Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Books by and an Interview with: Mary Midgley

In each case the effort is to set any given thought-system in its context, so as to rescue what is of real value in it from that hubris, those absolutising tendencies which can set in with any fashionable school of thought. “Man is no god,” she wrote in Evolution as a Religion, “but a social being and a part of the fauna of this planet. When the architects of our present ethics were campaigning for individual liberty, this did not need saying. It could safely be taken for granted. Today, with the damage which unrealistic individualism is doing both to the physical life of the planet and to the personal happiness of individuals, it does need saying.”

Indeed it does. I caught up with her when she visited London recently to give a talk to Philosophy Today about ‘Changing Visions of the Earth’. She summarised the lecture for me: “The earth has been seen very much in our culture as the opposite of heaven and therefore something crude, earthy, despicable, dirty. I showed some slides of the Ptolemaic System [the picture of the cosmos which was accepted through much of antiquity and the Middle Ages] where heaven and the elect are outside – everything good is outside. And how this didn’t get better at the Enlightenment because the notion at that point became that we are minds above matter and matter is what we do science about. It’s inert stuff. It’s raw material for us to exploit, which we do during the Industrial Revolution – material which we study so we can use it as we wish. I’m suggesting that the imagery of Gaia is good because it corrects this – it makes us see this great self-containing system and we’re a very small part of the system but we’re not actually running it”

Any reader of Midgley will recognise this long view of the western tradition, set to work on the most pressing current questions. She continues on the theme of Gaia, an idea originally suggested to the climate scientist James Lovelock by the novelist William Golding: “Some people don’t like this term, don’t like the personification, the imagery. But I think people are very dependent on images when they are starting to get the hang of something. I mean no one image will do all the jobs for something as large as this. What usually happens when people are beginning to get hold of an idea is that one image comes first and then you have to balance it. Take another example: natural selection. Natural selection has proved to give a good deal of trouble – it became a thing which meant doing it and so forth – but for a start it was just what was needed. The analogy that Darwin saw with breeding pigeons was the right analogy although it wasn’t his original idea. He actually bred a few pigeons and went to pigeon fairs – it’s interesting that some quite specific thing like that is often needed to crystallise an idea.”

This concern with how fundamental changes in outlook come about, with how new patterns of thought emerge, is perhaps what gives her use of the past its urgency. It may leave her open to charges of over-generalisation but as we face climate change we ought surely to be mobilising all our reserves of memory and wisdom in just this way, as well as all the ‘know-how’ we can manage. As much of our mainstream media lurches drunkenly from the trivial to the alarmist and back again, surely here is an anti-dote to the particular dizziness and scepticism which this can induce. A more integrated sense of what we are from and where we are allowing it to take us would be of real help.

The end of the Roman Empire, the religious wars of the 17th Century, the early years of the Industrial Revolution and the First World War, Midgley has discussed each of these as a shock which paralysed people at first but which ultimately called forth some fresh and vital understanding of what we are. I ask how climate change differs from its predecessors in this regard?

“It is perhaps unlike them in being so bloody final. Or perhaps people felt like that at the end of the Roman Empire. What is, I suppose, a bit odd now is that the life lived by most of us in the West is going on very much as it has. We’re still extremely affluent. So instead of going as it were gradually down, we’re likely to fall off a series of precipices. And this seems to me to be a reason why we should at once be taking alarm about our thoughts because our thoughts are something that will need to change.”

Insights from the natural sciences, from psychology and from theology supplement those of philosophy in the strict sense: “Deciding what level to be thinking at and trying to bring the different levels of thought together is terribly important. This is the kind of thing I quite often find myself engaged in. There’s a row going on and I’m anxious not to get rid of it completely, to point out that there are deep conflicts here, conflicts of ideals.”

Her treatment of ‘imagery’ in this context can have intriguing implications. As we’ve seen with Gaia, or natural selection, she argues that it’s an image initially which allowed the complex truth behind it to work its way into and act upon our imaginative life. But where is the boundary-line between such benign ‘imagery’ and a malign ‘ideology’?

