Mary Midgley, “Against Humanism”

There is a delightful article by Mary Midgley that’s been on New Humanist for several years now. You would benefit from taking a few minutes to read it.

It is interesting that she sounds several themes that Hans Jonas earlier covered in his masterful The Phenomenon of Life, particularly when Midgley writes:

Positivism got rid of Cartesian dualism –the twofold world of Spirit and Matter that had seemed so obviously final to Newton– not by rethinking it but by simply eliminating Spirit, leaving Matter to manage on its own. The main reason for doing this was undoubtedly the fear of religion. The whole concept of Spirit was seen as too dangerous because of its history, notably, of course, the political oppression of the churches. Thus, as often happens, the new insight was shaped chiefly by contrast with the previous one and taken as a final refutation of it.

But Matter had been so carefully defined by dualists as inert and alien to life that it was really hard to see how it could do all that was now expected of it – how it could be the source of conscious, active living animals, including ourselves. The unlucky consequence of this clash can be seen in what is now called the Problem of Consciousness, the desperate ongoing attempt by many scientists to find ways of talking about human experience in “scientific” language – language that has been carefully designed to make all such talk impossible.

She notes some things about Julian Huxley, particularly his monism, that were news to me (monism is, roughly, the idea that there are not multiple roots to the world, but one — that everything is an expression of only one cosmic root, one source, one principle — sometimes even one kind of “stuff”):

[…] mental properties are not something alien to the material properties that the physical sciences study but are continuous with them, so any materialism that fails to recognize their continuity is mistaken. The still-surviving Cartesian dualism that treats mind as a separate substance from matter must therefore be abandoned. Mind must be taken to have been somehow present in the cosmos from the start. “We come, that is, to a monistic conclusion … that there is only one fundamental substance, and that this possesses not only material [but mental] properties. We want a new word to denote this X, this world-stuff; matter will not do for that is a word which the physicists and chemists have molded to suit themselves, and since they have not yet learnt to detect or measure mental phenomena they restrict the word ‘material’ to mean ‘non-mental’.”

Huxley, in fact, saw clearly – what few of those who now exalt science seem to have noticed – that this exaltation does not make sense unless we somehow enlarge the notion of reality to make room for mind.

This, of course, is not news to anyone who has read Descartes — when the world is divided into extended stuff and thinking stuff, it becomes very difficult to account for the thinking stuff in terms of the extended stuff; if one of the two substances of the world disappears (thinking stuff), the other substance (extended stuff) isn’t really equipped to make sense out of the missing substance (on this, see Michael Allen Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity). The resulting world-picture becomes sloppy, inelegant — notably when one looks to account for how mind arose from within the sloppy cosmology.

She also writes the following about the religious dimension of our modern notion of progress via technology and science:

Scholars now agree with [Huxley], however gloomily, that “the most fundamental need of man has always been ‘to discover… something not himself, something greater than himself, with which he yet felt that he could harmonise his nature’.” Such a religious quest does seem to be a human universal, leading sometimes to appalling results and sometimes to admirable ones. Scientistic thought today now admits this but explains the habit as some sort of natural mistake – perhaps comparable to an optical illusion? – a squint which has unfortunately been universal till now but can be corrected in the light of modern science.

Modern science, however, does not seem to be having this corrective effect. The religious quest still remains unquenched in our apparently scientific age, even though the visions we use to satisfy it are quite different. Scientific input does not improve these visions, in fact it makes them worse. The modern obsession with the evolutionary process surely shows many of the familiar features of a rather mean, self-serving religion. Evolution itself –more or less equated with Progress– simply takes the place of the previously expected journey to heaven, being seen as a benign force that will take us forward, however stupidly we act, through science and technology to an endless sequence of prosperity, probably in outer space.

Well said. Midgley wrote a book about a common, religiously-transmuted understanding of evolution –not the scientific theory which models change in organisms over time– and how it appears not only in popular literature. She has written elsewhere about a modern myth, “Science as Salvation“. I highly recommend you read her. She is among our best contemporary thinkers, and she writes very, very well.

4 thoughts on “Mary Midgley, “Against Humanism”

  1. “Evolution itself –more or less equated with Progress– simply takes the place of the previously expected journey to heaven, being seen as a benign force that will take us forward, however stupidly we act, through science and technology to an endless sequence of prosperity, probably in outer space.”

    This comports nicely with the Progressivist notion that “progress” from the Latin meaning “going or walking forward” is the equivalent of “improvement,” rather like saying one wants “to make a difference,” because, apparently, any change is an improvement when things are so bad as they are. Of course, bank robbers and muggers make a difference too, but not a good one. Maybe uncritical fans of Progressivism think they are just buying a stairway to heaven.


  2. Optimism is probably an ineradicable feature of the American landscape. (If it dies, we will become something wholly different.) It can easily latch onto this sort of primitive notion of the cosmic escalator, as I recall Midgley putting it. I will champion the optimism; I will not defend the escalator.


  3. Pingback: John A. Bremer (1927–2015) | Into the Clarities

  4. Pingback: The Pandemic, and the Question of Value in Nature | Into the Clarities

Start a conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.