Philosophers have traditionally concentrated on the qualities that make human beings different from other species. In _Beast and Man_ Mary Midgley, one of our foremost intellectuals, stresses continuities. What makes people tick? Largely, she asserts, the same things as animals. She tells us humans are rather more like other animals than we previously allowed ourselves to believe, and reminds us just how primitive we are in comparison to the sophistication of many animals. A veritable classic for our age, _Beast and (...) Man_ has helped change the way we think about ourselves and the world in which we live. (shrink)
Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological. This should not need mentioning, but Richard Dawkins's book The Selfish Gene has succeeded in confusing a number of people about it, including Mr J. L. Mackie. What Mackie welcomes in Dawkins is a new, biological-looking kind of support for philosophic egoism. If this support came from Dawkins's producing important new facts, or good new interpretations of old facts, about animal life, this (...) could be very interesting. Dawkins, however, simply has a weakness for the old game of Brocken-spectre moralizing—the one where the player strikes attitudes on a peak at sunrise, gazes awe-struck at his gigantic shadow on the clouds, and reports his observations as cosmic truths. He is an uncritical philosophic egoist in the first place, and merely feeds the egoist assumption into his a priori biological speculations, only rarely glancing at the relevant facts of animal behaviour and genetics, and ignoring their failure to support him. There is nothing empirical about Dawkins. Critics have repeatedly pointed out that his notions of genetics are unworkable. I shall come to this point later, but I shall not begin with it, because, damning though it is, it may seem to some people irrelevant to his main contention. It is natural for a reader to suppose that his over-simplified drama about genes is just a convenient stylistic device, because it seems obvious that the personification of them must be just a metaphor. Indeed he himself sometimes says that it is so. But in fact this personification, in its literal sense, is essential for his whole contention; without it he is bankrupt. His central point is that the emotional nature of man is exclusively self-interested, and he argues this by claiming that all emotional nature is so. Since the emotional nature of animals clearly is not exclusively selfinterested, nor based on any long-term calculation at all, he resorts to arguing from speculations about the emotional nature of genes, which he treats as the source and archetype of all emotional nature. This strange convoluted drama must be untwisted before the full force of the objections from genetics can be understood. (shrink)
We find our way in the world partly by means of the discriminatory power of our emotions. The gut sense that something is repugnant or unsavory—the sort of feeling that many now have about various forms of biotechnology—sometimes turns out to be rooted in articulable and legitimate objections, which with time can be spelled out, weighed, and either endorsed or dismissed. But we ought not dismiss the emotional response at the outset as “mere feeling.”.
Science as Salvation discusses the high spiritual ambitions which tend to gather round the notion of science. Officially, science claims only the modest function of establishing facts. Yet people still hope for something much grander from it--namely, the myths by which to shape and support life in an increasingly confusing age. Our faith in science is abused by some scientists whose adolescent fantasies have spilled over into their professional lives. Salvation, immortality, mastery of the universe, humans without bodies, and intelligent (...) self-reproducing computers are just some of the notions and speculations that are now found--not on the pages of science fiction--but on the pages of science itself. The danger is that these concepts are given to a myth-hungry public who turn to science now that religion has lost its ability to create myth. Science as Salvation discusses the function and meaning of such fantasies. Midgley examines the need for and the use of myth in science, and how science and religion are related. She argues that we need to develop a realistic understanding of scientific imagination and its importance. Taking them seriously as symptoms of a genuine myth-hunger, it suggests that the proper function of science may need to include wider perspectives, which would make it plain that such desperate, compensatory dramas are unnecessary. (shrink)
Why should anybody take an interest in philosophy? Is it just another detailed study like metallurgy? Or is it similar to history, literature and even religion: a study meant to do some personal good and influence our lives? In her last published work, Mary Midgley addresses provocative questions, interrogating the various forms of our current intellectual anxieties and confusions and how we might deal with them. In doing so, she provides a robust, yet not uncritical, defence of philosophy and the (...) life of the mind. This defence is expertly placed in the context of contemporary debates about science, religion, and philosophy. It asks whether, in light of rampant scientific and technological developments, we still need philosophy to help us think about the big questions of meaning, knowledge, and value. (shrink)
Renowned philosopher Mary Midgley explores the remarkable gap that has opened up between our own understanding of our sense of our self and today's scientific orthodoxy that claims the self to be nothing more than an elaborate illusion. Bringing her formidable acuity and analytic skills to bear, she exposes some very odd claims and muddled thinking on the part of cognitive scientists and psychologists when it comes to talk about the self. Well-known philosophical problems in causality, subjectivity, empiricism, free will (...) and determinsim are shown to have been glossed over by scientists claiming that the self is no more than a jumble of brain-cells. Midgley argues powerfully and persuasively that the rich variety of our imaginative life cannot be contained in the narrow bounds of a highly puritanical materialism that equates brain and self. The denial of the self has been sustained by the belief that physical science requires it, but there is not just one such pattern of thought but many others which all help to explain the different kinds of problems that arise in our life, argues Midgley. Physics' amazing contemporary successes spring from attacking problems that arise within physics, not from outside. It is no more sensible to give a physical answer to a moral problem than it is to give political answers to physical ones. 'Are you an Illusion?' is an impassioned defence of the importance of our own experiences - the subjective sources of thought - which are every bit as necessary for the world as the objective ones such as brain cells. (shrink)
In this book, Mary Midgely turns a spotlight on the fashionable view that we no longer need or use moral judgements. She shows how the question of whether or not we can make moral judgements must inevitably affect our attitudes to the law and its institutions, but also to events that occur in our daily lives.
