Located several hours from London in the university town of Newcastle upon Tyne, the small cottage like home of Mary Midgley is where the former senior lecturer in philosophy (who is now retired) wrote her influential books on moral philosophy.
Her first book, Beast and Man, was published in 1978 when she was fifty-six. This was followed by eleven more, including Wickedness (1984), Evolution as a Religion (1985), Science and Poetry (2001), and her memoir, The Owl of Minerva (2005).
Recently, Routledge has released several of her major works, comprised in The Essential Mary Midgley, a companion volume edited by one of her sons.
The Financial Times praised her work as “commonsense philosophy of the highest order,” and she was described in the Guardian as “the most frightening philosopher in the country… the foremost scourge of scientific pretension.”
Recently, she has been embroiled in numerous public controversies with Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, due to her criticism of their philosophical outlook on the history of evolution.
During my time spent with her, she was composing a guide for teachers in the UK, to assist them with teaching the clash between evolution and creationism.
I showed up to Midgley’s place by train at four in the afternoon and, despite my intention to stay overnight, she insisted we start the interview right away. We conversed for ninety minutes until she became weary.
Then, she cooked us a vegetarian meal. When I offered to assist her in the kitchen, she dryly responded, “It’s no use being helped.”
Sheila Heti has a unique way of perceiving the world; she is able to look at things from a different angle and with a new perspective.
Her way of thinking and her creative approach to life allows her to see things in an unconventional manner. She is skilled at taking the ordinary and transforming it into something extraordinary.
I’d like to discuss the concept of evolution as the dominant origin story of the contemporary era, and how it influences our perception of humanity and life itself. In Evolution as a Religion, you criticize certain scientists for attributing to Darwin’s theory of evolution aspects which are not supported by it.
According to Mary Midgley, getting the story of evolution right and avoiding its misuse is essential. There are two main abuses of the concept of evolution which are the optimistic view that it is an escalator which can take us anywhere and the notion that progress is natural and required.
This latter idea is a mythical one as nature does not allow for indefinite growth. Interestingly, when Darwin was first formulating his theory, he did not even use the term ‘evolution’.
QUESTION: Yes, I recall coming across that in one of your publications.
ANSWER: People often misconstrue Darwinism as a great scientific breakthrough, but it is actually a creation myth. Another misunderstanding is that the universe is regulated by a competitive struggle between individuals.
This is not true according to Darwin. Herbert Spencer actually derived this idea from the laissez-faire economics of the time which claimed that progress is only achievable through extreme competition.
However, this is an inaccurate representation of how life was created as cooperation between organisms is essential. The “competition” between organisms is often to find a new food source or to start photosynthesis.
You frequently take issue with Richard Dawkins for taking his arguments to an extreme.
ANSWER: It is unexpected that Dawkins would quote Tennyson at the start of The Selfish Gene. He states “‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ presents our view of natural selection perfectly,” but that is not true.
There is a multitude of tales that could be told rather than being stuck with this one, and the metaphors are powerful yet unjust. They have a considerable impact.
When one examines humanity, it is much more intricate than one single legend. What would you term your outlook on human nature, as it is associated with a tale, a myth, or a framework?
MM commented that it is misleading to view people as completely cooperative, since people have different motives. Freud and Hobbes both gave one-sided stories, but it is unfortunate when a one-sided story is seen as scientific.
Science is meant to be impartial, but books that are marketed as scientific can contain ideologies and be seen as the words of a guru or a prophet to be judged for their accuracy.
QUESTION: stated that a considerable number of scientists do not recognize that they are playing the role of myth creators.
ANSWER: Agreed, that is regrettable. In nations where English is predominantly spoken, scientists have a tendency to have much more specialized training.
This usually results in their only having a straightforward conception of truth as a match to facts, but when dealing with larger ideas this isn’t always the case. You need a combination of facts to understand them fully.
Unfortunately, in many cases, scientists who are incredibly dedicated to the rest of their work tend to take a break when they reach the conclusion, you know?
QUESTION: Could the debate over intelligent design or creationism and evolution in the U.S. happen if evolution wasn’t so firmly believed by atheists?
ANSWER: It can be viewed as a contrast to religion if it is considered something of the same sort. This is a very unfortunate circumstance. It is clear that America’s Protestantism was cut off from the rest of the world of thought.
Immigrants had to leave most of their culture behind and bring along their Bibles as the only thing that could be taken. As more information was revealed that did not align with the Bible, it was not accepted.
This eventually led to the fundamentalist doctrine that all of the Bible was true. Now, it is difficult to deal with the current situation, especially with Dawkins and Dennett saying religion is nonsense and has been disproved.
It should be kept in mind that people need to be able to take this in, and this is complicated by politics. It is wrong to think that science is the only book that will provide us with the meaning of life.
QUESTION: Essentially, when it comes to the significance of our lives, we as humans tend to rely on the arts rather than on science or anything else.
ANSWER: suggested that the large-scale scientific theories have some relevance to life’s core purpose, but that accuracy of scientific details is not necessarily a key factor in that.
QUESTION: Has scientific research provided us with any certain answers concerning the purpose of existence? Has it uncovered anything definite about the significance of life?
