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?


What’s up with the site? What’s up with the book?

We have had another problem this week with the website; the latest plink in the machinery was caused by an unruly plug-in. (The online kind, not the electrical kind.) But all seems to be well now.

The book is flying towards publication (about three weeks left!). I have been doing some last-minute tidying up (the appendix had somehow morphed itself into a giant font size behind my back), and we now look pretty good to go.


Government: by the people, for the people

Discussing Mortimer J. Adler’s Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Chapter 9, “Human Society.”

Why do people live in groups? It can’t be totally out of instinct, like termites. In that case, all of our “colonies” would be identical, and that’s not the case: the basic social unit is the family, but even that can vary according to our needs. But we do have a natural inclination to live in society (yes, even the introverts among us) and participate in some form of government, have some say in how things are run.

Why do we have government? According to Richard J. Maybury’s Uncle Eric books, the schoolbook idea  is that people “needed certain essential services, especially law enforcement, so they got together [and] chose someone to be their government.” (Whatever Happened to Justice, page 163) “Uncle Eric” goes on to say that a more accurate history begins with “one of our more violent gangs riding into town…[to] steal food, clothing, and whatever else they could carry,” and then continues with the gang deciding that it is more convenient to stay and collect taxes.  Maybury insists that “all governments today have evolved from these origins.” (page 165, italics mine).

Adler differentiates, as I think Maybury does too, between the “motorcycle gang” type of despotic government, and a legitimate form of civil government (such as the American constitution in its original conception). Like Maybury, he is not interested in fairy tales about how people came out of a “natural state” and then formed “social contracts” to meet their needs for government. There was never peaceful anarchy (it would be against human nature). There was never complete autonomy. In Adler’s view, the point is more that adoption of a constitutional form of government is the origin of the state; that it is an escape from the default of absolute, despotic rule, from barbarians and motorcycle gangs.

I think the Roman Republic would be a good example of this kind of civil “reset” (have you read Plutarch’s Life of Publicola?). Not perfect, but better (in the Romans’ eyes) than being ruled by King Tarquin. Two consuls at a time, elected for only a year at a time, plus all the guys under them, plus the Senate and so on.  And it appeared to work.

“The state or civil society came into existence to satisfy man’s natural need for the conditions requisite for achieving a morally good human life–not just to live, but to live well.” (Adler)

The philosophical mistake that Adler refers to in this chapter is mostly the idea that government is not “natural,” so therefore it is disposable. The problem is again, how you define “natural.” As in the quote above, “natural” isn’t only about basic human survival instincts. It’s also about the natural desires that give us reason to do more than just live.


Liberty and justice (this one may play with your head a bit)

(Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer J. Adler. Chapter Seven, “Freedom of Choice.”)

Back a couple of centuries ago, there was a general belief that nothing was uncaused, nothing happened by chance, in the natural world, or otherwise. The trouble with that belief, if you followed it to its logical extreme (as some philosophers did), was that you could then not be praised or blamed for moral choices, because there was no such thing as a true “random” act. Any choice you made was not truly your own. Criminals could not logically be held responsible for their own acts if they did not actually choose them themselves.

When scientists later started to recognize certain “random” elements in science (such as in quantum mechanics), the logicians thought that the same allowance for randomness could apply to human morality and freedom of choice. If some unpredictable behaviour was admitted to exist in the physical universe, then that might give logical grounds for the same in human beings.  Some amount of chance was agreed to be acceptable. (Adler points out that even in scientifically “random” events, there is a degree of possible prediction. We talk about the probability of an earthquake occurring in a particular place over the next fifty years.)

But is freedom of choice an actual physical event? Adler says no, and that identifying freedom of choice with chance is a very big mistake.

 “The human mind consists of intellect and will, and is sharply distinguished from the senses, the memory, the imagination, and the passions. It is immaterial and does not act in accordance with scientific principles and laws, it is governed by laws of its own.”

In other words, the physical world is not all there is, and the human mind does not behave according to the laws of the physical world anyway. If our mind is composed, as Adler says, of intellect and will, sometimes each of those two acts out of necessity–seeing a self-evident truth and having to believe it, or obeying the natural will to seek happiness. Sometimes the intellect makes a “freedom of choice” decision–choosing one argument over another. Sometimes the will does the same thing–setting priorities, choosing one thing over another one. Choosing the road less travelled by, maybe. None of these acts are uncaused; none of them are chance.  We did not chance them; we chose them.To believe in freedom of choice, we need to see the difference between the way our minds work and the way the physical universe operates.

“However, unless freedom of choice does exist, it is difficult to understand the basis of our right to these other freedoms. If we do not have freedom of choice, what reason can be given for our right to do as we please or to exercise a voice in our own government?”

If freedom of choice does not exist, then there is no point in striving to do what is right. There is really no point to education. Adler asks, “What merit would attach to moral virtue if the acts that form such habitual tendencies and dispositions were not acts of free choice?” But turn that one around. Take it that we, and our students, are able to act in free choice, in forming morally virtuous habits, tendencies, and dispositions–which is a large part of education.  What was it  Charlotte Mason called the discovery of that potential?

“The charter of our liberties.”