Mary Midgley argues in her powerful new book that far from being the opposite of science, myth is a central part of it. In brilliant prose, she claims that myths are neither lies nor mere stories but a network of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world.
Is philosophy like plumbing? I have made this comparison a number of times when I have wanted to stress that philosophising is not just grand and elegant and difficult, but is also needed. It is not optional. The idea has caused mild surprise, and has sometimes been thought rather undignified. The question of dignity is a very interesting one, and I shall come back to it at the end of this article. But first, I would like to work the comparison (...) out a bit more fully. (shrink)
To look into the darkness of the human soul is a frightening venture. Here Mary Midgley does so, with her customary brilliance and clarity. Midgley's analysis proves that the capacity for real wickedness is an inevitable part of human nature. This is not however a blanket acceptance of evil. Out of this dark journey she returns with an offering to us: an understanding of human nature that enhances our very humanity.
According to a profile in The Guardian , Mary Midgley is 'the foremost scourge of scientific pretensions in this country; someone whose wit is admired even by those who feel she sometimes oversteps the mark'. Considered one of Britain's finest philosophers, Midgley exposes the illogical logic of poor doctrines that shelter themselves behind the prestige of science. Always at home when taking on the high priests of evolutionary theory - Dawkins, Wilson and their acolytes - she has famously described evolution (...) as 'the creation-myth of our age'. In Evolution as a Religion , she examines how science comes to be used as a substitute for religion and points out how badly that role distorts it. As ever, her argument is flawlessly insightful: a punchy, compelling, lively indictment of these misuses of science. Both the book and its author are true classics of our time. (shrink)
In The Ethical Primate , Mary Midgley, 'one of the sharpest critical pens in the West' according to the Times Literary Supplement , addresses the fundamental question of human freedom. Scientists and philosophers have found it difficult to understand how each human-being can be a living part of the natural world and still be free. Midgley explores their responses to this seeming paradox and argues that our evolutionary origin explains both why and how human freedom and morality have come about.
Crude materialism, reduction of mind to body, extreme individualism. All products of a 17th century scientific inheritance which looks at the parts of our existence at the expense of the whole. Cutting through myths of scientific omnipotence, Mary Midgley explores how this inheritance has so powerfully shaped the way we are, and the problems it has brought with it. She argues that poetry and the arts can help reconcile these problems, and counteract generations of 'one-eyed specialists', unable and unwilling to (...) look beyond their own scientific or literary sphere. Dawkins, Atkins, Bacon and Descartes all come under fire as Midgely sears through contemporary debate, from Gaia to memes, and organic food to greenhouse gases. After years of unquestioned imperialism, science is finally forced to take a step back and acknowledge the arts. (shrink)
Exchanging views in Philosophy with a two-year time-lag is getting rather like conversation with the Andromeda Nebula. I am distressed that my reply to Messrs Mackie and Dawkins, explaining what made me write so crossly about The Selfish Gene , has been so long delayed. Mr Mackie's sudden death in December 1981 adds a further dimension to this distress.
