Practicing Safe Philosophy

In my last blog I wrote about political correctness. Here I want to reflect on the timidity of philosophers, and how they sacrifice their integrity for the sake of a job. Many years ago I wrote a piece which reflected my personal predicament of having accepted a teaching position at a women’s Catholic college. It is titled, Beware of the Handmaid Scorned, 1995. The predicament is that a fundamental problem of philosophy is whether there is a justification for any religious belief. And if one pursues this question too eagerly, one gets fired.

In secular colleges and universities, there are analogous perilous pursuits. Well, we know that in the United States there was a Red Scare, with two periods: the First Red Scare (1918-1920), followed by a Second Red Scare (1947-1957), also know as McCartyism. These Red Scares led to loss of jobs, imprisonment, and deportations.

In 1967, Noam Chomsky published an article, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,”, which is “to speak the truth and expose lies” of governments.

But for a political philosopher there is a more fundamental question: Is any form of a centralized government, i.e., a State, legitimate?

A political philosopher can evade this question by simply doing a sort of literary analysis of some historical political philosopher, and refrain from giving their own considered answer. As an example of this evasion, I came across a video by Tamar Gendler, Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, and Chair of the Philosophy Department, Yale University, whose video exemplifies this safe academic approach. Her lecture is titled: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Politics.

Both Rawls and Nozick assume the kind of liberal democracy we have in the United States, and their disagreement is over policies of such a government. Rawls is for a welfare state. Nozick is against a welfare state. But the fundamental question which was raised by Rousseau as to the legitimacy of a State is side-stepped.

Instead of beginning with Rawls or Nozick, I think it is more appropriate (though not as safe) to begin with Robert Paul Wolff’s In Defense of Anarchism (1970),

Here is a 2008 audio interview with Wolff on anarchism: Doing without a ruler: in defense of anarchism

Nitpicking on Karl Popper

Although I am in agreement with Popper on his description of the scientific method and with his striving for an open society, I do have a few disagreements with some of his claims and proposals.

The first one is his general claim that he does not wish to argue over meanings of words. On the other hand, he also does not want to argue at cross purposes. Well, how in the world are you to avoid arguing at cross purposes, unless you clarify what each of you mean by your words. This does not mean arguing which meaning or definition is to be preferred, but it does requires making a clarification of how words are being used.

The second disagreement I have with Popper is over the search for essences. Historically, Popper may be right about the misguided search for “essences” of natural things. A possible explanation for this is a conflation of artifacts with natural things. An artifact — at least in typical cases, such as in the case of tools — is made for a purpose. And the essences of tools are the purposes they serve. Now, thinking by a misconceived analogy, one can ask what purpose does a stone or a bird serve. And by further analogical thinking, since artifacts serve the purposes of man; it can be mythically reasoned that natural things serve the purposes of gods or a God, or that things themselves are animate beings with purposes. So, I agree with Popper that natural things have no essences, but he forgets that artifacts do.

This distinction between natural kinds and artifacts is relevant to the “infamous” Eddington’s two tables problem. Eddington had written “There are duplicates of every object about me — two tables, two chairs, two pens …” (A. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, 1958, p. xi). This is a mistake. The word “table” refers to an artifact, and physics does not study artifacts; it studies the materials out of which tables, and artifacts, are made of. A table as a piece of furniture is defined by the purposes it serves. And physics does not study human purposes.

The third disagreement I have with Popper is with his use of the word “rational.” He seems to use the word “rational” as contrasted with the word “irrational.” But there is a broad sense of rational such as when humans are characterized as “rational animals.” This means that humans are capable of acting in rational ways. Being rational, in this sense, includes acting irrationally. To make this clear, consider a cat. A cat cannot act rationally or irrationally, because it can act only a-rationally (or non-rationally). It is Popper’s failure to make a distinction between irrational and a-rational (non-rational) behavior, which causes him to call someone who acts by intuitions as acting irrationally; whereas I would say the person in such situations is acting a-rationally (non-rationally)– like a cat. For example, people who want to experience mystic states or to experience drug highs or who want to “escape from reality,” are not — in my sense — necessarily acting irrationally, but — given their circumstances — may actually –by seeking non-rational states — be acting quite rationally.

