Do intellectual objects exist in the external world?

The nature of existence has plagued philosophers for eons. Physical matter, external to our minds, appears self-evident. We see and feel things, hear them, taste and smell them. We rely on our senses to understand the nature of reality. It is no coincidence that the word “sense” means both “a faculty by which the human body perceives an external stimulus” and also “a judgment derived by reason”, as in “that makes sense to me”. Claims that defy the senses do not make sense.

But is it enough to say that matter is self-evident? Or, as immaterialist philosophers challenge, could not our sensory perception of external reality be merely that – a perception? Is it “all in our minds?” Can we prove the existence of matter? If so, how? And crucially here, what happens if we then attempt the same proof for the existence of intellectual objects? Do intellectual object really exist outside the perception of each individual human mind?

Ludwig von Mises met and conquered the existentialist challenge with praxeology – the logic of human action.

The starting point of praxeology is a self-evident truth, the cognition of action, that is, the cognition of the fact that there is such a thing as consciously aiming at ends. [1]

The Mises Test of External Reality

A thing is real if it can condition the outcome of human events.

Humans act purposefully. To deny this would be a performative contradiction, since the act of denial is purposeful. Only humans can deny, so a denial of human action would actually represent a denial of one’s own humanity, an impossibility. It is literally undeniable that humans act purposefully. Mises then applies that fact to the question of material existence, in “Human Action”, and a section titled “The Reality of the External World”:

From the praxeological point of view it is not possible to question the real existence of matter, of physical objects and of the external world. Their reality is revealed by the fact that man is not omnipotent. There is in the world something that offers resistance to the realization of his wishes and desires. Any attempt to remove by a mere fiat what annoys him and to substitute a state of affairs that suits him better for a state of affairs that suits him less is vain. If he wants to succeed, he must proceed according to methods that are adjusted to the structure of something about which perception provides him with some information. We may define the external world as the totality of all those things and events that determine the feasibility or unfeasibility, the success or failure, of human action.[2]

Clearly, intellectual objects can meet Mises’ conception of “things” in the “external world”, because they can affect the success or failure of people’s goals. For example, consider a book about automobile repairs. The know-how contained in the book may have a major impact on whether someone can successfully replace their carburetor, or just makes a bigger mess of things. Mises continues making the case for external reality:

The much discussed question whether physical objects can or cannot be conceived as existing independently of the mind is vain. For thousands of years the minds of physicians did not perceive germs and did not divine their existence. But the success or failure of their endeavors to preserve their patients’ health and lives depended on the way germs influenced or did not influence the functioning of the patients’ bodily organs. The germs were real because they conditioned the outcome of events either by interfering or by not interfering, either by being present in or by being absent from the field.[3]

From this we can derive “The Mises Test of External Reality”. A thing is real if it can condition the outcome of human events. We ask whether the thing may interfere or not interfere with some human endeavor, depending on whether it is present in the situation or not. Note that “present” does not necessarily mean physically present. Indeed, Mises’ approach was to deliberately ignore physicality in proving the existence of the world external to the human mind.

To run the test, let’s insert the Beatles song “Hey Jude” into Mises’ example:

The much discussed question whether intellectual objects can or cannot be conceived as existing independently of the mind is vain. For thousands of years the minds of musicians did not perceive the combination of words and melody the defines the song “Hey Jude”. But the success or failure of their endeavors to entertain audiences depended on the way the music did or did not influence the emotional functioning of the listeners. “Hey Jude” is real because it conditioned the outcome of events either by interfering or by not interfering, either by being present in or by being absent from the field.

Does “Hey Jude” condition the outcome of human events? I don’t refer to any specific physical instance of Hey Jude, rather I refer to the underlying pattern of language that defines the song itself. Suppose Paul McCartney had written the song differently, with a different melody, and different words. Would the outcome have been different? Yes, the outcome would have been different.

The Beatles recorded hundreds of songs, including “Old Brown Shoe” which immediately succeeded “Hey Jude” on the original album release. “Old Brown Shoe” was not nearly successful at entertaining listeners as was “Hey Jude”. Had “Hey Jude” been more poorly written, fewer people would have recommended it to their friends, fewer radio stations would have played it, and its overall influence would have been less.

“Old Brown Shoe” had the same physical manifestation as did “Hey Jude”, because they were both embodied in the same original album. Yet something about the pattern of information in “Hey Jude” conditioned human events in a way that “Old Brown Shoe” did not. An intellectual creation has the ability to condition the outcome of human events, passes the Mises test, and therefore is a real thing.

By contracting, humans act as though IP exists

We know that intellectual objects exist because people act as though they exist. In particular, people voluntarily contract to buy and sell intellectual objects, such as movies, songs, games, and software. One may only contract with that which is one’s own property. If intellectual objects cannot be property, then we simply cannot make any sort of contract about them at all.

People voluntarily agree to buy and sell things like movies, songs, games and software. By contracting, people demonstrate their belief and understanding that the pattern of information that defines the intellectual object is rightful property. And overwhelmingly, people are satisfied with the intellectual content that they purchase.

Imagine a world in which sellers are allowed to defraud buyers about the intellectual content of their goods. This would seem to be a decidedly non-libertarian situation. When customers buy intellectual objects, we must ask what exactly it is they value. Obviously, it is the pattern of information, not the physical container.

Suppose I go online and order a DVD of the movie “Thor”. I pay the agreed price, and a few days later a DVD arrives at my house. But instead of “Thor”, it features reruns of “Gilligan’s Island”. Do I have a legitimate complaint against the company that sold me the DVD? After all, I ordered a DVD, and I got a DVD. The only difference between what I contracted for and what I received is the pattern of 1’s and 0’s encoded into the disc. In other words, the only distinction is the IP. The physical property is identical, except for the pattern. In some technical sense, the two discs could be said to be physically different, but such would be completely irrelevant to human action. The only humanly meaningful distinction between the two discs is the pattern of information encoded. My satisfaction as a customer depends entirely on the pattern of information I received, and nothing else.

In the above example, obviously, I have a legitimate complaint against the seller of the DVD. The only theoretical basis for such complaints is to assert a property right in the pattern of information stored on a disc. Only property can be the subject of contract, one cannot make contracts regarding that which one does not own.

Doesn’t IP require a physical container?

It is true but irrelevant that intellectual objects require physical containers to be delivered. A movie arrives on a DVD or Blu-Ray disc, computer software lives on your hard drive. But this does not mean that only the physical object can be owned, as the IP opponents would have it.

To demonstrate the physical differences between the two discs are completely irrelevant, let’s consider a different hypothetical. Suppose I go online and purchase a vacuum cleaner. Inside the vacuum cleaner is a motor, and on the motor is a sticker that contains information about the date of manufacture and so forth. Suppose I learn that the motor was installed on a Tuesday, but I hate Tuesdays because it reminds me of September 11.

Assuming the vacuum cleaner sucks up dirt correctly, do I have a legitimate complaint against the company that sold me the vacuum? After all, the pattern of information within the device is different than I would prefer. In some technical sense, there is a physical difference between a vacuum cleaner with “Tuesday” versus “Wednesday” on the motor label. But such is irrelevant to human action. I have contracted to buy a vacuum cleaner, and its use is to suck dirt up off my floor. I did not contract regarding the pattern of information.

Concluding remarks on the Mises test

The fundamental point of the Mises test is to consider human relevance. The same one pattern of information can be embodied on many different types of physical media. And it is the pattern, not the physical media, that matters. In this light, patterns of information must be considered real, and ownable.