Friday, 31 January 2014

Mary Midgley on unawareness in science writing

Although not previously a reader of Mary Midgley, I want to champion her here, on the basis of some of what I have heard her say in recent talks and lectures via YouTube. Quote from Mary Midgley in her talk to the RSA, 21st September 2010, "The Solitary Self" (relevant section at about 17mins) in which she is referring to an important lack of responsibility in writing by B F Skinner and latterly Richard Dawkins where they address the notion of free will:
"[According to Dawkins' metaphor] all organisms are supposed to be lumbering robots being run by their genes, and if having written that you think 'Oh well that isn't true, people have free will', you've got to alter what you wrote and explain why!"

I have only recently come across Mary Midgley's criticisms of the (to use Marilynne Robinson's phrase) para-scientific literature extrapolating from Darwin's theory of evolution. What Midgley strongly asserts in this talk is that metaphor (such as the metaphor of the gene as "selfish") is never "only" metaphor: "The choice of metaphor is a most responsible choice" she says. (Readers might like to go to my past post referring to the choice of metaphor, or perhaps more accurately, analogy, used by Sir Paul Nurse in his discussion with a prominent climate change sceptic.) Writers on topics so important to us as "mind" and "self" and "human nature" cannot afford to use language without being aware of what it is doing.

Marilynne Robinson's book "Absence of Mind" (2010) is one doing the enormous service of exposing the ways that parascientific literature is unaware when it comes to the subject of selves and minds. Perhaps the too-easy use of metaphor (or over-extension of metaphor) adopted by writers in the para-scientific genre is partly to do with the assumption that the truth, whatever may be my use of metaphor, is already secured, so it is always possible to switch out of the metaphor and back to the truth, and this truth is that delivered by the science, ultimately mathematical science.

Karl Popper was one to point out that mathematics is not in direct contact with the world, and neither is language, even in a "logically purified" form (which seems to have been the goal of scientifically minded philosophers such as Gottlob Frege). This point of view is given another account in Isaiah Berlin's essay from 1961 (?) entitled "The divorce between the sciences and the humanities", in which he discusses the ideas of the late 17th century Italian thinker Giambattista Vico in distinction to those of near-contemporary French thinkers, especially Voltaire. If one accepts that mathematics is not directly mapped onto the world, what else is it except a human language, and as Popper would have added, an exceedingly rich one? But it does not have seamless logical underpinnings, as we have known since Kurt Godel's famous proof. (See the readable account of Godel's proof in Roger Penrose's "The Emperor's New Mind"). If one allows this, then attention may move to consideration of there being different kinds of enquiry (not rivalrous) and of different kinds of thinking suited to them.

Here is a link to an extended interview with Mary Midgley by Theos, a UK-based Christian religious foundation.
The following comes from that interview.

MM: "The prestige of science reached a great peak just after the second world war, with the moon-shot and DNA and indeed the bomb, and people thought it would be able to do everything for us. They got disappointed, and since then they have been disillusioned.
I think this is partly the same power phenomenon; not only was science supposed to be wonderful, it was imperialising. It was claiming enormous power, and I think this is quite important to Dawkins and the like – they find that science is not being respected quite as it was. In spite of the great and laudable efforts that they have made to popularise it, it’s still not seen as taking the place of religion. It’s not that in which people put their trust most profoundly for the most important things. I think that’s what they wanted it to be in some way." 

Here is a link to an essay by Mary Midgley for the Rationalist Association called "Against Humanism" (2010),

Some thoughts on Mary Midgley's book "Science and Poetry" (2001): her commentary on the impact of the work of Karl Popper and its effect of stimulating scientism

Since first posting this, I have spent time with Midgley's book "Poetry and Science" (Routledge Classics, 2001). I am very glad that this book is out there, which can be a resource to everyone combatting imperious materialism.

In this book Midgely refers to the impact of Karl Popper's work in the community of scientists. From her perspective (and surely Popper's too, insofar as it boosted scientism) it has been negative.
In the section headed "Popper's guillotine and the Destiny of Ideologies" she writes:

"[After the second world war] Karl Popper... pointed out that the Marxist and Freudian ideologies were not actually constructed by the methods of the physical sciences and could not therefore be described in modern terms as scientific. The unfortunate thing was that, at this point, he did not pause to ask what world-views of this kind were if they were not branches of science and what other standards they ought to be judged by. It should have been obvious that Marxism and Freudianism were indeed not primarily scientific theories but ideologies, comprehensive attitudes to life, with a strong moral component, as well as their factual claims, and that they needed to be judged seriously by the standards appropriate to such general attitudes. Discussion of rival attitudes to life is not a vice or a waste of time but an intellectual necessity particularly in times of violent change. Popper's work, however, seemed to outlaw all such argument from the province of thought ruling that since ot was not science it was metaphysics - a word he used vaguely and which many of his audience took to mean simply nonsense. There followed a jubilant wave of crude scientism, not just in the sense that people put too high a value on science in comparison with other branches of learning, but in the wider sense that they often forgot those branches existed at all."
(Midgley, Science and Poetry, p.149, my emphasis.)

