Mario Bunge (1919-2020)

Mario Bunge in Wikipedia

The following interview with Mario Bunge in 2013 conducted by Heinz W. Droste is taken from his blog at Wissenschaft and Kommunikation (Sept. 2019). [I have made some corrections, and added Heinz W. Droste’s name to the questions (ed. AC)]

Mario Bunge: The Big Questions come in bundles, not one at time

A) Mario Augusto Bunge’s Background
B) The Interview
  • To start with – in a nutshell: What is philosophical competence?
  • Progress of the philosophical Enlightenment
  • Science and Philosophy
  • How to cope with scientific myths
  • Fighting for the unity of body and mind
  • Realistic morality and ethics
  • The old controversy: religion versus philosophy
  • Political philosophy
  • German philosophy and the world
  • Medical Philosophy
  • Personal Questions to the Philosopher

    Interview with Mario Bunge – philosopher and physicist

    Enjoying reading his books and philosophical inquiries for years it was a big pleasure and even a greater honor for me to interview Mario Bunge.

    Those who are not familiar with Bunge’s work, will be interested to read a short and incisive characterization. — Bernulf Kanitscheider — a renowned German philosopher of science — once highlighted the importance of Bunge’s philosophy impressively by using some metaphors:

    Mario Augusto Bunge is one of the few extraordinary personalities who have managed “to essentially shape the intellectual geography of an era of science”. Mario Bunge is a member of the small circle of important philosophers of science whose works have become “milestones in the life of the spiritual landscape of world philosophy”.
    With the help of my interview I try to give an impression of what Bunge once was pointing at when he wrote about philosophical problems: “The Big Questions come in bundles, not one at time.”

    Mario Augusto Bunge’s Background:

    Born in Buenos Aires in 1919, Professor Mario Bunge earned his doctorate in physico-mathematical sciences from the National University of La Plata in Argentina, and has been a professor of theoretical physics and of philosophy. He joined McGill University in 1966, was given a named chair, and was recently made an emeritus professor. He has also been a visiting professor in numerous countries including the USA, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Switzerland, and Australia. Professor Bunge holds 19 honorary doctorates and four honorary professorships, is a member of four academies and a Prince of Asturias laureate, and ranks #43 in the AAAS’ Science Hall of Fame. He has authored over 400 papers and more than 80 books on quantum theory, philosophy of science, semantics, epistemology, ontology, ethics, political philosophy, and science policy.


    The Interview

    TO START WITH – IN A NUTSHELL: WHAT IS PHILOSOPHICAL COMPETENCE?

    Heinz W. Droste: Professor Bunge, in your penultimate book, published in 2012 (“Evaluating Philosophies”) – you had a look at a question, which is – in your opinion – constantly asked by laymen looking at the field of philosophy. I would like to start making use of exactly this question:

    How is the value of philosophies to be assessed? Do you think that good philosophies must be useful, or perhaps have even to pay off?

    Mario Bunge: In my view, philosophies can be good, bad, or indifferent, according as they help, obstruct, or do neither to the advancement of knowledge. The reward is not pecuniary but cultural. For example, the French Enlightenment favored the advancement of science and technology, whereas phenomenology and existentialism obstructed it, and Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy did not solve any problems of knowledge because it focused on words. In any case, the rewards and punishments are cultural, not pecuniary. However, this is not to approve of academic mercenaries, like the Catholic and Marxist philosophers who taught what the powers that be ordered them to teach. Original philosophy is always “deviant” or even subversive. Remember that Thomas Aquinas’ teachings were initially condemned as heresies by the Church.

    Heinz W. Droste: Your claim seems to be that a philosophy is to be assessed by precisely defined performance criteria: What do your colleagues think of this kind of pragmatism?

    Mario Bunge: Most philosophers today avoid taking firm stands on anything. They find that it is safer and more rewarding to write comments on commentators than to invent new ideas. Most contemporary philosophers are conservative and eager to keep their jobs.

    Heinz W. Droste: Today philosophers are often criticized because they obviously have “maneuvered” their discipline into a kind of “secondary” world. Many philosophical writers have retreated to “otherworldly niches”

  • being confronted with dynamically developing sciences, they don’t understand
  • being confronted with ideologies, which they don’t dare to face
  • being in fear of the infuence of publicly worshiped “intellectual giants” like news commentators and journalists, financial experts, economists, policy experts, intellectuals, artists, celebrities, etc.

    They seem to have taken the function of an aesthetic and intellectual window dresser making it less painful for us to look at a harsh, in their eyes unchangeable world.

    Is it true that philosophy actually has lost her “kingdom”? Are philosophers today like that person, that was once immortalized by Paul McCartney in a Beatles song — are they “fools on the hill”? Are there any important skills philosophers have that other cultural or key personnel does not own?

    Mario Bunge: That is very true. Even philosophies who have denounced pseudosciences like psychoanalysis, have condoned pseudoscientific economic theories like neoclassical microeconomics. It is far safer and easier to criticize Freud and Jung than to criticize Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, because the latter are backed by political movements whereas the former are not. Much the same holds for Creationist cosmologies and “intelligent design”: anyone who writes in favor of them can hope to get a Templeton Prize or at least subsidy.

    Heinz W. Droste: Obviously, philosophy is not a uniform field. There are philosophical paradigms that compete with each other. The more important it seems to be to learn to recognize philosophical competence.

    Mario Bunge: Philosophical competence is hard to judge, and at any rate philosophical juries are very different in different cultures. In my view, a competent philosopher is not an erudite but one who proposes valuable insights about interesting problems – just as in science and technology. In the scientific community you find competent teachers and original researchers, just as in the musical community you find many good performers but very few good composers.

    Heinz W. Droste: How convincing are competent philosophers in situations in which they have to discuss their arguments? Are the best of them able to win an “elevator pitch” by getting across their messages in 120 seconds?

    Mario Bunge: Sorry, I don’t understand the question. In any event, I don’t believe in instant philosophy, because interesting problems take a long time to understand and work out. Just think of the problems of truth and justice.

    PROGRESS OF THE PHILOSOPHICAL ENLIGHTENMENT

    Heinz W. Droste: Traditionally, at universities students try to “learn” philosophy by attending lectures and seminars discussing

  • books of classical philosophical thinkers
  • basic philosophical topics (ontology, epistemology, moral philosophy, political philosophy, aesthetics, etc.)
  • the history of philosophical thinking (pre-Socratic philosophy, classical Greek philosophy, Scholastic philosophy, Modern philosophy, the Age of Enlightenment, Postmodernism, etc.):

    From your perspective, are the philosophical questions academically discussed in this way still “big” questions? How do you see the future of these questions?

    Mario Bunge: Some of the big philosophical problems have been solved by science, at least to a 1st approximation. Examples: the problems of matter, and mind. Only philosophical reactionaries, like Noam Chomsky, claim that they are and will remain mysteries. Physicists and chemists know what matter is, and cognitive neuroscientists know that mental processes are brain processes. Of course much remains to know, but we know how to learn: through scientific research.

    There were times when philosophers seemed to be trendsetting intellectuals in the cultural systems of their societies. During the Enlightment they even appeared to be counselors of political leaders:

    Heinz W. Droste:: What is your opinion looking at the status of philosophy in society and culture today? What has become of the philosophical enlightenment?

    Mario Bunge: The slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité“ is still much alive, but also incomplete, because it concerns only social life. In order to gain and enjoy freedom, attain and protect equality, and practice fraternity (or better solidarity), individuals must have jobs, and to hold jobs they must be healthy and reasonably well educated. Hence the 18th century triad should be completed with this one: Work, Health, Education.

    Contemporary philosophers are facing problems that were unthinkable only one century ago, such as whether space and time are mutually Independent, whether there is objective chance or only uncertainty, whether physics can explain chemical change, whether our behavior is fully determined by our genomes, whether ideation can change the brain, or whether either the economy or ideas are the ultimate roots of the social. A philosopher who is not curious about scientific news cannot tackle any such problems. Likewise with social problems, such as whether capitalism can be saved or whether, as John Stuart Mill and Louis Blanc proposed in the 1850s, cooperative ownership and management is preferable because it is more just and more efficient.

