Mary Midgley

[MORAL PHILOSOPHER]

“THE SHAPE OF OUR IMAGINATION DETERMINES THE KIND OF SCIENTIFIC THEORIES WE CAN HOLD.”
Misconceptions:
Darwinism as savage competition
Consciousness as epiphenomenon
Humans as machines

Mary Midgley lives in a small cottagelike house several hours outside of London in Newcastle upon Tyne, a university town where she was previously a senior lecturer in philosophy (she’s now retired), and where she wrote her influential books of moral philosophy. She published her first book, Beast and Man, in 1978, when she was fifty-six. This was followed by eleven others, including Wickedness (1984), Evolution as a Religion (1985), Science and Poetry (2001), and a memoir, The Owl of Minerva (2005). Recently, Routledge has been re-releasing her major works and has compiled a companion volume, edited by one of her sons: The Essential Mary Midgley. The Financial Times praised her work as “commonsense philosophy of the highest order,” and she was characterized in the Guardian as “the most frightening philosopher in the country… the foremost scourge of scientific pretension.”

In recent years, she has found herself engaged in fierce public battles with Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, over what she deems to be their ideological approach to the story of evolution. When I visited, she was working on a pamphlet for teachers in British schools, to help explain the evolution v. creationism debate.

Midgley is a tall, formidable woman. I arrived at her home by train at four in the afternoon, and though I would be staying overnight, she requested that we begin the interview immediately. We spoke for an hour and a half, after which she grew tired. Then she cooked us a vegetarian dinner. When I followed her into the kitchen and asked if I could help her with the preparations, she remarked, very drily, “It’s no use being helped.”

—Sheila Heti

*

THE BELIEVER: There’s this thing people do—which is to compare humans with machines—and you’ve written that the only reason we can plausibly do this is because we’re animistic. We look at computers and invest them with human qualities, and we can’t see them as completely impersonal—and if we could see them as they are, we wouldn’t be drawing these analogies. I wonder why you think people like to use this metaphor of the human being a sort of computer.

MARY MIDGLEY: Well, there are two ways of looking at it, aren’t there? First, for a very long time there has been a romanticizing of machines. And the suggestion is quite often made that the world will be a much better place when these things take over, because they’re much more sensible than us. You’ll see these solemn arguments to prove that computers will shortly succeed us, and it seems a point on which people don’t think very clearly, because their imaginations get excited. So machines become a kind of magic which will remedy the ills of human culture, and the fantasy is that the mess humans make can be avoided once these robots get here. And we’re wonderful because we can make these things, which are going to be greater than us.

Then there is the other side, where you think of people as machines, which behaviorist psychologists very much like to do, and you have only to engineer the machine a little bit differently and society will be greatly improved. That’s a different angle, isn’t it?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Sheila Heti is the author of the novel Ticknor (FSG) and the story collection The Middle Stories (McSweeney’s). She has lived in Montreal and Toronto, but now she lives in Toronto.


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