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Tu Ne Cede Malis

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The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science
Ludwig von Mises

The Human Mind

7. Materialism

Determinism must be clearly distinguished from materialism. Materialism declares that the only factors producing change are those that are accessible to investigation by the methods of the natural sciences. It does not necessarily deny the fact that human ideas, judgments of value, and volitions are real too and can produce definite changes. But as far as it does not deny this, it asserts that these "ideal" factors are the inevitable result of external events that necessarily beget in the bodily structure of men definite reactions. It is only a deficiency of the present state of the natural sciences that prevents us from imputing all manifestations of the human mind to the material—physical, chemical, biological and physiological—events that have brought them about. A more perfect knowledge, they say, will show how the material factors have necessarily produced in the man Mohammed the Moslem religion, in the man Descartes co-ordinate geometry, and in the man Racine Phaedra.

It is useless to argue with the supporters of a doctrine that merely establishes a program without indicating how it could be put into effect. What can be done and must be done is to disclose how its harbingers contradict themselves and what consequences must result from its consistent application.

If the emergence of every idea is to be dealt with as one deals with the emergence of all other natural events, it is no longer permissible to distinguish between true and false propositions. Then the theorems of Descartes are neither better nor worse than the bungling of Peter, a dull candidate for a degree, in his examination paper. The material factors cannot err. They have produced in the man Descartes co-ordinate geometry and in the man Peter something that his teacher, not enlightened by the gospel of materialism, considers as nonsense. But what entitles this teacher to sit in judgment upon nature? Who are the materialist philosophers to condemn what the material factors have produced in the bodies of the "idealistic" philosophers.

It would be useless for the materialists to point to pragmatism's distinction between what works and what does not work. For this distinction introduces into the chain of reasoning a factor that is foreign to the natural sciences, viz., finality. A doctrine or proposition works if conduct directed by it brings about the end aimed at. But the choice of the end is determined by ideas, is in itself a mental fact. So is also the judgment whether or not the end chosen has been attained. For consistent materialism it is not possible to distinguish between purposive action and merely vegetative, plant-like living.

Materialists think that their doctrine merely eliminates the distinction between what is morally good and morally bad. They fail to see that it no less wipes out any difference between what is true and what is untrue and thus deprives all mental acts of any meaning. If there stands between the "real things" of the external world and the mental acts nothing that could be looked upon as essentially different from the operation of the forces described by the traditional natural sciences, then we must put up with these mental phenomena in the same way as we respond to natural events. For a doctrine asserting that thoughts are in the same relation to the brain in which gall is to the liver,[13] it is not more permissible to distinguish between true and untrue ideas than between true and untrue gall.


[13] Karl Vogt, Köhlerglaube und Wissenschaft (2nd ed.; Giessen, 1855), p. 32.

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