From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: Sun, 04 Nov 2001 11:52:51 -0500 Fwd Date: Sun, 04 Nov 2001 11:52:51 -0500 Subject: A Bad Smell Around Science http://www.newscientist.com/opinion/opinterview.jsp?id=ns23155 Mary, Mary Quite Contrary Mary Midgley is a woman on a mission. For two decades, Britain's most visible moral philosopher has laid into scientists who have tried to turn science into a religion. The big problem, says Midgley, is that it seduces people into believing in certainties and taking imperfect scientific metaphors as literal, revealed truth. Is it time to rethink science? Should we rename it? In her latest book, Midgley puts her money on Gaia as a guide. As she told Liz Else, Gaia might turn out to be that rare thing--both good science and good metaphor Scientists with a strongly reductionist bent will resent you, as a moral philosopher, straying onto their patch. What are you doing there? People think of philosophy as a special and rather grand subject cut off from others, something you could put on the mantelpiece. I think it is much more like plumbing--the sort of thinking that people do even in the most prudent, practical areas always has a whole system of thought under the surface which we are not aware of. Then suddenly we become aware of some bad smells, and we have to take up the floorboards and look at the concepts of even the most ordinary piece of thinking. The great philosophers of the past didn't spend their time looking at entities in the sky. They noticed how badly things were going wrong, and made suggestions about how they could be dealt with. So is there a bad smell around science that we should be looking into? Yes. I think it goes back to Descartes. He hoped that there would be one way of knowing which would solve all problems. It was a noble hope, and well worth having. Because physics was so successful at that time, he thought that physics was the model and that other difficult problems could eventually be dealt with by reducing them to physics. That doesn't work because physics is only one way of thinking, a tremendously abstract way of thinking, and we need many other ways of thinking about human problems. The effect has been that people think either you know things or you don't, that total certainty is what you ought to go for. But what always appears to emerge is that, in that sense, there is nothing that you "know", nothing that you couldn't possibly raise some kind of question about. What should we do instead? The real aim is to get what guidance and probability you can about the questions that are important to you. If you don't have the kind of mathematical proof that Descartes hoped for, this is not terribly important. One only needs proof if there is some real doubt. These days we are much more inclined to think about different ways of understanding things and to consider understanding as the main goal. We will never have a final answer. We are always being confronted by new issues, so it's much more about the cultivation of a garden where there have to be many plants. I like organic metaphors because I think they are much more helpful than Descartes' metaphor of building, which insists on foundations. Has the word "science" become confusing? I think it has, because it is partly a descriptive word, a name for knowledge of the physical world, and partly a word of praise--if it's not science it's no good! So that would mean that history was no good--or music. But nobody thinks that, do they? What could we call it instead? Perhaps rational enquiry would do for the term of praise. Of course, the physical sciences are indeed "sciences", but that doesn't mean that history and the social sciences are "unscientific". How did you end up in this tricky area? When I went to Oxford in 1938 to read classics and philosophy I had hardly any scientific input in my background. My family were not anti-science, but they didn't know much about it. At college I got to know a number of medical students, zoologists, biologists of various kinds, and became rather interested. It was wartime, and my contemporaries were mainly women--Iris Murdoch, Mary Warnock and so on. You chose moral philosophy, which seems less connected to science than other kinds of philosophy... The value of science is a very important question morally. As are questions about the place of science in our lives, too. When did you get really stuck into science? I took time off when I was looking after my small children. I read what I wanted and picked up books on ethology by authors such as Jane Goodall. It was a terrific revelation because what those ethologists showed was that many other creatures are quite like us. At the same time, I had a lot of good animal behaviour going on around me with my boys, and I was deeply struck by the way sentences came out of them spontaneously, by the way they knew how to play in ways that nobody had taught them. I suppose I had imbibed the behaviourist idea that human behaviour is all conditioned. I was delighted to find that that was wrong. I was taken by the debate that was already going on between the ethologists and social scientists--who dismissed the whole idea of human nature as eugenic and fascist. This seemed to me pretty odd so I started Beast and Man. What happened then? When I sent it to the publishers they told me to read some sociobiology, so I bought the books and I found them odd. They seemed not so much wrong as terribly one-sided. And I thought: why did we have to choose at all between mere