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3.6 out of 5 stars
Are You an Illusion? (Heretics)
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 1 September 2014
This is a book everyone should read to become aware, as most people are not, of the frameworks within which science has made such astonishing progress over the centuries, such the people put their trust in it beyond all else. Without understanding these, any idea, including the strange one held by eminent scientists including Crick, the 'father' of DNA, our sense of self may well seem to be an illusion.
Science is normally presented as pure, untainted by messy human subjectivity. 'The scientific method' has become seen as the only way of knowing, of developing the evidence needed to come to conclusions and make progress. As Mary Midgley points out, for example, what started as a hypothesis to see how statistical methods could be applied to human behaviour, became a strongly held view that all there is to humans is their behaviour.
The primacy of physics has much to do with the fascination with numbers which goes back to Pythagoras and the discovery of the mathematical basis for musical harmony. But numbers are not an appropriate medium for all explantion as shown by the table example below.
Her argument is not to deny what has been achieved in the sciences, but to put it in context, to show that the sciences represent one, very powerful, way of looking at things, but there are others. She uses the simple case of a table which can be described in terms of its make-up at the nano-science level, or as a carpenter would want to know if he wanted to copy it - or we could add, a householder who wanted to determine whether it would fit and look good in the space available in their home. None of these explanations are better or more true than the other, each is appropriate to the relevant context.
Midgley also draws attention to the ancient dualism of Plato, of the Ideal and what we see, noting that we use this still in everyday speech, like for example in referring to legal decisions - it is legal, but it is justice? We do not have difficulty with this concept, although we might be hard put to explain what Justice is. With the spread of religion, in particular Christianity, the difference between the spiritual world and the material world was increasingly stressed. However as religion began to be attacked as superstition and an 'unnecessary hypothesis', many stressed the material to the exclusion of any other type of explanation. Many of today's scientists just accept that there is only the material, although as she points out, the alternatives do not have to be any religion.
Her short book is particularly addressed to those scientists and others who have used some findings from neuroscience to say that our bodies do things before our brains become aware of them and so our sense of self is an illusion. Certainly, neuroscience has developed amazing insights into how the brain works, but as Midgley points out that the conclusions drawn from the work (on tennis players and hand movements in a fMRI scanner are a step too far. Yes, the movement may come before the brain 'lights' up, but at some point before that, the subject had to be told to raise its hand and had to decide to comply. If we are simply illusions, whose illusion are we? If we are simply illusions, how do these eminent scientists themselves get to do the complex, demanding, long term work involved in making discoveries in science?
While Crick and Dawkins are well known eminent figures, I would have liked some discussion on Damasio who has been at the forefront of the discussion on the implications of neuroscience and also of Heisinberg and the uncertainty principle, but accept that there is little room in 150 pages....
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 28 October 2014
Excellent, analytical, objective and unemotional deconstruction of crude materialist philosophy. Demonstrates the hollowness of behavioural/neural psychology attempts to dispense with he notions and realities of self and free will. A very clever, warm, deep and common sense approach to a complicated subject. Mary Midgley gallops through a swathe of disciplines in a way in which few modern intellectuals are capable.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
This is a book of two halves - the second half is superb and extremely profound. The first half is very weak, falling into the narrow, blinkered way of thinking that the book as a whole argues against.

So let's start with the second half. The author reminds us that there is always more than one way of approaching a problem, and that you can use different tools for different jobs. A spanner works best if you need to turn a nut. For screws, a screwdriver works much better than a spanner. Anyone who tries to argue that a screwdriver is the only acceptable tool that may ever be used, and that spanner users are somehow 'wrong', is deluding themselves. Similarly, if looking at dealing with specific medical problems of the brain, a reductionist and mechanistic approach works well. If you are trying to understand and manage a group of people, a more holistic approach to the 'self' will work better.

Midgley is also very good at showing the continuity between living and non living matter, and the continuity between human and non human animals. The world view she sets out in the second half of her book is extremely cutting edge, insightful and well balanced.

But what about the first half? Amazingly, Midgley spends the entire time going directly against the main principle of her own book! She seems hell bent on discrediting reductionist science, in particular in relation to brain studies. She has an almost pathological hatred of physics (apparently chemistry and biology are less evil). She claims that analytical brain studies have yielded nothing of value (perhaps she should try Dick Swaab's excellent book, 'We Are Our Brains' to see how wrong she is in this). She twists the words of scientists, attributing extreme points of view to them, which they themselves would surely not agree to. Many of her assertions are downright silly.

But why be so fanatical? She of all people should know that both the reductionist and the holistic approaches each have equal validity depending on the problem at hand.

Ironically, the self contradictory nature of her own book itself could be used as an interesting study of how the brain works. A study that shows the human brain to be incredibly susceptible to self delusion. A study showing that Mary Midgley's view of 'herself' does perhaps have an element of illusion.

If, like me, you feel like throwing the book out of the window during the first half, do keep struggling on. You will soon enter calmer waters, and the insights of the second half are definitely worth the pain. Recommended!
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Mary Midgley is a clever woman, but not above a bit of sophistry in favour of her cause. She has some good points about the levels of analysis that we need to use to understand different phenomena - for example to understand your personal relationships you will not get far by trying to understand, say your spouse's brain at the level of neurones. However, Midgley uses this to make anti-science jibes which do not follow.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 23 October 2014
Lived up to my expectations completely. Delivered promptly. Very pleased
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
What a sparkling (except for a subbing error on the first page). MM is a delight to read. She almost made with agree with her about free will! She writes with great humanity. I actually learnt that being 'anthropomorphic' towards animals (ie treating them as a dimension of ourselves) might be a good thing. But of course it is not that we are anthropomorphic that is the problem but that we are selectively so. We stroke cats and door but eat pigs. Where is the logic there?
Also, an here is a criticism, she should given her attack on the author of the 'the Selfish Gene' a bit of rest. She made it before and it stands. The general point is that evolutionary thought has been reduced to a smaller mind (ie reductionist - genetic rather than whole creature) version of Darwinism. I would have liked her to consider wider span of agreements other philosophers of the older variety who might agree with what she had to say but start in a different place (the pragmatists, Merleau-Ponty, Bourdieu, etc). Perhaps she finds them too obscure.

All of that said, a cracking read!
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on 12 July 2015
An interesting publication from one of my old philosophy teachers. I think I need to read it again.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 7 November 2014
I enjoyed reading this book as a contrast to several books describing that the self IS an illusion. The big mistake is that Midgeley claims that science has undermined the concept of a self. It is not just science but also philosophy. She ignores the work of fellow philosophers like Derek Parfitt, Galen Strawson and Julian Baggini and thus weakens her case. Besides , an illusion is not something that does not exist, rather it is something that is not as it seems. A well written book but probes nowhere near deep enough into this fascinating puzzle.
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on 15 November 2014
Common sense philosophy at its best.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 July 2014
A thought provoking book that opened up new ways of thinking to me. I liked the suggestion that sensing a table by sight and touch give two perceptions that are different about the same thing, what you get depends on the instrument for observation you are using.(I wonder if that is why subatomic particles e.g. photons appear as both waves and particles)
On a more confused note the author seems to take the possibility of the self being an illusion as meaning it does not exist, I thought being an illusion meant that it is not quite what it seems. My other reading suggests the self is often taken to be consciousness and be in control of the person, whereas there is some evidence that this is not the whole story, hence the claim that the self may be an illusion.
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