Mary Midgley
Center Scholar

Mary Midgley

Senior Lecturer - Newcastle University

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On Not Needing to be Omnipotent

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This question about the meaning of being human is really hard for us today. In fact, confusion about it is surely what lands so many of us in climate-change denial, deaf to the alarm-bells that keep ringing in the world around us. The problem of human status paralyzes us. It produces cognitive dissonance. We find it harder and harder to believe in the solution to it that our whole culture has accepted till lately—namely, that we are simply the earth’s rulers. Yet both of the two world-views prevailing today—the Christian one and the evolutionary one—still agree in giving us that same answer. Though they differ on so many other matters, this one point of human supremacy is something that they have both taken for granted.

The Christian account as it was widely understood is, of course, that God has put us here as his viceroys, to dominate other creatures and use all earthly things for our own purposes under him, until finally we join him in Heaven. At that point the rest of the earth was thought to be destined for destruction, having no value of its own. During the last two centuries many people have indeed drifted away from accepting this account, turning instead to a belief in evolution, which might have been expected to shake their confidence in human empire. Indeed, Charles Darwin himself rejected the hierarchical picture, believing that all evolving creatures should share the earth on equal terms.

But the vision that caught on was not his. It was that of Herbert Spencer, which shows Evolution as a zero-sum game, a competition determined by the survival of the fittest—a contest with a single winner, namely ourselves. Our intelligence, working through modern science, is believed to have given us complete power over the earth and the right to use it as we pleased. As Julian Huxley put it, Scientific Man has become “the growing-point of evolution,” the guiding power now in charge of the whole process. And indeed, as Stephen Hawking has lately assured us, this person is expected eventually to colonize the stars.

Absurd over-confidence of this kind is, of course, very addictive. It is not surprising that people infected with it can’t abandon it easily, more especially since the deflationary news is coming from a very awkward quarter.

Thus, granted that God—who might have had ideas of his own—has really been removed, our status has become even grander than it was for Christian thinking. No higher power can now interfere with us. This attitude—which is still, rather oddly, described as “modern”—has become, not just anthropocentric but effectively anthropolatrous, self-worshipping. It sees us as omnipotent.

Absurd over-confidence of this kind is, of course, very addictive. It is not surprising that people infected with it can’t abandon it easily, more especially since the deflationary news is coming from a very awkward quarter. The messengers who tell us that our strange reign of irresponsible prosperity will soon be over—that we shall have to get off the bus—are not now just poets or Luddite outsiders who could be ignored. They are scientists. And science is exactly what modernity has always claimed to represent. Indeed, this strangely flattering version of evolution owed its force to being thought to come from science.

…by good luck, this new vision is actually one that science itself entirely approves. 

Today’s bad news, however, plainly calls for a quite different vision of life. And, by good luck, this new vision is actually one that science itself entirely approves. It centers on simple biological truths that our ancestors surely knew well but that we have lately refused to recognize—for instance, that we are not omnipotent. We are actually a tiny part of a vast system about which, despite all our research, we really know very little. The natural world does not belong to us because we belong to it. It is not a machine that we can tinker with, nor even a batch of inert raw material for making such machines. In fact, far from being inert, it is a huge, active, organic whole with its own ways of working. That is why, if we hope to survive in it, we will have to treat it with respect, learning to adapt to its ways.

All this, as I say, is plain biological fact. By contrast, the flattering impression of grandeur that has lately prevailed does not really come from science at all, though it has used scientific rhetoric. The main source of this glorification has, of course, been a quite justifiable delight in the many really splendid human achievements. But what carries it far beyond this—what blinds it chronically to human inadequacies—is a competitive ideology nourished by neoliberalism and by an obsession with machines. This vision leads us constantly to glorify selected human successes and to turn our eyes away from human failures.

If we ask how those hard-pressed ancestors managed to survive so many disasters, so many shocking changes of place, food, and climate, we can see that they certainly did not do it by having superior scientific knowledge. 

