Mary Midgley Misses the Point
In a recent issue of Philosophy Now, Mary Midgley, the venerable English moral philosopher well known for her attacks on creationists and evolutionists alike, let loose with ‘A Plague on Both their Houses’. Her argument, though profoundly flawed, is worth considering as a classic fallacy of moderation.
Is that a genome I see before me?
It’s often tempting to think that opposing extremes are best met with something comfortably in-between. Most commonly, the black and white of change and stability are moderated by gradual progress in a world made grey. But there is nothing intrinsically logical about this sort of balance – it’s an ideology, and it makes philosophy as a guide to the world a little mundane.
Midgley does offer a timely overview of the clash between creationism in its guise of Intelligent Design and the often brusque assertions of evolutionists. But, siding with the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky and the favourite uncle of humanist science Albert Einstein, she fashions an image of religion best served without a creator figure. Dispense with God, she argues, and you don’t have a troublesome point of origin. Even more importantly, you don’t have irreducible metaphysical assertions (such as the world was created in six days) skipping into the reducible, physical world.
Here the argument gets a little slippery. Like Einstein, Midgley reasons that a non-theistic religion can better explain the role of the unobservable divine in the observable natural realm. She doesn’t explain what this ‘divine’ is, and she seems to be saying that a sort of ‘spirituality’ should replace religion and compliment holistic science.
But her examples of religions that encompass this sort of vaguely defined ‘spirituality’ neglect the role of the Jade Emperor as a creator in some strains of Daoism and that Confucianism is a code of conduct rather than a religion – there is nothing of the divine in its value system.
From this contentious base Midgley attacks “scientific atheism”, particularly that of her bete noire Richard Dawkins, as a mere reaction to the rise of fundamentalist Christianity and its new crutch of Intelligent Design. She argues that Dawkins and his ilk are out of bounds; the flawed metaphysical notion of God properly resides outside the scope of scientific method.
So, overall, both creationists and hardcore evolutionists err because they fail to grasp the importance of religion properly conceived as a compliment to science. This ‘common ground’, a place where the two groups can “talk to each other” as Philosophy Now puts it, is barren, an intellectual wasteland. At no stage does Midgley carefully examine the logic of either position, happy to brush them aside with generalisations that suit her more ‘moderate’ stance.
To Einstein’s quip that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” we might now add that moral philosophy without analytical rigour is dumb, unable to speak its mind.
That doesn’t offer us much direction in a puzzling world.