The fourth area of disagreement I have with Popper is over his treatment of democracy. His criterion of democracy seems to be concerned with whether there exists in the institution of government a mechanism for removing a leader from office by a popular vote. This to me is a necessary but not a sufficient demand. The result is that he seems to be indifferent to types of democracies.

In contrast, I want to make three points.

1. Swiss style democracy is superior to all other existing state democracies.

2. There is a distinction between Macro and Micro democracy. Micro democracy is favored by anarchists, and exists currently in Rojava, in the Mexican area controlled by Zapatistas, and in the Mexican town, Cheran.

3. As a social democrat, Popper is for piecemeal engineering rather than for revolution. My position is that if a piecemeal law is passed granting everyone a free access to subsistence land — that will constitute a revolution!

Lectures on Philosophy

If you want to listen to lectures on philosophy, there is a set of lectures given by Hank Green which are as good — if not better — than those given in a college. One reason for their quality is that these lectures have been edited, so they come off as polished presentations. [This can be appreciated by looking at some of the outtakes.]

Here is the Crash Course Philosophy List. There seem to be 46 lectures.

However, just because these lectures are good or even better of their kind — I mean as lectures; classroom lectures are better in one respect. They allow the audience to ask for clarification and allow for criticism.

And, indeed, these internet lectures need clarifications and are subject to criticism.

I will offer one such criticism of the lecture on compatibilism.

Compatibilism is the thesis that determinism and free will are compatible claims. However, before even offering to clarify what is meant by “free will,” the lecturer moves rather quickly to the question of responsibility. These, as I see it, are distinct issues. By not offering a clarification of “free will,” the lecturer muddles the issue.

Doing something freely (or of one’s free will) is to be contrasted with being forced to do something by another person. This is the kind of freedom which is sought by all human beings, and is dramatically illustrated by Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart, screaming for freedom:

My primary concern is to stay alive, and I can do this if I am free (from someone) forbidding me from taking up subsistence land.

Imagine a person, Friday, on an island foraging for food. He is free from the commands, whims, and brute force of another person.

Then comes Robinson Crusoe who subdues Friday and shackles him to a tree. Friday is no longer free. He is shackled so his limbs are not free, and he is no longer free from the dictates of Crusoe.

What does this predicament of Friday have to do with whether all of this or any of this situation is determined by natural forces? Whether you are a determinist or an indeterminist in science, is irrelevant to Friday’s plight. In this sense, free will is compatible with both determinism and indeterminism because whether Friday is free from the whims of Crusoe is a different question.

Incidentally, this question of the freedom of some people from the dictates of others (which is at the bottom of the capitalist, socialist, and anarchist debates) is for some reason excluded from these internet lectures.


As to the question of responsibility, one could start with actual legal law. Take a case of one person being accussed of killing another person. In law this is called manslaughter, but whether this manslaughter warrants to be called murder is a complex matter. Even with murder the law makes a distinction of degrees.

There are two very enlightening articles on this topic written by John Austin: “A Plea for Excuses” and “Three Ways of Spilling Ink.”

Objection to my position

Someone may justifiably object to my criticism by claiming that it is an evasion from the problem as stated. Well, what is the problem as stated? In terms of the Friday/Crusoe situation, the question is whether Friday — before the entry of Crusoe on the scene — acts freely, in some other sense.

OK, I did not address myself to making sense of this question, and if the term “compatibilism” is used as an answer to this question, then when I used the term “compatibilism,” it was to answer a different question. Let us, then distinguish, “compatibilism (1)” for the former, and “compatibilism (2)” for the latter.

Who to read in philosophy concerning knowledge and what exists?

I would read a dialectical philosopher. By this I mean a philosopher who has examined the claims and arguments of previous philosophers and has come to his own conclusions. If you had lived at any time up to the 16th century, you should and would have read Aristotle and his commentators, such as Aquinas, Maimonides, and Averroes. But after the discoveries of Galileo in the 17th century there occurred a scientific revolution in physics and astronomy culminating in the work of Newton. And the philosopher to read then was Locke in England, and Descartes in France. The former was an empiricist; the latter a rationalist, whose position was developed by Leibniz. And Hume had presented a major challenge to empiricism. Well, these two strands of empiricism and rationalism were critically examined and readjusted by Immanuel Kant. So, contemporary philosophy (i.e., epistemology and ontology) must now take into account Kant and any advances in science.

