Last Philosophy Post: Dr. Von Bemburg was wrong

Blogging my way through Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer J. Adler.

“Remember what we read in the Medical Journal today . . . ‘Life is nothing more than delicately balanced organic chemistry,’ and let it make you humble and modest. Sequins, indeed! Taffeta petticoat, forsooth. We’re nothing but ‘a fortuitous concatenation of atoms.’ The great Dr. Von Bemburg says so.”

“Don’t quote that horrible Von Bemburg to me. He must have a bad case of chronic indigestion. He may be a concatenation of atoms, but I am not.” (L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Ingleside)

If someone tells you that a seemingly hard, solid table or chair is really made up of lots and lots of atoms with space in between, so that it’s not really solid at all, does that bother you? Does that make the table or chair less real?

No, says Adler, and this is why: yes, according to our understanding of physics, matter is made up of atoms, just like a cake is made up of (potential) crumbs. If the cake fell on the floor and crumbled, then each part would have a separate existence; but as long as the cake is whole, the particles are not “discrete units” and they do not have “actual multiplicity.” Common sense tells you that a chair is hard and safe to sit on, while physics tells you that it’s made up of a lot of moving particles. Like so many other problems Adler has dealt with, the answer is simple when we stop trying to make it either/or.

What becomes of my personal identity, or yours, and with it moral responsibility for our actions, if each of us ceases to be one individual thing, but becomes instead a congeries of physical particles that do not remain the same particles during the span of our lifetime? (Adler)

The chair really exists.

Beauty and goodness really exist. Taffeta petticoats really exist.

Each one of us has a real status as an individual. We are more than organic chemistry.

We really exist. Aren’t you glad?

 

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