The notion that concern for the feelings of animals is as such sentimental is rather a common one. I shall suggest that, in general, the charge of sentimentality can never be made to stick in this way merely because concern is directed towards one class of sentient beings rather than another. It rests on the motives and reasons for being concerned, not on the objects to which concern is directed. About animals, however, a special point arises which I must deal (...) with first. Objectors may say that it is sentimental to attribute feelings to them at all, or at least to attribute specific feelings, to suppose ourselves well enough informed about their states of consciousness for concern to be appropriate. The charge of sentimentality here is close to that of anthropomorphism. (shrink)
With a new Introduction by the author 'An elegant and sane little book. – _The New Statesman_ Myths, as Mary Midgley argues in this powerful book, are everywhere. In political thought they sit at the heart of theories of human nature and the social contract; in economics in the pursuit of self interest; and in science the idea of human beings as machines, which originates in the seventeenth century, is a today a potent force. Far from being the opposite of (...) science, however, Midgley argues that myth is a central part of it. Myths are neither lies nor mere stories but a network of powerful symbols for interpreting the world. Tackling a dazzling array of subjects such as philosophy, evolutionary psychology, animals, consciousness and the environment in her customary razor-sharp prose, _The Myths We Live By _reminds us of the powerful role of symbolism and the need to take our imaginative life seriously. Mary Midgley is a moral philosopher and the author of many books including _Wickedness_, _Evolution as a Religion_, _Beast and Man _and _Science and Poetry_. All are published in Routledge Classics. (shrink)
Biologists' current habit of explaining each feature of human life separately through its evolutionary function — its assumed tendency to enhance each individual's reproductive prospects — is unworkable. It also sits oddly with these scientists' official rejection of teleology, since it treats all life as a process which does have an aim, namely, to perpetuate itself. But that aim is empty because it is circular. If we want to understand the behaviour of living things (including humans) we have to treat (...) them seriously as subjects, creatures with needs, tendencies and directions of their own. The supposedly objective idea of a world of objects without subjects is an unprofitable fantasy. (shrink)
With a new introduction by the author. It is a book of superb spirit and style, more entertaining than a work of philosophy has any right to be.’ – Times Literary Supplement. Throughout our lives we are making moral choices. Some decisions simply direct our everyday comings and goings; others affect our individual destinies. How do we make those choices? Where does our sense of right and wrong come from, and how can we make more informed decisions? In clear, entertaining (...) prose Mary Midgley takes us to the heart of the matter: the human experience that is central to all decision-making. First published: 1983. (shrink)
Are human beings in some sense central to the cosmos? It used to seem obvious that they were. It seems less obvious now. But the idea is still powerful in our thinking, and it may be worth while asking just what it has meant.
Apparent clashes of interest between 'deep ecologists' and 'animal liberationists' can be understood as differences in emphasis rather than conflicts of principle, although it is only too easy for campaigners to regard as rivals good causes other than their own. Moral principles are part of a larger whole, within which they can be related, rather than absolute all-purpose rules of right conduct. This is illustrated using the practical dilemma which often occurs in conservation management, of whether or not to cull (...) animals that are damaging their habitat by overgrazing. Here, and in general, when we are faced with a choice between two evils, the need for scrupulous discrimination and honesty cannot be overstated; but it is not a worthy option to retreat behind moral principles of limited application. (shrink)
In Utopias, Dolphins and Computers Mary Midgley brings philosophy into the real world by using it to consider environmental, educational and gender issues. From "Freedom, Feminism and War" to "Artificial Intelligence and Creativity," this book searches for what is distorting our judgement and helps us to see more clearly the dramas which are unfolding in the world around us. Utopias, Dolphins and Computers aims to counter today's anti-intellectualism, not to mention philosophy's twentieth-century view of itself as futile. Mary Midgley explains (...) the point of philosophy: how to do it, why it is needed, what difficulties confront it and what topics need its attention. (shrink)
Why do the big philosophical questions so often strike us as far-fetched and little to with everyday life? Mary Midgley shows that it need not be that way; she shows that there is a need for philosophy in the real world. Her popularity as one of our foremost philosophers is based on a no-nonsense, down-to-earth approach to fundamental human problems, philosphical or otherwise. In _Utopias, Dolphins and Computers_ she makes her case for philosophy as a difficult but necessary tool for (...) solving some of the most pressing issues facing contemporary society. How should we treat animals? Why are we so confused about the value of education? What is at stake in feminism? Why should we sustain our environment? Why do we think intelligent computers will save us? Mary Midgley argues that philosophy not only can, but should be used in thinking about these questions. _Utopias, Dolphins and Computers_ will make fascinating reading for philosophers, educationalists, feminists, environmentalists and indeed anyone interested in the questions of philosophy, ethics and life. (shrink)
