Mary Midgley 1919-2018: Philosopher, Critic of Scientism

Mary Midgley 1919-2018: Philosopher, Critic of Scientism October 18, 2018

RIP Mary Midgley, the British moral philosopher who was Dawkins’s most distinguished foe.

What Is Knowledge For?

Mary Midgley was an author and thinker whose work often dealt with the way we relate to scientific knowledge. Skeptical of dogmas both religious and secular, she celebrated ideas that expanded rather than circumscribed our conception of reality. Her obituary in the New York Times said:

Dr. Midgley unhesitatingly challenged scientists like the entomologist Edward O. Wilson and the biologist, and noted atheist, Richard Dawkins. By her lights they practiced a rigid “academic imperialism” when they tried to extend scientific findings to the social sciences and the humanities. In place of what she saw as their constricted, “reductionistic” worldview, she proposed a holistic approach in which “many maps” — that is, varied ways of looking at life — are used to get to the nub of what is real.

Inquiry and Authority

Midgley was well-versed in scientific subjects, and wrote a lot on the subjects of species evolution and Darwin. However, she took issue with the ideological ends which science serves. One of her many lucid, provocative books was called Myths We Live By, and she was adamant that the meaning we ascribe to our knowledge has more to do with narrative than evidence.

Evolution, then, is the creation myth of our age. By telling us our origins it shapes our views of what we are. It influences not just our thought, but our feelings and actions too, in a way which goes far beyond its official function as a biological theory. To call it a myth does not of course mean that it is a false story. It means that it has great symbolic power, which is independent of its truth.

That kind of thinking put her at odds with scientific cheerleaders like Dawkins, whose selfish-gene hypothesis sounded woefully reductionist and inadequate to Midgley. The idea that we can understand humanity solely through understanding biochemistry, or any other scientific system, is something foreign to the holistic way Midgley felt it was necessary to define human nature. In addition, she pointed out that treating creationism as a scientific rather than cultural matter is wrongheaded:

The contrary, literalist campaign within Christianity is actually quite recent. It developed among more or less extreme Protestants after the Reformation – largely indeed in the last century in the US. It was consciously designed as a competitor with science, providing equal certainty by comparable methods. It is thus a political phenomenon, acting in some ways like a cargo cult. It has enabled relatively poor and powerless people to use their Bibles (which the Protestant Reformers had provided) to shape a rival myth of their own. They see this as an alternative to the materialist glorification of science and technology which they have perceived – with some reason – as the oppressive creed of those in power.

Scientism and The Self

Midgley’s last major work was 2014’s Are You An Illusion?, which dealt with the ways science is used to explain away human consciousness, experience and responsibility. The essence of scientism, according to Midgley, is the denial of context; our inability to approach science with any reasonable perspective instead of defining it as the ultimate arbiter of all truth is what leads to the denial of human consciousness and subjectivity. Midgley asserted that calling our consciousness or free will an illusion is the predictable result of exalting empirical inquiry over common sense.

We can’t approach important mind-body topics such as consciousness or the origins of life while we still treat matter in 17th-century style as if it were dead, inert stuff, incapable of producing life. And we certainly can’t go on pretending to believe that our own experience – the source of all our thought – is just an illusion, which it would have to be if that dead, alien stuff were indeed the only reality.

We need a new mind-body paradigm, a map that acknowledges the many kinds of things there are in the world and the continuity of evolution. We must somehow find different, more realistic ways of understanding human beings – and indeed other animals – as the active wholes that they are, rather than pretending to see them as meaningless consignments of chemicals.

Farewell to a genuine humanist and skeptic.

"Or they're just enamored with the stance, and the thrill of playing philosophical dress-up. "I ..."

Again With The Evidence Fetishism
"But if someone becomes an atheist or a Democrat, that's often (but not always) because ..."

Again With The Evidence Fetishism
"Offhand, I'd say most people form the beliefs they profess according to the tribal stance. ..."

Again With The Evidence Fetishism
"Well, people's opinions and beliefs are often what inform their actions. I guess that's what ..."

Again With The Evidence Fetishism

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • CindyTellsMe

    Thanks for this. Midgley’s clear-headed arguments and prose are inviting, Myths We Live By sounds like an interesting read.

  • Michael Neville

    I read Midgley’s critique of The Selfish Gene. It showed me that she knew nothing about genetics (or biology in general) and took great delight in parading that ignorance in public.

  • What do you think she got wrong? I’m no great Dawkins fan myself, and I’d like to know where you think she misconstrued what he was saying.

  • Jim Jones

    > We can’t approach important mind-body topics such as consciousness or the origins of life while we still treat matter in 17th-century style as if it were dead, inert stuff, incapable of producing life.

