Sunday, September 13, 2015

Subsisting on Dawkins's Tears

I'm rereading the philosopher Mary Midgley's 1981 book Heart and Mind: The Varieties of Moral Experience.  It's an excellent introduction to the subject of ethics and morality, even if I disagree with some of what she says, which I intend to write more about it in the next few days.  In the meantime I've also been looking around the Web for some references on her 1979 critique of Richard Dawkins, which led to the entertaining spectacle (still in progress, apparently) of Richard Dawkins, the No-More-Mister-Nice-Guy of the New Atheists, Mr. Take-No-Prisoners in the War Against Superstition, whining that Midgley had been mean to him, that he couldn't understand why she was so hostile: "I have been taken aback by the inexplicable hostility of Mary Midgley's assault ... I deplore bad manners as strongly as anyone ..."  He also claimed, falsely, that she hadn't read The Selfish Gene when she wrote the review, and though he later retracted the claim, it still moves.

In the course of this agreeable procrastination I found a revealing characterization in a 2015 interview with Midgley.  (She's 95 this year, and though she's lost mobility she's still writing, and as well as ever.)
One gets the impression that Midgley doesn't keep on writing just because she enjoys it, but because she thinks the world needs her to counter prevalent ideas she considers "silly" or "ridiculous", and bring us all back to "talking sense" - and because she believes such questions should not be purely left to scientists. As the philosopher Roger Scruton has put it: "Midgley's view is that philosophy, in leaving the question of human nature to the biologists, has betrayed its mission."
Notice "One gets the impression" there -- Midgley didn't actually say that she thinks "the world needs her."   One gets the impression that the interviewer wanted to give the impression that Midgley has a big head.  Writers write for many reasons -- fame, fortune, and the love of beautiful women, as Freud reportedly said -- and if you want to know why we do it, why not just ask?  I hope that people will read what I write, but I'm agnostic as to whether the world needs me to counter prevalent ideas I consider silly or ridiculous.  What I do know is that I need to write about such things, and why not?  For myself, it's a way of scratching the itch that such ideas put in my brain: instead of just fuming about them, I write about them, as much to explain to myself why they bother me as to explain to anyone else, and thanks to the Internet I can publish myself.  Writing for me, then, is partly habit, and I would imagine that at 95 it's a habit for Midgley too.  I know from experience that some people find my writing useful, as I have found other people's published disagreements with prevalent ideas.

It occurs to me to wonder, however, whether the interviewer would have written such a patronizing suggestion about Richard Dawkins, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or Francis Crick, or Carl Sagan, or Bill Nye, any other purveyor of the prevalent ideas that people like Mary Midgley and I feel the need to differ with.  I certainly get that impression from them: they are often explicit about their conviction that the world needs to know the scientific truths of which they are merely the humble prophets and servants.  They even see themselves, rather like many Christians, as an embattled and even persecuted minority, and the ideas they present as anything but "prevalent."  Considering that they have (and welcome, and seek out) much more media access than Mary Midgley, and that Tyson for one was appointed by George W. Bush to government commissions on science, I think that their stance is as dubious as Christian claims of persecution when someone disagrees with them.  Yet it's someone like Midgley who, the interviewer hints gently, thinks that the world needs her opinions.  Well, yes, I think it does.