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Souls, Minds, Bodies and Planets (part 2)

In which Mary Midgley discusses the nature of consciousness and argues that the legacy of Descartes is disasterous for our view of ourselves and our planet.

Whatever we decide about the relationship between mind and body, we need to be aware that our decision has a moral dimension. Descartes supposed himself to be abstracting from all local influences, designing a priori a timeless, impartial picture of human knowledge. But the most abstract thinkers still take the premises of their reasoning into their ivory tower with them. As we have seen, Descartes was in fact responding to certain quite particular pressures of his own time. He devised his dualism in order to fit the new science into European culture without harming its Christian background. The soul that he pictured was therefore one adapted to suit this awkward intellectual situation, rather than one capable of dealing with the wider range of human life.

For a time his ingenious division of intellectual life did work. Scientists managed to divide themselves internally to suit the two permitted viewpoints. In their work, they could view the world around them as a mass of lifeless, inert particles driven ceaselessly here and there by a few simple natural forces. The rest of the time they could respond to it normally as a familiar rich, complex jumble. A benign God still regulated the relation between the two spheres.

But as technology advanced, the more abstract, scientific way of thinking gained strength and began to pervade people’s lives. Inevitably, conflicts between these two approaches were noticed. As the gap between them widened and became more disturbing, it grew increasingly natural to ask “but which of these stories is actually the true one? Which tells us what the world is really like?” People felt that one realm must be accepted as genuine and the other demoted to an illusion. Hence Colin McGinn’s worry about ‘a new kind of reality’. Hence the question that disturbs him and many other people:

“If the brain is spatial, being a hunk of matter in space, and the mind is non-spatial, how on earth can the mind arise from the brain?… This seems like a miracle, a rupture in the natural order.” (Colin McGinn, The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World p.115)

Or, as he puts it after citing a lively sci-fi illustration, “The point of this parable is to bring out how surprising it is that the squishy gray matter in our heads – our brain-meat – can be the basis and cause of a rich mental life.” (ibid, p.8).

This is surely an extraordinary abstraction from reality. Brains do not go about being conscious on their own. And meat is, by definition, dead. Actual conscious beings are never just consignments of squishy grey matter, sitting on plates in a lab like porridge. They are living, moving, well-guided animal bodies, going about their business in conditions to which they are naturally adapted. And the question about them is simply whether it makes sense to diagnose consciousness as an integral, necessary, appropriate, organic part of such beings – including ourselves – or whether it is more reasonable to suppose that they might all quite as well actually be unconscious.

It is important to notice just what we are trying to do here if we want to ‘explain consciousness’ in a way that resolves McGinn’s metaphysical difficulty. As he says, the point is not just to find some physical condition that is causally conjoined with it. We want to make that junction intelligible – to show that the one item is in some way suitable to the other.

When one is trying to find the connection between two things in this way – for instance the connection between roots and leaves or between eyes and feet – the best approach is not usually to consider these two on their own in isolation. It is to step back and look at the wider context that encloses them. In the case of consciousness that context is, in the first place, organic life and, in the second, the power of movement.

A being that lives and moves independently, as animals do, clearly has to guide its own movements. And the more complex the lives of such beings become, the more subtle and varied must be their power of responding flexibly to what is going on around them. This necessarily calls for consciousness, which is not an intrusive supernatural extra but as natural and appropriate a response to the challenges that confront active life as the power of flying or swimming. Animals need to be conscious because they are confronted with problems of choice. We ourselves can do a lot of things without conscious attention. But when a difficulty crops up and choice is needed, we have to rouse ourselves and become conscious of it.

There is no miracle here. The really startling factor on this scene is something which is usually ignored in these discussions, namely the introduction of life itself. Indeed, one might be tempted to say that consciousness is just the superlative of life – just one more increase in the astonishing power of spontaneous development and adaptation which distinguishes living things from stones. Once life is present, the move from inactive creatures to highly-organised moving animals is simply one more stage in the long, dazzling creative process which is already a kind of miracle on its own, but one which is not usually treated as a scandalous anomaly.

Where, then, does the special sense of strangeness about mind come from?

I think it comes simply from the shift that we have to make in our own point of view when we consider this connection When we are confronted with a conscious being such as a human, all our social faculties at once leap into action. We promptly raise endless questions about its thoughts and feelings. We bring to bear a whole framework of social concepts, a highly sophisticated apparatus that works on quite different principles from the one we would use if we were thinking about a plate of porridge.

