- Are You an Illusion? by Mary Midgley
Nearly two decades ago Francis Crick, the codiscoverer of the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule, published The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, in which he argued that science explains the soul away, for science successfully reduces us—our conscious thought, will, emotions, etc.—to the neurons and neuronal interactions that compose the brain. Many scientists have risen in the intervening years to critique Crick's thoroughgoing reductionist materialism (e.g., Gerald Edelman, Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness). But during that time, no philosophical engagement of the issue has been as aggressive and directly accessible as Mary Midgley's Are You an Illusion? The absence of a subtitle shows the unusually focused nature of the project, for it is an exercise in dialectic that forces us to do what even philosophers are often hesitant to do: to set aside developed theories and their possible applications, to look directly at our first principles, and to weigh them.
Midgley's target, however, is broader than Crick or the philosophers following in his footsteps (such as Daniel Dennett). In the past half century, there has developed a widespread tendency among scientists to claim, "apparently in the name of science, that they believe themselves, and indeed their readers, not to exist" (vii), replacing us with brain cells. This "suicidal" thesis Midgley critiques in four general ways: it "does not really make sense in itself, nor does the reasoning that is used to support it," and it "does not actually flow from science" (ibid.) but (surprisingly) from a version of Cartesian dualism. This last claim—that the materialistic view of the self as an illusion traces back to Cartesianism—may sound the most counterintuitive to Thomists, who would take the first three claims as irrefutable. Yet Midgley makes a convincing case on all counts.
Much of the book, in fact, is a historical study of how we got here, defending the theory that this state of affairs goes back to Descartes. By making us (or rather our minds) self-subsistent spiritual observers of the res extensa, we did not have to think of ourselves as being in any way a part of or dependent on nature, so that as soon as the universe became only an object for our minds, it also became something we are free to work on in any way that suits us. According to Midgley, the irony was that, although this dualism freed scientists for unlimited research, leaving spirit to the churchmen, the obvious fact that mind and matter are connected always nagged at us until we saw them as opposed. The opposition, combined with spirit's (alleged) irrelevance to scientific study, and the success of the latter, inevitably streamlined dualism as materialism. Early twentieth-century behaviorists, Midgley argues, facilitated this simplification by embracing a sophism: objectivity is opposed to subjectivity, so one cannot be objective (that is, evenhanded) about the subjective world. Thus, we live now in "the last stage in the collapse of [End Page 302] dualism" (139), an incoherent age of materialism combined with the habits of dualism that delays "changes that will finally have to be made" to science (60).
One of the shadows of dualism under which we labor was a result of seeing spirit (ours and God's) as the only active beings, which relegated matter to the status of an exclusively passive participant in nature. This view does not sit well now with the evidence that the biological world evolves nor with the recognition that fields and energy should be central to physics (it is a weakness of Midgley's account that she refers only in passing to the notions of fields in this regard, while evolution receives most of her attention). Indeed, Midgley points out that "the central trouble" with this form of materialism is that over the past century the explanatory work given to matter "has increased dramatically and the concepts that used to share the burden...