Don’t Blame the Neurons

What is called “modern” philosophy is dated as beginning with Descartes in the 17th century. Space, time, God, the world, my body, everything I seem to remember about the life I have apparently lived, even the certainties of maths and logic — all these, said Descartes, I can doubt. Yet, he added, there is something obdurately indubitable, something that necessarily must exist — whatever it is that is doing the doubting: myself. And I, since my physical existence is potentially doubtable, must essentially be a thinking thing. Contemporary modern philosophy has, however, come full circle, beginning at the other end with the external world which Descartes and his successors never properly “proved”, but which science has made such headway in explaining. Philosophy now has the opposite problem to Descartes’: trying to account for the self which it began with, which is hard to fit into scientific objectivity. Descartes’s doubt-proof “I” is not only doubted but often denied.

Are You an Illusion? is Mary Midgley’s exasperated response to this “selficide”, as she calls it. One of the redoubtable female philosophers who studied at Oxford during the war, along with Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot and Mary Warnock, Midgley is now 94. She has written on ethics, evolution, the status of animals, and the problem of evil, but the unifying theme of all her work is anger at scientism. Her latest book too is directed at what she sees as our current pervasive, distorting myth — the belief that scientific inquiry is the last court of appeal, and that ultimately reality is only what physics can reveal: masses of insentient particles. According to this new scientistic orthodoxy, what we have always believed — that each of us is a unitary self, with thoughts and feelings, and that our actions affect what is around us — is false. That’s how it seems, say the scientisers; in reality, though, we are just neural processes (even here, says Midgley, they get it wrong — strictly speaking, the neuron is too big to fit their own stringent atomising requirement).

Midgley quotes scientists, including Francis Crick (“Mr DNA himself”), who marvellously provide their own reductio ad absurdum. One writes that the self and its inner life is ‘”little more than an elaborate construct of the mind”‘ (which surely out-Eschers Escher’s moebius strips and his hands that draw themselves). Another claims that the self is indeed an illusion, but concedes that it is a useful, perhaps necessary, one. How odd, Midgley comments, for scientists to announce the discovery of an error only to recommend that everyone, including themselves, persist in it. Yet such inconsistencies are indicative — a theory that is so dissonant with “the general human vision” cannot properly be propounded or understood.

How can it count as science, she demands, to miss out so much of what we know? Subjective experience is an objective fact, indeed is crucially assumed to be so (even at brute level) by the science of biology: for natural selection to work, peahens need to be aware of the respective glories of the tails of their competing mates. And how, in the first place, have these supposedly objective facts been observed and deduced and made into theories? Certainly not by scientists simply lying back and letting their neurons do the work. Obviously it requires neural processes for a scientist’s thinking to occur, but surely it also involves passionate enthusiasm, deliberate effort to fob off distraction, palpable riffling through memory (all subjective experiences), plus something unitary to marshal, synchronise and discriminate between these processes. Surely, too, it is logic, plus what the thoughts refer to outside the neurons, which determine neural movement, rather than vice versa. “If you want the explanation of a particular piece of reasoning, the only place to look for it is in other relevant reasonings. Blaming the neurons for it instead will get you nowhere.”

Knowledge of neural processes is often irrelevant to what we want to know (in order to discern whether or not you are self-deceived, it’s pointless to look at an fMRI scan) or else simply identifies the cerebral correlates of what we already knew. “We did not have to wait for the discovery of mirror neurons in order to know that humans — and many other creatures too — can directly detect each other’s feelings,” but, says Midgley, given all the excitement about this discovery, it is as if only now can we be sure that we have empathy. Without “official scientific authorisation”, the immediate deliverances of subjective experience are considered worthless. Or of course illusory.

But the self, as Midgley shows, cannot be dismissed so easily. She is brusque and brilliant at exposing the way garbled references to the unreality of the self, or the identity of mind and brain, exactly mimic the way people once mouthed religious doctrines on the say-so of clerics. Dismissing the idea that science trumps all other forms of inquiry, or that getting at the “ultimate building blocks of reality” does in fact exhaustively get at reality, she demonstrates that things often can only be understood, indeed only exist, as wholes. But she is better at arguing against scientism than for a position of her own. Her assertions for the truth of free will are unargued, and it is unclear what her idea of the self actually comes to. She invokes rather whimsical notions like James Lovelock’s world-spirit Gaia, and is surprisingly scientistic herself in hazily appealing to the notion of right and left brain hemispheres each having a distinctive function. But which other philosopher has solved these crucial questions? We can be grateful that such a doughty warrior is still fighting a battle that needs to be fought.

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