Pharyngula

I owe Nicholas Humphrey an apology

When I critized Mary Midgley the other day for her sloppy critique of Nicholas Humphrey, I also pointed out that Humphrey had apparently indulged in some unfortunate hyperbole himself, saying “So successful has it been that many scientists would now say, and even fear, that there will soon be little left for them to do.” Which is patently ridiculous, of course: every scientist I know is painfully aware of all the stuff that they don’t know.

What I didn’t take into account was that Midgley might have quote-mined him. I shouldn’t have underestimated a woman who can discern the entire content of a book from a glance at the title! Humphrey has sent a letter to the Guardian pointing out a few specific problems with Midgley’s article. It hasn’t been published yet, but here it is anyway:

Mary Midgley has been attacking me in the Guardian for twenty five years or more. But her latest piece (Face to Faith, 28th August) takes the biscuit for misrepresentation. She quotes passages from my 1994 book Soul Searching about how science has sometimes claimed to be able to provide “a sufficient explanation for everything”. What she fails to say is that in these passages I was describing how things looked to over-ambitious natural philosophers at the end of the 18th century, and how this set the stage for a romantic reaction and in particular for spiritualism and psychical research.

She goes on to say that, rather than trying to provide a scientific solution to the mind-body problem we should be trying “to understand the relation between our inner and outer life . . . and how to face life as a whole”. If she had been paying attention she might have noticed that in my own more more recent writings, such as Seeing Red (2006), I have begun to argue that the solution to the mind-body problem lies in the very mysteriousness of consciousness and how this changes our world-view. Since she has quoted at such length from a book I wrote 17 years ago, let me answer with these words from the cover of my new book Soul Dust (Quercus, forthcoming): “Humphrey returns to the front-line with a startling new theory. Consciousness, he argues, is nothing less than a magical-mystery show that we stage for ourselves inside our own heads. This self-made show lights up the world for us and makes us feel special and transcendant. Thus consciousness paves the way for spirituality, and allows us, as human beings, to reap the rewards, and anxieties, of living in what Humphrey calls the ‘soul niche’.”

I’m making a mental note to treat everything I see coming from Midgley with even more doubt and cynicism in the future.