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)]
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?
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?
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?
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”)?
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?
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?
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?
Suffice it to recall 3 examples from the history of philosophy:
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?
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?
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.
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?
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 …
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”?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
All genuine philosophy transcends national boundaries. Patriotic philosophies are just nationalist ideologies.
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?
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”?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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”?
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.