Sunday, 6 July 2014

Minds affect brains - Mary Midgley

From Mary Midgley's "The Myths We Live By":

"all reasoning is powered by feeling and all serious feeling has some reasoning as its skeleton"

From "Discussing Darwin", 2009:

Theos (interviewer): Would it be fair to say that we cannot think outside myths?

Mary Midgley: Yes, in the sense of an apparatus whereby you think. I suppose it sounds less surprising if one refers to ‘visions’. 

Minds affect brains as much as brains affect minds.
Here are edited highlights from a discussion with philosopher Mary Midgley at the Royal Society for the Arts in London.

In this talk Mary Midgley gives the example of the brains of taxi drivers as evidence that thoughts affect brains. In another talk (see "Mazes of the Mind"), this time as a questioner, she cites the thinking of Einstein as very much NOT an illusion created by the random accumulation of particles.

In the RSA talk a question comes from one audience member committed to "evidential truth". He seems to ask: What in minds (thoughts, emotions) is not reducible to an account of brain activity such as MRI-type technology can help to provide?

As I have written elsewhere, it seems to me to be naive to assume that our uptake of "evidence", our perception, in other words, is pure objectivity. But it seems to be an assumption of this kind that lends the questioner his confidence. Behind this assumption lies the history of philosophical work on the validity of induction, empiricism, Kantian epistemology and so on.

To judge by what I have read in Mary Midgley's books, she is not exactly a fan of Karl Popper, because (and I would submit, in spite of Popper's own wishes) his work on demarcation - between science and non-science - has contributed to the vaunting of the self-image of scientists, some of whom are prone, as Midgley says in this discussion, to think of everything, including our subjective life, as having an ultimate explanation accessible by science.

As Mary Midgley has pointed out, it seems a great pity that Popper could not have done such assiduous work on the proper place of, and status of, non-science in intellectual life: the standards we use to judge non-scientific thought. However, from my reading of Popper, the salient point is that he established that scientific knowledge has a metaphysical foundation which can never be known. His work was a criticism of the philosophical project of "logical positivism" which sought to eliminate metaphysics and create scientific philosophy.

Mathematics is not in direct contact with the world, but a very rich language of description.

That minds do affect brains should make such statements as this, in the British Medical Journal
by Lewis Wolpert and Paul Salkovskis, be regarded as silly:
"We suggest that it would be perverse to provide any place in modern mental health services for psychoanalysis."

(See "Does psychoanalysis have a valuable place in modern mental health services? No", BMJ 2012;344:e1188)

Here is a link to an article by Mary Midgley which appeared in New Scientis magazine in 2011.
It deals with more general themes of scientism (the notion that no questions are not answerable by science). Lewis Wolpert gets a mention.

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