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.

  • Logic-Chopping, Nitpicking, Quibbling, and such

    I keep returning to Alexander Gray’s, The Socialist Tradition (1946) with praise for his scholarship and with reproval for his analyses and emotive disparagements.

    As I was reading his account of Robert Owen (pp. 197-217), I came upon the following passage: “Perhaps those parts of his arguments which rest on general humanitarian considerations, rather than on logic-chopping discussions on Man’s will, make a stronger appeal to our generation, if only because here Owen is more universally human.” p. 208.

    I want to reflect on this kind of criticism which is expressed by the phrase “logic-chopping” and its near synonym “nitpicking” or “quibbling.”This is criticism of something being done in excess of what is appropriate to the context. And a person who engages in excessive criticism is a “pedant.” And one who is oblivious to a need for any analysis at all and the need to make appropriate distinctions is a “philistine.” [I have put links for the meaning of these words.]

    What is too much or too little depends on the context.

    I personally have been constantly accused of “nitpicking” because I — almost invariably — ask: “What do you mean?” And I usually ask for the meaning of abstract words which have the suffix “-ism” (and for most political terms for parties and so-called “schools”), but also for the meaning of — what seem to me to be — names of fictions, like “God.”

    I suppose the consequence of stirring up controversy in inappropriate contexts is being forced (in a metaphoric way of speaking) to drink hemlock.

    Three films which linger with me

    I have enjoyed watching many movies, but I can think of only three that have left a deep impression on me. They are: Zorba the Greek, Seven Samurai, and Apocalypto. Now, I am not going to focus on their aesthetic merits, which all three have in abundance, but on their didactic features.

    Zorba the Greek reminds me of Nietzsche’s distinction in ancient Greek drama between the Apollonian and Dionysian traits of man. [See: Nietzshe, The Birth of Tragedy] Bates, playing the English gentleman, is full of conventional habits and beliefs which inhibit his emotional life; whereas Quinn, who plays the role of the vagabond Zorba, is in touch with his somewhat uninhibited emotions. What I got from the film is the need to unite — so to say — the head with the heart.

    Seven Samurai is about a peasant village in Japan which is yearly assaulted by a band of horsed bandits who extort from the village most of its food supply, leaving them in a miserable condition. The villagers decide to obtain a defense against these yearly intruders by soliciting the help of seven samurai. The result is that in the ensuing defense most of the samurai are killed, but the village is saved. What I got from the film is the crucial need of weapons to defend oneself from enemies.

    I value Apocalypto not for any didactic message as for a realistic depiction of historical and cultural realities. First, it depicts the life of hunter/gatherers as happy and fulfilling. To use Marshall Sahlins’ phrase, it depicts an “affluent society.” Second, it depicts the fact that other tribes took slaves; which is how African slaves were obtained by Europeans. Third, it shows a harsh contrast between the life of hunter/gatherers and the life of the inhabitants of the city, who are depicted as crowded, filthy, obedient, and poor. Fourth, the movie depicts the consequences of superstition: human sacrifice.

    Together, these movies show the realities of human nature and of life.

    My road to escaping from bullshit

    Let me start by say something about how I came to appreciate the great benefit of having digitilized books and other media on the internet.

    I remember the incident which revolutionized my thinking about the computer. It was sometime in the 1980ies when I was talking to a secretary at Keystone Junior College in Pennsylvania. I complained to her that I was working on a dissertation and had cut up my typed pages into various snippets and was assembling them all across the floor for rearrangement. In response she went to a huge computer and proceded to “cut and paste” written material on a screen. Wow!

    Shortly after, I browsed through a book on the Basic programming language, and immediately the similarity to symbolic logic hit me. Shortly after this — I think it may have been 1984 that I bought my first computer, a Kaypro, with two disc drives : one for the operating system (CP/M) and the other for data.

    Kaypro II
    Released: 1982
    Price: US $1595.
    Weight: 26 lbs
    CPU: Zilog Z80, 2.5 MHz
    RAM: 64K
    Display: 9″ green phosphor screen. 24 X 80 text only
    Ports: Serial port Parallel port
    Storage: Two internal 5-1/4″ SS-DD 195K drives
    OS: CP/M, SBASIC

    Soon I learned that there was a competitor operating system (DOS) on IBM computers, and a whole row of IBM clones was on the market. And the Kaypro company abandoned CP/M and went over to DOS.

    I witnesses the emergence of the internet with a browser called Lynx (text-only), with which I learned to access a library catalog. Wow!

    And then I bought an IBM clone which ran Windows 3.1, and soon came a browser from Cornell called Cello which introduces images. Wow!