    Beating heart tissue grown in lab : Nature News

    https://www.nature.com/news/2008/080423/full/news.2008.775.html

  • I think you may have missed her point. If we think non-material things like language and culture can’t be involved in consciousness and decision-making because they’re not physical things like neurons and synapses, maybe we’re making the evidence fit our conclusions instead of the other way around.

  • Michael Neville

    I’m not a fan of Dawkins either and I have read a couple of quite strong critiques of The Selfish Gene (TSG), both written by geneticists. Midgley wrote an article in The Guardian attacking TSG on philosophical grounds, something she was imminently qualified to do. However in her book Evolution As a Religion she attempted to dismantle TSG on biological grounds as well. She quite obviously didn’t understand how genes work or even what they do, although Dawkins did explain those things in layman’s terms.

  • I read EaaR back in the day, and I’m still wondering why you’d say she “quite obviously didn’t understand how genes work or even what they do,” or that she knows nothing about biology in general.

    Do you have anything more specific than your cavalier dismissals?

  • Michael Neville

    I’m sorry, it’s been many years since I read Evolution As a Religion and I don’t remember any specifics. I do remember my realization that she didn’t understand genetics.

    Unfortunately, like a lot of intelligent, educated people, Midgley thought she was smarter and more knowledgeable than she actually was. One of my objections to Dawkins is that he suffers from the same problem. Dunning-Krueger affects the intelligent and learned when they step out of their field of expertise.

  • Please contribute to the discussion rather than just dropping bare links, okay, chief?

  • Illithid

    We can’t approach important mind-body topics such as consciousness or the origins of life while we still treat matter… as if it were dead, inert stuff, incapable of producing life.”

    The misconception that I see in discussions of the origin of life is that life is somehow mystical, magical, consisting of some undefined ‘spark’, some essence that differentiates it from nonliving matter. The idea that a sufficiently complex, self-regulating, self-replicating network of chemical reactions, segregated from the environment by a membrane, is what life is, seems to disturb some people.

  • Jim Jones

    IMO we’re a million miles from understanding most of this. We don’t even know why cats purr or what their tail signalling means – and they have small brains.

  • I don’t remember any specifics.

    What’s asserted without evidence…

    Unfortunately, like a lot of intelligent, educated people, Midgley thought she was smarter and more knowledgeable than she actually was. One of my objections to Dawkins is that he suffers from the same problem.

    I’m not even disputing the point, I’m really just trying to further the discussion. I remember one of the things I thought was so typical of David Berlinski’s fatuous anti-evolution rhetoric was his assertion that eyes posed a problem for Darwinian evolution; according to Berlinski, this was because animals’ skulls would have had to evolve eye sockets at the exact same time as they evolved eyeballs. It seems obvious that mathematician Berlinski had absolutely no idea that eyes developed in animals (several times) long before they had evolved skeletons or skulls.

    If Midgely had said something that clueless, I’d be inclined to agree with you.

  • I’m not disputing your point, but I don’t see people like Midgley making the case that there’s anything mystical or magical about life or consciousness. I’m certainly not saying that there’s anything supernatural about these phenomena, or any other for that matter. The idea that there are complicated cultural or linguistic aspects to consciousness seems to disturb some people too. Why does the idea that the laws of physics or neurochemistry don’t fully explain human decision making rile some people up?

    There’s a glaring false dichotomy in how science fans frame these matters. If I don’t accept the claim that free will and consciousness are illusions, or even talk about scientism, I may as well be raving about angels. I consider that a misconception too.

  • Michael Neville

    I made a comment based on years old memory. I apologize for not remembering specifics and, quite frankly, I couldn’t care enough to research the point. Congratulations, you get a “gotcha”.

  • Dude. I was just asking you to be more specific. Without any examples or elucidation, your opinion that Midgley was ignorant about genetics and biology is just your opinion.

    No need to get pissy.

  • Illithid

    I didn’t mean to imply that Midgley thought that. Just that I see that attitude a lot.

    I’ve got no trouble admitting that we don’t currently understand consciousness. I wouldn’t call it an illusion, since introspection and metacognition are things I observe in myself. I think it likely thst physics and biochemistry ultimately will explain it, but haven’t yet. A lot of the time, though, the assertion that consciousness is a phenomenon beyond scientific understanding is a preamble to supernaturalism: “science can’t explain it, therefore God”. Those of us who spend time debating with theists sometimes get a little trigger-happy.

    I do suspect that libertarian free will is an illusion. I’m not dogmatic about it, though.