This shift of methods can raise great difficulties, especially on the many occasions when we need to use both these ways of thinking together – for instance over mental illness. We find it very hard to harmonise our thoughts about the inner and the outer life of disturbed people – again, perhaps including ourselves. We run into painful confusions. But the clash in these cases is not a cosmic clash between different forms of reality. It is not a clash between ontological categories in the world, not a clash between natural and supernatural entities. It is a clash between two distinct mental faculties within ourselves, two distinct ways of thinking, along with the emotional attitudes that underlie them. It constantly raises moral questions about how we should act in the world. It does not, I think, actually raise metaphysical questions about what is real.

This, of course, does not make it any less important. The difficulty of bringing together the different parts of our own nature so as to act harmoniously is a crucial one in all areas of our lives. Indeed, it is just the work for which we so badly need to be conscious, but it often sets us problems that our consciousness cannot solve. There are real mysteries here, mysteries about our own internal structure. But we make them worse if we state them in misleadingly simple forms.

What, now, about the other end of the mind-body axis? There the effects of extreme abstraction have been no less unfortunate. In fact, muddled ideas about matter have probably made even more trouble than muddled ideas about mind.

Under a blindly reductive approach, the conscious animal that we ought to be enquiring about vanishes, being replaced by its brain. Even the brain loses its structure, becoming just a standard consignment of chemicals – porridge, squishy grey matter-as-such. It was, however, a central doctrine of seventeenth-century dualism that matter as such is inert and can do nothing, all activity being due to spirit. That is surely the conviction that still makes people like McGinn feel that a miracle is involved if something material takes the enterprising step of becoming conscious.

This thesis of the inertness of matter is not often stated explicitly today, but it is often implied. Peter Atkins, however, expressed it strongly in his book The Creation, when he made the startling remark, “Inanimate things are innately simple. That is one more step along the path to the view that animate things, being innately inanimate, are innately simple too.” (p.53)

Animate life, Atkins suggests, is not a serious factor in the world, just a misleading surface froth that obscures the grand, ultimate simplicity revealed by physics. Life has no bearing on consciousness, which (he explains) appears in the universe independently of it;

“Consciousness is a property of minute patches on the warm surfaces of mild planets…. Here now (and presumably cosmically elsewhere at other times) the patches are merging through the development of communication into a global film of consciousness which may in due course pervade the galaxy and beyond… Consciousness is simply complexity….Space itself is self-conscious….Consciousness is three-dimensional.” (The Creation pub. W.H.Freeman, 1987 pp.71, 73, 83, 85)

This is scandalously muddled talk. Consciousness is not a property of such patches. It is a property that (as far as we know) is only found in certain rather complex living beings – in fact in animals. And that is the only context in which its presence makes sense.

This kind of attempt to make consciousness respectable as an isolated phenomenon, without mentioning biological considerations, by inserting it directly into physics and treating it mainly as a basis for cybernetics, the IT revolution and the colonization of space is rather prevalent at present. Similarly David Chalmers suggested that, in order to avoid reducing mind to body, we should take “experience itself as a fundamental feature of the world, alongside mass, charge and space-time.” This list shows Chalmers’ conviction that, in order to be fundamental, a feature must belong to physics. He does not name life as one of these fundamental features, and he goes on to remark with satisfaction that, if this view is right,

“then in some ways a theory of consciousness will have more in common with a theory in physics than a theory in biology. Biological theories involve no principles that are fundamental in this way, so 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.” (David Chalmers, ‘Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 2, no.3 emphasis mine)

In talk like this, the desire to keep one’s theories clean of messy complications takes precedence over any wish to get a relevant, useful explanation. This physics-envy is one more consequence of the unlucky fact that, in the seventeenth century, modern physics gained huge status because it was invented before the other sciences. The Newtonian vision of the physical world appeared as the final representation of reality, which is why it is still the background of much thinking today. It is surely the source of Atkins’ amazing contention that all the things in the world are innately (whatever that may mean) simple.

Physicists today do not make this assumption. Like other scientists, they still look for simplicity, but they know they have no right to expect it. And they have, of course, abandoned the simplistic doctrine of inert, billiard-ball type matter. As Heisenberg pointed out;

“Since mass and energy are, according to the theory of relativity, essentially the same concepts, we may say that all elementary particles consist of energy. This could be interpreted as defining energy as the primary substance of the world… With regard to this question modern physics takes a definite stand against the materialism of Democritus and for Plato and the Pythagoreans. The elementary particles are certainly not eternal and indestructible units of matter; they can actually be transformed into each other.” (Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy pp.58-9)

In fact, when physicists discarded the notion of solid particles the word ‘materialism’ lost its old meaning. Though this word is still used as a war-cry its significance today is by no means clear.