Feared and admired in equal measure, Mary Midgely has carefully, yet profoundly challenged many of the scientific and moral orthodoxies of the twentieth century. The Essential Mary Midgley collects for the first time the very best of this famous philosopher's work, described by the Financial Times as "commonsense philosophy of the highest order." This anthology includes carefully chosen selections from her best-selling books, including Wickedness, Beast and Man, Science and Poetry and The Myths We Live By . It provides a (...) superb and eminently accessible insight into questions she has returned to again and again in her renowned sharp prose, from the roots of human nature, reason and imagination to the myths of science and the importance of holism in thinking about science and the environment. It offers an unrivalled introduction to a great philosopher and a brilliant writer, and also includes a specially written foreword by James Lovelock. (shrink)
Every age has its pet contradictions. Thirty years ago, we used to accept Marx and Freud together, and then wonder, like the chameleon on the tartan, why life was so confusing. Today there is similar trouble over the question whether there is, or is not, something called Human Nature. On the one hand, there has been an explosion of animal behaviour studies, and comparisons between animals and men have become immensely popular. People use evidence from animals to decide whether man (...) is naturally aggressive, or naturally territorial; even whether he has an Aggressive or Territorial Instinct. On the other hand, many sociologists and psychologists still seem to hold the Behaviourist view that man is a creature entirely without instincts, and so do existentialist philosophers. If so, all comparison with animals must be irrelevant. . On that view, man is entirely the product of his culture. He starts off infinitely plastic, and is formed completely by the society in which he grows up. (shrink)
The word moral and its derivatives are showing signs of strain. Like a small carpet, designed to fit a room which has been enlarged, they are wrenched this way and that to cover the bare spaces. Perhaps in the end we shall be forced to abandon them altogether, as Nietzsche suggested. But this would be wasteful, and it seems a good idea to examine first the various spaces they can cover, and try to fix them to the one where they (...) are needed most. I shall approach this problem by making very full quotations. It is not an isolated verbal puzzle which can be settled by showing that a particular usage exists; we need to know as well just what it is doing. There are real muddles here, within common-sense, about the relation of thought to life. There is no simple plain-man's usage prepared for us to follow. Anyone who uses moral in anything beyond the Daily Mirror sense is no longer a quite plain man anyway, and we had better follow careful writers than casual ones, real ones than imaginary ones. Philosophers, unlike the Erewhonians, do not have to study a hypothetical language. I am sure both that quotations are necessary and that mine are inadequate; I hope other people will supplement them. As for my choice, I can only say that I have tried very hard not to be tendentious. Certainly I have quoted authors who are capable of being silly and perverse, but as far as I can see the remarks I have taken from them are sober and normal. Anyone may disagree with them, but not, I hope, think them oddly worded. My point affects all the derivatives of moral and to some extent those of ethical too, so I have drawn my illustrations from all of them. (shrink)
Researchers report that people who are asked to give their reason for converting to Creationism often say that they have done so because they see it as the only possible alternative to ‘Darwinism’ – something which they find intolerable and equate with scientific atheism.
Let us by-pass a lot of disputation by starting with the objections to the dispute itself. It is surely a misfortune, not a gain, both to the biological and the social sciences that a discontinuity has appeared between them over the topic of Human Nature—that the findings of each group seem in important ways alien and unusable for the purposes of the other. To be forced to give up hope of learning anything from a particular source is always a misfortune, (...) it cannot be a cause for triumph. The unity of the world we study calls for free trade in information and in concepts between all the sciences. Autonomy cannot be isolation. Of course each discipline needs to be distinct and to use its own methods. But each also vitally needs to be open to suggestions from its neighbours. Barriers ought not to be raised except against real dangers. In the case before us, I want to say that the suspicions of the social sciences, from which this particular gap largely arises, are misplaced. The contraband article which they fear is real enough, but it is no real part of the physical sciences. It is irrelevant melodrama. What actually is part of the physical sciences cannot be contraband; it is truth which has somehow to be studied and accepted. The workings of prejudice on both sides make this hard, causing contraband sometimes to be exported as fact, and fact sometimes to be rejected as contraband. In this paper I suggest that we concentrate on understanding these prejudices—not because psychoanalysing our errors is any substitute for seeking truth, but because in an ingrained dispute like this it may be the only way to start doing so. (shrink)