As Bryan Magee points out in his autobiography "Confessions of a Philosopher" (1997), it is probably Popper's own fault that his analysis of the so-called problem of demarcation (i.e. between science and non-science) should have resulted in his work being viewed as a vindication of the very positivism - in the form of logical positivim - that his work actually criticised. In my view, Popper was keenly aware of the criticism he levelled at the project of the Vienna Circle, and was at enormous pains to communicate his criticisms to them in language they would accept in order that they would not automatically (dis)regard him as a Kantian, i.e. a metaphysician. Nevertheless, after the publication of his "Logik der Forschung" in 1934, there seems to have been an understanding within the Vienna Circle that Popper was actually seeking the same outcome as them, i.e. scientific philosophy and the elimination of metaphysics, when his main contention was that in seeking to eliminate metaphysics logical positivism would also eliminate science!

With resepct to Midgley's comment that "It should have been obvious that Marxism and Freudianism were indeed not primarily scientific", it seems to me, particularly after reading Malachi Hacohen's biography of Popper (2002?), that Popper was moved some way towards his engagement with the demarcation problem by what were surely active efforts from within Freudianism (not least by Freud himself) and Marxism to proclaim these ideolgies as primarily scientific and that it was not obvious they were not so, at least to people among whom he moved in the Vienna of the 1910s. Perhaps it was because they were times of violent change that Popper worked so assiduously to de-construct pretensions of ideolgies to scientific status? I agree Midgley that Popper did little to bolster or vindicate or validate the "non-scientific" or discuss the issue of what standards would be appropriate to its assessment. I suppose his famous political works, The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and its Enemies, which came after WWII, exemplify the standards he would see and those works would be compared with other works of political philosophy. (I have certainly found it valuable to see Popper's defence of liberalism with others emerging from very different philosophical standpoints (i.e. not stemming so rigidly from epistemology) - such as those of Isaiah Berlin and John Stuart Mill). In other respects it seems clear that while he gave, surely rightly, a metaphysical status to science itself, he was really not very interested in metaphysical things beyond science and this no doubt contributed to the mistaken reception of his work that it cast metaphysics as nonsense.

In my view, Popper's work shows - in a way addressed to scientist-philosophers - that science is a metaphysics, even if this is not of the remotest concern to many scientists (though it should be!). That he addressed his work primarily to scientist-philosophers (many of whom were also trained scientists and mathematicians) bent on elimination of metaphysics is, I should think, one explanation of the extreme caution and vagueness with which he calls up metaphysics at all in his earlier writings. He sought - as an unpublished author, probably very ambitious for endorsement - to ensure that his work was received by a group of people he greatly esteemed but whose project - to expunge metaphysics from philosophy - he was ultimately out to dismantle.


Here is a link to a Dutch-made 1993(?) filmed interview with British philosopher (and sometime student of Wittgenstein) Stephen Toulmin.
In this interview, at about 1hr and 5minutes, Toulmin makes a criticism of Daniel C Dennet's habit of talking about the mind as a kind of machine understandable in mechanical terms. It is a criticism very close to the one made by Mary Midgley of the 'neuro-everything' school of thought about minds and brains made in recent years.
Like Rev Dr Rowan Williams says in his 2013 Gifford lectures, there is a need to be on constant alert for that false philosophical assumption which asserts an active subject over against inert objects (stuff) in the world.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Lack of Self-esteem is the same thing as Lack of Self

I have written elsewhere about aspects of what James F Masterton called "closet narcissistic personality disorder", which he posed as related to, but differing from, "overt" or "exhibitionist" kinds of the same disorder. Notwithstanding controversies over the term "self", I am satisfied that "disorder of self" does describe something. I think of a "narcissistic disturbance" as that way of adapting to the home environment that an individual takes when his or her innate or spontaneous needs and expressions meet null or un-empathic or hostile responses. It has been learned that love is only forthcoming with the meeting of others' needs. The individual exists to be either the validation of, or foil for, his parents' un-adapted "narcissistic" needs. The parents' un-adapted "narcissistic" needs are the left-overs from their own neglected childhood: for them too there is the diversion of mental, imaginative and material resources to uphold some inflated ("grandiose") self-image that compensated for the actual rejection and diminution and abuse they suffered. EVERYBODY has "narcissistic" needs. EVERYBODY needs to be recognised. For some, abusive neglectful home-life has required them to have the world validate some idea of themselves, a special self, in order to deny the emptiness that neglect actually induces. Their way of being is such that all information about the world and themselves is made to fit this (secret) self image, or else is denied. That way of being is there for life, unless some horrible life-crisis breaks over them, and the facts contradict their idea if themselves. Depression may come to their aid. Help may then be sought. I say, do not put up with "narcissistic" abuse! Leave abusive relationships! Get help! Help yourself! But vilification of those trapped in this way of being is not right. After all the pain and hurt and shocking emptiness, compassion is called for!