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|Two modes of knowing: abstract and narrative|
|c. Science and Poetry: Dawkins and Midgley|
the idea that all human activity can be explained by the natural sciences
appears to many to be self-evidently true… For such thinkers, the question
of what it means to be human will eventually be solved in the same way
as any other question about nature. Science, the evolutionary biologist
Rob Foley suggests, "turns every large philosophical and metaphysical question
into what are often straightforward and even boring technical ones"…
But, as Mary Midgley points out, however much we learn about our brain, our genes, or our evolutionary history, we will not learn fully what it is to be human.
To make sense of our humanity requires not just science but poetry. "Poetry", for Midgley, is not defined not in its everyday sense. Rather it is a description of all that
|is not encompassed by natural science
- philosophy, history, sociology, politics, literature and so on.
The success of science has derived to a large degree from its ability to expunge teleology from the study of nature. Whereas the pre-scientific world viewed the universe as full of purpose and desire, the scientific revolution "disenchanted" nature, transforming it into an inert, mindless entity. Humans, however, are not disenchanted creatures, possessing as we do both purpose and agency. Uniquely among organisms, human beings are both objects of nature and subjects that can shape our own fate.
We are, as Midgley puts it, both "earthly organisms, animals like others operating within a physical pattern" and "agents, active beings who not only can but must choose what to do… Traditional materialism asks us to believe in a world of objects without subjects, and - since we ourselves are subjects, being asked to do the believing - that proposal makes no sense." The vulgar materialist view of a world without subjects is "even less conceivable" than the Idealist view of "a world without objects".
In pursuing such a view of humanness, scientists and philosophers distort human life in two ways.
First, they reduce mind to matter. Such a monist view, Midgley argues, is as wrong as the dualist view of mind and body as separate. In both cases, the mind is seen as a natural object, not as an expression of human subjectivity. "The words mind and body", Midgley observes, "do not name two separate kinds of stuff, nor two forms of a single stuff.” The word mind is there to indicate something quite different - namely ourselves as subjects, beings who mind about things."
The second way in which scientists and philosophers distort human life is by treating human beings as social atoms. It is a view that sees humans "at the deepest level . . . not as social animals but as essentially solitary entities".
Why do so many scientists and philosophers distort human life in this fashion? Because they have come to believe, in the words of Richard Dawkins, that "science is the only way we know to understand the real world". It is a view that confuses the physical world with the "real" world. Toothache, Midgley points out, "is as real as teeth" and "debt is as real as the house that was bought with it". Different conceptual entities require different explanations; hence science - natural science - is insufficient to explain the human world.
TLS March 2, 2001, by Kenan Malik of SCIENCE AND POETRY by Mary Midgley.
|Books and videos on storytelling
*** In Good Company : How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work
by Don Cohen, Laurence Prusak (February 2001) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid
(February 2000) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Springboard : How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Stephen Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann
*** The Art of Possibility, a video with Ben and Ros Zander : Groh Publications (February 2001)
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