    Heinz W. Droste: What is your assessment: Which of the ideals of the Enlightment have been implemented consistently and have been developed continuously? Where did progress came to a standstill? Where did it completely fail? What is the future of enlightened thinking?

    Mario Bunge: The Enlightenment was an enormous progress, but it was followed by the Counter Enlightenment, so that its ideals were not realized. Besides, we are facing new social problems, such as technological unemployment and environmental degradation, that were unknown two centuries ago. We need to revamp the Enlightenment once in a while. Opposing the Enlightenment because of its shortcomings, the way the Frankfurt school did, is as absurd as closing schools because they cannot teach everything that is known.

    Heinz W. Droste: Currently renowned intellectuals try to ban critical thinking: Traditional standards should be protected and not be “damaged” by critical thinking – for this purpose philosophical rationality and faith should be reconciled. MichaelSandel expressed this idea in a recent interview with the German weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” — Jürgen Habermas argues for a “strict boundary between faith and knowledge,” and claims an “opaque core” of subjectivity which should be beyond the range of rational analysis.

    How do you assess this suspension of rationaland philosophical analysis in favor of certain traditions – a trend describedby Hans Albert as “suspension of the use of reason” (“Beschränkung des Vernunftgebrauchs”)?

    Mario Bunge: I disagree. One should believe only what can be chosen to be true or just. Irrational (or unjustified) beliefs should be avoided because they can have disastrous practical consequences. Only the stupid and the wicked can fear rational criticism. – I agree with Albert, but I don’t believe that criticism is enough: we need to plant seeds in addition to weeding.

    SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY

    Heinz W. Droste: In your works you deal with the results of modern empirical science extensively. However many of your philosophical colleagues see a serious conflict between the vital interests of individuals and social groups on the one hand and the effects of scientific and technological thinking on the other hand. They practice a fundamental defensiveness especially against modern science:

    With that it mind, what is your opinion? What is the significance of empirical and scientific evidence for your philosophical thinking?

    Mario Bunge: I do not share Michel Foucault’s mistrust of science, because I reject his view that science is only politics through other means. Scientists are after knowledge, not power, and too many people in power fear (social) science because it may show that certain political groups serve special interests instead of the public good. Serious sociology of science, like Robert Merton’s, does not politicize science.

    I have nothing to fear from serious social studies of science, and I hope that my philosophy will help progressive science policies while showing that the most modern views of science are ignorant and regressive, even if they are accompanied by a leftist-sounding rhetoric.

    Heinz W. Droste: In your view, what are the boundaries between philosophy and science — which role do they play, respectively — and what is the name of the game they a playing?

    Mario Bunge: There is a continuum between science and philosophy. As Fichte said (but did not practice), philosophy should be the science of sciences. And as a few Philosophers have noted, scientific research presupposes some philosophical theses, such as that reality is intelligible.

    Heinz W. Droste: Sciences seem to give all the important rational explanations of the world. What is it that philosophy can contribute that goes beyond scientific rationality and scientific expertise?

    Mario Bunge: Suffice it to recall 3 examples from the history of philosophy:

  • Lucretius’ principle “nothing comes out of nothing”,
  • Holbach’s hypothesis, that everything is a system or part of one, and
  • Alcmaeon’s, that mental processes are brain processes.

    The first principle encouraged the search for invariants in change, the second helped look for systems in collections, and the third is no less than the mother of biological psychology (or cognitive neuroscience).

    Every day we can observe a “flood” of scientific reports. On a daily basis the AAAS publishes a variety of references to new studies at here.

    Heinz W. Droste: What is the advice of a philosopher of science: How can laymen cope with this complexity and how can they find guidance to understand the world?

    Mario Bunge: Whereas scientists may remain satisfied with the latest scientific findings, philosophers may warn that it will always be too early to hail the latest as the last. For example, they may share the physicists’ wonder at the latest findings about single electrons and photons, but they may warn that theoretical physics has been stuck in unsolved problems, and that cosmology is still marred by myths such as the creation of the universe out of nothing.

    Heinz W. Droste: Is philosophy still able to provide a “compass” which operates on the basis of stable assumptions?

    Mario Bunge: Yes, philosophy can help laymen spot and reject the numerous pseudoscientific beliefs that survive in the media, such as the fantasies of psychoanalysts, evolutionary psychologists, and economic equilibrium theorists. In particular, philosophers may ask what is the evidence for such fantasies. Moreover, they may suggest a few rules for evaluating any knowledge claim:
    – Is it compatible with the bulk of what is known?
    – Is it supported by solid empirical evidence?
    – Does it suggest new research projects?
    – Does it threaten any basic social value, such as peace and wellbeing?
    – Can it give succour to any of the enemies of moral and social progress?

    HOW TO COPE WITH SCIENTIFIC MYTHS

    Heinz W. Droste: Science does not always provide lay people with helpful orientation. Sometimes we read “sensational” science news that appear to be inconsistent and conflicting with what has to be regarded as serious scientific knowledge.

    Mario Bunge: Yes, it is scandalous the way some scientists accept uncritically some of the most ridiculous speculations, such as the plurality of worlds, the opinion that spacetime has more than 4 dimensions, that particles can move faster than light, or that human life can be prolonged indefinitely.

    Anyone with a scienific Weltananschauung will temper enthusiasm with caution.

    Heinz W. Droste: What is the background of these speculations? Are there “scientific myths” at work? How can philosophy expose them and help to distinguish solid scientific knowledge from unrealistic legends?

    Mario Bunge: This is an interesting question that deserves to be pursued at great lengths in an interdisciplinary manner. However, one can discern a few very general myths that facilitate the birth of further myths: that everything is possible; that whatever we have failed to explain in normal and earthly terms must have paranormal or supernatural explanations; and that science, being rational, cannot explain the irrational, such as taste and love.

    Heinz W. Droste: Sometimes even highly merited scientists turn into esotericists …

    Mario Bunge: A distinguished cognitive neuroscientist confessed to me that, because of his religious upbringing, he could not get rid of psychoneural dualism. The idea that one ceases to be after death was too painful to him.

    Heinz W. Droste: What lies behind such “scientific superstition”?

    Mario Bunge: One of the causes is the separation of science from philosophy: the belief that science is self-sufficient. Another is the argument from authority. A third is the lack of historical perspective.

    FIGHTING FOR THE UNITY OF BODY AND MIND

    Heinz W. Droste: 35 years ago you got involved in a controversy caused by such a myth:

    In the World Congress of Philosophy held in Düsseldorf in 1978 you held a public debate with Sir John Eccles, the famous neuroscientist, a Nobel laureate, and collaborator of your friend, the philosopher Sir Karl Popper. Eccles held the idealist and parapsychological view that the immaterial mind keeps the neurons moving, much as the pianist plays piano. On the basis of neuroscientific knowledge you held the opposite: that minding is the specific function of the human brain. Congress participants were amazed by the toughness of your dispute.

    Mario Bunge: Sir John Eccles was a remarkable technician, the first to record the activity of single nerve cells thanks to the microelectrode he invented. Since he did not find the soul in the individual neuron, he jumped to the conclusion that the mind is immaterial. Many years earlier, in the prestigious weekly „Nature“, Eccles published a paper where he held that the neuron behaves the way it does because of the soul’s telekinetic action. Why was that paper accepted for publication? Because the editors did not have a filtering mechanism. And why did the famous philosopher Karl Popper support Eccles instead of criticizing him? Because he had no coherent worldview, and because his criterion of scientificity was purely empirical: he was satisfied with refutability, whereas most scientists demand also what I call external consistency, i.e., compatibility with the bulk of knowledge — in this Physics, since telekinesis involves the creation of energy out of nothing.

    Heinz W. Droste: What response did you receive from your colleagues then? What did your friend Sir Karl Popper say, who favored dualism?

