.
Curiously, this statement by Praxgirl makes her position contradictory. If praxeology is limited in scope, how come she proclaimed it as “nature of all human decision making”? If humans have the necessary tools to understand the purposefulness of action, how come praxeology attempts to “tools to think about human action beyond just what is seen”? Seems to make praxeology kind of redundant.
Finally, to claim that natural sciences aim for complete predictability of human action is really an uninformed straw man. Interest rather lies mostly in understanding the way the brain works and how it relates to behavior and pathology.
After watching four or five other videos in the series, I conclude that most of the ones left either repeat the same sort of arguments, discuss things I do not object to, or talk about economics (a topic in which my knowledge is very limited), so I think I will finish here.
To sum up, the major flaws of Praxgirl’s praxeology so far includes (1) claiming that it is a science when it does not deal with observation, (2) the central principle of praxeology, the axiom of action, is really a false dichotomy, (3) it is not clear what praxeology can bring to the table that psychology, behavioral economics, neurobiology etc. does not, (4) it assumes some kind of dualism, which contradicts modern neuroscience, (5) it attacks the attempt by natural sciences to understand human behavior without a reasonable argument and (6) makes various forms of contradictory statements.
If praxeology is based on the central axiom of human action and reject empirical research, praxeology is in trouble.