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on 6 September 2004
This book is about myths about, among others, science, about what is scientific and what is not. It describes how many of our thought-patterns are still in the mode set by Enlightment and Descartes. It explains how the industrial age modified these thought-patterns and where they go all wrong. It is not that our thought-patterns would all be based on myhts, it's just that we have to realise when they can be applied and when not.
Like some other books of Midgley that I've read, this is a clearly, carefully and elegantly written opus. It is an enjoyable read, like reading prose, even though it is sometimes rather difficult and requires a lot more time. Her use of language is colorful and elegant, simply brilliant. There are not many writers of non-ficition that can excel her use of the english language.
However, she has a tendency to critizes other scientists and fields of science rather strongly, which sometimes goes a bit over the top. When argumented properly it is well-warranted, but at times the arguments seem to defy my logic and at times the logic is incomplete. If they are opinions, then she should state them as such. But on the other hand, I have found that the more her arguments annoy me, the more I start to think about these things. I am, therefore, almost led to believe that her style is a carefully laid scheme, deviced to lead the readers to think about this stuff by themselves. At least I have. And if a book is thought-provoking, it doesn't much matter if you agree with its opinions or not. It is good anyway.
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on 19 September 2011
This timely masterpiece is both easy and challenging: delightful to read but challenging to incorporate into the rest of one's thought. Although I knew I was broadly in agreement with her approach beforehand I have had a few of my views challenged and perhaps changed. But how much more challenging this will be for the majority who do not yet know of, or appreciate her views. (Naturally, that I don't agree with everything did nothing to spoil my enjoyment.)

Her main point here is that scientific understanding, especially in popular culture and to a lesser extent in research, is directed and distorted by non-scientific imagery and metaphorical types of thinking about the world. The myths (in a non-pejorative sense) she deals with are potent examples of such imagery which shape the view of the world taken by academic culture over substantial periods of time. Generally speaking myths are helpful, but when they go unnoticed and unappraised they can become dangerously unfit for purpose. Thus the book as a whole constitutes a detailed refutation of the supposed value-freedom of science.

Not only are the topics covered too broad to mention in a review, but it's so rich it would be too much effort to make notes on the whole book- when I need some of this material again it will be easier to re-read it. The major themes are myths of: reductive explanation to a fundamental part (as with memetics); reality as a solely mechanical (as with reductionism in the philosophy of mind); animals as unconscious machines; the environment as the enemy of mankind; society as a contract; and of inevitable, limitless technological progress (in the form of genetic engineering and transhumanism). In discussing these she makes vivid use of examples from contemporary scientists and here it is important to realise that these are not meant as ad hominem attacks.

The most relevant and influential critique she makes within all this is of the pervasive tendency to regard physical science as *the* model for all reasonable thought. She identifies three reasons for this philosophical bias: 1) that this mode of thought has been the most obviously successful in recent centuries, 2) the popularity of the figurative usage of the term 'science' to honour any kind of reasonable thought that is successful, and 3) the ever-increasing specialisation of sub-fields in the physical sciences such that most experts have a very impoverished understanding of the humanities and indeed of other scientific disciplines.

Furthermore, science has replaced the mythic role of religion/God in the West. As an atheist Midgley's concern is not with defending a place for religion (though she does in other works), but to demonstrate the limitations to science. Namely, that it is not, like the God it replaced, all-powerful and capable of solving any problem (a doctrine that has become known as 'scientism'). To this end she claims that non-empirical disciplines have an irreducible competency of their own. Disciplines such as logic, mathematics, metaphysics, sociology, economics, political theory, ethics, poetry, art theory, psychotherapy, phenomenology and theology. This is because a person's intelligence and understanding are not limited solely to empirical knowledge. They are clearly also found in many other faculties, not only reason but: imagination, morality, sensuality, creativity, and love. All of which can be informed by evidence, but are not reducible to the methods of, and the data collectable by the physical sciences.

She compares human experience of the world to "an enormous, ill-lit aquarium which we never see fully from above, but only through various small windows unevenly distributed around it. Scientific windows -like historical ones- are just one important set among these. Fish and other strange creatures constantly swim away from particular windows... reappearing where different lighting can make them hard to recognise. Long experience, along with constant dashing around between windows, does give us a good deal of skill in tracking them. But if we refuse to put together the data from different widows, then we can be in real trouble." [Taken from her 2001 interview 'Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary' in the Guardian; a shorter version of this is found on page 40 of the 2011 version of the book.]

Of course this is only an analogy, not an argument, but it is very good for clarification. Though the book's popular, rather than technical tone was my biggest problem with it, this was just a personal preference derived from my being a philosophy graduate. It is better that such an important work is more accessible (note that it does presuppose a little knowledge of the history of philosophy).

I am strongly inclined towards thinking that this will be her most important book, but then it is only the first of them I've read. Ignore the 1-star review from the troll who hasn't read the book- she is one of the very best women working in the humanities today (along with Julia Kristeva and Martha Naussbaum).
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on 19 May 2011
This is the best book to get a feel of what Midgley is all about. Midgely is an expert when it comes to highlighting the myths we are surrounded by all the time, even in the writings of the greatest minds alive. In this text, Midgley targets social contract theory, scientism and reductivism.

Social contract theory assumes us all to be self interested at heart and only co-operative in order to serve our own interests further. This has not evolutionary backing, Midgley insists. Darwin belived we are collaborative by nature, so the idea of requiring a contract to hold us all together isn't warranted at all. The reason we need to abandon this metaphor is that the contract theory sees us only as as having responsibility to those also as a part of the same community or nation-state of our own. This form of morality is no use to us in a globalised age and needs serious re-thinking.