The suggestion that we ought to acknowledge our own littleness does not, of course, fit our current image of human status at all easily. Humility, in fact, is not a fashionable virtue. Yet this sense of our own inadequacy is surely something our ancestors must always have had because it is an essential element in adapting to change. If we ask how those hard-pressed ancestors managed to survive so many disasters, so many shocking changes of place, food, and climate, we can see that they certainly did not do it by having superior scientific knowledge. Nor did they have the encouragement of believing that they were exceptionally powerful. They survived by using qualities that actually lie at the root of science itself—open-mindedness, versatility, realism, the willingness to learn.

Do we still have that versatility today? Are we flexible enough to adapt and deal with disaster? This will certainly be even harder for us than it usually has been in the past because our lives have lately seemed so safe and predictable. Yet the immense variety of our cultures shows that we still are naturally flexible, and, when disaster does strike, people still show amazing powers of innovation. Can we still muster the courage, the realism, to attend to those alarm bells in time and bring that versatility into action? That is surely going to be the test of our age.

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Mary, your essay I found to be quite wonderful and refreshing in its practicality and honesty.
Many of the points you make resonate deeply within me. To attempt to explain why would be folly I think but sometimes I just "know" truth (as much as anyone can know anything....) and of course also keeping in mind that using words like "know" and "truth" immediately bring in an element of subjectivity which could be construed as highly contentious.
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Mary, I love your essay. Thanks for having the courage to speak your truth. At times, I make the mistake of attacking what we know as "science" too directly. When I talk of the need for transdisciplinarity, it generally is ignored. Specialization is a score of 800 pound gorillas claiming seats at the sustainability table. They may be leaving no room for the diverse other people needed to help address our challenges.

I think that today's institution of "science" is essentially a religion, which is one of the reasons there is such a battle between science and fundamentalism. Somehow, science has a need to "cast out" creationism :). The culture of our corporate-sponsored Science today is based on an anthropocentric creation myth that may be unstated, but essentially says that humans are the highest life form on this planet and that we have the right to do what we decide to do, including risking the destruction of our life support system. I'll note that many of those attacking creationism, for its denial of global climate change, are doing nothing to advance the serious carbon reductions that are urgently needed.

I also agree about the prominence of "cognitive dissonance" in keeping our society paralyzed. We humans just are not built to respond rationally to crises. Perhaps that's why we still have wars.

This unbridled hubris is then coupled with neoliberal fantasies about a collective consciousness at play in humanity that leads us economically to make decisions that are in our best long-term interests. I recently saw this stated by Neil deGrasse Tyson as whatever science produces that anyone is willing to buy should be allowed unless there is a consensus that it should not be allowed. So much for the precautionary principle.. Talk about hubris and "absurd over-confidence"!

Part of what I see as hubris is the notion that humans are evolving, whether biologically or spiritually. Sure, there are trends and changes, but to suggest that we are spiritually or ethically more advanced that people two thousand years ago makes me squirm. I'm not even confident that our moral development has accelerated in the past 10,000 years. Hubris? We are somehow no longer animals?

In some regards, I am concerned that our ethical and moral development has been reversed by what some call our "higher order" mental functions. Sometimes I see our "higher order" functions simply as our ability to rationalize and create realities that separate us from our connection with nature. I am not at all convinced that our inner primate would not have greater ability to adapt and change than our super-intellectualized and image-intense "advanced humans" of today.

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Long back Freud mentioned about narcissism. It seems that narcissism works as a primal force that individually and collectively makes us oblivious to our shortcomings. Madame is on dot when she worries about such a trend. The only solace that I can derive is from a hypothesis of Arthur Koestler who claimed that we return from the precipices with uncanny ability of sleepwalkers.
In the meanwhile, it may be useful to investigate the nature of narcissism and the function it serves in our physiological and psychological existences.
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I agree that explorations into the nature of narcissism are key to understanding ourselves. One book I have found fascinating to this end is: Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen (Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge). I think I too will start to tap into your solace--"that we return from the precipice with the uncanny ability of sleepwalkers!"
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I agree that there is a productive tension in the exchange above. On one hand, the scientist asks how the intersection of culture and genes can give us more information about ourselves, hence more control over our problematic collective behaviour. Yet on the other, the philosopher correctly identifies this very same hubris as the root of our ecological predicament.

