In this series of Gifford Lectures, English philosopher Mary Midgely returns to some of her long—standing preoccupations; namely, the role and function of cultural myths, the proper place for science in public discourse and what might best be described as the necessity for a degree of epistemological humility. Midgely (who passed away recently at the age of 99) was somewhat unfashionable in English philosophy, which was dominated by issues of logical positivism, philosophy of language and philosophy of mind. In contrast, Midgely argues that philosophy is increasingly and worryingly disconnected from public life, from the everyday realities of problems and increasingly unable or unwilling to speak to them. Here, in the space abnegated by philosophy, science has taken its place as the source of meaning and practical wisdom. As Midgely outlines through the series, this is a huge mistake, placing epistemological and normative ethical claims into the realm of science without paying enough attention to questions of whether science is suited to this role, and whether science can speak to the underlying existential and spiritual issues that undergird the necessity and desire for meaning. The task of the lectures is, as Midgley puts it, not to esteem science less, but to value it appropriately.
Thus, the lectures proceed through a systematic critique of the role and function of popular science. What Midgely takes primary issue with is the various ways in which large scale normative or philosophical claims are extrapolated from often scant theoretical data. What this expresses is a contradiction wherein scientists try to simultaneously claim that the role and function of science is to discover and provide data, free of bias or ideology whilst at the same time making the claim that eventually physics or cosmology (the two branches of science that Midgely discusses in most depth) will be able to give existential answers from this vast accumulation of information. In contrast, Midgely makes the case for imaginative and religious answers to these existential questions. Towards the close of the lectures, Midgely remarks that in terms of science providing existential answers for human and grand scale solutions to practical problems, ‘the gap between image and fact is growing too wide to be tolerated.’ (224) What’s required is a more realistic understanding of what science can do, and the ways in which it can contribute to a more balanced understanding of the physical world and the collaborative effort needed to maintain and sustain it. (There are some interesting overlaps with the work of another Gifford Lecturer, Bruno Latour, here in Midgely understanding of the role of scientists more broadly). Written in an accessible and often caustically funny style, Midgely’s point about the basic limitations and functions of science is elegantly argued. Sadly however, given the ongoing veneration of technologists such as Elon Musk it seems that society has simply transferred its need for salvation from science to tech, without asking the harder and far more interesting questions regarding the source of this need. Whilst Midgely saw the era of science as salvation coming to a close in her lectures, it seems there is still much to learn from this common-sense, practical philosophy.