A mind over matter

04 July 2014

The moral philosopher Mary Midgley, at the age of 95, regrets that she didn't take Christianity more seriously. She talks to Andrew Brown


MARY MIDGLEY has done more than any other philosopher alive to put science in its place among other human enterprises. In works such as Science as Salvation, Evolution as a Religion, and The Myths We Live By, she has examined the interrelationship between science and imagina-tion.

One of her special targets is the idea that science, and especially physics, shows us the real world in a way that the imagination does not. This, she says, is itself an imaginative construct, not a scientific one, and it is not borne out by our experience of the world.

It was Midgley who first drew attention to the way in which successful popular-science books, such as The Selfish Gene, tend to have a final chapter in which all science is abandoned, and the metaphors which have been used to support the facts take on a life of their own.

The reader is left like St Brendan, who rested on an apparently solid island - only to find it was the back of a whale, which grew tired of supporting him, and swam off to pursue its own designs. Sometimes the writer is left floundering, too.

Now, aged 95, she has published another book, Are You an Illusion? which returns to these themes with undiminished clarity and force.

SHE moves with care, and some difficulty, after breaking a leg some years ago, but her mind retains its speed and grace.

It was some years ago, too, that she remarked to me that, every time she felt her work was done, some new folly cropped up that needed correction. This time, she takes aim at materialism, and the idea that the world is made from physical objects in some sense more real than anything else, such as minds.

This is, she says, just a confusion of kinds of explanation. Different sorts of explanation are appropriate for different cases, and the world is too various for any one kind to be all-sufficient.


There is a deep scepticism underlying almost all her work: she does not believe that there is any one underlying reality that can be reached by some privileged method. This applies to physics as much as to prayer.

The project of reducing the world to physical objects leaves out too much and explains too little. "If, for instance, I am looking down over the parapet of Westminster Bridge and I say: 'Well, so that is the Thames,' it is not appropriate for you to reply: 'No, actually you're wrong; that's a mistake people often make. These names that are given to rivers are a mere superstition, you know. That is really just H2O with certain well-recognised impurities.'"

All of her work has an engaged, polemic quality: inside every worthwhile philosopher, she once wrote, there is not just a lawyer, but a lawyer's client - someone with an urgent case to plead.

"People who think themselves as scientifically educated still often revere materialism in much the same way that their predecessors in Darwin's day revered Christianity," she writes. "That is, they don't ask questions about it, but view it as the general background against which all decent disputes must take place. They often assume that the only reasons for questioning it would be religious ones, probably flowing from creationism."

Midgley was the daughter of a clergyman, and grew up in a vicar-age, but quite early on decided that Christianity was not true. This she now rather regrets: "I stopped going to church on the grounds that I thought it was all lies, but I don't think it is now." There is, she says, in Matthew Arnold's phrase, "Something not ourselves that makes for righteousness," although no single religion captures it, or can. "You have to choose among the bits you can reach."


IT IS characteristic that this imprecision doesn't worry her. Although she is forensically precise about some things, one typical feature of her thought is that she is clear that there are some things we have to be confused about. In one of her books she quotes Aristotle, with approval, who says that it is the mark of an educated man to give to each subject as much precision as it deserves.

About God, imprecision is inevitable: "That seems to me so obviously congruent with the proper evolutionary approach to life. We've got the brain we have, and it can cope with certain sorts of problem. It copes with a lot more than everybody writes down, but still it is limited in what it will do. We keep the words, and what we mean by them is changing the whole time. If one were to worry about this, one would go off one's head. We have to use what we mostly have got from where we are."

This humility about her own powers should not be mistaken for a reverence for other people's. What makes her such a brutal controversialist is her willingness to diagnose moral failings to her opponents: we're used to the style of public argument which says that the opponents are idiots, or serving some ulterior purpose. Midgley points out that they have ordinary vices, such as vanity or intellectual sloth, and the plausibility of these accusations gives them a dreadful sting.

This ruthless moral seriousness was learned early. She was a friend and colleague of Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot at Oxford, during the war, and, although she moved to Newcastle in 1947, where she has stayed ever since, she retains a rather Oxonian contempt for ideas that she thinks stupid, and a mag-nificently bruising style.