So, the question is: which author has competently taken into account this stream of philosophy? My first stab would be to read Bertrand Russell, especially his The History of Western Philosophy (1945). But a second, and an improved reading would be to read everything written by C. D. Broad. Why? Because Russell remained an empiricist, while Broad had absorbed Kant, while still critically having surveyed the history of philosophy. [See my: Philosophical Alternatives from C.D. Broad]

There is an outstanding philosopher — Wilfrid Sellars. [See my: Problems from Wilfrid Sellars] But I would not recommend reading Sellars to a novice because he is too technical. He assumes a knowledge of current technical philosophical literature. He can be appreciated only by professional philosophers. However, several books have now been published with the intention of making him more accessible to a wider audience. Wilfrid Sellars was trying to come to grips with Kantian themes, as have many other Kantian scholars.

One such outstanding Kantian scholar is Robert Paul Wolff, who published his findings in the book Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity (1963). His lectures on Kant, given in 2016, are available on youtube, and I recommend them. Here they are:

Lecture 1

Lecture 2

Lecture 3

Lecture 4

Lecture 5

Lecture 6

Lecture 7

Lecture 8

Lecture 9

As a caveat, I just want to point out that neither Sellars nor Wolff had available to them C. D. Broad’s book: Kant. The reason is that Broad had written out his Kant lectures in 1950-52, and this manuscript was only published by C. Lewy in 1978.

Also see: Kant and Building a Robot

Philosophy as philosophizing

Recently I was introduced by Jacob Feldman to a video and a corresponding article by Eric Dietrich who poses the question: “Is there progress in philosophy?” And his answer is that there is not.

He does not tell us what philosophy is, though he selects some allegedly philosophical problems and some metaphilosophical positions as examples of unresolvable philosophical disputes.

I want you to listen to him and read his article. Afterwards I will give you my commentary.

Erich Dietrich, “There Is No Progress in Philosophy, Essays in Philosophy, 12:329-344 (2011).


The first thing that I would like to say is that his view of philosophy is too narrow or myopic. The broader view is that philosophy is really “philosophizing.” It is an activity whose goal is to resolve disputes and hopefully to come to agreements. This activity is called by Mortimer J. Adler “dialectic.” See his book: Dialectic (1927). A related approach can be called “critical philosophy,” as presented by C.D. Broad in “Critical and Speculative Philosophy,” Contemporary British Philosophy (1924): 77-100.

See also my: The Aim of Liberal Education (2003)

As with any activity, a critical discussion can be done with various degrees of proficiency. In this sense, there can be progress in the acquisition of such a proficiency.

As to solving problems, I will mention some which have been solved.

The first is the clarification that existence is not a predicate. This solution has been attributed to Kant, but there are better modern expositions. And since this matter is relevant to an argument for God’s existence, see: C. D. Broad, “The Validity of Belief in a Personal God,” Hibbert Journal 24 (1925): 32-48.

The second concerns the credibility of miracles. See: C. D. Broad, “Hume’s theory of the credibility of miracles,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 17 (1916-1917), pp. 77-94.

The third concerns the problem of a free will and determinism. The solution consists of reframing the problem as contrasting doing something freely with being coerced to do something. This solution is referred as “compatibilism.”

In short, there has been progress in philosophy in discarding superstitions and the cobwebs of language.

Further Commentary:

1. He takes Aristotle as a “paradigm?” philosopher. But is Aristotle a philosopher because he has scientific speculations? Aristotle, qua scientist was wrong about many things. And, Aristotle qua philosopher has also been criticised by other philosophers, and if these other philosophers are correct, then philosophical speculation has indeed advanced.

2. As an example of philosophy not having resolved any philosophical problems, he assumes that as to the question whether there is a God or not, there is no solution. Here he is wrong. The fact that there are people who disagree, what does that show? Can their reasoning be evaluated? Yes, relative to some agreed to standards, such as non-contradiction and compatibility with the findings of science. I pose to you the problem of finding fault with the reasoning of C. D. Broad, “The Validity of Belief in a Personal God,” Hibbert Journal 24 (1925): 32-48.

3. On the assumption that philosophy does not progress, he cites three philosophers who try to answer why this is so: Colin McGinn, Thomas Nagel, and James Sterba. By my lights, the assumption is wrong. But it does not exclude the intractability of some sorts of questions.