ANSWER: suggested that discovering an order in life, even if it’s something as simple as why a frog is green, can be quite satisfying. It can make the world seem more connected and less alien.
This isn’t just a matter of scientific truths, but also philosophical ones. Copernicus, for example, changed the way we view life by teaching us that we are not in the middle. It is thus clear that science and philosophy are interconnected.
QUESTION: I’m intrigued–I haven’t seen any indication of your opinion on the existence of a higher power in your work.
ANSWER: I’m quite perplexed by this. Having grown up in an Anglican household, I always assumed this kind of thing was okay, yet I felt no presence of God. It appears to me that the world is large enough to accommodate those who do and do not have this type of experience.
Moreover, attempting to remove the concept of God is comparable to removing a tumor, as it is an important part of human life. The visions of the imagination are a fundamental part of human life and what these entail is real. Can you tell me your view on all of this?
QUESTION: Honestly, I am uncertain. To be frank, I don’t think…
ANSWER: You were not exposed to it during your upbringing.
I was raised in an environment that deemed those who had faith in God as foolish.
I concur that beginning in that manner is the best approach, in my opinion.
QUESTION: It’s common for people to compare humans to machines, and you’ve suggested that this is only possible because of our tendency to anthropomorphize computers.
We cannot view them as being completely impersonal and if we did, there would be no reason to make the comparison in the first place. I’m curious to know why you think people are so keen on using the metaphor of a human being as a computer.
ANSWER: It seems there are two perspectives to consider here. On the one hand, there is a romanticization of machines that suggests they will make the world a better place because they are more sensible than humans.
People think that computers will soon surpass us, and it is a notion that is not often thought through rationally.
Machines become an enchanting notion that can fix any difficulty of our culture, and the idea is that we are great for being able to create these robots that will be superior to us.
On the other hand, there is the idea of people being machines, which the behaviorists favor, and the idea is that if we alter the engineering of the machine, it will improve society. That’s a different view, isn’t it?
Affirmative. BLVR agreed.
MM has an appreciation for Frankenstein and science fiction, since they communicate something essential about the human experience.
However, they become less appealing when people simply want to use them as a form of entertainment. This genre can lead to all sorts of stories, but MM tends to view it with a sense of uneasiness.
QUESTION: I wanted to discuss the idea that, according to Evolution as a Religion, “many genes have an effect on a lot of properties and vice versa”.
People often think it’s possible to simply take a gene and replace it with another, but this is not an accurate representation of the how genes actually work.
ANSWER: It’s understandable why people would think of humans as just another machine in the garage that can be fixed with the right tools. This idea that people can be easily and conveniently modified to be like cars is false.
Scientists have made progress by looking at humans as a collection of parts, but it’s important that they don’t go too far and become unrealistic.
QUESTION: How have these expectations become out of touch with reality?
ANSWER: commented that psychiatrists have long been devoted to the notion that mental illness could be entirely dealt with using physical means. They thought that consciousness was a mere epiphenomenon and that any issue could be solved with the right drugs.
He recalled a psychiatrist who lamented that Virginia Woolf did not have access to these medications as she could have been cured quickly.
He argued that it is more comforting to think that a physical process can be performed to achieve a solution, rather than taking the time to understand the feelings of the people in need.
Moreover, he believed that people are afraid to consider emotions and to imagine what is going on in their minds, and instead, they prefer to “get out the spanners”. He concluded that this idea of consciousness as only a result and never a cause is a product of gratuitous metaphysics.
QUESTION: How would you respond to the person who claimed that if only proper medication had been available, Virginia Woolf could have been rescued?
ANSWER: suggests that depression should not be seen as analogous to a physical illness, as it often has both mental and physical components. It is a medical fact that consciousness can affect the physical.
This idea has been largely overlooked in the past century, yet it is fairly simple to understand. For instance, if someone is a mathematician solving a problem, it would be strange to suggest that the thoughts they think have no bearing on how their hands move.
QUESTION: Mentioning atomism and Lucretius, you suggest that without the initial representation of this concept in poetic and philosophical works, people would not have gone on to make the discoveries they did.
ANSWER: The thing that caught my eye was very intriguing, as I was reading a scientist who said poetry was a use of time.
It made me think of the atomic theory, which is now very important to science, and how it came from the Greek atomists, who were philosophers, and through Lucretius, whose poems are impressive.
He was highly respected and read during the Renaissance, when the atomic theory was being developed. The way we think directs the kind of scientific theories we can come up with, doesn’t it?
Our imaginations are used in various ways in everyday life, but literature is where it is really nurtured.
In your writing, you often refer to imagination, as if it has a great deal of significance. However, I don’t believe the typical usage of the term ‘imagination’ conveys its true importance.
MM responded affirmatively, citing Coleridge and Wordsworth. He clarified that there is a difference between fancy, which is simply for enjoyment, and imagination, which is used to process emotions into thoughts.
This process, he explains, is akin to “emotion recollected in tranquillity” – raw emotion cannot be used directly. Instead, it must be related to the rest of one’s life and turned into thought.
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