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Pluralism: The Many Maps Model

Mary Midgley says that branches of knowledge are like maps – each answers a different set of questions so they can’t necessarily all be ‘reduced’ to physics.

Reductivism comes in two phases. First there is the monistic move where we explain a great range of things as only aspects of a single basic stuff. Thus, Thales says that all the four elements are really just water. Again, Nietzsche says that all motives are really just forms of the will to power, and Hobbes says that mind and matter are both really just matter. Second, there can follow the atomistic move – made by Democritus and also by the seventeenth-century physicists – which is slightly different. Here we explain this basic stuff itself as really just an assemblage of ultimate particles, treating the wholes that are formed out of these particles as secondary and relatively unreal. (1)

Both these drastic moves can be useful when they are made as the first stage towards a fuller analysis. But both, if made on their own, can be absurdly misleading. It is pretty obvious that Nietzsche’s psychology was over-simple. And, if we want to see the shortcomings of atomism, we need only consider a botanist who is asked (perhaps by an archaeologist) to identify a leaf. This botanist does not simply mince up his leaf, put it in the centrifuge and list the resulting molecules. Still less, of course, does he list their constituent atoms, protons and electrons. Instead he looks first at its structure, trying to find out what kind of tree it came from, in what woodland, in what ecosystem, growing on what soil, in what climate, attacked by what predators, and what had been happening to the leaf since it left its tree. And so on.

This holistic approach is not ‘folklore’. It is obviously as central and necessary a part of science as the atomistic one. So it is odd that, at present, people seem to entertain a confused notion that science is essentially and merely reductive, in a sense that includes both the kinds of simplification just mentioned, while ‘holism’ is an oldfashioned superstition.

This ideological reductivism, like most intellectual fashions, surely survives quite as much by its imaginative appeal as by its arguments. In a confusing world, such a picture of knowledge as modelled on a simple, despotic system of government is highly attractive. I think it is no accident that the reductive method had its first great triumphs in the seventeenth century, at the time when the wars of religion filled Europe with terrifying confusion. The monolithic reductive pattern seemed able to impose order on this chaos just as Louis XIV and the other despotic rulers of the time did. This was a style that accorded with the religious and political notions of the day.

In politics, that simple vision no longer commands much respect today. But in the intellectual world it has not yet been fully discredited. There, it seems to offer order and simplicity – which are, of course, entirely proper aims for science – at a low cost, avoiding the complications that often make it so hard to achieve these ideals.

If we want to show that this cheapness is illusory, I think that we need striking images. I have already proposed one such image elsewhere (2) and I shall develop it a little more here.

Different Questions, Different Maps

My image is that of the relation between different maps of the same territory in an atlas. Why (we may ask) do we need so many different maps of the world at the beginning of our atlases? Surely there is only one world? And why, in particular, do we need a political map of Europe as well as a physical one? Surely all real facts are physical facts? There are no separate, ghostly political entities. Would it not (then) be much more rational to represent everything political in physical terms? After all, the countryside does not become suddenly different at the point where Albania meets Serbia. Is it not superstitious to represent this frontier by a black line and a quite different colour? The real, physical items marking these boundaries are merely lines of fences dotted with occasional forts. These are ordinary physical objects of a kind that occur elsewhere, and, if necessary, they can be given their own symbols on the map. Similarly, towns are physical objects, consisting of items such as houses and streets and people. The frequency of all these items can, if necessary, be indicated by special colours on the map. And – if we want more detail – their physical nature can be investigated through increasingly detailed research programs…

At this point, however, we cannot avoid asking, what is happening here? What principle of selection are we following? The map is growing more and more confusing,yet it still does not tell us what we need, if we want to know (for instance) what language and what laws we are going to have to deal with here. Neither does it record everything physical. Why are we picking on certain objects for depiction rather than others? Why should the map concentrate on towns and roads and frontiers, rather than on climate or vegetation or the nature of the soil? Why mark populations of people and houses rather than populations of voles or dandelions or quartz-crystals or slime-moulds or bacteria?

