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A Magisterium for Science

The Power of No

The Four Oxford Moral PhilosophersPerhaps more than any other twentieth century philosopher, the late Mary Midgley understood that there were great conceptual misunderstandings emerging out of the deep commitments to the power of scientific thinking that began in the nineteenth century. She remarked that this confusion had permitted bias to be "smuggled in as if it were a technical matter only accessible to experts" - a warning written in 2003 that captures a great deal of what went wrong in 2020.

This extended role for the sciences where they are taken to possess an authority that could in itself never be scientific flows from the mythos of magical science I discussed back in January, and it is an entirely contemporary problem - indeed, I rather suspect it is the essential contemporary problem, of which others such as the environmental crisis (euphemistically concealed by talk of 'climate change') are only shadows and reflections. It is because so many have emotionally invested in the power of science, while so few have intellectually invested in understanding the intricacies of the actual workings of the sciences, that we find ourselves in strange places where nobody can say 'no' to even a ghastly mistake provided it is made in the 'name' of science.

To be responsible in relation to the work of the sciences, then, requires a certain vigilance to ensure that what we are doing when we invoke terms like 'scientific research' or phases like 'the science says' or 'scientists increasingly believe' is accurately reporting the state of research programmes, and not mistaking the findings of scientific research (which are always provisional) with specific doctrines that are neither a requirement for, nor a part of, the work of the sciences. As Midgley warned of such philosophical smuggling, a great deal of so-called 'anti-science' positions are reacting to these imported ideologies rather than the research programmes that are truly the activities central to scientific work. This is not only problematic because of the way it complicates all attempts to share scientific perspectives more widely, but also because these unnoticed doctrines "import irrelevant, inhuman standards into non-scientific aspects of life and lead people to neglect the relevant ones."

No philosopher has had greater influence upon me than Midgley, and this is not only because she was my first (and for a long time, my only) philosophical correspondent. I have always aspired towards - and all too often failed to reach - the clarity of language that Midgley was able to bring to bear on quite complex problems in her always-excellent books. For her, as she said to me in the interview I ran back in 2010, specialist terminology such as can be found in the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger "runs counter to my deep identification with everyday speech", and the essence of her work in philosophy was always written in a way that makes her far easier to read than Kant, or Wittgenstein, or any of the other staples of modern philosophy. Since I believe any philosophy excised from a general readership has sealed its own doom, I have always considered Midgley's philosophical methods exemplars for what a philosopher ought to be.

When it comes to my own work in philosophy of science, Midgley is more than just an influence, she is the foundation of my thinking. Again and again, she was able to return to the problems springing from the persistent illusion that a pronouncement made by a scientist carries with it an almost magical power to authorise (or de-authorise) certain actions. Yet this authority is not scientific, but metaphysical (non-testable); it is a faith of a very specific kind, and one that tends towards the same blindness that all human thinking is prone to: of excluding ourselves from consideration when it comes to the errors of thought we can see quite clearly in others. It is the clarity of her understanding of this point, and many others related to it, that makes Midgley the essential guide to the broader philosophical problems of the sciences.

Midgley was part of an exceptional group of four female philosophers who studied at Oxford University during the Second World War - from left to right in the photo above, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Iris Murdoch. Indeed, in my correspondence with Midgley while she was with us, she still could not resist calling one of her former classmates 'P Foot' in a way that felt like an in-joke from decades past. Recently, attention has finally been paid to these four astonishing women philosophers, a recognition that was long overdue - and there is even a certain gathering momentum to recognise them as collectively representing a movement. Rachael Wiseman tentatively suggests 'uncommon sense realism' or 'depictive metaphysics' as names for this philosophical school... I do not think these names will stick, but they are a solid attempt to capture the commonalities of these four astonishing thinkers.

Midgley associated the perspective shared by these four philosophers with the collective issuing of a resounding "No!" to the ethical currents of the early twentieth century. Writing in 2017, she remarked:

Did that make us four into a Philosophical School?

This is a loose term, but the point is worth discussing. We did not at once become a 4-headed unanimous squad of prophets. We each followed our own diverging paths in various directions. But what, for me, makes the unanimity-story still important is a persisting memory of the four of us sitting in Philippa’s front room and doing our collective best to answer the orthodoxies of the day, which we all saw as disastrous. As with many philosophical schools, the starting-point was a joint 'NO!'. No (that is) at once to divorcing Facts from Values, and – after a bit more preparation – also No to splitting mind off from matter. From this, a lot of metaphysical consequences would follow.

These two elements of the prevailing dogma that Midgley singled out are important because they do indeed frame both the significance of these four philosophers and the disastrous trajectory of the twentieth century, from which we are still reaping ever more grotesque fruit.

The split of mind from matter is taken as rejection of Descartes' philosophy, but as I've discussed many times previously, it is actually a perverse commitment to it. Whereas Descartes sought to demonstrate the necessity of treating mind as distinct from matter, today we are committed to the same framework yet inverted, such that we now agree wholeheartedly with Descartes' cleaving of existence - but only in so much as it allows us to make 'matter' (and not mind) the important side of the equation. The power of No had to be placed against this because in reducing who we are as beings to merely the action of molecules, we simultaneously created an illusion of humanity (indeed, of all animals) as merely mechanistic machines, and fatally undermined the conditions for understanding what a good life might be.

Relatedly, and perhaps more importantly, the attempt to divorce facts from values - a mistake that the Scottish philosopher David Hulme made in 1740 and then unsuccessfully retracted in 1758 - is perhaps the pivotal error of the twentieth century, from which so many other philosophical disasters have flowed. This is a mistake imported from moral philosophy, but the consequences of making it have bled out into everything, and especially into philosophy of science. Indeed, as the opening piece to this current philosophical 'campaign' already observed, the confused idea that the sciences can be 'value-free', from which the wilfully ignorant state of pseudoscience flows, emanates precisely from this horrible misunderstanding of both facts and values, to which the power of No had to stand up in opposition.

It is worth reflecting upon the contributions of Midgley's three friends at Oxford, and how they relate to this resistance against the orthodox philosophy of mid-twentieth century Europe. Elizabeth Anscombe is sadly most famous for being Wittgenstein's student, and although that connection with Wittgenstein is important (as Midgley attests) it is worth noting that the four philosophers rarely saw him, even though his ground-breaking philosophical work was instrumental to developing their ways of thinking about the world. Midgley speaks of how Anscombe handed out loose-leaf bundles of papers containing Wittgenstein's notes (what are now called 'the Blue and Brown Books', and would go on to become Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty)... it is hard not to be slightly envious of this chance to be personally connected to what would prove to be the most influential work of twentieth century philosophy. (Heidegger's Being and Time - the likely contender to this dubious crown - is read solely by philosophers; Wittgenstein, on the other hand, was also taken up by psychologists, a rare honour for any philosopher!)

Anscombe, alas, had the misfortune of being too overtly influenced by her Catholicism, and thus was too easily dismissed by the philosophical establishment. Academic philosophy has tended to treat religious commitments as something that can be overlooked as an indulgence in men (it is routinely overlooked for Wittgenstein, for instance, despite its central place in his work as a philosopher), yet it is almost always perceived as a fatal flaw in women, for whom the path to being taken seriously was (and perhaps still is) to act and think as much like a man as possible. Nonetheless, Anscombe's paper "Modern Moral Philosophy" is perhaps the single most important critique of consequentialism ever written. This term 'consequentialism' marks the belief that what matters beyond everything else in our ethics are outcomes, and this specific name was invented by Anscombe and is still widely used by philosophers today - generally without even a passing reference to her work! She remarks of this narrow focus upon outcomes that this approach...

...leads to its being quite impossible to estimate the badness of an action except in the light of expected consequences. But if so, then you must estimate the badness in the light of the consequences you expect; and so it will follow that you can exculpate yourself from the actual consequences of the most disgraceful actions, as long as you can make out a case for not having foreseen them.

A more apposite summary of the disaster that was 2020 I have not seen.

Philippa Foot is known for being the creator of so-called 'trolley problems', and in an irony that is now so common that it will not raise any eyebrows whatsoever, her purposes in using these thought experiments was diametrically opposed to how they are now used today. As I have written about in Chaos Ethics and elsewhere, trolley problems have come to be deployed as a convenient way of fooling people into accepting consequentialist thinking as necessary by making the truths of mathematics seem to possess moral rather than merely logical truth, and thus a means of luring people into acting and thinking atrociously (as Anscombe clearly warned would happen, and as was already happening in the early years of the twentieth century). Foot could not possibly be blamed for this absurd misuse of her toolbox, and the lack of attention to her work in moral philosophy is unfortunate, since she insightfully engaged with the attempt to divorce facts from values in ways that are still well worth reading. I have been particularly struck by her concept that injustice can be understood as a kind of injury, and therefore we have rational reasons to avoid injustice - another idea that bears gainfully upon many of the grim events of 2020.

Iris Murdoch had the fortune or misfortune (depending upon how you wish to view the matter) of having succeeded in writing excellent novels, and therefore of enjoying critical and indeed commercial success - she even scored a 'Dame' in the Queen's 1987 honours list, something no other philosopher has ever achieved. This has allowed Murdoch's philosophical thinking to be roundly ignored, since novels are deemed too frivolous a form for philosophising; even Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus are only grudgingly accepted as philosophers these days, having chosen novels over treatises. The idea that a contemporary academic philosopher would choose a novel as their preferred medium is one that doesn't even need scoffing at - despite the self-evident fact that writing a novel allows philosophical concepts to propagate far more effectively than writing a series of impenetrable arguments for echo chamber journals.

Since she never developed any explicit moral theory, attempts to summarise her position will always be a simplification - although as the case of Philippa Foot demonstrates, explicit theorising is in fact no defence against this either. However, her collection of essays, The Sovereignty of Good, does provide an outstanding skeleton key for understanding Murdoch's moral philosophy:

The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. 'Good is a transcendent reality' means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is. It is an empirical fact about human nature that this attempt cannot be entirely successful.

Murdoch's intuition that there was an irreducible plurality to the moral 'fields of force' hinged upon the idea that there is a sense of unity haunting our thinking about ethics, and followed Plato in naming this unity 'good'. She too used the power of No that the four philosophers unleashed to tackle the crises they jointly perceived. But she did so through the methods of the arts because she believed, with good reason, that this was an approach with the capacity to wield the greatest influence. I hope and trust that through her novels she did in fact attain precisely what she set out to achieve.

As the twentieth century ended, the power of No has been increasingly taken up as a feminine power. The phrase "No means no" has become a commonplace, the meaning of which is that consent must necessarily be explicit because the risks of implying consent are too terrible to permit. Sadly, this is often meant to apply solely in the context of rape, since in truth the confused idea that we can consent to that which we are vocally objecting to has equal application in politics, whereby consent is all too often assumed to have been implied merely by election, and therefore that democracy is solely about choosing who should wield power and not about perpetually solving the recurring problem of how we should all live together.

But if I leave this discussion of the power of No and the four extraordinary women who choose to wield their philosophy under this unstated banner at this point, it will only further the feminist stereotype that women want to undermine and destroy. And this is a terrible misrepresentation not only of women and feminists, but also of what Midgley, Anscombe, Foot, and Murdoch strove towards. It will foreground their opposition to philosophical orthodoxy and not what they were seeking to defend. For the true power of No is not in denial but in resistance, and all effective resistance is grounded in defence of the good, however that needs to be construed.

The four Oxford moral philosophers represented a defence of the good life as it had been articulated by the ghosts of philosophy past, and as it had yet to be articulated in the spirit of philosophy yet to come. They unleashed the power of No in order to resist attempts to simplify, obfuscate, and distort the nature of human existence and the moral decisions consequent upon it. Of the four, only Midgley took on this vital struggle upon the battleground of philosophy of science, and if I have tended to favour her work it is almost certainly because my own conflicted and tortured relationship with the sciences - which I love and therefore recoil in horror when they are distorted, yet also fear because the vision we have unthinkingly chosen for them flirts so blatantly with catastrophe.

Midgley saw with immense clarity the way that non-scientific dogmas and orthodoxies could corrupt and undermine the work of the sciences, and sited that discussion directly in the alleged conflict between science and religion because she understood, with an insight that far outstrips any of her contemporaries, the immense danger of this artificial split, which mirrors the misguided split between facts and values or between mind and matter. To claim facts and matter 'for science' is to attempt to subjugate values and mind, and therefore to gut democracy, freedom, and indeed truth. It reduces the sciences to dogmatic caricatures of their true beauty and worth, and affords to anyone willing to wield this tainted sceptre of "following the science" an authority they neither truly possess nor justly deserve. Tied up in this mistake is the demonisation of religion as 'anti-science' - rather than, as history shows us, giving birth to every science as we now understand this term. It is perhaps the quintessential mistake made by those who claim to love science, yet who deceive themselves by falling prey of what Murdoch warns we are all deceived by: ourselves.

Against any and all such attempts to flatten and oppress the beauty of human existence we can and must join together in raising up the power of No, again, again, and ever again, unceasingly, if we are to have any hope of defending what is good in this world. When we stop, when we decide that we should let injustice that has been misrepresented as necessity, or bias that has been misrepresented as unchallengeable truth, happen without resistance - whatever good reason we may claim for doing so - we betray the efforts of all those who came before us and cleared the way for us all to try to make a good life together. In this neverending project, these four women will be our invaluable allies, if only we are willing to listen to the immense and incalculable wisdom they have bequeathed to us.

Unattributed Mary Midgley quotes in this piece are from her 2003 book, The Myths we Live By.


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