Mary Midgley's recent Science and Poetry is, like her earlier writings, full of thoughtful and literate prose. But in some ways the new book feels sadly unsatisfying. Its chapters read like disjoint essays or speeches, which indeed the Acknowledgements suggest that they are. Worse, the overall tone is one of negativism and refutation, of smiting down those who disagree --- yet a close reading suggests that Midgley's arguments are themselves vulnerable to her own criticisms. Yes, the world is untidy and needs to be analyzed on multiple levels; yes, simplistic theories cannot explain all phenomena; yes, scientists are human (as are philosophers! - ^z) and often overreach themselves, especially when writing for lay audiences. But it's impolitic and unconvincing to pick phrases out of context and attack them for their techno-hubric vocabulary. It also weakens one's case to cite popularizers and fringe physicists as if they represent the core of the human scientific enterprise. And is the gender question, Sky God versus Earth Goddess, really all that relevant to the question at hand, or is it just another metaphorical debating trick?
Mary Midgley's bottom line is an important one and appears in its purest form near the end of Chapter 18: Wholes and parts are equally real. Absolutely. But (to quote a rock music band slogan), "So far, so what?" Granted, too much reductionism is bad --- as is too much wholism. But what comes next? As she aptly notes, "Clear expressions of important mistakes are very useful things, making it much easier to move on beyond those mistakes than it is when they are wrapped in confusion." (Chap. 3) Yes. And most welcome at this point would be a clear, compact, coherent expression of the key elements of Midgley's position(s). Total quantification isn't necessary --- equations aren't always appropriate! --- but a bit of sharpness could make her ideas more easily testable against human experience. That wouldn't be bad.
John Stuart Mill's essay "The Utility of Religion" wrestles with many of the same themes as does Mary Midgley --- the scientific v. the supernatural, and method v. mysticism. But Mill manages to paint a clearer picture, particularly with respect to the tension between reverence and religion. More on that another time!
(See ^zhurnal No Concepts At All 22 February 2001 and OnSomethingness 17 January 2000 for comments by John Archibald Wheeler and Martin Gardner re unified theories of everything; see PhysicsEnvy (11 April 2001) re (mis)use of technical metaphors; and see various thought-provoking excerpts from Midgley's prior books, (17 Sep 2000, 6 July 2000, 1 June 2000, etc.)
Tuesday, July 03, 2001 at 08:10:12 (EDT) = Datetag20010703