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The Philosophy Now Festival
We report on the magazine’s 20th anniversary celebration at London’s Conway Hall, where Martin Midgley gave this speech accepting Philosophy Now’s first Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity on behalf of his mother, Dr Mary Midgley.
We celebrated twenty years of Philosophy Now with an all-day philosophy festival in central London on December 18th 2011. Around 1,500 people came through the doors of Conway Hall during the course of the day. As the festival was free and open to anyone who wanted to come, we were worried that either nobody would turn up or else there would be too many for the space available, but the numbers were close to ideal. Everyone was very friendly and supportive and generally a joy to be with. A large group of volunteers helped to set things up and keep the day running smoothly. Sales of tea, coffee and secondhand books raised £387.62 for the charity Crisis, which helps homeless single people. There were more than twenty separate events run by a host of London-based philosophy organisations, and most of them were full or nearly full. Particular crowd-pullers were Roger Scruton, who delivered the first George Ross Memorial Lecture on the subject of ‘The Role of Philosophy in the Conduct of Everyday Life’, and the lively Round Table Debate on ‘Philosophy vs Religion’.
Mark Vernon talked about Socrates and Anthony O’Hear about wisdom, and Tim Madigan came all the way from the USA to tell us about ‘The Poet of Nature’ (Lucretius). The Balloon Debate was very popular too; each contestant represented a famous philosopher (Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, George Santayana and Plato) and had to give reasons why their thinker shouldn’t be thrown out of a sinking hot air balloon to save weight. The audience voted for John Stuart Mill (represented by Anja Steinbauer) to remain safely aloft after the other sages had all been hurled to their doom.
The festival was very interactive: Many of the events were debates, or workshops, or games. Several very successful philosophy workshops for children of different ages were organised by the Philosophy Foundation, and one for teenagers by St Dunstan’s College. At the end of the afternoon, the winner of Philosophy Now’s first annual Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity was announced: Mary Midgley. Her son Martin gave an acceptance talk which is here. The formal proceedings closed with some speeches including a rambling talk by Philosophy Now editor Rick Lewis who, spaced out on coffee and fatigue, inadequately attempted to express his deep gratitude to all the speakers, panelists, volunteers and members of the thinking public who had made the day so enjoyable, and to all the contributors, readers and fellow editors (including our web genius Bora Dogan) who have enabled the magazine to grow and flourish. Many people stayed for the party in the evening and a good time was had by all.
If it wasn’t already obvious, I wish to point out that I’m not Mary Midgley, and I’m aware that I would make a poor job of pretending to be so. Sadly, she’s not here, having come off the worst in an argument with a piece of road in her native Newcastle. She’s recovering well, but in her absence I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with her youngest son.
I’d like to say a couple of words about the fight against stupidity, and my mother’s role in it. It’s clear that she has a certain reputation, which I’m not sure is entirely correct. I’ll illustrate it by quoting from a Guardian article from 2001: “A fiercely combative philosopher, she wrote her first book in her fifties after she raised her family. Now 81, she is our foremost scourge of ‘scientific pretension’ and a staunch defender of religion – although she doesn’t believe in God,” and “Mary Midgley… may be the most frightening philosopher in the country: the one before whom it is least pleasant to appear a fool. One moment she sits by her fire in Newcastle like a round-cheeked tabby cat; the next she is deploying a savage Oxonian precision of language to dissect some error as a cat dissects a living mouse.” (Andrew Brown, Guardian Unlimited.)
It comes as rather a surprise to me to discover that I’ve been raised by a fire-breathing dragon, and it’s not a picture completely in accord with my own view. In fact, with all due respect to Andrew Brown, I think it’s nonsense. But to quote my mother from the same piece, “I keep thinking that I shall have no more to say – and then finding some wonderfully idiotic doctrine which I can contradict – a negative approach, as they say, but one that doesn’t seem to run out.”
