Science and Poetry by Mary Midgley - review by A C Grayling

A C Grayling

A Vital Debate

Science and Poetry


Routledge 240pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

When C P Snow famously lamented the division between the Two Cultures of science and the humanities, it was the scientific ignorance of those who studied the latter – and went on to be decision makers in politics, the civil service and the universities – that troubled him. Their inability to understand the nature and promise of science, he said, or the importance of research and of the proper conditions for it, too frequently either hampered the progress of knowledge, or resulted in false applications of the progress made.

The same unhappy quarrel continues today, but the other way round. Now it is defenders of the humanities who argue that the intellectual dominance enjoyed by science is distorting our view of human nature and society. The atomism and reductionism that characterise scientific theories, they say, have led to individualism and fragmentation in the human domain – and alienation between humankind and the surrounding natural world. They have diminished mankind’s values by redescribing them in terms of biological imperatives. They have banished both poetry and the gods, and replaced them with cold facts and hard equations. These defenders of the humanities attack what they see as an assumption on the part of science (or at least scientism) that ultimately science will explain all things. But their chief target is its reductionism, defined as that view which ‘sees nothing in the pearl but the disease of the oyster’.

There has been a spate of recent books on this theme, added to now by Mary Midgley’s clearly and forcefully argued offering. But she differs from the others in two significant respects. Firstly, she claims, surely rightly, that poetry (standing here for philosophy and the arts in general: that is, for what gives people a larger and more inclusive vision) is a source of genuine and necessary understanding. And secondly, she therefore urges a more holistic view of people in their communities. and of mankind in its relation to nature. For this last point she makes use of the Gaia metaphor of the world as an organism, in order to stress the interconnectedness of things, and to endorse the emergent values, which, she argues, can only be fully appreciated and promoted from the perspective of poetry, philosophy and the arts.

Apart from gung-ho proponents of scientism, no reflective person could disagree with Midgley’s view. But as she points out, there are quite a few such proponents of scientism about, some of them eloquent. Because the finer points of the debate get lost when it becomes public property and degenerates into simplistic slogans which subsequently constitute received wisdom, it is important, she says, to combat scientism’s supporters and to reiterate the opposing claims.

Although Midgley is right overall, some of her views are debatable. For example, in resisting an apparent consequence of the scientific world-view, namely that humans lack free will because they are causally determined in all they do, she argues that ‘determinism’ is ill-defined and exploits a false dichotomy between mind and body, in which the former is said to be under the coercive causal control of the latter. If you deny the dichotomy, she claims, you no longer have to see the mind as under the compulsion of the body as an outside agency. But this response dodges rather than solves the free-will problem. It is precisely because no mind/body dichotomy is premised that the problem exists; for if mental phenomena are dependent for their existence on brains and their operations, and if these latter belong to a causally ordered realm, then an explanation is required of how we can make the choices and decisions which are central to us as moral creatures. If our actions are the causally necessary outcomes of earlier states of ourselves and the world, in the way that all physical phenomena are, then we can neither be praised nor blamed for what we do; and only if praise and blame are possible is morality relevant.

Equally troublingly, Midgley attacks what she characterises as isolationist views of mind and consciousness – the ‘selves in solitary confinement’ of the Cartesian tradition – and stresses our dependence on society and world around us. But there is an opposite danger in this holism and anti-individualism. The idea that the whole is more important than the parts, that society is more important than its individual members, is a view that has had horrible consequences wherever it has been applied – as in the failed would-be communist tyrannies of late and unlamented memory. The interests of the collective often outweigh those of individuals, but that is not to say that they always do, and it has been a great achievement of modern times to liberate the individual from the tyranny of various kinds of collective and their all too frequently spurious demands.

It is important that both sides in this vital debate should appreciate the following facts: that the natural sciences address themselves to a specific range of phenomena, and do not claim that direct deductions can be made from them – from, say, quantum physics – and applied to social and political concerns. Even to export scientific styles of reasoning to these concerns is a mistake if the practice is not appropriately limited and the style appropriately applied, for the phenomena to be considered are very different. But then no self-respecting scientist really believes that what he says about quarks and leptons applies to people and institutions. By the same token, the fact that people are social animals living in communities does not imply that everything only makes sense if understood holistically. ‘Horses for courses’ should be the watchword, both for those tempted by the excesses of scientism and for those alarmed by them.

Mary Midgley does indeed agree with this point, in effect. By bringing some of the more important detail of the arguments into focus and quoting so appositely from the poets whose visions of the world enrich our understanding of it, she performs a service.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter