Theos, a UK-based think tank studying religion and culture, conducted an extended interview with British philosopher Mary Midgley last year to commemorate the Darwin bicentennial. (2009 was the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.) Midgley and interviewer Nick Spencer discussed science as a historical enterprise, the political uses and misuses of evolutionary theory, and the “intelligent design” debate. (Hat tip to the Books and Culture newsletter for the link.) A brief excerpt:
Spencer: It’s fascinating isn’t it how, given the number of crises of faith his work catalysed, Darwin himself didn’t have one. The decline of his Christianity was gentle and gradual and it was no real loss. He certainly lived a life remarkably similar to that of the comfortable, liberal, rural Anglican clergyman he would have been had he gone ahead with his ordination.
Midgley: Yes, he did. I think that it was probably not much of a shock to lose his faith because of the kind of faith that he had, and he had not lost faith in the society, therefore, not in the ideals of the society. The thing he was not committed to doing was comforting the dying by telling them that they were going toheaven, wasn’t it?
My father became a pacifist because he was a Chaplain in the First World War for a short time, and he had to tell men in the trenches what they were dying for, and this was a poignant experience. I’m sure that will have been a thought that occurred to Darwin, and he was unwilling to do it. He had a lot of the clerical life, but he didn’t have that bit.
He says somewhere, doesn’t he, that eternal punishment is an abominable doctrine, sothere were enough really off-putting features in Christianity at the time for him not to betoo bothered if he had to put a great deal of it aside.
Spencer: His was a very propositional faith and when some of those propositions got challenged the whole thing collapsed. He was the first person to admit there was no particular emotional commitment; he distrusted the evidential worth of experience, and as [his wife] pointed out to him, your experience and your feelings are a very important element of religious life.
Midgley: Well, of course, it’s not only important in religious life. He wrote in his autobiography that he had lost a lot of the emotional side of life generally, and what he recorded and recognised clearly was already happening then – he lost his appreciation for music, poetry, landscapes, even scenery. He was becoming more and more obsessed by the need for formal proof, and the work of putting together the details of his argument obviously was important. But of course experience is also part of the evidence, of the data. You’ve got to accept what people tell you, and what they tell you is what they’ve experienced.
People talk about ‘scientific empiricism’, but it isn’t very empirical, it seems to me, because it’s so selective among the experiences that people have. It’s not interested in what you might call strong and positive experiences. The sense that all sorts of things are happening which we don’t understand is a very important element of experience, and anyone who doesn’t take that seriously is not going to get far.
Different approaches have to work together, you see. I’ve used repeatedly the analogy of the senses – we touch things and we also see them and smell them. Now, there’s no continuity between those things, but we use the relation between them to build the full picture. We know that there are optical illusions and also tactile illusions, and we use the one thing to correct the other.
John Ziman used a similar analogy with maps – a political map and a geological map describe the same phenomena but they are doing it in different ways, according to different questions. He highlighted how much we think in terms of diagrams and visua lthings as well. But there’s always a temptation to become wedded to one particular map, and I think the economic map is the one that is currently being taken to represent reality– the bottom line. When you find what the profit and loss is, that’s the reality. And it’s of course the one that’s really under attack at the moment.
Spencer: In Science and Poetry you point out that detailed thinking emerges from imaginative roots, and all science includes philosophic assumptions. I think that’s quite an unfamiliar thought to many people today. Do you want to unpack it a little bit, particularly in relation to Darwinism?
Midgley: Yes, we all have myths through which we explain the world. The word ‘myth’ is a bit awkward because it is sometimes used simply to mean ‘false’, but I find its other meaning very useful. I also talk about dreams and dramas and visions and so forth. Whichever way one talks about it, it’s about an imaginative background, a way of seeing a problem in the world which determines what questions you ask, how you select your questions. The idea that simply, honestly finding the answer to questions is all you need doesn’t work – you’ve got to have the right questions. I think that as the history of science has built up and emerged it’s become clear that this has been a very important factor at every stage.