Saturday, June 28, 2014

More from Midgley on Animals, superstition and freewill

Midgley at the RSA in May. Note the "illusion" behind her.
I should complete some of the gems from Mary Midgley's wonderful Are you an Illusion.
  • She quotes Darwin's famous "the... impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe...as the result of blind chance...I feel compelled to look to a First Cause...and I deserve to be called a Theist" and then remarks: he added, of course, that perhaps we should not trust our human intellects when they draw "such grand conclusions." But then Dawkins's claim to know there is no such cause is just as grand...extreme negative proposals need just as much support as positive ones.
  • Darwin's reasoning does not require that we go back to a literal reading of ...Genesis...[but] that we recognise intelligence - design - of some kind as a basic constituent of the universe...It excludes...the picture of a mindless, meaningless, disconnected system, or rather absence of a system. This non-system, of course, is a picture that many ...people...now think of as a safe...fall-back position, a handy armchair left for them by the Enlightenment. In truth that picture makes no sense.
  • Descartes and his contemporaries entirely ignored this business of social signals [between animals] even though in practice their whole lives depended on the social signals they constantly exchanged with their horses and indeed...with other humans.
  • A number of authoritative scientists...testified [in 2012] that they do now think that actually animals may well be conscious...but why has it taken scientists three hundred years to get rid of an error that a little attention to their own domestic animals could quickly have cured?...the explanation ...[lies] in a background myth.
  • All kinds of animals need to be able to read the mood of others around them...Darwin...wrote an excellent book about it...The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals...his official followers dismissed the book...and said as little as possible about it during his dentenary celebrations.
  • It is striking to notice how myths - imaginative visions - can stop people from seeing plainly visible facts...it was the myth - not the facts - that was deemed to be scientific...Talk about planetary damage was dismissed as fanciful...frilly, feminine...even though it came from well-qualified scientists.
  • Our belief in our detachment from other animals, and from the earth that has produced them, is ...one more example of what may well be called scientistic superstition: an opinion maintained by convention contrary to well-known evidence in order to suit an imaginative habit. As far as animals are concerned, this notion differs from some others in that, at least in certain situations, it does seem to be seriously believed. [she mentions Meat-eating and animal experimentation].  But there are other parts of these strange pseudo-scientific conventions that quite plainly are nor seriously believed since they do not produce appropriate behaviour. The most striking of these is the denial of free will.
  • People give various reasons for dismissing free will as unscientific. Mostly, however, these flow from a very common but superstitious and highly anthropomorphic view of causality as compulsion.
  • Free will ...is not just a name from a general exemption from causality. Essentially it concerns effort, which is a perfectly real causal factor...It means that our efforts can in principle be effective; that thoughts have their real place among other kinds of causes in the world.
  • If somebody could be convinced that their free will really was an illusion...they would then become a helpless full-time fatalist. They would probably try to stop thinking and would be unable to act. But this dismal destiny would ...result from their own bad choices, formed by their own thinking.
  • It has always struck me as extraordinary that in [Libet-type] experiments, nobody seems to have taken the trouble to ask the subjects what they had been thinking about before they made their movements....the act emerged, as all conscious acts do, from a substantial context of motivation.
  • "What's it for?"...is a question that constantly arises about all sorts of man-made objects, and it was one Aristotle's best discoveries that it is also a useful question to ask about natural objects....And since Greek thought did not use the idea of a divine creator, he was never tempted to suggest that these functions expressed the purposes of an outside planner.
  • By [asking "what's it for?" systematically [Aristotelian teleology] begins to understand ...various functions as parts of larger wholes, systems within which the relations between the various parts continually makes better sense of them. That's what Darwin was doing when he devised his evolutionary system based on natural selection. The trouble was that he stopped there...and his paralysis has been transmitted in spades to his followers.
  • I should perhaps say a word here about ...the idea that reasonings themselves are not independent becasue they in turn arise from physical causes. This, of course, calls first for a simple tu quoque reply; these physical causes may in their turn have had mental causes and so on forever. But, more seriously...thoughts need to spring from further thoughts that are relevant. If you want an explanation for 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. {though I [NB] remark that not all thoughts are reasonings. It's not unreasonable to suggest that some thoughts (lust, anger, depression) might at least in part be caused by "physical" changes such as hormone levels}.
That gets us to the end of Chapter 9 and there are 3 great chapters to go. Buy the book!

1 comment:

Sam W. said...

I'm rather surprised that you find Midgley helpful on the matter of free-will. As far as I know she is a rather staunch compatibilist (i.e., she believes that free-will and determinism are compatible with one another). Can her thoughts be integrated into a libertarian, non-deterministic account of the process?