We now know that conscious living beings have in fact developed out of the physical stuff that originally formed our planet. So, if we are still using a model of physical matter that makes it seem unfitted to produce consciousness, that model has to be mistaken. The potentiality for the full richness of life must have been present right from the start – from the first outpouring of hydrogen atoms at the big bang. This was not simple stuff doomed for ever to unchanging inertness. It was already able to combine in myriads of subtle ways that shaped life. And if it could perform that startling feat, why should it be more surprising if some of the living things then went on to become conscious?

It is worthwhile to notice where the old notion of physical matter as inert and alien to us came from. This is not an objective conception demanded by science. Though it came originally from the Greek Atomists, its message chimed with a powerful strand in Christian thinking that centred on fear and contempt for the earth, which was seen as the opposite of heaven. Human souls were conceived as having their real home in a remote spiritual paradise. Earth was at best a transit-camp, a place of trial and temptation that they must pass through. All sorts of nuances in our language still reflect alienation from it. Thus, the Oxford dictionary gives as the meaning of earthy – “Heavy, gross, material, dull, unrefined… characteristic of earthly as opposed to heavenly existence.”

Pre-Copernican cosmology set this heaven literally in the sky, beyond the concentric spheres that bore the sun, moon, stars and planets. The earth was merely the dead point in the middle of the system, the midden to which worthless matter that could not move upwards eventually drained. That central position was not seen as a sign of importance, as is often said, but as a mark of worthlessness, of distance from the celestial heights that held everything real value. After all, what lay at the centre of earth itself was hell.

Because of this revulsion against the earth, Christian people did not feel the humiliation that is often said to have followed when Copernicus displaced our planet from its central position. Of course there was a sense of confusion and insecurity. But human souls still had their celestial status, their citizenship in heaven. Their salvation was still essential cosmic business.

It is interesting that this sense of complacent independence from the earth did not die away, as might have been expected, with the fading of the Christian vision. Secular Westerners did stop expecting their previous welcome in the sky. But this did not lead them – as one would think it might have done – to conclude that they might be only rather gifted terrestrial animals. Instead, they still managed to see themselves in Descartes’ terms as pure intellects – detached observers, set above the rest of the physical world to observe and control it. So, when they stopped venerating God, they began instead to venerate themselves as in some sense the supreme beings in the universe – intellectual marvels whose production must have been the real purpose of evolution. This rather surprising position is expressed fully today in the Strong Anthropic Principle, and to some extent by other manifestoes of what is now called Human Exceptionalism.

Human intellect, in fact, now shone out as supreme in isolation from the whole animal background that might have helped to explain it, and from the rest of the biosphere on which it depended. ‘The mind’ did indeed begin to look like a miracle, a self-supporting phenomenon without a context. As Roy Porter says, “In a single intrepid stroke, Descartes had disinherited almost the whole of Creation – all, that is, except the human mind – of the attributes of life, soul and purpose which had infused it since the speculation of Pythagoras and Plato, Aristotle and Galen.” The physical universe was no longer what Plato had called it, a mighty living creature, but simply a more or less infinite pile of raw material provided for humans to exploit.

Accordingly, that exploitation went on without much check throughout the Industrial Revolution. The pile of resources did seem infinite. Doubts about that are, of course, beginning to be felt now. But the sense of humans as essentially independent, powerful, super-terrestrial beings is still extraordinarily strong.

Some people – apparently quite a lot in the United States – still ground this confidence in the Christian heaven, expecting to be carried off there in chariots when disaster strikes. Others use the sky differently, looking for desirable residences in outer space rather than in the traditional heaven. And even among people who resist these scenarios, many are still sure that scientific ingenuity will always resolve our difficulties somehow. The vision of ourselves as essentially invulnerable minds independent of earthly support, colonists here whose intellects will always find them a new home whatever may go wrong, is still amazingly strong.

To conclude – this flattering illusion of human separateness and self-sufficiency is surely the really disastrous legacy still left over from Cartesian dualism. It is closely linked to the idea that physical matter is inert and alien to us. These two dramatic images of contrast and conflict – mind versus body and heaven versus earth – have long been linked in our tradition. On both topics, we surely need to move to more realistic ways of thinking.

© Dr Mary Midgley 2004

Mary Midgley lectured at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, until the Philosophy Department there was closed down. Among her best-known books are Beast and Man, Wickedness, The Ethical Primate and Science and Poetry.

• The first part of this article appeared in Philosophy Now Issue 47. Other versions of the article may be found in Philosophy, Biology and Life (ed. Anthony O’Hear, Cambridge Univ. Press 2004) and (as ‘Mind and Body; The End of Apartheid’) in Science, Consciousness and Ultimate Reality (ed. David Lorimer, Imprint Academic, 2004)

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