  • Michael Neville

    Like I said, you got your gotcha. Now you’re trying to get it stuffed and mounted on the wall. YOU WON! And if you post one more time about Midgley and me you’re fucking blocked.

    Have a mediocre day.

  • Just block the troll. He’s got nothing of import to say.

  • Just block the troll. He’s got nothing of import to say.

    And you do?

  • Ellabulldog

    Science provides answers to our environment based on empirical testing. Philosophy provides questions but no answers.

    Science doesn’t have every answer. Yet. It may never.

    Psychology is a science. Not all science is in a lab.

  • ortcutt

    Language and culture are natural phenomenon that can be studied by empirical methods. People do so every day. “Being worth 5 dollars” might not sound like a “material property” (whatever that means), but it certainly is a natural property, depending on the judgments and actions of every member of society. It’s something that we can study in economics, psychology, and sociology.

  • Fine by me.

    No one here thinks that language and culture are some sort of mystical, inexplicable phenomena that are beyond the reach of science. What I’m saying is that the idea of consciousness, for example, being an “illusion” derives from our prejudice that anything science can’t detect doesn’t exist. I’m not talking about gods and fairies here, I’m talking about something real: the way we experience and interpret phenomena.

  • ortcutt

    Consciousness is a natural phenomenon. There are scientists studying it all over the world. There are two naturalist responses to supernaturalist claims about consciousness. Deny that consciousness exists or give a naturalistic account of consciousness. The first strikes me as just a bizarre and unscientific thing to do.

  • Science provides answers to our environment based on empirical testing. Philosophy provides questions but no answers.

    Are you twelve? Because anyone older than that should be embarrassed at such trite sloganeering.

  • Deny that consciousness exists or give a naturalistic account of consciousness. The first strikes me as just a bizarre and unscientific thing to do.

    Well, tell Daniel Dennett and all the other science cheerleaders who explicitly state that things like consciousness, the self and free will are all illusions.

    I want to reiterate that no one here is pushing anything “supernatural” or magical. For as many times as I state this in what I consider plain enough English, people still assume that anyone displaying skepticism toward claims-with-science-words is some sort of fundie or crackpot.

  • ortcutt

    I think you really need to check Dennett again because he doesn’t say that consciousness is an illusion. He actually wrote a whole book explaining what he thinks consciousness is. There are people who didn’t like his book because they didn’t think it accounted for the supernatural aspects of consciousness, but obviously he doesn’t believe there are any supernatural aspects of consciousness. He thinks it’s an ordinary natural phenomenon. I don’t know who the other “science cheerleaders” are that you’re referring to, so I don’t know whether your attribution is right or not, but it’s clearly wrong in the case of Dennett. Dennett also wrote two books defending a compatibilist theory of free will, so he clearly believes free will is real as well. Again he doesn’t believe in supernatural accounts of free will, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t believe in free will.

  • I think you really need to check Dennett again because he doesn’t say that consciousness is an illusion. He actually wrote a whole book explaining what he thinks consciousness is. There are people who didn’t like his book because they didn’t think it accounted for the supernatural aspects of consciousness, but obviously he doesn’t believe there are any supernatural aspects of consciousness. He thinks it’s an ordinary natural phenomenon.

    This back-of-the-envelope summary of Dennett’s thought is a lot different from what Dennett himself actually says about consciousness.

    In his works and talks and podcasts, he constantly reiterates that we’re all “zombies” (and he literally uses the word) whose brains are running computational processes that we mistake for consciousness. We think that we feel things, or that things seem the way they do to us, but that’s just an illusion. Read this exchange in the New York Review of Books between Dennett and a reviewer who took a dim view of Dennett’s sophistry:

    We’re not conscious at all, in the ordinary sense of the word: “We’re all zombies.” He confirms this view in a 2013 podcast. We find in nature “any number of varieties of stupendous organization and sensitivity and discrimination… The idea that, in addition to all of those, there’s this extra special something—subjectivity—what distinguishes us from the zombie—that’s an illusion.”

    He’s not denying that there’s anything magical or mystical about consciousness, because all of us deny that. What he’s denying is that our subjective experience of phenomena—what it’s like to be a conscious human—is real. If you don’t agree, hey, you’re not alone. But it’s futile to try and deny that’s what Dennett is saying.

    I can understand being a little confused about Dennett’s position, because he’s deliberately vague about his theories, constantly tries to backpedal and denies that he’s saying what people quote him as saying. But unless you can quote him directly as saying that consciousness isn’t an illusion or that we’re not just zombies, I’m going to take his words at face value.