But her approach is not just negative. In 1991 she published a book entitled Can’t We Make Moral Judgements?, spurred on by a useful piece of stupidity. In a discussion with students concerning the duty of toleration, one of the participants pointed out, ardently and confidently, that “Surely, it’s always wrong to make moral judgements.” I don’t need to point out to Philosophy Now readers that there’s a problem here. The point is that this confident but self-defeating statement of a ‘blindingly obvious truth’, this moral judgement about moral judgements, makes it clear that there’s a ruck in the conceptual carpet here. The result, in the form of my mother’s book, was a typically lucid examination of the nature of moral judgements. She mentioned the concluding passage of this book to Rick [Lewis, PN Editor] and me when discussing this award, so here it is:
“Throughout this little book, I have been suggesting that, far from being helpless in the matter of thinking morally, we have considerable powers for doing that very difficult thing. If this is so, it seems to be somewhat wasteful to entertain confused taboos and inhibitions that stop us doing it. To name a parallel, it is worthwhile remembering the fate of the Margrave of Brandenburg. He seems not to have bothered to look at his post, and therefore he never opened a particular parcel of music that had been sent to him as a present by some tiresome choirmaster. It was found unopened at his death.
“The choirmaster’s name was J.S. Bach, and the parcel contained what we now call the six Brandenburg Concertos. Not much else is known about the Margrave. No doubt he was a man who got a lot of presents. All the same, it seems possible that he, like the rest of us, sometimes reflected that life was hard on him, and that he had never had the luck that he deserved. It does not seem to have occurred to him that he could have improved the situation just by opening his mail.
“It would surely be a great pity if we were to repeat this mistake in regard to that very remarkable gift, our power of making moral judgements.”
(Can’t We Make Moral Judgements? p.165, The Bristol Press, 1991.)
It’s part of my mother’s gift that she has a keen eye for particularly fine examples of boneheaded nonsense which have escaped the undergraduate environment. Sometimes these are uttered by prophets of fashionable notions, and in much of her work the prophets have been from the world of science. This has given rise to the notion that she is in some sense anti-science, which really could not be further from the truth. Rather, the main thrust of her work has been to free science from some of the horrible manglings done in its name: for example, from B.F. Skinner’s strange attempt to banish consciousness, as it were by an act of statute: ‘There is no consciousness, just behaviour; if you persist in the delusion that you are conscious, I’m afraid you’re just mistaken.’
The job of defending consciousness has been largely done, and it’s hard now to remember how influential and important Skinnerism was. But if I may, I’d like to mention some other influential and instructive – er – stupidities:
“Although poets may aspire to understanding, their talents are more akin to entertaining self-deception. They may be able to emphasise delights in the world, but they are deluded if they and their admirers believe that their identification of the delights and their use of poignant language are enough for comprehension. Philosophers too, I am afraid, have contributed to the understanding of the universe little more than poets… They have not contributed much that is novel until after novelty has been discovered by scientists… While poetry titillates and theology obfuscates, science liberates.”
(Peter Atkins, ‘The Limitless Power of Science’ in Nature’s Imagination, p.123, ed. John Cornwell, 1995.)
Science is here being invoked to remove all other forms of thought from the field of play; but this is a ludicrous invocation. Others take it further, such as Frank Tipler’s ‘Omega Point’. This is a term Tipler took from Teilhard de Chardin to describe a state of the universe in the distant future. According to Tipler’s cosmology, intelligent life will inevitably take over all matter in the entire universe. Let me cite Tipler as my mother quotes him in her book Science as Salvation (1992), followed by her response:
“At the instant the Omega Point is reached, life will have gained control of all matter and forces, not only in a single universe, but in all universes whose existence is logically possible; life will have spread into all spatial regions in all universes which could logically exist.” (Authors’ emphases) (Quoted from The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, O.U.P., 1986, concluding paragraph).
“The term ‘life’ here means only Homo sapiens. No other earthly life-form is considered, and extraterrestrials are flatly excluded. The ‘logically possible universes’ can be ignored; they arise merely from the authors’ muddle-headedness. But I think we should be impolite enough to remind ourselves at this point of the extent of the ‘single universe’ that is to be fully occupied.