Scientism is mainly due to a confusion of a scientific worldview with a scientistic one. Many think that being scientific intails the belief that natural science alone provides a reliable description of our world and its goings on. The best known adovate (and most criticised) is the Chemist Peter Atkins, who has written a great deal on the omnicompetence of science. The idea is that physics and chemistry constitute a true account of things and other disciplines such as the social sciences, history, law etc are referring only to an epiphenomenon - an illusion produced by the underlying physical structures and forces at work. Its completely reductive in its approach - another example would be behaviourism, which didn't see motives as 'real' in anyway at all, they just had the appearance of being real.

Midgley's key point is really that a mind is no less real than a particle, a person's motivation to act is no less real than a force acting upon an object. This doesn't mean the mind is a sort of ghost in the machine - Midgley holds no such view. We live in 'one world but a big one' as Midgley puts it. Reductivism - reducing the real to particle physics and forces and seeing our everyday experience as an epiphenomenon with no causal consequences of its own isn't scientific, its scientistic. We need social scientists and historians as much as physicists for us to have a good account of things, one doesn't 'trump' the others.

A core theme is that we are not passively controlled by smaller units, we have just as 'real' an existence as the forces that act upon us and the genes we are made of. We are not governed by our genes, we ARE our genes, there is no passive, separate self to be governed by.

One criticism I have come to appreciate is Midgley's use of Dawkins' writing in the selfish gene. It is important to note that Dawkins' uses the idea of the genes manipulating the body it is contained within, not because this is straightforwardly what happens, but rather because this might be how it would look from the gene's-eye-view. This does not mean from the person's view, they are passive. Its just a lively personification of the activity if the gene, which I do think midgley is a little hard on. But it is understandable that she highlight the personification when reductionism has become so popular in modern scientific writing.
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on 10 October 2010
I come to this book as a scientist and engineer who thinks about life, and who is unconvinced by the fiercely strident assertions of those who believe in the omnicompetence of science. And I found here something of an oasis of clear-thinking and freshness that surprised me. Since reading Midgley I've heard both high praise and vicious criticism of her, and I attribute this to the fact that she is willing and able to point out that the emperor's new clothes are full of holes.

The book comprises a series of essays and articles that have previously been published elsewhere, but hang together well as a relatively easy to read analylsis of current materialistic/scientistic thought. Well, I say relatively easy, but its hardly light-reading. It makes you think.

I especially like some of her down to earth illustrations of why, for example, science falls short of being able to describe all things at the deepest level of enquiry. She asks how science might translate a simple statement such as, 'George was allowed home from prison at last on Sunday.' How will the language of physics convey the meaning of 'Sunday' or 'home' or 'allowed' or 'prison' or 'at last' or indeed 'George'?

As I started to write this I heard an eminent Biology professor say that the hardest questions he had to answer in life were: How life started and How does consciousness arise from the physical brain. He's sure that one day someone will get there. Bully for him. But for me there are far bigger questions and Midgley at least leaves the door open to other forms of enquiry.

So, for example, she asks, 'Do we ever really act?' To what extent do we choose direction in life, take responsibility, have 'freedom'. Or are we simply mindless robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes? This is where some would ridicule Midgley - she's asking the questions of ancient, unenlightened philosophers, and to do so reveals her lack of understanding of the true nature of things as revealed by modern science. But there is that omnicompetent claim again, that says that science's view on reality is the only one that works and the rest is fairy-tales or, at best, unreliable. It is a view that does violence to us and our society in a very subtle way, but thankfully Midgley is able to skilfully pull it apart before our eyes. The dogmatists may never be convinced it seems, but if you listen you can spot them a mile off. See Ted Birch's review for instance.
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on 7 December 2012
This is a book I should really love but although the ideas and content are excellent the writing style just doesn't "click" with me and I find it disspointingly unengaging
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on 19 April 2010
Midgley is an atonishing writer and a first class philosopher, nevertheless her work may be easily misunderstood by a reader unfamiliar with the themes central to analytic and continental philosophy. Her work is a contemporary continuation of the likes of Nietzsche, Sartre, the later works of Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty, calibrated to deliver devastating blows to the proponents of dehumanising philosophical doctrines such as Dennet and Churchlands. Read her work in the correct philosophical context and you will not be disappointed.
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on 9 July 2012
This is a distillate of Mary Midgley's ideas on the relationship of science with today's society --a tangled web her many books have been unweaving for more than thirty years. A moral philosopher of great distinction her writing is lucid, elegant and a pleasure to read. Her critical analysis of the myth-like character of scientific -- or should one say pseudo- scientific-- concepts like memes and the often surprising misapplication of Darwin's ideas should be required reading for anyone interested in, or professionally involved with the extraordinary achievements of modern science. The more extreme proponents of scientism may accuse her of being anti- science-- that would be be very far from the truth; she is a well informed enthusiast who does her best --highly successfully in this critic's opinion-- to warn today's readers about the dangers of such extremism.
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on 19 December 2015
Very readable book by one of Britain's best known philosophers. Does science have the answer to all the questions we ask? Is our society's mania for reducing everything down to the smallest possible denominator a good thing or a bad thing? What is our place in Nature's hierarchy? Midgley covers these and other questions in an informative and accessible way. If you have an inquiring mind, then this is the book for you.
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on 6 December 2015
As expected
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on 18 July 2013
an author who challenges many of our preconceved enlightenment 'truths' who clearly expressed the short commings of the evolutionary narrative
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