    Then came the web browser Mosaic in 1993 (with sound?), and the Web sprouted for me, followed by the brower Netscape, AOL, and the Internet Explorer — and here we are.

    In 1990 I received my Ph.D. degree in Philosophy from Fordham University in Bronx, NY. One remark of one of the philosophers on the defense committee made a deep impression on me. He said something like this: “Too bad that such a fine dissertation will sit in the bookshelves picking up dust.”

    I don’t remember the date, but I noticed that a graduate student at the University of Chicago was given space on the university’s computers for philosophical projects. I contacted him and received some space which I turned into a Wilfrid Sellars site. Soon however I purchased the domain “ditext.com” (url search reports 1998 as the year of registration) and transferred the material to this domain, giving my main web page the title “Digital Text International.”

    Seeing the international reach of the internet, my ambition was to make everything about Sellars available, refusing to let my dissertation and other works “pick up dust on a library shelf.” And I was inspired to do other projects — like the Meta-Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    However, my sort of endeavor to make literature available on the internet has totally been superseded by such depositories as Wikipedia, Gutenberg, Archive.org

    Since moving to Chicago in 1999, and discovering anarchism (which was never mentioned in any of my courses — ever), I have become an advocate of anarchism. And since bibliographies on anarchism, Switzerland, secession, and land rights are not sufficient to inspire readers, I decided a couple of years ago to do a Blog, in which I propagate my views. You see, while teaching introductory courses in philosophy at Wright College, Chicago, I came to realize from all my informal writings that I have ever done that my concern — private and philosophical — has always been to escape from bullshit.

    Yuval Noah Harari’s conflation (lumping together) of “common imaginations”

    I have now read Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind (2014), and have watched him giving lectures and interviews. From an overarching perspective, he is a very clear writer and well informed, and reading him was a “smooth” process. However, in his reflections on human history there are intertwined different interests which left me somewhat confused as to his overarching concern, especially with the last chapters which were reflections on happiness and the prospects of various types of engineering of “sapience.”

    So, as a first attempt at understanding his book, these various strands of interest should be distinguished. Here I will concern myself only with one major and fundamental confusion, which is embraced or covered over by the use of the word “fiction” and by the phrase “common imagination.”

    To clear up this confusion, we must start — as does Harari — with the distinction between humans beings and animals.

    Watch the following video in which Herari tries to explain this difference (as well as other topics).

    Commentary: He says that the difference between humans and animals is the fact that humans can cooperate more widely than, lets say, chimpanzees. That is true. But this cooperation is possible because we humans have a “human” language which no other animal does or can have. This allows us to share information with others and to make agreements. But from this elementary truth, he quickly jumps to the idea that we tell each other stories which gain acceptance. And he calls these stories “fictions,” giving the institution of money as a prime example. But then, in the same vein of thinking, he talks about religions and their “fictions.”

    This is confusing. The word “fiction” is a pejorative term which suggests that what is talked about is not real in some sense of “real.” I was similarly confused by the title of the book, Bentham’s Theory of Fictions, until I realized that Bentham was referring to abstract (non sensorial) concepts as “fictions” and reserved the term “fables” for mythological stories. Harari, unfortunately, does not make this distinction, but conflates it.

    With the use of language, humans can make agreements. However, we must distinguish those agreements which make a language possible in the first place, from the kinds of agreements which we can make by the use of language. An elementary feature of language is the existence of names. An animal is able to associate a sound with some object or activity, but only a human is able to understand that the sound “water” is, let us say, a common name in a language for water.

    With the working of a language, which could be described, though not happily, with Harari’s phrase as existing in a “common imagination” and as a “fiction” (= creation of the mind), different activities are possible through Speech Acts. As an antidote to what Harari writes, I urge the reader to get acquainted with what John Searle had written and lectured on Speech Acts. See:

    John Searle explains how social reality is created

    Searle distinguished five types of speech acts: Assertives, Expressives, Directives, Commissives, Declarations.

    Harari’s confusion is explicitly present in the following summary paragraph:

    “Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” (Sapience, p. 28)

    The claim that there are or that there are not gods is an Assertive which can be true or false — no matter how many people believe it. But to make such an assertion requires possession of a language, and a language exists — so to say — in a “common imagination.” But this is simply to note that an assertion can be made only is a language, and that a language exists only in humans. But the question of whether the assertion is true or not, is independent of what anyone asserts or believes. By “common imagination,” can only mean here that a community subscribes to some assertion or claim.

