Life is too big for atomic minds

Science and Poetry
April 6, 2001

Although Mary Midgley has achieved prominence for having crossed swords with science fundamentalists such as Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins, to see her merely as a tribal warrior in the culture wars would be a serious misreading of her many important, eloquent and passionate books. She has a deep understanding and sympathy for what scientists have tried to achieve and a gratitude for the gifts they have bestowed on humanity. She even acknowledges the benefits of reductionism in advancing some types of scientific understanding. Indeed, as she says, it is precisely because reductionism "has been so successfully used to connect physical sciences that it always seemed seductive". Her enemy is not science but rampant scientism, of the kind represented in Dawkins's recent pronouncement that "science is the only way we know to understand the real world".

This sort of claim is not itself scientific. Even so, it would be unexceptionable, even banal, if all it meant was that we cannot understand the general nature of the world without transparent theories and clearly defined concepts underpinned by facts. But it means more than this: it is a statement of imperial intent ("We shall conquer all") or a profession of religious faith ("Thou shalt know only one God"). For the arch-reductionists, many rigorous academic disciplines - including neighbouring sciences such as much clinical science, most social science and any form of psychology that does not conform to certain paradigms - are viewed as primitive. Humanist disciplines such as history, philosophy and political theory are deemed to be cognitive leftovers from earlier stages of human development. As for creative writers, they may be dismissed entirely. Other, informal, modes of understanding are derided as yet more backward: the intuitions, intelligence and understanding deployed by a good social worker, doctor, teacher or even a close friend are too remote from physics to count as knowledge of anything real.

This position looks plausible only because it stipulates in advance what shall count as real: reality is ultimately what is captured by physics or by those sciences that ape the terminology of physics and aspire to be assimilated into the latter's world picture. That is why consciousness itself - the necessary precondition of scientific inquiry, one would have thought - is viewed with suspicion. It cannot be real if it is truly available only to (unscientific) introspection; moreover, it involves secondary qualities and first-person perspectives, and these have no place in the impersonal scientific world of abstracted quantities. If its reality is to be allowed, this is only on the understanding that it proves to be identical with particular sorts of physico-chemical elements in the brain, so that it may qualify as a suitable subject for physical science. For this to be plausible, consciousness must be shrunk from (to use Midgley's phrase) "the crowded scene of everyday life" to a cluster of puzzling physical phenomena in the cabinet of the skull. Elsewise, it is a chimera, a ghost left over from folk psychology or its cousin, philosophy.

Midgley's case against intellectual imperialism of the reductionist scientism is witty, richly illustrated and decisive. She illustrates the need for different modes of inquiry yielding knowledge of different kinds of reality by considering the different maps in an atlas. No one in their senses would insist that cartography should aim to fuse these maps into a single one showing earthquakes, national boundaries, wealth and trade routes as manifestations of a single underlying substance. Yet this is precisely what reductionist scientific thought envisages: all forms of human knowledge ultimately reducible - and improvable to - the viewpoint- less view of mathematical physics. Midgley argues that the things that preoccupy poets and novelists are not third-rate data that will eventually be clarified and reformed, via some intermediate science such as neurochemistry, into physics's (first-rate) equations describing the transformations of mass-energy.

A great strength of Science and Poetry is Midgley's deep understanding of the impulses that motivate the commonest form of reductionism: that "way of thinking that deliberately extends the impersonal, reductive, atomistic methods that are appropriate to physical science into social and psychological inquiries where they work badly". Atomism, she reminds us, originated as a liberating vision, seminally expressed in Lucretius's On the Nature of the Universe . Lucretius had little empirical evidence for his theory; indeed, it was not primarily a solution to scientific problems but a moral crusade. By showing that natural causation was independent of the gods, it freed mankind "from the crushing load of superstition" that had led humans to do such terrible things in the name of religion. Unfortunately, he launched the notion of science as primarily "a benign kind of weed killer designed to get rid of religion". Weed killing then extended not only to superstitions but also to modes of knowledge and understanding other than its own. Ironically, as Midgley points out, Lucretius's treatise was composed of "great rolling hexameters that gave it force it would never have had if it had been expressed in unemotive prose".

The Lucretian origins of atomism, and the role of poetry in establishing its central place in the scientific mind, illuminate a central theme of Midgley's book: the dependence of detailed scientific thought on non-detailed background visions. Scientists who dismiss poetry and the imagination betray their ignorance of the roots of the very science in whose name they believe they speak. The formative images that shape scientific theorising are not developed in-house: there is a brisk trade of ideas and preconceptions and unstated assumptions between science and the society in which it develops and to whose development it makes such a contribution.