The most famous victim of this was Professor Richard Dawkins. In 1978, she discussed The Selfish Gene in a paper in philosophy which was so scathing that Dawkins for years affected to believe that she had not read the book, and, in fact, did his best to disseminate the wholly untrue story that she had confessed to not having read the book before reviewing it.

Unlike most reviewers, she paid attention to it primarily as a work of imaginative literature - she was familiar with the biological aspects of the story - and, in particular, excoriated his confusing uses of the concept of "selfishness". This confusion, she argued, was as much the author's as the readers', and his followers have never forgiven her.

When this first appeared, it was shocking, and I still think she underestimated the force of some of his arguments; but, as he has moved away from science and into rhetoric, her criticisms have appeared increasing prescient.

IN THE latest book, she turns her fire on one of the most justly revered scientists of the 20th century, Francis Crick. After his discovery of the structure of DNA, and the subsequent unravelling of its work-ings, Crick turned his attention to consciousness, and in the last part of his life, his great project was a theoretical account of how consciousness arose from physical reality.

He believed at one stage that he had found the key to this in a particular frequency of brain wave, and published a polemical book in which he claimed: "You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and your free-will are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their attendant molecules."


This is, on reflection, quite as ludicrous as claiming that the Thames is merely H2O with certain well-understood impurities. The point of describing a river in terms of chemical analysis is to fit it into one conceptual scheme, for one purpose; the point of calling it by a name is to fit it into another, and explain how it is related to other rivers geographically, which we would want to do for other purposes.

Or we might be interested in the part it plays in history. Then again, the name is important, and the chemical composition mostly irrelevant. But, in all these, it is the uses that we have for the knowledge that determine the sort of knowledge we want, and it is fruitless to suggest that one is more real than any other.

TO PRETEND that the properties measurable by physical inquiry are the most real is mistaken in principle. Besides, Midgley argues, the Crick claim that there is nothing more to personality or hope than the behaviour of some nerve cells is nothing that anyone can actually believe.

"With the same devout docility that they attribute to medieval schoolmen," she writes, "scientists agree to preserve their materialist creed by signing up to a tale that, as anyone can see, does not actually make sense at all."

What is more, the assembly of nerve cells whose behaviour the scientist considers is, we notice, "you", rather than "me", a point quite important when working out how seriously to take the theory.

"You can't have a life at all unless you've got other people," she says. "So what he's saying is totally hollow. He thinks that . . . because you can't fit other people into physics, the other people can't be real. That does seem to me a world view that you can only inhabit when you're you're sitting at your typewriter rather than anything else.

"I'm sure it doesn't affect his treatment of other people. He doesn't say to himself, well, this person's not actual, so what does it matter? But that, you see, is everyday life, and everyday life is rather trivial. . . When they're sitting on their thrones as scientists, peopledo feel very pleased with themselves."

Against this, she points out that beliefs, desires, and habits all are real: all affect the world. It is not Einstein's brain that does the work for him, but his desire and curiosity, and self-interest, and neither one is more real than the other.

MUCH of Are You an Illusion? is taken up with a consideration of the mistakes that resulted from a division of the world into two kinds of stuff: matter and spirit, neither of which turns out, on examination, to exist at all. For a long time, there was a serious argument about which was the more real, but, at some time in the early-20th century, idealism vanished, or was vanquished, in these arguments, and matter alone was left, with the unsatisfactory results that we see.

She does not think that philosophy can be rescued by a return to idealism, or a claim that spirit is more real than flesh. This is one reason why she is so suspicious of science-flavoured mysticism: "real", quite properly, means different things in different areas of inquiry. Yet the suggestion that our personalities are really just brain activity seems to be a very similar mistake.

A question such as "Is this real coffee?" has a different sort of answer from asking whether someone's house is real - which is really the question whether they are lying when they make claims about it.

"When you start comparing the reality of different things, I don't think that's very helpful really," she says. And sometimes, of course, the question isn't helpful at all. There is no test by which any kind of answer could be established, she says. "Frankly, the reality of the multiverse! What the hell is that? How would I know if it's real?"

Are You an Illusion? by Mary Midgley is published by Acumen Book at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.69). Andrew Brown writes on religion for The Guardian.

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