    Mario Bunge: Popper was not pleased: he told me he was pained every time two friends of his fought one another. Actually it was much more: his dualism was inconsistent with his own scientificity criterion, since it is irrefutable. And it does not enjoy the support of neuroscience. Several years earlier he had scolded me for writing that the steady-state theory of the universe, according to which there is creation of matter out of nothing to maintain a constant energy density despite the expansion of the universe, was magical.

    I do not know how other philosophers reacted, except in the case of Marxists. At the same congress, the editor of the Soviet philosophical Journal “Filosofskie Nauki”, a Professor Gott (sic) asked me for a contribution. I mailed him “The bankrupcy of psycho-neural dualism”, which he published along with a paper by a certain D. Dubrovsky, twice as long, that defended dualism. Why? Because Lenin had criticized Eugen Dietzgen’s thesis that the mind is material, alleging that, if this were true, materialism would be consistent with idealism. Shortly thereafter, something similar happened with the Hungarian Marxist philosophical review. But this time they asked Professor Szenghagothai, an eminent Catholic neuroscientist, to refute me. This was not an isolated incident: Marxists have not kept in touch with science, and they prefer to repeat their classics. It is easier and safer.

    Heinz W. Droste: In the years following your participation in the World Congress of Philosophy you have worked out your monistic perspective on human consciousness in detail.

    Mario Bunge: Yes, in three books: “The mind-body problem” (1980), which was translated into German; “Philosophy of Psychology” (1987), and “Matter and Mind” (2010). In each case I incorporated some new findings in neuroscience (e.g, about neural plasticity) and biological psychology (e.g., about the neural tracks left by learning).

    Heinz W. Droste: What have you found out there? Is it possible to explain to laymen in a few words how human freedom is possible despite — or even because of — material processes in our brain and the absence of a nonmaterial mind?

    Mario Bunge: I believe that modern science supports free will, in showing that the brain can act spontaneously, not only in response to external stimuli. Of course you cannot free yourself from the laws of nature; but the laws of nervous systems are not the same as the physical laws. If we know that we have free will, then we will believe in our power to alter the status quo, though not arbitrarily, because society imposes restrictions on individual freedom: I will let you do as you wish as long as you don’t hurt me.

    REALISTIC MORALITY AND ETHICS

    Heinz W. Droste: Obviously we now reach fundamental ethical questions. For example: Is it possible that sciences, which emphasize the crucial importance of empirical-scientific knowledge, find standards for morality and ways for their implementation in social life?

    Mario Bunge: Science is morally neutral, but social science shows us that some moral codes are better than others. For example, the societies that abide by the rule “No rights without duties, and no duties without rights”, is likely to do better than those that tolerate selfishness or that impose obedience.

    Heinz W. Droste: What role do values play? Do they strengthen morality? How do they work in social life?

    Mario Bunge: We deem valuable whatever is likely to meet our needs or wishes (individual values) and whatever is likely to help protect or attain social goals (social values). However, this is not a dichotomy, for some individual values, such as truth, are needed to secure some social values, such as mutual trust, and some social values, such as peace, are required to pursue some individual values, such as good health.

    Heinz W. Droste: Who are legitimate moral authorities — who can intervene when people fight over interests and values?

    Mario Bunge: Under theocracies and other authoritarian regimes, the rulers are the moral authorities. Under genuine democracy some basic values are entrenched in the legal system, which is expected to be under democratic vigilance, and others are left to the person or the group, which ideally debate moral problems in a rational, free and cooperative manner. For example, doctor-assisted suicide should be a right, but each case should be discussed by all the interested parties: patient, his/her dependents, and health workers.

    THE OLD CONTROVERSY: RELIGION VERSUS PHILOSOPHY

    Heinz W. Droste: Thousands of years religions represented themselves as moral authorities and seem still to be recognized as legitimate opinion leaders. What is your assessment: Have religions gained even new power? Has their influence in societies of the West, East, Middle East, etc., been increased? And in the meantime — what has happend to the influence and status of philosophy?

    Mario Bunge: In some regions, such as North America and Japan, religion is on the wane: the temples are empty and the priesthood is discredited. But in others religion is stronger than ever, because it is used as a tool for the emancipation from the so-called West. This has been happening with Islam since the times of Mossadegh and Colonel Nasser.

    Heinz W. Droste: Often it is argued — even by philosophers –, that religion and philosophical thought are compatible with each other. Some consider it reasonable that philosophy should respect the “higher” knowledge claims of religions.

    Mario Bunge: Dogmatic philosophy is certainly compatible with religion, and in some cases its surrogate. But since Greek and Roman antiquity, enlightened philosophy has been the bane of religion. No wonder, because genuine philosophers do not admit supernatural beings, after-life, revealed wisdom, absolution, or the absolute authority of religious professionals. The thesis of the double truth, held by Averroes and resurrected by Stephen Jay Gould, is false from the viewpoint of scientism, according to which science can study everything, whereas faith blinds us. The same thesis also discourages us to hold groundless beliefs. However, we should defend religious freedom as long as organized religion does not attempt to usurp the right of the state, to secure universal, compulsory and free secular education.

    Heinz W. Droste: How do you see the relationship of philosophy and religion? Is there a “higher sphere of faith”, which philosophy has to leave to religion? In the end — have we to believe in a world creating divine power, which reconciles us with our existence on earth, lending us the ability to understand the world?

    Mario Bunge: From a historical viewpoint, religion is just a kind of superstition, and from a political viewpoint it is a tool of social control. Authentic philosophy is secular: it accepts Kant’s dictum in his 1st Kritik: “Gott ist eine bloße Idee” [God is a mere idea,]. But a democratic state will protect the freedom to hold any beliefs other than those that harm others, such as racism. In particular, it will see to it that no one is harmed just because of her beliefs.

    Heinz W. Droste: Clashes between the Arab world and the Western world (including Israel) nowadays have aspects of a religious fight of three monotheistic religions — Christian and Jewish against Islamic monotheism: How should we assess this “religious warfare” from a philosophical point of view? Is there a philosophical “peace plan”? How could it be used successfully?

    Mario Bunge: History and the sociology of religion suggest that all religious wars are political wars in disguise.

    Mohammedans live peacefully with Christians and Jews in Spain, Turkey and Northern Africa for centuries, until oil was discovered in Arabia, and British and American companies started to exploit it. Remember Mussadegh, the Iranian president who was toppled by British Petroleum Co, with the help of the American “intelligence” agency, when he announced his intention to nationalize Iranian oil. Whom did the Americans put in power to replace him? The murderous Sha Reza Pahlavi. And Israel would not be just as hated as the US, had it not become America’s most loyal and effective ally. Neither the US nor Israel has ever supported any national liberation movement. In particular, Israel sent arms and military advisors to the Apartheid regime and to the worst Central American dictatorships. Oil, not religion, is behind the so-called “culture clash”. Likewise, Catholic France paid Lutheran Landsknechte to fight the Spanish-Austrian alliance. Ask Cardinal Richelieu whether he celebrated any masses for the souls of the Catholics robbed and massacred by the Lutheran soldiers in his payroll.

    Can philosophy do anything to solve this problem? No, because it is an economic and political issue, not a conceptual one. All philosophers can do is to abstain from helping the aggressors and to enjoin social scientists to tell the truth instead of joining the choir of liars and hypocrites.

    POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY Heinz W. Droste: I would like to ask you some questions regarding politics and political philosophy: Until a few decades ago political philosophers had contentious issues that reflected the conflict between two power blocs — between East and West. — In your view — what has happened to the political philosophy since then?

    Mario Bunge: Few if any political philosophers have had the courage of tackling the Cold War. Even the best of them have kept silent or have stated some bromides glossing over the serious shortcomings of “our” side, such as racism, social injustice, extreme income disparities, the exploitation of the Third World, and environmental degradation. Was it because of ignorance or cowardice? I do not know, and it matters little. The fact is that all the important political philosophers and scientists from the great Aristotle on, with the exception of those of the French Enlightenment and Mill, have sided with the powers that be. (I don’t count Marx and Engels because they were ideologists and political journalists rather than political philosophers or politologists.) I favor integral democracy, that is, a radical expansion of political democracy to include biological democracy (gender and race equality), economic democracy (cooperative ownership and management), and cultural democracy (free access to education). This recipe has never been tried, though the Scandinavian countries are pretty near it.

