Science and Poetry by Mary Midgley, Routledge Classics, 2006, 328 ff.
Two aspects of the one culture By Howard A. Jones
The very title of this book suggests some attempt at unification of C.P. Snow's Two Cultures. Indeed, the whole essence of moral philosopher Mary Midgley's argument is a defence of holism, largely through a via negativa - presenting a critique of the attitudes and statements with which she disagrees. Thus, she is critical of Margaret Thatcher's infamous statement that there is no such thing as a society, of Cartesian dualism, which very largely still holds sway today within much of science, and of Richard Dawkins' statement that `Science is the only way we know to understand the real world' - concepts from the three disparate areas of sociology, philosophy and science for which Midgley is keen to provide connecting threads.
The idea that materialism or physicalism represents the essence of the world may provide a practical basis for scientists to investigate the workings of nature, but there are many other strands that make up human experience and thereby contribute to our interaction with one another and with the world. It is degrading to the nobility of the human mind to suggest that consciousness is a mere chance and incidental outcome of the collaboration of `selfish genes': `a world without subjects is even less conceivable than a world without objects.' But I don't get the sense of criticism of the whole theory evolution from this book that reviewer Jill Shepherd obviously does; however, I endorse her and Midgley's view that we need to be less anthropocentric and individualistic. I don't think Midgley is anti-science, only anti-scientism, like Bryan Appleyard (see my review).
Biologists may focus on competition and `survival of the fittest' in nature but, as Midgley points out, there is a great deal more cooperation and collaboration than competition in nature, especially in the establishment of human social systems like economics, ethics and the humanities: `human beings are not a separate entity detached from the natural world.' Without aesthetics, the `survival value' of which is debatable, why waste time with music, drama, painting and poetry? Many scientists, including Dawkins, do not see scientific knowledge as in any way undermining the spiritual or aesthetic component of life.
This book reflects an ethos that, happily, seems to be steadily gaining ground around the world - a realization that, whatever our religion, there is an underlying spirituality that unites all of humankind and the natural world. Taoist doctrine tells us that we can to a large extent influence our micro-environment and its effect on ourselves and others, `even if the way determines all our outside circumstances.' There is ample scientific evidence that our thoughts influence our own physical wellbeing and that of others and a case made so eloquently, as in this book by Mary Midgley, for the unity of the sciences and humanities is to be welcomed. There are useful Notes and an Index at the end of the book.
Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, UK.