conditioning and this rather narrow set of natural motives? So I did my best in Beast and Man to ask those questions. Of course I got shot at from both ends, but people did welcome the book a bit, I think, because by the time it came out a lot of people were as tired of fighting as I was. Why did you stay with the battle? I was increasingly struck by the strange things that turned up sometimes in scientific books--particularly in the last chapter, where there would be passages of prophecy, really, that seemed to be quite unrelated to science. Particularly prophecies about how evolution was a great sort of escalator moving upwards, and humans were this wonderful passenger on it, and they would arrive at perfection. It seemed to be an idea which Darwin very much didn't have, and the glorification of the human race seemed extremely un-Darwinian, and I hated it. At first, I thought these passages couldn't really matter, but then I realised that what people were going to remember was this purple stuff. Increasingly, I began to feel the pictures we use are not just paint on the surface of our thoughts but are very important. So you couldn't just leave it there... No. It seems to me extraordinary the extent to which people today who don't have any confidence in religion put much the same kind of faith in this aspect of science. When I mentioned this at conferences, that became very clear. The scientists, particularly the psychologists, used to say, surely, all these metaphors are harmless, either it's just a joke, or it's something rather sacred that you're not licensed to take up. I was made to feel boorish. What I wanted to do was show what brings together the different aspects of the writer so everyone can see he's one person and he's accountable. I think this dream of an omega point, of a predestined safety for the human race is corrupting. I think that producing this confident euphoria about the future is actually bad, dangerous. Why? it's dangerous when somebody with authority, which scientists have, says the human race is absolutely booked to be alright, to get better and better, grander and grander, to go to outer space, to turn ourselves into machines, to get all the information there is and in the end to become a kind of god. When people are also hearing that the planet is in some danger, that they are not so terribly secure after all, they will naturally tend to think that this warning must be mistaken. I'm a naturally optimistic person, but optimism which amounts to telling people that they are safe when they they are not is something that I consider to be wicked. That's a strong word. Irrational maybe, but wicked? Suppose you had a set of people on an island and they were wasting resources and heading for a disastrous situation. Suppose that you're an authority on that island, and you go about telling the inhabitants that they have a wonderful celestial destiny. You would be deluding people, keeping them in a very dangerous condition. Any scientist today has a responsibility to know what great authority he or she has and a responsibility to use it in a wise and rational way. Does science examine itself enough? Scientists are not trained to do this so they often find it hard. When you published the Gaia book this year, did you feel that, after all the attacks, you ought to offer some alternative vision? Yes indeed. Mind you, over the years I have mentioned quite a lot of other visions that I thought were pretty good visions. But I thought Gaia was needed immediately in order to correct the individualism in the vision of the selfish gene. That was a powerful, attractive and colourful vision--and it is never easy to shift people from any picture without putting one in its place. It's hard for the scientists to see those detailed bits of science as part of the larger vision because atomism--the reductive notion that chopping things will get you to an ultimate explanation of everything--is so powerful in today's science. I think this reductivism has been carried so far that a lot of people are beginning to feel unhappy with it. Which made me feel that putting forward Gaia wasn't absolutely doomed. Also, in recent decades the scientific aspects of Gaia theory have been shown to be possible, really quite respectable. How would the world look in, say, 50 years, if we adopted a Gaian viewpoint? For one thing, science would be much less broken up into separate bits. For example, geology and biology have been treated as separate, but it turns out that they are not. The big idea in biology lately has been the dog-eat-dog competition of evolution, where organisms adapted themselves to circumstances. But if, in fact, organisms could improve those circumstances, or interact with them, then it opens up all sorts of other possibilities. I guess that the same thing would happen at other frontiers of specialisms. Would Gaian science deal a death blow to what you see as science's delusions of grandeur and the power of reductionism? Yes. I think those two became related in the 17th century. At that time, finding the ultimate explanation through a single science was very closely linked with God. It was a matter of discovering God's ultimate intention. Now, although God is officially removed from the story, people do still think in that way. If they grasped how the full plurality of sciences is needed to comprehend a complex system like the Earth, I think they would be less tempted by that sort of grand simplification.
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