The truth is, of course, that no map shows everything. Each map concentrates on answering a particular set of questions. Each map ‘explains’ the whole only in the sense of answering certain given questions about it – not others. Each set of questions arises out of its own particular background in life – out of its own specific set of problems, and needs answers relevant to those problems.

The arrangements that we see on political maps – frontiers, provinces, capital cities and so forth – show us the answers that are currently being given to certain social questions, questions that arise out of the difficulties of organising human life. When we look at these maps, what we want is to know the present state of these answers. There is no way in which the answers given to quite different questions about the physical constitution of the world could stand in for this knowledge, any more than finding shelter can stand in for finding food. Each set of questions comes in from a different angle and needs a different kind of solution. Of course the different sets can often be connected, which is why our view of the world is not utterly chaotic. But there is no way in which they can be piled up into a sequence where one set of answers translates or supersedes the others.

Physics is not ‘fundamental’ to the other enquiries in the sense of revealing a deeper reality, a final explanation for all the other kinds of problem. It is simply one kind of abstraction among others. Physics, like the North Pole, is a terminus. It is where you should end up if you are making one particular kind of enquiry – namely, a physical one. It is no help if you are trying to go somewhere else.

Abstraction, Elegance and the Underground

John Ziman has given a pleasing extra twist to this imagery of maps by considering the map, or rather diagram, of the London Underground Railway. (3) This map depicts a beautifully neat system, reducing the painful chaos of the real city to a few straight lines and simple angles. Just so (at an imaginative level) many people are inclined to think that physics can reduce the muddled living world to an idealised mathematical form.

Does this map of the Underground perhaps present us with (forgive the pun) a deeper reality? A recent novel by Tom Sharpe tells of a civil servant who does indeed have a secret ambition to straighten out the city of London, making it conform to the idealized map of the Underground… This strikes me as an echo – though of course an absurd one – of the way in which philosopher David Chalmers has suggested that we should view the relation of physics to consciousness:

Biological theory has a certain complexity and messiness about it, but theories in physics, insofar as they deal with fundamental principles, aspire to simplicity and elegance. The fundamental laws of nature are part of the basic furniture of the world, and physical theories are telling us that this basic furniture is remarkably simple. If a theory of consciousness also involves fundamental principles, then we should expect the same… (4)

By proposing that the structure of consciousness must be fundamentally simple in the same way as physics, Chalmers tries to abstract consciousness from the complexity and messiness of life. But life is, in fact, the only context in which we know that consciousness can occur at all. To the contrary, it might be just as plausible to think of consciousness as simply an intensification of life – a stronger form of that power to use and respond to one’s surroundings which is characteristic of all living things. This would be liable to suggest that consciousness – being yet more complex – is likely to be even messier than the rest of life. In fact, the exaltation of reason is not itself always reasonable. The physics-envy that so often consumes biologists and social scientists today is no help to them. But such dreams are, I fear, more influential than pure rationality might lead us to expect.

© Dr Mary Midgley 2002

Mary Midgley lectured at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, before the Philosophy Department there was closed down. Among her best-known books are Beast and Man, Wickedness, The Ethical Primate and Science and Poetry. Her pamphlet Gaia: The Next Big Idea was published by Demos in May 2001.

1. I have discussed the various forms of reductivism more fully in ‘Reductive Megalomania’ in Nature’s Imagination: The Frontiers of Scientific Vision, ed. John Cornwell, Oxford University Press, 1995

2. In Science and Poetry (Routledge, 2001) Chapters 12-14 and in ‘One World, But A Big One’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol.3, no.5-6, 1996, especially p.512.

3. In Reliable Knowledge: An Exploration of the Grounds for Belief in Science, Cambridge University Press, 1978, p.85.

4. David Chalmers, ‘Facing Up To The Problem of Consciousness’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol.2, no.3, 1995

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