    Heinz W. Droste: Looking at the current situation: What do you think — is there a digital political revolution going on? — The Arab world is on the move. The “digital political movedness” of individuals and groups seems to play an important role. Looking at the sequence of revolutions — for example in Tunisia and Egypt — we recognize the importance of social media. The internet-supported information had worked as a instrument coordinating the activities of the critics of governments. In response today Islamic spiritual leaders openly condemn users of Twitter.

    In the West, people use the social media to get involved politically, to establish networks and to influence public opinion. As a response Western governments mistrust their citizens and instruct their intelligence agencies to spy on them. In addition, they appear to plan to restrict digital freedom massively.

    Mario Bunge: The new media help mobilize people, but they do not replace organization. Indignation is a passing mood of the individual, whereas organization is a lasting social endeavor.

    Heinz W. Droste: What do you think: Emails, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, etc. — are they tools for the Enlightenment, of individual freedom — or rather of anti-democratic terror or even episodes of post-modern capitalism?

    Mario Bunge: I admire those technological marvels but do not use them because they make you believe that you have acomplished something by sending some smart messages to people who need more time to think and to engage in face-to-face interaction, which is essential for love, friendship, and collaboration. I pity the babies whose mothers are busy texting trivialities instead of playing with their children; I pity the children who are tethered to their cell phones instead of playing ball; I pity the adolescents who are wasting their best years holding one of those artefacts instead of the hand of another young person. All those electronic devices are weakening the social bonds. Sociologists and psychologists should study this serious threat instead of repeating that communication is the cement of society. Communication accompanies social transactions and can instruct or stultify, mobilize or intimidate, but it is no substitute for production, collaboration and fight.

    GERMAN PHILOSOPHY AND THE WORLD

    Heinz W. Droste: By family ties, but also by teaching and working phases in the past, Germany is more familiar to you than to many other philosophers acting internationally.

    German idealist philosophies and their historical materialist adaptations seem still today fascinate people today: How do you interpret the fascination of Hegel and Co., for example, in the Anglo-American societies, which are characterized by individualistic lifestyles?

    Mario Bunge: Mainstream “Continental” philosophy from the 19th century on has been Kantian (subjective idealism) or Hegelian (objective idealism), and occasionally a mixture of the two (Dilthey). Ironically, neither was born in Germany: subjective idealism was invented by George Berkeley, an Irish Anglican priest, and came to Kant via Hume, a Scottish skeptic; and objective Idealism came from Plato. Hegel’s great merit is that he tackled important problems; his great demerit is that he spearheaded the Counter Enlightenment: the reaction against clarity, rationality, scientism, and political progressivism. When Germany was split into two, two Hegel Gesellschaften, one pro-Marx and the other anti-Marx, were organized. But neither of them criticized Hegel’s confusions and attacks on modern science. In particular, both accepted and developed the dialectical absurdities. Once you believe that Hegel was “a mighty thinker”, as Marx did, you can believe that conflict beats cooperation, that the dictatorship of the proletariat will wither spontaneously, and so on. And if you believe that you understand Hegel, you can also believe that Husserl and his star pupil Heidegger were profound thinkers.

    Heinz W. Droste: How do you assess the present importance of “German thinkers” for the international philosophical discussion?

    Mario Bunge: The only German philosopher who is well-known outside Germany is Jürgen Habermas, who in my opinion is superficial and long-winded. He has managed to skirt all the important philosophical issues generated by contemporay science, in particular atomic physics, evolutionary biology, biological psychology, an socioeconomics. His attempt to fuse Hegel, Marx and Freud has not resulted in a coherent system, and is not a research project. And his conflation of science, technology and ideology betrays his ignorance of all three.

    Heinz W. Droste: From your perspective: What is the future of philosophies which are strongly influenced by national cultures?

    Mario Bunge: All genuine philosophy transcends national boundaries. Patriotic philosophies are just nationalist ideologies.

    MEDICAL PHILOSOPHY

    Heinz W. Droste: I would like to talk about your new book “Medical Philosophy – Conceptual Issues in Medicine.” — Your publisher writes: “probably the first medical-philosophical work, which systematically analyzes and discusses the basic concepts of medicine.” For many physicians and patients this title sounds a little irritating: Why does the medical domain need a philosophical discussion? What are pressing philosophical issues in the medical field?

    Mario Bunge: The most urgent task for a iatrophilosopher is to spot and denounce the pseudomedicines, such as acupuncture, homeopathy, and psychoanalysis. But the most important tasks are (a) to find out and analyze the ways doctors think, and (b) to evaluate the ways biomedical researchers evaluate therapies.

    Heinz W. Droste: What aspects of medicine urgently need to be transferred to the philosophical “ICU”?

    Mario Bunge: Medical diagnosis, the design and trial of synthetic (man-made) drugs, and the ambivalence of the medical-industrial complex, which stimulates the search for better therapies while at the same time corrupting some medical practitioners.

    Heinz W. Droste: For whom did you write this book — is it necessary for readers to complete some semesters of philosophy to be able to understand your reasoning and to use your suggestions?

    Mario Bunge: Nein! Ganz im Gegenteil (in German) [No! But on the contrary], because in a couple of semesters you can learn who said what, whereas learning to philosophize takes a lifetime. My book is addressed to the biomedical researchers and practitioners who regard medicine as an exciting field full of holes and pregnant with surprising research opportunities — just like engineering and management science.

    Heinz W. Droste: What is your vision for the future of medicine?

    Mario Bunge: Just a continuation of the scientific medicine born in the Paris hospitals around 1800, the German medical and pharmaceutical laboratories born around 1850, and the European public health schools and movements born around 1900. Medical breakthroughs, yes, but medical revolutions, no, thank, you, except in places where modern medicine has not yet arrived.

    PERSONAL QUESTIONS TO THE PHILOSOPHER

    Heinz W. Droste: Where do you get your inspiration and fun to publish a book almost every year? How do you manage this workload?

    Mario Bunge: Just curiosity and the belief that I can be of help. To me, work is not a burden but my main hobby. This is why I always take work with me when I go on holidays. Moreover, that’s when new projects occur to me: while contemplating beautiful landscapes or seascapes.

    Heinz W. Droste: By now you are professor emeritus — you reached this status at the age of 90 years, almost thirty years later than it is usual at German universities. How important was your learning and working with students?

    Mario Bunge: It was very important, because young people often think out of the box and ask amazing questions. I miss that.

    Heinz W. Droste: During my research I found out that you had founded a “university”as a young man. — Can you give us some background information — how this foundation came about, how you had organized this school? Where did your students come from?

    Mario Bunge: It occurred to me that I had the duty to give society something in exchange for the free education I was getting. My Arbeiter Universität [Worker’s University] taught industrial workers and trade-union organizers. We offered courses in mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering, as well as in Spanish language, history, economics, and labor law.

    Heinz W. Droste: You grew up in Argentina, where you have started your career — since the sixties of the last century you have been publishing your books primarily in English and for decades you had taught at a Canadian university. — Looking at this internationally active life: How important are your “South American roots”?

    Mario Bunge: My Third-World roots remind me that the vast majority of our fellow human beings live hungry, sick, and uneducated, and that most social scientists, even in that world, ignore that ugly reality. This is why my papers in mathematical sociology deal not with free choice among 30 flavors of ice-cream, but with social structure, social cohesion, and social marginality.

  • Why are people unenlightened?

    To be unenlightened is to believe in superstitions [it is not the same as ignorance or stupidity]. And a superstition is a belief which cannot survive a critical investigation. World religions fall into the category of superstitions. So why do they survive?

