Through the Microscope

Through the Microscope October 22, 2018

Gotta love Mary Midgley. She died on October 10 of this year, a month after her 99th birthday. To the end, she did philosophy with a rare degree of common sense and wit.

She begins The Myths We Live By, published when she was a mere octogenarian, by explaining how myths function in science, and provides a light takedown of the obsession with machine imagery:

“machine imagery, which began to pervade our thought in the seventeenth century, is still potent today. We still often tend to see ourselves, and the living things around us, as pieces of clockwork: items of a kind that we ourselves could make, and might decide to remake if it suits us better. Hence the confident language of ‘genetic engineering’ and ‘the building-blocks of life.’ Again, the reductive, atomistic picture of explanation, which suggests that the right way to understand complex wholes is always to break them down into their smallest parts, leads us to think that truth is always revealed at the end of that other seventeenth-century invention, the microscope.”

The dominance of the microscope carries an ontological import: “Where microscopes dominate our imagination, we feel that the large wholes we deal with in everyday experience are mere appearances. Only the particles revealed at the bottom of the microscope are real. Thus, to an extent unknown in earlier times, our dominant technology shapes our symbolism and thereby our metaphysics, our view about what is real. The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone – steel and glass, plastic and rubber and silicon – of his own devising and sees them as the final truth” (1).

She later cites E.O. Wilson as a species of microscopic thinker, with his aspiration “to find minutissima, ultimate units of thought, and to connect them eventually with particular minimal brain-states so as to provide (as he says) a kind of alphabet of a brain-language underlying all thought. This is an almost inconceivably ambitious project, a wild kind of cosmic expansion of Leibniz’s quest for a universal language” (64).

And she finds a similar myth lying behind Richard Dawkins’s claim that “There is something, some essence of Darwinism, which is present in the head of every individual who understands the theory. If this were not so, then almost any statement about two people agreeing with each other would be meaningless. An ‘idea-meme’ might be defined as an entity which is capable of being transmitted from one brain to another. . . . The differences in the way that people represent the theory are then, by definition, not part of the meme” (64-5).

But this isn’t how the actual history of thought works. There aren’t any discrete, unchanging mini-essences, detectable by a philosophical microscope: “Questions about just where the centre of a particular doctrine lies are exactly the ones that constantly divide people who are interested in that doctrine. These people often express strong views on the matter, but in doing so they are taking a moral stand, not detecting a solid cultural atom” (65).

Daniel Dennett provides a list of “complex ideas that form themselves into distinct memorable units,” units like “the Odyssey” or “deconstruction” or “wearing clothes.” But this effort to reduce to basic fixed essences is laughable: “the literary conventions that define items like the Odyssey are artefacts devised for civic convenience, not fixed natural units. Wearing clothes is not any sort of minimum unit but a general term used to cover a vast range of customs. Deconstructionism is a loose name covering a group of ideas that stand in some sort of historical relation, a group that certainly has no fixed core. . . . the Odyssey contains many elements that are memorable on their own, such as the stories of the Cyclops, of Scylla and Charybdis, and of the Wandering Rocks. It can hardly be a minimal unit” (65).

Gotta love Mary Midgley. RIP.

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