John Locke on escaping from bullshit

“. . . The commonwealth of learning is not at this time without master-builders, whose mighty designs, in advancing the sciences, will leave lasting monuments to the admiration of posterity: but every one must not hope to be a Boyle or a Sydenham; and in an age that produces such masters as the great Huygenius and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with some others of that strain, it is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge;– which certainly had been very much more advanced in the world, if the endeavours of ingenious and industrious men had not been much cumbered with the learned but frivolous use of uncouth, affected, or unintelligible terms, introduced into the sciences, and there made an art of, to that degree that Philosophy, which is nothing but the true knowledge of things, was thought unfit or incapable to be brought into well-bred company and polite conversation. Vague and insignificant forms of speech, and abuse of language, have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard and misapplied words, with little or no meaning, have, by prescription, such a right to be mistaken for deep learning and height of speculation, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who hear them, that they are but the covers of ignorance, and hindrance of true knowledge. To break in upon the sanctuary of vanity and ignorance will be, I suppose, some service to human understanding; though so few are apt to think they deceive or are deceived in the use of words; or that the language of the sect they are of has any faults in it which ought to be examined or corrected, that I hope I shall be pardoned if I have in the Third Book dwelt long on this subject, and endeavoured to make it so plain, that neither the inveterateness of the mischief, nor the prevalency of the fashion, shall be any excuse for those who will not take care about the meaning of their own words, and will not suffer the significancy of their expressions to be inquired into…..”

(John Locke, Epistle to the Reader, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689)

The Social Contract and Its Mismanagement

The social contract is the idea that morality and political arrangements are to be justified by social agreements. And I totally agree with this. This is the ideal of anarchism.

I suppose that the original historical source of this idea is from the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in which the Hebrews make a covenant (agreement) with God. God gives them 10 rules by which they are to live, and if they do so, they will be rewarded in heaven. Except if the deal is not accepted, they go to hell. Not quite a free agreement, ey!

For the heyday of social contract theories, see the Wikipedia entry for: Social contract

In an earlier blog, I pointed out the mismanagement of the social contract by John Rawls: Too much amnesia in the Original Position of John Rawls.

And in a still earlier blog, I pointed out the mismanagement of Rousseau’s social contract by Ian Shapiro: (2) Further commentary on Ian Shapiro’s course: “Moral Foundations of Politics”.

In this blog I will point out how Immanuel Kant mismanaged the social contract.

There has been a great deal of effort (exegesis) to tease out of Kant a coherent proposal for grounding morality — with no positive results. And the reason for Kant’s failure is easily explained, but the reason for this failure has, as far as I know, eluded everyone.

What has not been noticed is that the social contract is between “rational beings.” And these “rational beings” are God, angels, and the human noumenal self (=soul). And besides being rational beings — and this is the missed part by all commentators: they are all IMMORTAL!

And whatever the rules which are agreed to by these immortals, must apply to all of them. The fact that the (human) soul is attached to a human body is a peculiarity of interest only to humans. If a universal rule is to be adopted for all concerned, it cannot be a rule serving only a particular interest of humans, such as not to die.

I could go on and point out the consequences of this line of thinking, but I will not. I will simply say that Kant’s ethics is grounded in science fiction.

Philosophy as Hermeneutics

As Curt Ducasse pointed out in Philosophy as a Science (1941), there are many conceptions of the nature of philosophy. And there is one which I would like to focus on: philosophy as hermeneutics.

The conception of hermeneutics which I want to focus on is the techniques for the interpretation of the Christian Bible. It is taken for granted (assumed) that the Bible is the word of God, revealed to some individuals. As such, because God is conceived as not a liar, everything in the Bible is taken to be true. However, there are passages which seem to say falsehoods and seem to be contradictory. So, techniques of interpretation are introduced in such a manner as to make the Bible speak only the truth. Look at the Wikipedia articles: hermeneutics and Biblical hermeneutics.

When I read philosophical writings, many of them seem to be written in the same reverential manner as the writings of theologians. They want or assume that the author wrote in a sensible manner and wrote the truth, and they do hermeneutical acrobatics to make it so.

The curious fact is that the authors chosen for such hermeneutical exercises are authors who are on the face of it totally esoterically obscure. And the authors who are clear are ignored. See my discussion at: C. D. Broad: The Default Philosopher of the Century.

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


    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.


    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.


    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?


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.