    There are several reasons.

    But before I get to these reasons, a distinction has to be made between at least three categories of religious people. The first category I will call the “nominal religious.” This is the vast majority of people who pay “lip service” to the religion. They are simply members of a club. The second group are the “religious practitioners.” They are the priests, rabbis, gurus, monks, etc. The third group are the theologians. This last group are the philosophers of the religion. They know the dogmas and they formulate arguments for their defense.

    My concern will be only with those who are “nominally religious” — those whose knowledge of the religion is superficial.

    For example, as a nominal Christian I may only know that I am to say that I believe in God. But if I am asked about the nature of God, I may be stymied, and I may even not know that as a Christian I am supposed to say that I believe in the Trinity. [Since belief cannot be a matter of choice, the better formulation is that as a Christian I am obligated to profess, to announce … And profession or announcing of a belief is not the same as actually having a belief.]

    Another example. As a nominal Muslim, I may learn to say [i.e., to profess or announce] that there is but one God, Allah, and Muhammed is his prophet. If probed, I may be stymied.

    So, the question is why do nominally religious people remain members of a religion?

    The first is that people treat religions as sacred cows. Cows (in India) must be allowed to roam as they see fit.

    The second is that people do not see religions as a set of beliefs — but as social institutions which bring people together — just as if they were celebratory parties.

    The third reason is that people crave communities. That is why people form gangs, join clubs and associations, participate in parades and large gatherings such as sports events and music concerts, and identify with their races and ethnic groups.

    The fourth reason is that they rationalize religions as modes of satisfying their emotional needs and hopes.

    The fifth reason is that people — as social beings — are reluctant to criticize. They are especially not interested in criticizing a religion. Criticism would alienate them from their religious community. They would be ostracised — or, as with the Amish, they would be shunned.

    The sixth reason is that — even if they had the desire to criticize — they do not know how to criticize.

    So, in a nut-shell, people do not want to criticize (they have no interest in criticism), and they don’t know how to criticize.

    And similar things could be said about membership or identification with political parties and other associations.

    The Unenlightened

    I will start with the Wikipedia description of the “Age of Enlightenment” or, as it also may be called, “Age of Reason.” Post-modernists refer to this and other cultural phenomena as “Modernity.”

    Put as simply as I can, prior to the 17th century, there was no scientific knowledge to speak of. [I mean that prior to the 17th century books like the following could not be written:

    John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, 1875.

    Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, 1897.]

    There was, of course mathematical and some astronomical science, some technical knowledge, common sense, the principle of contradiction, and lots of religion and superstition. With the scientific discoveries, there occured a challenge to religion and superstitions. Those who embraced logic and science became “enlightened.” Those who resisted logic and science remained “unenlightened.” Enlightenment — as I see it — implies secularism (irreligion or non-religion). [There is an organization called “Brights.” It could just as well also be called “Enlightened.”]

    So, who are the unenlightened? For starters, all those who embrace a religion. So, using the results of the 2015 PEW poll, 84% of the world is probably unenlightened, and there probably are some in the remaining 16% who are unaffiliated with any religion, who are also unenlightened for embracing some other form of superstition.

    Commentary on Michael Sandel

    I have watched Michael Sandel’s Harvard course on justice, as well as some of his other public appearances, such as:

    TED talk: The lost art of democratic debate

    I find myself viewing his performances from different perspectives.

    First, he claims as his agenda to promote public discourse on the common good. On this he is deluded. There are countless writings on moral issues. But very few read them. Then there are the speeches of eminent public speakers, such as Chomsky, Hedges, Hitchens, Zinn, Kinzer, Vidal, Pilger; and such programs as Democracy Now, Real News, and all sorts of Progressive publications. But who is aware of any of this? And who will listen to and take note of what Sandel is doing?

    Second, he claims to be providing an example of what public discourse should look like. So what is his example? It is to introduce controversial questions, and offer the audience (or students) an opportunity to express their opinions with a reason. This is followed by Sandel’s own (sometimes prepared) commentary — not necessarily to adjudicate from his own perspective. One is left with the questions unresolved.

    Third, his approach does not question our political institutions, but raises questions as a way of prescribing what the government should do. He does not seem to realize that our prescriptions to the government are otiose. As an example, in the U.S. preparation for an attack on Iraq in 2003, there were huge protests against this action both in the United States and the world. The result? Iraq was attacked.

    The conclusion I draw is that public (democratic) opinion in the U.S. and in most other countries does not much matter.

    Fourth, the issue he should be discussing is whether our political institutions function to promote the common good. Apparently, Sandel himself thinks that they do not. But he offers no guidance as to how to improve them.

    Fifth, I have fundamental disagreements with him about his discourse on justice. Let me do this by saying something about the four cardinal virtues: moderation (or temperance), fortitude (or courage), prudence (or wisdom), and justice.

    Virtues are habits or dispositions. The first three virtues can be exercised by a solitary individual like Robinson Crusoe on an island. The fourth virtue — justice — concerns behavior towards others; let us say of Crusoe towards Friday. And if justice is a habit or disposition, what is this disposition? My simple answer is that it is a disposition to abide by agreements.

    And what will be the agreements which Crusoe and Friday make? Their common concern is to stay alive: self-preservation. And to do this they have to have a free access to the land and water for food and shelter — in short, the necessities for sustaining life. So, they will agree on some equal division of land or on some equal mode of access to the necessities for life. They will also agree not to harm each other nor to interfere with their pursuit of these necessities. But I think they would also agree to an exception clause, namely, that these agreements are not binding if they threaten self-preservation.

    Justice or morality is the disposition to sincerely abide by these agreements. And injustice or immorality is to act counter to these agreements. That is all.

    I know that the usual view of justice has to do with something like an equal application of the law. Well, if, let us say, Crusoe and Friday agree to have a judge or arbitrator — call him Joe, then Joe will agree to use an impartial rule to decide cases. And if Joe abides by such an agreement, Joe will act justly as a judge; otherwise, he will act unjustly by not abiding by the agreement to act impartially.

    My sixth and last comment, is that a discussion of justice has to take into consideration history and sociology; specifically, we have to take into account the fact that, as argued by Franz Oppenheimer, in his book The State, states have arisen through conquest, and have morphed from slave empires, to feudal kingdoms, to constitutional democracies and dictatorships. In all cases states have been resilient to moral considerations, and have supported various forms of plutocracy and capitalism.

    Response to some objections to my claims and proposals

    Objection 1: Your proposal to give each person a right to free subsistence land is a retrogressive proposal.

    Response to 1: My insistence on giving each person the right to free subsistence land is threefold: (1) to provide the theoretical contradictory of capitalism, since the very definition of capitalism requires the existence of a proletariat; (2) to provide for those who do not wish to participate in a social undertaking — e.g., those who wish to be hermits; (3) throughout the world there are indigenous people who already live by agriculture or herding — their right to do so has to be secured.

    It is, of course, more efficient to live in a cooperative manner. But this should be a matter of choice — a choice which reasonable people will make. As Kropotkin pointed out, a single tractor can do the work of 100 men. I am for using all the technology available. I am not for retrogression. Organizing an agrarian village seems simple by comparison to organizing a large city. In Ukraine [1918-21], the anarchist Nestor Makhno had no problem with villages, but cities baffled him. But, on the other hand, some crisis — like the loss of the electric grid — may force people to a more primitive way of living.


    Objection 2: Overpopulation is not a problem. Malthus and the Ehrichs were wrong.

    Response 2: They cannot be faulted for the general claim (1) that no living species can continue to expand beyond the resources of food. The other claim is: (2) food resources are limited. And the conclusion, then, is: (3) the population will stop expanding.

    I don’t know of any way to dispute (1). However, (2) could be disputed by claiming that technology could make an unlimited amount of food. Presently, I do not see this in the offing. As to (3), there is a choice — either limit population growth through some kind of human intervention, or natural disasters will dwindle the populations in their own ways.


    Objection 3: Switzerland should not be held up as a model for anarchists.

