Are You An Illusion? – Mary Midgley book review

This review is published in the current issue of Third Way magazine.

There is a quick answer to the question that forms the title of the 95-year-old philosopher Mary Midgley’s new book. It is, no. You are not an illusion. But understanding the appeal of “selficide” illuminates much about contemporary popular discourse, and in particular why it is often difficult for religious perspectives to be heard.

Midgley is a lively writer, enjoyed for the focus and clarity with which she steers a way through often complex arguments. (In the interests of disclosure, I should say that I am the editor of the series in which this book and her previous one, The Solitary Self, are published, though I had no direct hand in editing the latest.) There is a technical way of summing up why it can seem plausible to assert that our powerful sense of being an individual, a person, a self is illusory: the methodological stance of the natural sciences has become an ontological conviction. In other words, the highly successful practice of treating the natural world as full of physical objects to be studied empirically has morphed into an assumption that the natural world is full of nothing but physical objects.

When it comes to experience and consciousness, free will and so on this assumption becomes problematic, because these aspects of life are not physical objects. A London bus is big but it is also red. Physics can study the size of the bus though not its redness: all physics can reveal is that my eye is receiving light of about 700 nanometers wavelength. If you think that physics offers the best access to reality, the temptation is therefore to write off the experience of redness as a byproduct of what happens when a certain wavelength hits the cells at the back of your eye and is processed by the neurons at the back of your brain. There is no real experience of redness. The reality is the electrochemical states in the brain. Mental life is an illusion and, since mentality is so central to our experience of ourselves, you are an illusion too.

(It’s worth adding that Midgley is not asking the Buddhist question about the illusory nature of the self: her’s an issue prior to that about the reality of mental life at all which is to say that the Buddhist enquiry into the nature of the self presumes mental life is real in some sense.)

Of course, Midgley points out, no-one can actually live as if they or their family are an illusion. And there are all sorts of reasons why the reduction of everything to physical objects, and declaring any remainder illusory, fails. If reductionism is taken to reveal the truth of things, why stop at the brain and not molecules, atoms or quarks? The atomic fundamentalist would insist that the experience of pain is no more neurons firing than it is the sense of agony: it is but a pattern of atomic excitation.

Alternatively, consider a simple question asked by Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue the Phaedo. Why is he sitting in prison awaiting death by hemlock? The materialists of his day, Socrates says, would argue that his body consists of bones and sinews, and that a certain combination of contractions and movements in those bones and sinews led to him being behind bars. Only that seems a wholly inadequate explanation of his predicament because it misses out the main moral dimension. He is under arrest for what he believes to be the best way to live. That is the reality, and it is materialism that is flawed by dismissing ethics and the like. The paucity of this worldview was highlighted by Plato almost 2,500 years ago. Science has certainly progressed since then, but one of Midgley’s main points is that now our moral imaginations seem to be shrinking.

As well as diagnosing what has gone wrong, Midgley argues we need to understand what has been lost. The crucial part played by intention and motivation in mental life, and so also our sense of self is one element she explores. She notes that Charles Darwin did not lose sight of this dynamic. He took it to be as real as the materiality of the fossils he also studied.

For example, in The Descent of Man, he examines the behaviour of female Argus pheasants who chose a mate by male display. Today, evolutionists would describe these remarkable dances and parades as merely representing the potency of genes. But Darwin argued that the male pheasants are clearly trying to charm a female. The display has nothing meaningfully to do with genes at all. “Many will declare that it is utterly incredible that a female bird should be able to appreciate the fine shading and exquisite patterns with an almost human degree of taste,” he wrote. Darwin did not find it incredible. The mental life of pheasants is a fascinating subject of study and an obvious fact. Again, subsequent evolutionary science has, in this sense, regressed not progressed. Its “life-blindness”, as Midgley puts it, makes a casualty of a pheasant’s experience and our own.

Midgley respects the importance of the reality described by Christianity, though is agnostic as to its veracity herself. She argues that it is one thing not to believe in God and quite another not to believe in selves, without following the argument that the one may lead to the other: as some atheist as well as theist philosophers have pointed out, if you remove the ground of Being, then all beings come to be regarded as insubstantial and perhaps dispensable too.

She is also inclined to blame a certain kind of Christianity for the emergence of scientism. It is the type that searches for a world taken to be more real than the immediately reality that surrounds us – perhaps a heaven, the full presence of God, a perfect kingdom. Science makes the same theological move when it claims maths is more real than mud. What she seems to lose sight of is the centrality in Christianity, and indeed in Platonism before, of the very human experiences of love and suffering. They are not perceived of as impediments to truth but as the means by which we gain our deepest insights into life.

Nonetheless, by undoing the excessive claims of science, and showing why it should not dominate public discourse, Midgley contributes greatly to making space for religious truths again. Her books are always an illuminating read.

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