Midgley does not, however, use the pre-scientific roots of science and the external influences on its key concepts to support a dubious social constructivist or facile anti-realist view of science. She accepts that, within its limits, science provides objective knowledge of the aspects of nature it describes. She does not confuse the pre-scientific roots of science with its leaves: its specific theories are open to testing, and they are only as good as they are objectively effective. But it is precisely because of this that the escape of the atomic paradigm from the places where it has been so productive - the investigation, understanding and control, of certain aspects of the material world - to other places is unscientific. The arrogance of atomistic imperialism is particularly perverse given that atomism is somewhat passé in its home discipline of physics, which is increasingly inclined to take account of the role of the subject in measurement and has long abandoned billiard balls.

Atomistic notions of the social world, as in gene-based sociobiology, and the idea of memes (independent, self-replicating atoms of cultural transmission) demonstrate the continuing power of the Lucretian vision. Such is the hold of atomism that these developments can be passed off as belonging to science when the independent data in support of them are laughably inadequate. E. O. Wilson's declaration that "behaviour and social structure, like all other biological phenomena, can be studied as 'organs', extensions of the genes that exist because of their superior adaptive value" has all ordinary observations against it and only a atomist-inspired dream in favour.

Atomist reductionism is not just a matter of academic interest. The wider intellectual harm caused by misplaced atomistic thought is a major preoccupation of Science and Poetry . The influence of atomistic imagery, and the atomistic habit of breaking up wholes into ultimate units, is apparent in individualistic social thought and "the idea that human beings are essentially separate items who only come together in groups for contingent reasons of convenience".

The dangers of individualism and the associated social-contract thinking are becoming increasingly clear and present. Social-contract thinking, like atomism, was a liberating force when it was advanced by Enlightenment thinkers. It was part of "a political campaign against the use of religion to justify exploitation"; and its narrow contractual view of political obligations was "a defence against the use of religiously motivated loyalty by self-interested rulers". Contractual and individualistic thought, however, has had the unintended effect of making it difficult to understand, even less to accept, our wider responsibilities towards humans outside our own society, or even our immediate circle, and towards non-human nature, which we have come to think of "as an inert and bottomless larder stocked for our needs". Globalisation and the threat to the future habitability of the planet from the ever-more massive sum of human activity make atomic individualism an increasingly malign misunderstanding. By denying that we are all part of each other and that even our self-interest is best served by looking far beyond the horizon of our short-term interests, social-contract thinking and individualism threaten catastrophe on a planetary scale.

Midgley urges us to question the atomistic world pictures by which we live and, in particular, to develop a more realistic picture of the way society, the living world and the planet as a whole work so we can "correct the delusive idea that we are either engineers who can redesign our planet or chance passengers who can detach themselves from it when they please". She offers James Lovelock's Gaia - a vision of life on earth as a self- sustaining natural system - as such a world picture. Inasmuch as Gaia talk reminds us of the interconnectedness of all things, it is to be welcomed. It is less welcome as a potential focus for the personification of nature and insincere animist thought: the journey from Lovelock's Gaia to New Age Gaiarrhoea is short enough to discredit the former for some. We do not, however, have to believe that our planet is in some sense a single organism to be persuaded of Midgley's call to wider responsibilities.

The attraction of holistic or organicist thought for Midgley is of a piece with another of her strengths as a thinker: her desire to overcome what she calls intellectual apartheid. She likes the Gaia hypothesis because it "brings together official scientific beliefs with our imaginative life". As she declares in her opening sentence, Science and Poetry is about the unity of our lives, which is deeply connected with our sense of who and what we are: "We will never make sense of life if we do not somehow keep our various faculties on speaking terms with one another." This will not be achieved by one discipline declaring itself sovereign over all others, with scientists dismissing poetry as inferior to science or sociologists of knowledge cutting science down to size by pretending that the truths it has revealed about nature are socially constructed. Midgley's books over the past 20 years have made a signal contribution to ending "the contest of faculties" and to furthering the central philosophical mission of making sense of life. Science and Poetry is perhaps her most important book yet.

Raymond Tallis is professor of geriatric medicine, University of Manchester, and a writer on philosophy.

Science and Poetry

Author - Mary Midgley
ISBN - 0 415 23732 7
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £19.99
Pages - 230

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