L. Mises, Mind, Materialism, and the Fate of Man

[…] Materialism has two different meanings. The first refers exclusively to ethical problems. A material man is interested only in material things––food, drink, shelter––not in art, culture, and so forth. In this sense, the majority of men are materialists. The second meaning of materialism refers to a special group of solutions proposed to a basic philosophical problem––the relation between the human mind or soul on the one side, and the human body and the physiological functions of the body on the other side. Various answers to this problem have been offered––among them religious answers. We know very well that there is a connection between body and mind; surgery has proved that certain damages to the brain bring about certain changes in the function of the human mind. However, materialists of this second variety explain all manifestations of the human mind as products of the body.

Among these philosophical materialists, there are two schools of thought:

A. One school considers man as a machine. This machine variety of materialists say these problems are very simple––the human “machine” works precisely as any other machine works. A Frenchman, Julien de La Mettrie [1709–1751], wrote a book containing this idea, Man, the Machine; and today many people still want to explain all operations of the human mind, directly or indirectly, as if they were mechanical operations. For instance, see the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. One of the contributors, a teacher at the New School for Social Research, says the newborn child is like a Ford car, ready to run. Perhaps! But a machine, a newborn Ford, does not run by itself. A machine doesn’t achieve anything, doesn’t do anything alone––it is always men or a number of men who achieve something by means of the machine. Someone must run the machine. If the operation of the man ceases, the operation of the machine ceases too. We must ask this professor of the New School for Social Research, “Who runs the machine?” The answer would destroy the materialist machine doctrine.

People also talk sometimes about “feeding” the machine, as if it were alive. But, of course, it isn’t alive. Then too people sometimes say the machine suffers a “nervous breakdown. ” But how can an object without nerves suffer a nervous breakdown? This machine doctrine has been repeated again and again, but it is not very realistic. We don’t have to deal with it because no serious men really believe it.

B. The physiological doctrine put forth by the second class of materialists is more important. This doctrine was formulated in a primitive way by Ludwig Feuerbach [1804–1872] and Karl Vogt [1817–1895] in the early days of Karl Marx. This idea was that thoughts and ideas are “simply” secretions of the brain. (No materialist philosopher ever fails to use the world “simply. ” That means, “I know, but I can’t explain it. ”) Today scientists know that certain pathological conditions cause certain secretions, and that certain secretions cause certain activities in the brain. But these secretions are chemically the same for all people in the same situation and condition. However, ideas and thoughts are not the same for all people in the same situation and condition; they are different.

First, ideas and thoughts are not tangible. And second, the same external factors do not produce the same reaction with everybody. An apple once fell from a tree and hit a certain young man [Isaac Newton]. This may have happened to many other young men before, but this particular happening challenged this particular young man and he developed some ideas from it.

But people do not always have the same thoughts when they are presented with the same facts. For instance, in school some learn; some don’t. There are differences in men. Bertrand Russell [1872–1970] asked, “What is the difference between men and stones?” He said there was no difference except that men react to more stimuli than do stones. But actually there is a difference. Stones react according to a definite pattern which we can know; we can anticipate what will happen to a stone if it is treated in a certain way. But men don’t all react the same way when treated a certain way; we cannot establish such categories of actions for men. Thus, even though many people think physiological materialism is a solution, it actually leads to a dead end. If it were really the solution to this problem, it would mean that in any event we could know the way everyone would react. We cannot even imagine what the consequences would be if everybody knew what everybody else was going to do.

Karl Marx was not a materialist in the first sense––the machine sense. But the physiological idea was very popular in his day. It is not easy to know exactly what influenced Marx because he had personal hatreds and envies. Karl Marx hated Vogt, the exponent of physiological materialism. As soon as materialists like Vogt began to talk politics, Karl Marx said they had bad ideas; that meant Marx didn’t like them.

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