    Response 3: I do not use Switzerland as a model for anarchism. I simply claim that it is the most democratic State in the world. The best feature is the seven-member Federal Council as contrasted with one-man rule of a President or a Prime Minister. It is also superior to the election of a President through Macro Democracy. And like the United States, it is a federal system with three layers of government: national, cantonal, and municipal — unlike the unitary or “integral” government as in Ukraine. Switzerland also has national and cantonal initiatives and referendums, which act as public controls on the government.

    An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish (aka Bullshit)

    Christopher Hitchens reads from Bertrand Russell’s short book: An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish: A Hilarious Catalogue of Organized and Individual Stupidity (1943).

    Below is the printed portion which Hitchens reads:

    Man is a rational animal — so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favor of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents. On the contrary, I have seen the world plunging continually further into madness. I have seen great nations, formerly leaders of civilization, led astray by preachers of bombastic nonsense. I have seen cruelty, persecution, and superstition increasing by leaps and bounds, until we have almost reached the point where praise of rationality is held to mark a man as an old fogey regrettably surviving from a bygone age. All this is depressing, but gloom is a useless emotion. In order to escape from it, I have been driven to study the past with more attention than I had formerly given to it, and have found, as Erasmus found, that folly is perennial and yet the human race has survived. The follies of our own times are easier to bear when they are seen against the background of past follies. In what follows I shall mix the sillinesses of our day with those of former centuries. Perhaps the result may help in seeing our own times in perspective, and as not much worse than other ages that our ancestors lived through without ultimate disaster.

    Aristotle, so far as I know, was the first man to proclaim explicitly that man is a rational animal. His reason for this view was one which does not now seem very impressive; it was, that some people can do sums. He thought that there are three kinds of soul: the vegetable soul, possessed by all living things, both plants and animals, and concerned only with nourishment and growth; the animal soul, concerned with locomotion, and shared by man with the lower animals; and finally the rational soul, or intellect, which is the Divine mind, but in which men participate to a greater or less degree in proportion to their wisdom. It is in virtue of the intellect that man is a rational animal. The intellect is shown in various ways, but most emphatically by mastery of arithmetic. The Greek system of numerals was very bad, so that the multiplication table was quite difficult, and complicated calculations could only be made by very clever people. Nowadays, however, calculating machines do sums better than even the cleverest people, yet no one contends that these useful instruments are immortal, or work by divine inspiration. As arithmetic has grown easier, it has come to be less respected. The consequence is that, though many philosophers continue to tell us what fine fellows we are, it is no longer on account of our arithmetical skill that they praise us.

    Since the fashion of the age no longer allows us to point to calculating boys as evidence that man is rational and the soul, at least in part, immortal, let us look elsewhere. Where shall we look first? Shall we look among eminent statesmen, who have so triumphantly guided the world into its present condition? Or shall we choose the men of letters? Or the philosophers? All these have their claims, but 1 think we should begin with those whom all right thinking people acknowledge to be the wisest as well as the best of men, namely the clergy. If they fail to be rational, what hope is there for us lesser mortals? And alas — though I say it with all due respect — there have been times when their wisdom has not been very obvious, and, strange to say, these were especially the times when the power of the clergy was greatest.

    The Ages of Faith, which are praised by our neo-scholastics, were the time when the clergy had things all their own way. Daily life was full of miracles wrought by saints and wizardry perpetrated by devils and necromancers. Many thousands of witches were burnt at the stake. Men’s sins were punished by pestilence and famine, by earthquake, flood, and fire. And yet, strange to say, they were even more sinful than they are nowadays. Very little was known scientifically about the world. A few learned men remembered Greek proofs that the earth is round, but most people made fun of the notion that there are antipodes. To suppose that there are human beings at the antipodes was heresy. It was generally held (though modem Catholics take a milder view) that the immense majority of mankind are damned. Dangers were held to lurk at every turn. Devils would settle on the food that monks were about to eat, and would take possession of the bodies of incautious feeders who omitted to make the sign of the Cross before each mouthful. Old-fashioned people still say “bless you” when one sneezes, but they have forgotten the reason for the custom. The reason was that people were thought to sneeze out their souls, and before their souls could get back lurking demons were apt to enter the unsouled body; but if any one said “God bless you,” the demons were frightened off.

    Throughout the last 400 years, during which the growth of science had gradually shown men how to acquire knowledge of the ways of nature and mastery over natural forces, the clergy have fought a losing battle against science, in astronomy and geology, in anatomy and physiology, in biology and psychology and sociology. Ousted from one position, they have taken up another. After being worsted in astronomy, they did their best to prevent the rise of geology; they fought against Darwin in biology, and at the present time they fight against scientific theories of psychology and education. At each stage, they try to make the public forget their earlier obscurantism, in order that their present obscurantism may not be recognized for what it is. Let us note a few instances of irrationality among the clergy since the rise of science, and then inquire whether the rest of mankind are any better.

    When Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod, the clergy, both in England and America, with the enthusiastic support of George III, condemned it as an impious attempt to defeat the will of God. For, as all right-thinking people were aware, lightning is sent by God to punish impiety or some other grave sin — the virtuous are never struck by lightning. Therefore if God wants to strike any one, Benjamin Franklin ought not to defeat His design; indeed, to do so is helping criminals to escape. But God was equal to the occasion, if we are to believe the eminent Dr. Price, one of the leading divines of Boston. Lightning having been rendered ineffectual by the “iron points invented by the sagacious Dr. Franklin,” Massachusetts was shaken by earthquakes, which Dr. Price perceived to be due to God’s wrath at the “iron points.” In a sermon on the subject he said, “In Boston are more erected than elsewhere in New England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. Oh! there is no getting out of the mighty hand of God.” Apparently, however, Providence gave up all hope of curing Boston of its wickedness, for, though lightning rods became more and more common, earthquakes in Massachusetts have remained rare. Nevertheless, Dr. Price’s point of view, or something very like it, is still held by one of the most influential of living men. When, at one time, there were several bad earthquakes in India, Mahatma Gandhi solemnly warned his compatriots that these disasters had been sent as a punishment for their sins.

    Even in my own native island this point of view still exists. During the last war, the British Government did much to stimulate the production of food at home. In 1916, when things were not going well, a Scottish clergyman wrote to the newspapers to say that military failure was due to the fact that, with government sanction, potatoes had been planted on the Sabbath. However, disaster was averted, owing to the fact that the Germans disobeyed all the Ten Commandments, and not only one of them.

    Sometimes, if pious men are to be believed, God’s mercies are curiously selective. Toplady, the author of Rock of Ages, moved from one vicarage to another; a week after the move, the vicarage he had formerly occupied burnt down, with great loss to the new vicar. Thereupon Toplady thanked God; but what the new vicar did is not known. Borrow, in his “Bible in Spain,” records how without mishap he crossed a mountain pass infested by bandits. The next party to cross, however, were set upon, robbed, and some of them murdered; when Borrow heard of this, he, like Toplady, thanked God.

    Although we are taught the Copernican astronomy in our textbooks, it has not yet penetrated to our religion or our morals, and has not even succeeded in destroying belief in astrology. People still think that the Divine Plan has special reference to human beings, and that a special Providence not only looks after the good, but also punishes the wicked. I am sometimes shocked by the blasphemies of those who think themselves pious — for instance, the nuns who never take a bath without wearing a bathrobe all the time. When asked why, since no man can see them, they reply: “Oh, but you forget the good God.” Apparently they conceive of the Deity as a Peeping Tom, whose omnipotence enables Him to see through bathroom walls, but who is foiled by bathrobes. This view strikes me as curious.

