Are You an Illusion?, by Mary Midgley, Acumen, RRP£12.99, 176 pages

Mary Midgely, philosopher
Philosopher Mary Midgley

You are a figment of your own imagination; an impotent spectre conjured by the workings of millions of tiny brain cells. What you think of as yourself – and the selves of your loved ones too – are really just shadows, now shrinking as the sun of neuroscience rises higher in the sky, casting its rays on the inner workings of your mind.

This view has become fashionable, encouraged by those ubiquitous brain-scan images of our grey cells lighting up when we think of dinner or (in one actual study) of Jennifer Aniston. Such images are supposed to show that our thoughts, hopes, passions and memories are illusions produced by the complex biochemistry of the brain. But Mary Midgley, one of our wisest living philosophers, is not willing to be talked out of her inner life. In her new book Are You an Illusion? she mounts a vigorous defence of herself – and yours and mine too.

It is a very big little book. Midgley manages in just 150 pages to say more than most scholars manage in a lifetime. It might help that she has had plenty of practice: this is her 15th book and she is in her 94th year. Midgley combines both the ability to place intellectual fashions in their broader context with having lived long enough to personally witness the rise and fall of many of them.

So when whippersnapper neuroscientists arrive to tell us that they have “discovered” there is no self, she knows to take their claims with a pinch of salt. Fortunately, she also has the lucid pen with which to point out the flaws in their thinking for the rest of us.

The core of her argument is this: there are different levels of explanation, which we study with different tools and in different contexts. There is, for example, the way a furniture maker studies tables (as solid things on which one can rest a cup) and the way sub-atomic physicists study tables (as collections of atoms that consist mostly of empty space). One is not more “real” than the other. Similarly with our minds: we are now able to study the activity of the neurones that make up our brains; but that does not mean that the things the brain produces – thoughts, memories, a sense of self – are not real.

Indeed, thoughts and memories, etc, are not just part of reality, they are an absolutely crucial part of reality for human beings (and probably other animals too). Midgley gives a nice example: if I want to learn from my mistakes, then I need to think about how and why I chose wrongly the last time – contemplating instead the movements of brain cells is unlikely to be a useful substitute. We have shown that we can get along without believing in God, but the author doubts whether we can get along without believing in ourselves – and she doubts that the scientists who deny the reality of the self even try to do so.

The position of the neuroscientists is also inconsistent, Midgley argues. Why, if we are on a mission to reduce things to the lowest level, would we talk about brains and cells – surely we must rather talk about atoms or quarks? She posits that we should instead accept the reality of all these different levels. This has the advantage of allowing us to hold on to ideas such as free will, and therefore moral responsibility, as well as permitting us to take subjective feelings seriously.

These are familiar themes in Midgley’s work, as she has for many years criticised the reduction of all knowledge to just one way of seeing the world. No discipline, she rightly says, is a gold-paved path to the truth. But there are also two more surprising undercurrents in this book.

One is her tendency to treat Charles Darwin as akin to a gospel, whose message has been corrupted by the wicked priests of neo-Darwinism such as Richard Dawkins. True to say, Darwin did have an astonishing tendency to be right, but to treat him as such an authority seems out of keeping with Midgley’s warning against mythologising the sciences.

Second, she surprisingly attaches great significance to one particular, rather reductionist, neuroscience theory: that the two hemispheres of our brains have different approaches to the world. Broadly, the left hemisphere is portrayed as logical and detail-focused, whereas the right hemisphere does creativity and the big picture. She suggests that academia, in particular science, is too left-hemisphere-biased, preferring reductionism to holism, and specialisation to synthesis.

Midgley is right, of course, though her theory stands without this pop-neurological support. Over-specialisation is the curse of the thinking classes. She expects philosophers in particular to do something about this, and has accused her colleagues of habitually “biting off much less than they can chew”. She cannot be accused of the same: in this bite-size book she digests some of the toughest intellectual challenges of our day.

Stephen Cave is author of ‘Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilisation’ (Biteback/Crown)

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article