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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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.