Mario Bunge: Physicist, Philosopher, Champion of Science, Citizen of the World (1919–2020)

Michael R. Matthews

Mario Bunge, the centenarian Argentine/Canadian physicist/philosopher, passed away in the loving company of his wife and two children on February 24, 2020, in Montreal. He turned 100 on September 21, 2019.

Bunge was one of the outstanding figures in twentieth-century philosophy of science; few others approached the scope, depth, and detail of his contributions to the discipline. Bunge was a cosmopolitan scholar at ease listening, speaking, reading, and writing in English, Spanish, French, and German—and only slightly less at ease in several other languages.

He was a longtime fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a frequent contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer, including just last year (see box on p. 8).

When Bunge was sixty-five, Bernulf Kanitscheider, a German philosopher of science, wrote:

Few extraordinary personalities have the chance to decisively shape the intellectual geography of a scientific epoch. Mario Augusto Bunge belongs to the small circle of important philosophers of science whose works have already become landmarks in the spiritual landscape of world philosophy.

Subsequently, Bunge published a further twenty books and over 200 articles. That none of his works have become classics in Anglo-American philosophy is an enduring puzzle. Many less-substantial works by less-careful and less-informed scholars have become landmarks.

Bunge’s uncommon distinction was that he did both science and philosophy in tandem. He researched and published in physics while formulating an integrated “scientific” philosophical system. Of the latter, he says:

Scientific philosophy is essentially critical and self-correcting, requiring that its assertions be put to the test. Philosophy … deserves to be called ‘scientific’ solely to the extent to which its hypotheses are somehow testable—whether directly (by their logical compatibility with a given set of principles) or indirectly by the verifiable consequences such ideas may have on practical human activity and on scientific research. (Bunge [1959] 1979, p. xxviii)

Bunge was a prolific and serious researcher across a staggering range of fields. In seventy books (including many translations and revised editions) and 540 articles written over eighty years, he made substantial contributions to physics, philosophy of physics, metaphysics, methodology and philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of social science, philosophy of biology, philosophy of technology, moral philosophy, social and political philosophy, medical philosophy, criminology, legal philosophy, and education. At age ninety-eight, he published on the philosophical—specifically ontological—implications of the discovery of the gravitational waves that were predicted in Einstein’s 1916 theory of general relativity.

Twenty years ago, Martin Mahner, a German philosopher/biologist who worked with Bunge at the McGill Foundations and Philosophy of Science Unit, published a collection of thirty of Bunge’s philosophy papers ranging over nine different fields. Many of Bunge’s papers are now available on the internet.

In terms of breadth, depth, and coherence of scholarship, Bunge was a standout in twentieth-century scientific and philosophical communities. He was a Renaissance scholar, a citizen of the world, and a convinced universalist who thought that not only were there truths in science but also truths in ethics and politics that could be identified and defended. He vigorously argued for the legitimacy and utility of the concept of pseudoscience. It was not just a rhetorical slogan; it was central to his lifelong critique of Freudianism and psychoanalysis and later critiques of parapsychology, rational-choice theory, and alternative medicines.

For many, Bunge’s realist interpretation of quantum mechanics was his major contribution to modern physics. In 2003, he surveyed the arguments in his “Twenty-Five Centuries of Quantum Physics: From Pythagoras to Us, and from Subjectivism to Realism.” In a journal double-issue, ten physicists and philosophers laid out and appraised his “signature” account of quantum mechanics, with Bunge replying.

Early in his career, Bunge held chairs in physics and philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires and Universidad Nacional de La Plata. His appointments and funding rose and fell with changes in Peronist and military governments. Bunge made his international philosophical debut at thirty-seven at the 1956 Inter-American Philosophical Congress in Santiago, Chile. Willard Van Orman Quine, in his autobiography, mentions attending this congress, and the only thing about the congress that he thought worth recording was:

The star of the philosophical congress was Mario Bunge, an energetic and articulate young Argentinian of broad background and broad, if headstrong, intellectual concerns. He seemed to feel that the burden of bringing South America up to a northern scientific and intellectual level rested on his shoulders. He intervened eloquently in the discussion of almost every paper. (Quine 1985)

In 1963, he took a temporary position in philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin. It was a great contrast to everything hitherto in his working life: “I found myself immediately surrounded by philosophers, biologists, anthropologists, and historians who were active in research and who looked to me to debate philosophical problems,” Bunge wrote in his 2016 memoir, Between Two Worlds. The same lively and congenial experiences followed with short-term appointments at University of Delaware, University of Pennsylvania, and Temple University before his appointment as professor of philosophy at McGill University in Montreal in 1966, where he remained until the end.

