Mary Midgely, a Philosopher you should know

Moral philosopher Mary Midgley at home in Newcastle. Photographed for the Observer by Gary Calton

She studied philosophy at Oxford and rubbed shoulders with greats like Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe and Mary Warnock, writes books on a wide variety of contemporary moral issues, has as good a wit and charm as any, a penchant for gratitude, and at least at one time, a Buddhist practice. But you probably have never heard of Mary Midgely.

That should change.

Thanks to the Guardian, you can learn a great deal from a recent interview covering her life and recent work, titled Are You an Illusion? From the Guardian:

Like much of her previous work, it’s an attack on what she views as the shibboleths of materialism – the notion that everything in the universe, including us, can ultimately be understood through its physical properties. But it focuses in particular on the thorny issue of the self or consciousness or even, as Midgley sometimes puts it, the soul.

Contra certain extremes in modern scientific thought, Midgely sees Richard Dawkins as a representative of:

a kind of self-deceiving fatalism, namely the conviction that the universe has no purpose, that it contains at bottom, as Dawkins has written, “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”.

I’m not sure this is being completely fair to Dawkins (admitting that I haven’t read the work in question). There is a certain sense in which science operates in a two-truth model, at one level, looking at humans at ever-increasing levels of microscopic magnification, it does seem increasingly true that what is found is “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”. Yet Dawkins, I hope, would not say this is the end of the story – and perhaps commit himself to drugs and alcohol and throw himself off a building because, well, it doesn’t matter.

No, I’m quite sure Dawkins, based on his actions, does find that a lot matters in life. I saw him lecture last fall and he was every bit as sharp and thoughtful and even humble as any of my favorite professors of days gone by. However, whenever I open up his twitter feed and read thoughts on Islam, I wonder “who is this lunatic?” Humans. We’re messy – a sort of messiness put on top of all the blind, pitiless indifference. I just wish some messy human would steer Dawkins away from certain areas. But I digress.

Midgely points out a similar quote in the work of the scientist Francis Crick, who writes

“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact [her italics] no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their attendant molecules.”

Again, this sounds like a perspectival thing, somewhat like the Heart Sutra’s lines:

Therefore, in emptiness there are no forms and no feelings, conceptions, impulses and no consciousness: there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; there is no form, sound, smell, taste, touch or idea; no eye elements, until we come to no elements of consciousness; no ignorance and also no ending of ignorance, until we come to no old age and death; and no ending of old age and death.

Taken wrongly, such statements inspire outrage for good reason. The problem here would be failing to read those first 3 words, “therefore, in emptiness….” and thinking that this is just a face-value statement of what this person believes. If anyone came to you and said, for instance, that there is no consciousness, and no body or mind, you’d find him/her a bit off. And it’s fair to note that some Buddhists at least have made a somewhat similar mistake in forsaking basic ethical norms by overemphasizing the ‘ultimate’ side of things (e.g. Nōnin).

And with Crick and Dawkins, Midgely might have a point. I’ll leave that discussion to those who have read both men more closely than I have. Her view is that, “The trouble is we’re getting at the problem of consciousness from the wrong end because this dogmatic materialism which I was attacking in the book is so much part of our culture that consciousness comes in as something unaccountable.”

A quote from the Guardian interview that I found particularly appealing was:

On one side there were the people who said there was no such thing as human nature, that was the social scientists and also the existentialists, and on the other, people like Desmond Morris, who said there is such a thing as human nature and it’s brutal and nasty. And I thought we do have a nature and it’s much more in the middle. And the other animals are not as beastly as was suggested nor are we so unlike them.

She also has a book out called Animals and Why They MatterIn terms of human nature I fall in line with her – following, I believe, Kant and the Buddha – though for the Buddha you have to read human nature as any being-in-samsara’s nature, which is flawed but under that flaw already potentially perfected, luminous, and good.

But the juiciest bit for me was this exchange (with Midgely speaking the first lines and the Guardian’s Andrew Anthony responding):

People talk about the origin of having gods was just that you wanted to explain things or have something to placate us, but it seems to me one important source of it is gratitude. You go out on a day like this and you’re really grateful. I don’t know who to.”

Given her nebulous gratitude, I wonder why she rejected religion. “I didn’t exactly reject it,” she says. “I couldn’t make it work. I would try to pray and it didn’t seem to get me anywhere so I stopped after a while. But I think it’s a perfectly sensible world view. It caused my parents and people like them often to make what I think were good choices. And I notice this particularly with Buddhists, the notion that there is some kind of force that makes for righteousness, as Matthew Arnold said, is on the whole a helpful one.”


Read more about Mary Midgely here:

H/T to Sujatin Johnson for alerting me to the story in covering it here.

Read the full Guardian interview here.

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