There is a solution, and it begins with humility, the simple recognition that we seldom live up to our own ideals. But humility is not pessimistic or cynical. It is productive: its Latin root is humus, the rich soil which brings forth life.

First and foremost, humility means admitting that we are not the circumspect and thoughtful individuals that we often assume ourselves to be. Most of our behaviour is not based on careful deliberation or judgement. Instead, we make decisions in the immediate present. With greater reflection and information - that is, greater humility - these same decisions might strike us as incredibly imprudent.

This phenomenon may have a relatively simple explanation. Like all animals, we evolved to act fast and decisively in order to stay alive. But more than any other animal, we use learning to guide our behaviour. We store our experiences and recall information only as we need it, so that we can act adaptively. As Michael Tomasello has observed, this amazing capacity for learning may have evolved to facilitate cooperation. Unlike bees, which cooperate by instinct, we must learn how to work together with others. This learning is culture. Culture and cooperation may have evolved dialectically, reinforcing each other, and their product is our unique adaptation: conformity.

The unfolding of a child's development - from language to self-regulation to reading - is premised on learning cultural expectations, so that the child can conform and contribute to the group. And because this maturation period takes longer than that of any other animal, we can communicate and learn and act in complex groups with specialized roles for context-specific survival.

This learning is functional, and rarely profound. Members of a social group are often ignorant of their collective goals, but they still function effectively as a unit because they know their role and adhere to some minimum set of rules. Few soldiers have ever possessed a geopolitical rationale for combat, just as few teachers can articulate why society needs schools, and few consumers explicitly consider why packaging is necessary. Collective purpose does the hard work of thinking for us so that we can get back to what is important: doing whatever it is that needs to get done. Ideology, should it exist at all, is usually a post-hoc justification. Most of us simply look to our group to figure out how to act.

This is because our thinking is largely implicit: it is fast and involuntary and far beyond conscious control. It is meant for action, not reflection. We make decisions in real-time, assuming our social reality to be just that: real. Our behaviour is a reaction to the very real people around us. Careful scholarship can demonstrate that reality is nothing more than invisible constructs and arbitrary meanings, but these are still real enough to the actors, few of whom hold advanced degrees in philosophy.

When we discuss the warming of the planet, it is the behaviour of large groups of conforming individuals that we must confront. These are individuals who have learned that their behaviour is not destructive but, quite the contrary, rather productive. And most importantly, it is individuals who must act in the only version of reality that is actually available, simply because it is what everyone else has accepted as real.

Fortunately, our more recent evolution has endowed us with the capacity to live beyond our immediate social reality. We can imagine alternative behaviours to those that are expected by the dominant culture. Just as memory partially freed us from instinctual stimulus and response, so explicit thinking allows us to see ourselves hypothetically. This is agency: the effortful, slow, voluntary, and intermittent ability to consider that which is not yet real, but still possible. We may not have free will, but neither are we slaves to our totalizing culture.

That which is possible can become real through social movements. When a critical mass of people question a dominant idea, they have the capacity to change the larger structures that enforce conformity. Sadly, the most obvious example is the Tea Party, which has rejected the idea that sustainability is a priority, and has pushed American environmental policy further away from global solutions.

Still, humility allows us to admit that we make unsustainable choices. Rather than maintain the implicit and routine behaviours that lead to ecological crisis, social movements can help us deliberately engage with possibilities that are sustainable. And they can begin by making these alternatives clear and accessible, hence real. And for social movements to be successful, they must understand how social cognition and learning drive our collective behaviour. It must be able to understand the social mind that has made us both a superspecies and our own biggest threat.
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David, I enjoyed your comments. I hope that we humans are able to use our connections with nature to calm down our consumerist frenzy and our fear-driven ideologies. That is, before our relationship becomes predominantly one of mourning for the losses that we humans have already set in motion.

