Wednesday, February 15, 2006

who's read mary midgley ?

I came across her books on Amazon, and for once can say well done interest-matching algorithm. One of her titles is
The Myths We Live By
; it begins like this:

We are accustomed to think of myths as the opposite of science. But in fact they are a central part of it: the part that decides its significance in our lives. So we very much need to understand them.

Myths are not lies. Nor are they detached stories. They are imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world. They shape its meaning. For instance, machine imagery, which began to pervade our thought in the seventeenth century, is still potent today. We still often tend to see ourselves, and the living things around us, as pieces of clockwork: items of a kind that we could ourselves make, and might decide to remake if it suits us better. Hence the confident language of 'genetic engineering' and 'the building blocks of life'.

Again, the reductive, atomistic picture of explanation, which suggests that the right way to understand complex wholes is always to break them down into their smallest parts, leads us to think that the truth is always revealed at the end of that other seventeenth-century invention, the microscope. When microscopes dominate our imagination, we feel that the large wholes we deal with in everyday experience are mere appearances. Only the particles revealed at the bottom of the microscope are real. Thus, to an extent unknown in earlier times, our dominant technology shapes our symbolism and thereby our metaphysics, our view about what is real. The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone -- steel and glass, plastic and rubber and silicon -- of his own devising and sees them as the final truth.

Of course this mechanistic imagery does not rule alone. Older myths survive and are still potent, but they are often given a reductive and technological form. Thus, for instance, we are still using the familiar social-contract image of citizens as essentially separate and autonomous individuals, but we are less likely now to defend it on humanistic or religious grounds than by appealing to a neo-Darwinist vision of universal competition....

Which is the kind of thing I'm interested in, in happily lucid prose. From what I've read about her so far, I gather she, like many others, thinks Dawkins is an idiot, this time because he ignores the role and value of other myths in viewing the world even when science gives nice resolution. It's worth mentioning that she's not religious, herself, and her object apparently isn't to persuade the reader of the glories of God.

I haven't read enough Dawkins to have an opinion on whether or not he's a bright idiot, and I'm not really interested in joining a team, but I can understand having a sense that you're listening to a 14-year-old cousin who's in possession of many facts and won't be leaving for two days. I wonder, though, if he doesn't get a bum rap. The problem with looking at the world through the lens of, say, The Selfish Gene (which I enjoyed very much), is that it doesn't seem to have a hell of a lot of use in everyday human life, except in giving some support for playing Tit for Tat. You don't go out to lunch with genes; you go out with people. Dawkins recognizes this, and partly anticipated Midgley twenty years ago. This is from the beginning of The Blind Watchmaker, where he's talking about the problem of understanding things in terms of tiniest, lowest-level interactions:

The behaviour of a computer can be explained in terms of interactions between semiconductor electronic gates, and the behaviour of these, in turn, is explained by physicists at yet lower levels. But, for most purposes, you would in practice be wasting your time if you tried to understand the behaviour of the whole computer at either of those levels. There are too many electronic gates and too many interconnections between them. A satisfying explanation has to be in terms of a manageably small number of interactions. This is why, if we want to understand the workings of computers, we prefer a preliminary explanation in terms of about half a dozen major subcomponents -- memory, processing mill, backing store, control unit, input-output handler, etc. Having grasped the interactions between the half-dozen major components, we then may wish to ask questions about the internal organization of these major components. Only specialist engineers are likely to go down to the level of AND gates and NOR gates, and only physicists will go down further, to the level of how electrons behave in a semiconducting medium.

For those that like '-ism' sorts of names, the aptest name for my approach to understanding how things work is probably 'hierarchical reductionism'. If you read trendy intellectual magazines, you may have noticed that 'reductionism' is one of those things, like sin, that is only mentioned by people who are against it. to call oneself a reductionist will sound, in some circles, a bit like admitting to eating babies. But, just as nobody actually eats babies, so nobody is really a reductionist in any sense worth being against. The nonexistent reductionist -- the sort that everybody is against, but who exists only in their imaginations -- tries to explain complicated things directly in terms of the smallest parts, even, in some extreme versions of the myth, as the sum of the parts! The hierarchical reductionist, on the other hand, explains a complex entity at any particular level in the hierarchy of organization, in terms of entities only one level down the hierarchy; entities which, themselves, are likely to be complex enough to need further reducing to their own component parts; and so on. It goes without saying -- though the mythical, baby-eating reductionist is reputed to deny this -- that the kinds of explantions which are suitable at high levels in the hierarchy are quite different from the kinds of explanations which are suitable at lower levels....Reductionism, in this sense, is just another name for an honest desire to understand how things work.

All of which leads me to wonder: Where are the Americans in this discussion? No, seriously, I say "partly anticipated" because Midgley is talking about reductionism's leading us to view the higher-level stuff -- personhood, for instance -- as illusion, not about our using it in some attempt to understand people in terms of quantum biochemical behavior. But I wonder if she's setting up a straw man. Yes, it is true that some bioscientists and roboticists will call personhood, or selfhood, an emergent property of certain biochemical organization and interactions. But I don't know that "emergent" and "illusory" are necessarily the same thing. If you are willing to assign selfhood a level of mythic reality, whatever it may spring from, then you are going out to lunch with Teresa, not the illusion of Teresa. Even though you may be aware, if you are inclined to think about these things as you pick the olives out of your salad, that at some level of pre-organization there is no Teresa with lipstick on her teeth, only quantum biochemistry fizzing around in some humanly unimaginable way.

(And we're back again to Asimov, to his story about Stephen Byerly, the inflammatory presidential candidate who might be a robot; he won't tell. Does it matter, as I ask here, that your dead brother was a robot, if you knew him as brother? Is it likely that Bobbie regards herself, tumor and cold paint-peeling house and all, as illusion? Again, I am not sure that illusion is the real problem. It seems more likely to me that the loss of specialness, as Rodney Brooks points out, is a bigger problem, and of course that comes from other myths. It's the problem of seeing those multiple levels of reality simultaneously, and attempting to reconcile their controlling myths in some way we can live with. Maybe I ought to read Midgley's book, though, eh?)

1 comment:

microscope pictures said...

Well done on a nice blog Amy Charles. I was searching for information on microscope diagrams and came across your post who's read mary midgley ? - not quite what I was looking for related to microscope diagrams but very interesting all the same!

If you have a moment, why not hop over and take a look at my report on microscopes.