Physicists have acknowledged the impact of Bunge’s work. In 1989, the American Journal of Physics asked its thousands of readers to vote for their favorite papers from the journal, from its founding in 1933 to 1989. In the resulting 1991 list of most memorable papers, alongside classics from Nobel Prize winners and luminaries such as Bridgman, Compton, Dyson, Fermi, Kuhn, Schwinger, Wheeler, and Wigner, was Bunge’s 1956 “Survey of the Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics.” In 1993, the journal repeated the exercise, asking readers for the most influential papers in the journal’s first sixty years. In this list, Bunge’s 1966 paper “Mach’s Critique of Newtonian Mechanics” took its place alongside his 1956 article. This recognition of a philosopher/physicist by the world’s largest body of physics teachers and researchers is noteworthy. Bunge is one of only two philosophers listed in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Hall of Fame. The other is Bunge’s boyhood hero, Bertrand Russell.

Philosopher (and CSI Fellow) Susan Haack lamented of contemporary philosophy that: “Our discipline … becomes every day more specialized, more fragmented into cliques, niches, cartels, and fiefdoms, and more determinedly forgetful of its own history” (Haack 2017). Through his long life, Bunge stood against every narrowing and narrow-minded tendency that Haack lamented.

Bunge was a systematist for whom the natural and social worlds were causally interconnected, and so knowledge of those worlds needed to be interconnected; there could be no isolated or orphan disciplines, no academic silos. His philosophical system is laid out in detail in his monumental eight-volume Treatise on Basic Philosophy (1974–1989). In the October 2012 Science & Education journal special issue, a group of economists, sociologists, mathematicians, philosophers, and cognitive scientists evaluated his systematicity as applied to their own disciplines.

Bunge believed that the lessons learned from the hard-won successes of natural science should be applied to social science and that the inquiry template forged by the best of natural science can and should be applied to the social and psychological worlds. This is the eighteenth-century Enlightenment position.

In matters of academic debate, Bunge believed that arguments should be stated as clearly and exactly as possible and stated whenever warranted. Lights should not be kept under bushels, and spades should be called spades. He had no regard for “soft-focus” writing or argument. Instead of saying, “It could be thought that there is a weakness in your argument,” he preferred the more direct “Your argument is weak.” Instead of warm, pleasant, and collegial agreement about claims that cannot be tested, he sought clear, specific hypotheses that can be tested against evidence. His exchanges with Bohm, Heisenberg, Piaget, Popper, Kuhn, Quine, Gould, Lakatos, von Weiszäcker, and so many others exemplify that conviction. As for many lesser but popular figures (such as Heidegger, Husserl, Garfinkel, Latour, Huntington, Bloor, and Feyerabend) after appraising their work he dismissed them as “charlatans.”

Bunge’s passing is a loss for his family and the scholarly world. Hopefully some in the succeeding generations of philosophers, physicists, and educators will be inspired to emulate his example of a wide-ranging, in-depth, cosmopolitan approach to the advancement of knowledge and the formation of a more just and equitable society. These Enlightenment ideals are also those of liberal education.


References

  • Bunge, M. (1959) 1979. Causality and Modern Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • ———. 2016. Between Two Worlds: Memoirs of a Philosopher-Scientist. Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Haack, S. 2017. Scientism and Its Discontents. Rounded Globe. Available online at https://roundedglobe.com/books/038f7053-e376-4fc3-87c5-096de820966d/Scientism%20and%20its%20Discontents/.
  • Quine, W.V.O. 1985. The Time of My Life: An Autobiography. Cambridge MA: Bradford Books.

A Mario Bunge Skeptic Reader

Skeptical Inquirer articles by Mario Bunge:

The Dematerialization Crusade,” March/April 2019

The Philosophy Behind Pseudoscience,” July/August 2006

Absolute Skepticism Equals Dogmatism,” July/August 2000

What Is Pseudoscience?” Fall 1984

Skeptical Inquirer articles about Mario Bunge:

Science, Philosophy, and a Lifetime of Reason: A Mario Bunge Centenary Festschrift,” Kendrick Frazier, January/February 2020

The Scientist and the Philosopher” (a review of Bunge’s memoir Between Two Worlds), James Alcock, March/April 2017

Philosophy Meets Medicine” (a review of Bunge’s Medical Philosophy), Harriet Hall, January/February 2014

Explanatory Frameworks …” Editor’s Note, July/August 2006

Michael R. Matthews

Michael R. Matthews is in the School of Education, University of New South Wales, Australia. He is editor of Mario Bunge: A Centenary Festschrift (Springer International Publishing, 2019).


Mario Bunge, the centenarian Argentine/Canadian physicist/philosopher, passed away in the loving company of his wife and two children on February 24, 2020, in Montreal. He turned 100 on September 21, 2019. Bunge was one of the outstanding figures in twentieth-century philosophy of science; few others approached the scope, depth, and detail of his contributions to …

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