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A Bad Smell Around Science

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates@home.com>
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


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

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

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,


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

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

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

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