    The whole conception of “Sin” is one which I find very puzzling, doubtless owing to my sinful nature. If “Sin” consisted in causing needless suffering, I could understand; but on the contrary, sin often consists in avoiding needless suffering. Some years ago, in the English House of Lords, a bill was introduced to legalize euthanasia in cases of painful and incurable disease. The patient’s consent was to be necessary, as well as several medical certificates. To me, in my simplicity, it would seem natural to require the patient’s consent, but the late Archbishop of Canterbury, the English official expert on Sin, explained the erroneousness of such a view. The patient’s consent turns euthanasia into suicide, and suicide is sin. Their Lordships listened to the voice of authority, and rejected the bill. Consequently, to please the Archbishop — and his God, if he reports truly — victims of cancer still have to endure months of wholly useless agony, unless their doctors or nurses are sufficiently humane to risk a charge of murder. I find difficulty in the conception of a God who gets pleasure from contemplating such tortures; and if there were a God capable of such wanton cruelty, I should certainly not think Him worthy of worship. But that only proves how sunk I am in moral depravity.

    I am equally puzzled by the things that are sin and by the things that are not. When the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals asked the pope for his support, he refused it, on the ground that human beings owe no duty to the lower animals, and that ill — treating animals is not sinful. This is because animals have no souls. On the other hand, it is wicked to marry your deceased wife’s sister — so at least the Church teaches — however much you and she may wish to marry. This is not because of any unhappiness that might result, but because of certain texts in the Bible.

    The resurrection of the body, which is an article of the Apostles’ Creed, is a dogma which has various curious consequences. There was an author not very many years ago, who had an ingenious method of calculating the date of the end of the world. He argued that there must be enough of the necessary ingredients of a human body to provide everybody with the requisites at the Last Day. By carefully calculating the available raw material, he decided that it would all have been used up by a certain date. When that date comes, the world must end, since otherwise the resurrection of the body would become impossible. Unfortunately I have forgotten what the date was, but I believe it is not very distant.

    St. Thomas Aquinas, the official philosopher of the Catholic Church, discussed lengthily and seriously a very grave problem, which, I fear, modern theologians unduly neglect. He imagines a cannibal who has never eaten anything but human flesh, and whose father and mother before him had like propensities. Every particle of his body belongs rightfully to someone else. We cannot suppose that those who have been eaten by cannibals are to go short through all eternity. But, if not, what is left for the cannibal? How is he to be properly roasted in hell, if all his body is restored to its original owners? This is a puzzling question, as the Saint rightly perceives.

    In this connection the orthodox have a curious objection to cremation, which seems to show an insufficient realization of God’s omnipotence. It is thought that a body which has been burnt will be more difficult for Him to collect together again than one which has been put underground and transformed into worms. No doubt collecting the particles from the air and undoing the chemical work of combustion would be somewhat laborious, but it is surely blasphemous to suppose such a work impossible for the Deity. I conclude that the objection to cremation implies grave heresy. But I doubt whether my opinion will carry much weight with the orthodox.

    It was only very slowly and reluctantly that the Church sanctioned the dissection of corpses in connection with the study of medicine. The pioneer in dissection was Vesalius, who was Court physician to the Emperor Charles V. His medical skill led the emperor to protect him, but after the emperor was dead he got into trouble. A corpse which he was dissecting was said to have shown signs of life under the knife, and he was accused of murder. The Inquisition was induced by King Phillip II to take a lenient view, and only sentenced him to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On the way home he was shipwrecked and died of exhaustion. For centuries after this time, medical students at the Papal University in Rome were only allowed to operate on lay figures, from which the sexual parts were omitted.

    The sacredness of corpses is a widespread belief. It was carried furthest by the Egyptians, among whom it led to the practice of mummification. It still exists in full force in China. A French surgeon, who was employed by the Chinese to teach Western medicine, relates that his demand for corpses to dissect was received with horror, but he was assured that he could have instead an unlimited supply of live criminals. His objection to this alternative was totally unintelligible to his Chinese employers.

    Although there are many kinds of sin, seven of which are deadly, the most fruitful field for Satan’s wiles is sex. The orthodox Catholic doctrine on this subject is to be found in St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas. It is best to be celibate, but those who have not the gift of continence may marry. Intercourse in marriage is not sin, provided it is motivated by desire for offspring. All intercourse outside marriage is sin, and so is intercourse within marriage if any measures are adopted to prevent conception. Interruption of pregnancy is sin, even if, in medical opinion, it is the only way of saving the mother’s life; for medical opinion is fallible, and God can always save a life by miracle if He sees fit. (This view is embodied in the law of Connecticut.) Venereal disease is God’s punishment for sin. It is true that, through a guilty husband, this punishment may fall on an innocent woman and her children, but this is a mysterious dispensation of Providence, which it would be impious to question. We must also not inquire why venereal disease was not divinely instituted until the time of Columbus. Since it is the appointed penalty for sin, all measures for its avoidance are also sin — except, of course, a virtuous life. Marriage is nominally indissoluble, but many people who seem to be married are not. In the case of influential Catholics, some ground for nullity can often be found, but for the poor there is no such outlet, except perhaps in cases of impotence. Persons who divorce and remarry are guilty of adultery in the sight of God.

    The phrase “in the sight of God” puzzles me. One would suppose that God sees everything, but apparently this is a mistake. He does not see Reno, for you cannot be divorced in the sight of God. Registry offices are a doubtful point. I notice that respectable people, who would not call on anybody who lives in open sin, are quite willing to call on people who have had only a civil marriage; so apparently God does see registry offices.

    Some eminent men think even the doctrine of the Catholic Church deplorably lax where sex is concerned. Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi, in their old age, laid it down that all sexual intercourse is wicked, even in marriage and with a view to offspring. The Manicheans thought likewise, relying upon men’s native sinfulness to supply them with a continually fresh crop of disciples. This doctrine, however, is heretical, though it is equally heretical to maintain that marriage is as praiseworthy as celibacy. Tolstoy thinks tobacco almost as bad as sex; in one of his novels, a man who is contemplating murder smokes a cigarette first in order to generate the necessary homicidal fury. Tobacco, however, is not prohibited in the Scriptures, though, as Samuel Butler points at, St. Paul would no doubt have denounced it if he had known of it.

    It is odd that neither the Church nor modern public opinion condemns petting, provided it stops short at a certain point. At what point sin begins is a matter as to which casuists differ. One eminently orthodox Catholic divine laid it down that a confessor may fondle a nun’s breasts, provided he does it without evil intent. But I doubt whether modern authorities would agree with him on this point.

    Modern morals are a mixture of two elements: on the one hand, rational precepta as to how to live together peaceably in a society, and on the other hand traditional taboos derived originally from some ancient superstition, but proximately from sacred books, Christian, Mohammedan, Hindu, or Buddhist. To some extent the two agree; the prohibition of murder and theft, for instance, is supported both by human reason and by Divine command. But the prohibition of pork or beef has only scriptural authority, and that only in certain religions. It is odd that modern men, who are aware of what science has done in the way of bringing new knowledge and altering the conditions of social life, should still be willing to accept the authority of texts embodying the outlook of very ancient and very ignorant pastoral or agricultural tribes. It is discouraging that many of the precepts whose sacred character is thus uncritically acknowledged should be such as to inflict much wholly unnecessary misery. If men’s kindly impulses were stronger, they would find some way of explaining that these precepts are not to be taken literally, any more than the command to “sell all that thou hast and give to the poor.”

    There are logical difficulties in the notion of Sin. We are told that Sin consists in disobedience to God’s commands, but we are also told that God is omnipotent. If He is, nothing contrary to His will can occur; therefore when the sinner disobeys His commands, He must have intended this to happen. St. Augustine boldly accepts this view, and asserts that men are led to sin by a blindness with which God afflicts them. But most theologians, in modern times, have felt that, if God causes men to sin, it is not fair to send them to hell for what they cannot help. We are told that sin consists in acting contrary to God’s will. This, however, does not get rid of the difficulty. Those who, like Spinoza, take God’s omnipotence seriously, deduce that there can be no such thing as sin. This leads to frightful results. What! said Spinoza’s contemporaries, was it not wicked of Nero to murder his mother? Was it not wicked of Adam to eat the apple? Is one action just as good as another? Spinoza wriggles, but does not find any satisfactory answer. If everything happens in accordance with God’s will, God must have wanted Nero to murder his mother; therefore, since God is good, the murder must have been a good thing. From this argument there is no escape.