    As concerns the term “nation,” it is a term of classification. In one sense, classes exist outside of human classification, but humans can choose which classes to use. As I use the term, a nation is composed of all the people who use a common language and give that language a preferential status. This could be my idiosyncratic understanding, but if others agree with me, then that is the meaning of the term for us. But here we are dealing with the elementary level of what does a word mean, and not with any assertion as is done, for example, with religious beliefs. I also know that the term “nation” or “nationality” is used by others in something like a disjunctive manner: A person is a member of the nation (or nationality) N if A or B or C or . . . And various things can be put for the variables. All this shows is that the terms “nation” and “nationality,” as commonly used, are ambiguous and vague.

    As to rights and laws, these are the result of implicit or explicit Declarations. And declarations are either by common agreement, or by the declaration of some authority, such as a legislature or a judge. Justice, as I conceive it, is simply the abiding by agreements.

    Harari has managed to conflate all these distinctions by saying that they all depend on a “common imagination.” And this conflation is not confined to some segment of his book but pervades it.

    Further commentary on Ian Shapiro’s course: “Moral Foundations of Politics”

    There is much in his course that I admire, and I appreciate his summaries, and various insights. But still I have fundamental disagreements.

    These disagreement are based on the fact that I have my own independent outlook which acts as a base for evaluating the views of others, including the history of political thinking of others, and views of Shapiro himself.

    To begin with, I am wary of ambiguous and vague abstractions and hasty generalizations as, for example, giving a historical period names, i.e., periodizations, placing thinkers into Schools and Movements. Shapiro classifies his course into three idiosyncratic parts: Enlightenment, Anti-Enlightenment, and Democratic Theory. By doing this, he is answering his fundamental question as to the moral foundation of politics with the following general answers: (1)[Enlightenment] the moral foundations of politics are x, y, or . . . z. (2)[Anti-Enlightenment] there are no moral foundations of politics, and (3) [Democratic Theory] the best form of current politics is some form of democracy.

    Furthermore, His whole course seems to be based on an idiosyncratic concept of the Enlightenment, which he says is based on two claims. The first is that science can provide foundations for morality and politics. The second is an endeavor for freedom. But the nature of this freedom is left unspecified.

    Concerning the first claim. If science seeks the truth, and truth concerns what is; while morality concerns what ought to be the case and what I ought to do, and David Hume, who lived during the Enlightenment, observed that “is does not imply ought,” [as Shapiro himself point out] then at least one Enlightenment thinker did not subscribe to the claim that science can provide moral foundations for politics.

    As to Shapiro’s second characteristic of the Enlightenment — as a search for freedom — suffers from ellipsis. More precisely it should be formulated as freedom from … and freedom to do …

    And Shapiro could have done better in his description of the Enlightenment by citing Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” in which the whole endeavor of the Enlightenment is expressed as: critically assessing all opinions; with a call to the government for freedom for everyone to publicly express their opinions.

    My blog “Escaping from bullshit,” exemplifies this Enlightenment project.

    From this perspective, the Enlightenment project started in ancient Greece through the systematic use of the principle of non-contradiction. This is the principle that two contradictory claims cannot be true simultaneously. This principle was used in the Middle Ages to systematize theology. However, the period up to the 17th century was loaded with all sorts of mythologies which could not be assessed simply on the basis of non-contradiction.

    But with the scientific discoveries in the 17th centuries, an additional principle was established for determining superstitions (mythologies). This extended rationality from just relying on non-contradiction to an appeal to empirical scientific claims as providing better explanations.

    The other serious problem was the existence of censorship — both religious and secular. Religion persecuted heretics (which still persists in Muslim countries); while the Monarchs favored the myth of a divine right of kings, and suppressed any political criticism — again, a problem which persists even today.

    However, during the 18th century one unsolved problem remained which gave succor to theology — the existence of a complex, law-regulated cosmos, especially the existence of life forms, culminating in human beings. This mystery of life and lawful complexity left room for God, for free will, and room for an immortal soul. Thus, if one was free from contradictory beliefs and from the fact that science was limited, one could be justified in being at least a Deist.

    This problem of the existence of life forms was solved by the theory of evolution, with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), which ushered in an Age of Secularism or Materialism.

    The achievement and progress of the Enlightenment is scholarly expressed by Andrew Dickson White’s book: A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896-7)

    Propaganda and Rationality

    Susan Stebbing in Chapter 7 of Thinking to Some Purpose (1939) made two important distinctions. The first was to disambiguate the concept of propaganda in the neutral sense of propagating information, of making it widely available; from the disparaging sense of propagating false information (what nowadays is sometimes referred to as “fake” news).