  • ortcutt

    Dennett clearly believes there is consciousness. The question is whether there are qualia. Dennett says no. Strawson say yes. The philosopher’s zombie is supposed to be exactly like a regular human being, but without qualia, while the non-zombie has qualia. He denies that there is any distinction between the regular person and the zombie because there are no qualia that the zombie could lack. To say “we are all zombies” is just to say that the philosopher’s zombie is just how normal human beings are. Clearly, Strawson wants to pound the table and claim that without qualia it’s not really consciousness, but table pounding isn’t philosophy or science. You get the same thing in the free will debate where the incompatibilists pound the table and say that without contracausal agency, you don’t have “real” free will. Dennett thinks they are both wrong, and I agree, but it’s dishonest to claim that Dennett is engaged in sophistry rather than responding to his arguments. If you want to engage in them, start reading up on qualia and the arguments surrounding them.

  • To say “we are all zombies” is just to say that the philosopher’s zombie is just how normal human beings are.

    I guess it comes down to whose table-pounding is more pleasing to one’s ears, then. Because it’s not as if Dennett is doing anything more than appealing to people’s pre-existing prejudice for reductionist machine fantasies. You claimed that Dennett doesn’t think consciousness is an illusion, but that’s absolutely and incontrovertibly what he’s saying: all your thoughts, needs, passions, and decisions are just the exhaust emitted by the brain’s hardware.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully in agreement that human consciousness requires a brain and that there’s nothing mystical or supernatural about it. But denying that consciousness is supernatural is common sense; denying that it’s real is simply absurd.

    It’s funny, because only hours ago you posted in the “Machine Fantasies Are No Better Than Religious Ones” discussion and claimed that it was all a colossal straw man blah blah blah. But now you’re quite literally saying that we’re nothing but zombies, flesh machines that have been programmed to think they feel and decide and experience.

  • Doubting Thomas

    It showed me that she knew nothing about genetics (or biology in
    general) and took great delight in parading that ignorance in public.

    This sounds equally applicable to Shem himself.

  • Like I asked Michael, what is it Midgley got wrong?

    And in the unlikely event you’re equipped to do anything more than flick boogers, by all means point out where I’ve said anything scientifically erroneous here. I think it’s an overstatement to say I “know nothing about genetics or biology in general,” but facts don’t seem to be your strong suit.

  • Michael Neville

    Comment by Shem the Penman blocked.

    Fuck you and the high horse you and your heroine Midgley rode in on.

  • Way to keep it classy, M.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Oh, I’m just flicking boogers. Let’s not try to pretend that you’re up for a factual conversation. That’s already been tried.

  • I kinda figured you’re not up for civil discussion, but I just thought I’d ask.

  • abb3w

    Contrariwise, these non-material things emerge as patterns of the physical things; in so far as they are “involved”, it would seem merely in that their existence constrains the possible state (at some point in time) of the physical things being considered. The pattern of a key and the pattern of a lock can be considered non-material, in so far as their patterns may be represented by pin height numbers. (The door to my last house had the pattern 512663, for example; not a particularly exciting pattern, but one I memorized.) These patterns are involved in the opening or non-opening of a lock, but the opening/non-opening alternately could be modeled at lower levels of the physical — perhaps less efficiently, but also potentially more exactly as not all keys are cut to precision.

  • abb3w

    Via Amazon preview, I took a quick glance in Are You An Illusion at the opening of Chapter 4, titled “What explanation is”. (I also poked a couple other points in the book.) Her focus on the idea of intentionality suggests to me she is among many philosophers who have failed to grasp some of the implications of Hume’s distinction of “is” and “ought” — or alternately, does not realize the extent she is harping at length on a point he stated far more concisely. (Her use of words like “context”, “values”, “wants”, “should”, “supposed to” stand out.) The quip suggests itself that there is not enough Hume to her Humanism.

    She also says that it’s not clear how the brain could account for human activity, when it would seems more precise to say that it’s not clear how the human brain does account — a distinction of considerable importance. Additionally, her focus on multi-level explanations seems to conflate the inefficient with the ineffective. (It is possible to take a large integer exponent by repeated multiplications; however, use of logarithms may be more efficient for getting an approximation adequate to some particular task. Similarly, that there are more efficient approximate models at high levels does not preclude that the larger scale phenomena emerge from models of smaller-scale ones.)

    Furthermore (although it may be an artifact of the limited pages accessible from Amazon Preview), I’m not seeing where she gives a quote of any of the targets of her criticism to actually exemplify the claim she is attempting to argue against — that “a number of highly educated and sophisticated scholars [...] are now claiming that their own minds, and other people's minds too, do not exist“. (Quote from the first paragraph of the conclusion chapter.) This makes it seem as if she may be arguing against a strawman.