“Successful ideologues,” she wrote in Wisdom, Information and Wonder, “commonly make their impact by hammering at a single image, or small group of images, which expresses one side of the truth so vividly that they fill the reader’s imagination, making it hard to remember that there is any other… Examples of such hypnotic images are the class war in Marxism, the conditioned rat in behaviourism, suppressed sexual desire in psychoanalysis, and the ‘selfish gene’ in socio-biology… a fatal combination of one-sidedness, universal pretension and sensationalism. Thought-systems simply as such do not have this vice…”

She draws her examples of such non-ideological thought-systems from many quarters – from the thought of Aristotle or Spinoza, from Darwin himself or from biblical stories properly understood. Thus, on the hold which the creation narrative in Genesis still has on evangelicals: “The Fall is a very inadequate myth in a way. I mean the first thing one thinks when one hears this story is – alright Adam did something wrong – why is everybody else being punished for it? If you take it literally, as something which happened then, it can’t possibly have these moral consequences later. But this isn’t – obviously – how it was originally intended. People told stories that were meant to illuminate – to say what human nature is now – the story is a way of dramatising what we have now.”Dramatisation allows ideas to work. The myths – not lies – the dramas which crystallise the thoughts which we have are absolutely essential. The myth is an inexhaustible mine or a forest from which more is constantly being drawn. Actually I’m still fairly puzzled about finding a language to describe what’s happening with religion. I kept looking for God, you see, and he didn’t appear to be there. I mean to my father [an Anglican vicar] there was no question: God had called him. And there’s no question for Anne Primavesi [formerly a Dominican nun, now a writer on the environment and theology]. But I don’t think that’s because any of us is or was wrong. I think things are just more complicated…”

On the subject of Dawkins’ most recent best-seller, The God Delusion, it is the longer-range consequences of such thinking which preoccupy her: “I shouldn’t pick on him – there are a lot of very ill-judging people around. I still think that he’s self-indulgent, that he writes much too casually. If you think what Darwin would have thought of these ravings – this kind of ideology is entirely an optional invention but he goes on as if it was science and if you’ve got the authority of a scientist you can do a great deal of harm. He writes about how the world is this brutal meaningless place run by DNA: I mean it doesn’t even ‘run’ us, never mind the world! I think that sort of stuff plays a part in driving people to the other extreme.

“The religious people feel – the only alternative being offered us is this savage competitive meaningless world so we’d rather run back to the Bible. And what they feel threatened by – they call it Darwinism, they call it scientific rationalism, they call it secularism, they call it science – it’s all ‘one thing’ to them… There are statistics on the number of scientists who go to church. About half of them do. He [Dawkins] absolutely refuses to look at the fact that this is not a genuine tribal division. If people from within academe, who’ve had a proper education, go on like that, it seems to me to be needless.”

She finds a useful alternative in Arthur Peacocke’s God and the New Biology: “He finds in a lot of traditional theologians the immanent God in nature. He does end up taking the Incarnation seriously – I’ve been taking it as all symbolic – but he sees the Incarnation as the one-ness of spirit and flesh. He emphasises the Jewish tradition that it isn’t a matter of a separate soul trapped in matter – it really is meant to be all one. Of course Christianity has spoken with two voices about that, but still, what you’re thinking and believing in this life, how you treat the world that you have now here, has played a central part in its teaching…”

She traces the naivety of many scientists about imagery and the unexamined assumptions which can underlie and speak through it to the 17th Century, specifically to the founder-members of the Royal Society: “they made it clear that this was science and no other way of thinking was… they attacked metaphors. They said scientists should always write in straightforward prose, and then proceeded to use all kinds of metaphors themselves – this woman nature who was to be crushed…”

In Science and Poetry she contrasted a more benign earlier view of science, such as that displayed in Ficino’s commentary on Plato’s Symposium, with Francis Bacon’s advice to the new scientists. They should, according to Bacon, no longer “exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s course” but “conquer and subdue her… shake her to her foundations.” They should now be turning “with united forces against the Nature of Things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds.” They are urged to subdue “Nature with all her children… bind her to your service and make her your slave.”

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