    On the other hand, those who are in earnest in thinking that sin is disobedience to God are compelled to say that God is not omnipotent. This gets out of all the logical puzzles, and is the view adopted by a certain school of liberal theologians. It has, however, its own difficulties. How are we to know what really is God’s will? If the forces of evil have a certain share of power, they may deceive us into accepting as Scripture what is really their work. This was the view of the Gnostics, who thought that the Old Testament was the work of an evil spirit.

    As soon as we abandon our own reason, and are content to rely upon authority, there is no end to our troubles. Whose authority? The Old Testament? The New Testament? The Koran? In practice, people choose the book considered sacred by the community in which they are born, and out of that book they choose the parts they like, ignoring the others. At one time, the most influential text in the Bible was: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Nowadays, people pass over this text, in silence if possible; if not, with an apology. And so, even when we have a sacred book, we still choose as truth whatever suits our own prejudices. No Catholic, for instance, takes seriously the text which says that a bishop should be the husband of one wife.

    People’s beliefs have various causes. One is that there is some evidence for the belief in question. We apply this to matters of fact, such as “what is so-and-so’s telephone number?” or “who won the World Series?” But as soon as it comes to anything more debatable, the causes of belief become less defensible. We believe, first and foremost, what makes us feel that we are fine fellows. Mr. Homo, if he has a good digestion and a sound income, thinks to himself how much more sensible he is than his neighbor so-and-so, who married a flighty wife and is always losing money. He thinks how superior his city is to the one 50 miles away: it has a bigger Chamber of Commerce and a more enterprising Rotary Club, and its mayor has never been in prison. He thinks how immeasurably his country surpasses all others. If he is an Englishman, he thinks of Shakespeare and Milton, or of Newton and Darwin, or of Nelson and Wellington, according to his temperament. If he is a Frenchman, he congratulates himself on the fact that for centuries France has led the world in culture, fashions, and cookery. If he is a Russian, he reflects that he belongs to the only nation which is truly international. If he is a Yugoslav, he boasts of his nation’s pigs; if a native of the Principality of Monaco, he boasts of leading the world in the matter of gambling.

    But these are not the only matters on which he has to congratulate himself. For is he not an individual of the species homo sapiens? Alone among animals he has an immortal soul, and is rational; he knows the difference between good and evil, and has learnt the multiplication table. Did not God make him in His own image? And was not everything created for man’s convenience? The sun was made to light the day, and the moon to light the night — though the moon, by some oversight, only shines during half the nocturnal hours. The raw fruits of the earth were made for human sustenance. Even the white tails of rabbits, according to some theologians, have a purpose, namely to make it easier for sportsmen to shoot them. There are, it is true, some inconveniences: lions and tigers are too fierce, the summer is too hot, and the winter too cold. But these things only began after Adam ate the apple; before that, all animals were vegetarians, and the season was always spring. If only Adam had been content with peaches and nectarines, grapes and pears and pineapples, these blessings would still be ours.

    Self-importance, individual or generic, is the source of most of our religious beliefs. Even sin is a conception derived from self-importance. Borrow relates how he met a Welsh preacher who was always melancholy. By sympathetic questioning he was brought to confess the source of his sorrow: that at the age of seven he had committed the sin against the Holy Ghost. “My dear fellow,” said Borrow, “don’t let that trouble you; I know dozens of people in like case. Do not imagine yourself cut off from the rest of mankind by this occurrence; if you inquire, you will find multitudes who suffer from the same misfortune.” From that moment, the man was cured. He had enjoyed feeling singular, but there was no pleasure in being one of a herd of sinners. Most sinners are rather less egotistical; but theologians undoubtedly enjoy the feeling that Man is the special object of God’s wrath, as well as of His love. After the Fall, so Milton assures us —

    The Sun
    Had first his precept so to move, so shine,
    As might affect the Earth with cold and heat
    Scarce tolerable, and from the North to call
    Decrepit Winter, from the South to bring
    Solstitial summer’s heat.

    However disagreeable the results may have been, Adam could hardly help feeling flattered that such vast astronomical phenomena should be brought about to teach him a lesson. The whole of theology, in regard to hell no less than to heaven, takes it for granted that Man is what is of most importance in the Universe of created beings. Since all theologians are men, this postulate has met with little opposition.

    Since evolution became fashionable, the glorification of Man has taken a new form. We are told that evolution has been guided by one great Purpose: through the millions of years when there were only slime, or trilobites, throughout the ages of dinosaurs and giant ferns, of bees and wild flowers, God was preparing the Great Climax. At last, in the fullness of time, He produced Man, including such specimens as Nero and Caligula, Hitler and Mussolini, whose transcendent glory justified the long painful process. For my part, I find even eternal damnation less incredible, and certainly less ridiculous, than this lame and impotent conclusion which we are asked to admire as the supreme effort of Omnipotence. And if God is indeed omnipotent, why could He not have produced the glorious result without such a long and tedious prologue?

    Core Morality and other types

    I offer below an incomplete sketch of my approach to morality. It agrees with much of what Gilbert Harman has written.

    Writings on ethics tend to treat two different questions under the title of “ethics.” One is a question of prudent behavior; the other is a question of moral behavior. But, I must admit, that some contexts are such as to raise the perplexing question as to which has priority.

    To distinguish the question of prudence from that of morality, let us consider the case of a solitary individual cast away on an island — call him Crusoe. His primary problem is one of survival. Given his desire for survival, he will have to follow, what Kant called, hypothetical imperatives. There are things he ought to do in order to survive. If he has tools, there will be right and wrong ways of using them. Again, if he is interested in efficiency, he must do things in certain ways. Will certain dispositions and habits — call them virtues — serve him well? Certainly. He can strive for happiness, which will be a function of leisure time. But I make no claims about what constitutes happiness. Whatever it is, it will be a matter of satisfying his interests. And since interests vary, so will the ways for reaching happiness. What I want to claim is that the question of moral behavior does not make sense for a solitary individual — unless he lives in a mythical world with another person — a god or spirit.

    Let us now introduce another person to the island — call him Friday. I will call core morality the behavior which both of them agree to regarding each other. This will be expressed by rules. And these rules can be negative or positive, depending on what they forbid to be done to each other, or required to be done to each other. Justice will consist of abiding by the freely made agreements. (Agreements may be complicated because of tacit assumptions.)

    However, there is also the most important question of trust. Can Crusoe trust Friday, and vice versa? Assuming that both are sincere, this does not settle the question of trust. Whether each is trustworthy is in part determined by their character, or, to put it another way, by their possession of virtues.

    They can also agree on how to behave towards plants, animals, and the rest of their environment. Such rules I will call marginal morality.

    If we introduce a third person on the island — call him Tarzan, with whom we do not interact, then Crusoe’s agreement with Friday in regard to Tarzan can be called peripheral morality. Peripheral morality may allow us to kill, rob, torture, sacrifice, or enslave Tarzan.

    Theories of normative morality have been either teleological or deontological, i.e., based on consequences or based on rules. If I were Crusoe entering into an agreement with Friday, I would agree to the rule:

    Neither of us will harm the other, except for self-preservation.

    This is the element of egoism that is presupposed in normal core morality. But there is also, what I will call abnormal core morality, which takes place in sports in which the requirement of not harming each other, and the exception of self-preservation are suspended, and what is done is done strictly by the rules regardless of consequences.

    This code of honor, as it way be called, requires a strict obedience to the rules with no exceptions for self-preservation. In extreme cases, it has the form: I will do X, even if it kills me; and if I do not do X, I will kill myself. Such was the code of the kamikazi and the samurai.

    In making rules, one can also agree to punishments for breach of rules, and also for allowable excuses. Given that we have prudential considerations, sometimes one has to make a judgment call about how to act. Or, as C. D. Broad would say: What is the most fitting way to act under the circumstances?

    [See my “Concepts of Persons and Morality“]