    The other distinction which she wished to stress was between what she stipulated as “conviction” and “persuasion.” She stipulated that conviction was to be the result of reasonable arguments, whereas persuasion was the result by all other means.

    In view of the fact — which Stebbing admitted — that “conviction” and “persuasion” are often used synonymously, it would be clearer to simply prefix the adjective “rational” to these terms. We way then speak of rational persuasion (or conviction), irrational persuasion (or conviction), and non-rational persuasion (or conviction).

    Why have these distinctions? The idea of non-rational is to apply to the cognitive life of animals (and we are animals, after all), which includes instinct, association, and conditioning. These cognitive modes are operative as passions — including beliefs, which in humans are shaped linguistically. And there must be some kind of Weltanshauung which people acquire while being raised and living in some linguistic culture. Call it a pre-reflective ideology, if you like. It has also been called an “inherited conglomerate.” In my dissertation on Wilfrid Sellars, I called it an Alpha World, as distinct from a transformed or successor Beta World.

    I am reminded here of George Santayana’s idea of “animal faith” and the idea that we must start in “medias res.” I am also reminded of Alfred North Whitehead’s point in “Science and the Modern World,” that each age has a set of presuppositions.

    Now, the culture in which you find yourself may be riddled with pseudo-scientific myths, slogans, epigrams, and proverbs — which are false. And the task is to free — at least — yourself from this Platonic cave of bullshit. At the same time there are various bullshitters keeping you in (cognitive) chains.

    Bullshitters — intentionally or non-intentionally — use non-rational means to persuade (convince). And — worse — through cognitive dissonance you may even be persuaded to accept that which is irrational. It is irrational to accept a contradiction.

    Escape from the cave is through rationalism. I agree with Karl Popper’s description of rationalism in “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” Chapter 24:

    Since the terms ‘reason’ and ‘rationalism’ are vague, it will be necessary to explain roughly the way in which they are used here. First, they are used in a wide sense; they are used to cover not only intellectual activity but also observation and experiment. It is necessary to keep this remark in mind, since ‘reason’ and ‘rationalism’ are often used in a different and more narrow sense, in opposition not to ‘irrationalism’ but to ‘empiricism’; if used in this way, rationalism extols intelligence above observation and experiment, and might therefore be better described as ‘intellectualism’. But when I speak here of ‘rationalism’, I use the word always in a sense which includes ‘empiricism’ as well as ‘intellectualism’; just as science makes use of experiments as well as of thought. Secondly, I use the word ‘rationalism’ in order to indicate, roughly, an attitude that seeks to solve as many problems as possible by an appeal to reason, i.e. to clear thought and experience, rather than by an appeal to emotions and passions. This explanation, of course, is not very satisfactory, since all terms such as ‘reason’ or ‘passion’ are vague; we do not possess ‘reason’ or ‘passions’ in the sense in which we possess certain physical organs, for example, brains or a heart, or in the sense in which we possess certain ‘faculties’, for example, the power of speaking, or of gnashing our teeth. In order therefore to be a little more precise, it may be better to explain rationalism in terms of practical attitudes or behaviour. We could then say that rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience. It is fundamentally an attitude of admitting that ‘I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth’. It is an attitude which does not lightly give up hope that by such means as argument and careful observation, people may reach some kind of agreement on many problems of importance; and that, even where their demands and their interests clash, it is often possible to argue about the various demands and proposals, and to reach — perhaps by arbitration — a compromise which, because of its equity, is acceptable to most, if not to all. In short, the rationalist attitude, or, as I may perhaps label it, the ‘attitude of reasonableness’, is very similar to the scientific attitude, to the belief that in the search for truth we need co-operation, and that, with the help of argument, we can in time attain something like objectivity.

    It is of some interest to analyse this resemblance between this attitude of reasonableness and that of science more fully. In the last chapter, I tried to explain the social aspect of scientific method with the help of the fiction of a scientific Robinson Crusoe. An exactly analogous consideration can show the social character of reasonableness, as opposed to intellectual gifts, or cleverness. Reason, like language, can be said to be a product of social life. A Robinson Crusoe (marooned in early childhood) might be clever enough to master many difficult situations; but he would invent neither language nor the art of argumentation. Admittedly, we often argue with ourselves; but we are accustomed to do so only because we have learned to argue with others, and because we have learned in this way that the argument counts, rather than the person arguing. (This last consideration cannot, of course, tip the scales when we argue with ourselves.) Thus we can say that we owe our reason, like our language, to intercourse with other men.