“To get some realistic perspective on this cosmic project, I was inclined to quote here a few figures from the Cambridge Atlas of Astronomy about the numbers, distances and temperatures involved. These figures, however, would of course not surprise the authors of passages like the one just quoted. Cosmologists constantly talk in kiloparsecs. This familiarity, however, is just the source of their trouble. The gap between such figures and human capacities is so wide that they never think of bridging it. They do not reflect on what undertaking such an enterprise would actually involve, nor ask how it would compare (say) with an offer by ants to take over the solar system. Their imaginations are not, as might be thought, over-active, but inert. Absorbed in figures and used to the cosy formulae of science fiction, they do not visualize at all what their claims really mean.”
(Science as Salvation, pages 17-18, Routledge, 1992.)
Their failure of the imagination reminds me of a conversation I had with someone who had worked at NASA about the notion of a Professor of Physics at Princeton, that it is both inevitable and desirable that humanity will colonise Mars. It sounds good, but consider for a moment the job of selling the proposal to one of the lucky candidate astronauts: “Hi Dave, got a good one for you here; a one-way ticket to Mars. There are some minor drawbacks – for example, you’ll have to spend most of your life in a hole in the ground because otherwise the radiation will kill you; and your kids will never go to Harvard, or be able to visit Paris. But otherwise it’ll be great – assuming that you like sand.” Think about that for a moment.
I think my friend from NASA badly needed a dose of my mother’s humane, sensible reasoning, as he was utterly convinced that he’d jump at the chance. But her work to keep science within its proper bounds doesn’t mean she’s anti-science: “Science really is a wonderful thing,” she writes, “and human beings really are wonderful creatures. But there are other wonderful things and wonderful creatures in the world as well. To exalt science properly is to show it in its place among them, not to send it off to an unreal, isolated pedestal among the galaxies. The true value of science is something that is only insulted by tagging it with the offer of pie in the sky. Nor can that offer restore the meaning to life, if indeed meaning is lacking. If it was wrong for religion to make capital out of offers of this kind, it is no less wrong for science to do so.” (Science as Salvation, p.32.)
So far, I’ve referred to two projects in my mother’s career: the attempts to introduce some reality concerning the position of moral reasoning in our lives, and some perspective about the place of science. Another major project of hers has been the attempt to rescue Darwin from his many disciples.
The word ‘Darwinism’ is commonly taken by these disciples to refer to a particularly brutal application of Natural Selection, in which the weak go to the wall, and in which all motivation reduces to selfishness and the mechanical impulse to procreate the species. In Beast and Man (1978) my mother quotes Darwin’s own response to being misread in this way, as included in the 6th edition of The Origin of Species:
“As my conclusions have been much misrepresented, and it has been stated that I attribute the modification of species exclusively to natural selection, I may be permitted to remark that in the first edition of this work and subsequently, I placed in a most conspicuous position – namely at the close of the Introduction – the following words, ‘I am convinced that natural selection has been the main, but not the exclusive means of modification.’ This has been of no avail. Great is the power of misrepresentation.”
“Words,” my mother comments, “as near to downright bitterness as that patient man ever wrote.”
My mother’s promotion of the subtlety of Darwin’s thought, and of his clear recognition of the twin forces of competition and co-operation (now much more clearly understood because of advances in biology) resulted both in her first book, Beast and Man, and in her most recent, The Solitary Self (2010). In between, her article ‘Gene Juggling’ in Philosophy 54, No. 210 (1979) is the only publication which to my mind merits Andrew Brown’s descriptions of her. She was furious (to my mind, justifiably) at Richard Dawkins’ re-presentation of Darwinism in The Selfish Gene, and his emphasis on competition, ignoring the critical role of co-operation in evolution. This is only one incident in the long history of the distorted presentation of Darwin’s theory, which in my view is the greatest intellectual tragedy of the past 200 years.
If I could draw attention to only one of my mother’s many works, I would like to refer people to this last book, The Solitary Self. It might restore the faith of anyone wishing to see how philosophy can aid in the fight against stupidity.
© Martin Midgley 2012