On the idea of social movements, do you think that our age of the Internet will enable us to develop more coherence and support constructive social movements, or will it divide and factionalize us in ways that continue to feed hubris and disempower the empathy and cohesion needed to change the larger society?
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It is an honor to have Mary Midgley associated with this project. Her independent voice is as on-target today as it has been in the past. Her essay emphasizes the hubris that can be associated with both science and religion, when humility is required. It is interesting to note, however, that both science and religion can be approached with humility. So reviving humility as a virtue in all walks of life is an important objective.

The main point that I want to add to Midgley's essay is that while humility is called for, action is still required. We are indeed part of a vast system that we barely understand, but our impact on the system is sufficiently great that we must function in the capacity of a steward, despite our ignorance and while gaining in knowledge as fast as we can. And we must do this at an unprecedented spatial and temporal scale. The challenge is daunting but there is no viable alternative. I take the title of Midgley's essay to mean "On not needing to pretend to be omnipotent."

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For the most part, the action that is needed is the withdrawal of our suffocating boot on Nature. Forest areas that are no longer grazed by livestock recover amazingly. But to release our boot on Nature, we perhaps need to achieve veganism as the normative behavior, the kind of renunciation and humility that Mary Midgley is calling for.

However, I'm having difficulty associating the quality of humility with proselytizing religions such as Christianity. The act of proselytizing implies that the religion has attained the Truth, which is a decidedly arrogant assertion.
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There is a breath of fresh air in these papers that arises from the fact that rather than dwelling on environmental or climatic crises as some kind of external phenomena, they more accurately depict these crises as functions of human ways of relating to the world. The Midgley and Wilson articles (and subsequent letters to each other) display a tension that I think highlights an important dimension of this current human crisis. On the one hand, we are an evolving ultra-social species that may have the potential to actualize Teilhard’s Omega Point. At the same time, it is necessary for humanity and, particularly, those powerful institutions of the contemporary global economy to remember that our species is not omnipotent and supreme over the creation. There is highlighted here a central challenge humanity faces on its path to sustainability: We are a socially unique species with great positive and destructive potentialities, yet to manifest something like an Omega Point we need a social etiquette for recognizing our non-centrality to a world that sustains our bodies and inspires our minds.

This tension has implications for how we socially interact and thus co-evolve with the planet, a point that I think Wilson’s final paragraph clarifies nicely. Contrasting the passive approach to a global consciousness miraculously emerging from internet interconnectivity, he calls for us to actively choose to participate in our evolutionary crisis through policy, whether we “call it social engineering or stewardship.” The passivity he is concerned with is similar, I would argue, in form to the political passivity we see around climate change. Whether it be the economic discounting of a response to future generations, waiting on technological innovation or believing in internet miracles, there is at root a cultural inertia that is resisting our active involvement in turning “the earth into the super-organism that Teilhard had in mind.”

While I agree with this concern, there is something in the language of Wilson’s conclusion that I think needs to be tempered – something he also clarifies in his letter to Midgley. The concern of Midgley is with a return to humility and capacity to recognize our “absurd over-confidence” as essential elements in a sustainable future. It is a vital point Wilson agrees with, but he adds the advanced state of our crisis requires us to actively “function in the capacity of a steward, despite our ignorance and while gaining in knowledge as fast as we can.” He concludes by adjusting her title to “On not needing to pretend to be omnipotent.” Knowledge with potential adaptive capacities is definitely needed for navigating a sustainable way forward in the midst of today’s arising uncertainties, but if our rational capacities are not contextualized in a mannered wisdom then our thinking and politics in a time of climate and ecological changes will inevitably remain unsustainable. How to strike such a balance in an increasingly pressurized situation (climate, environmental, political, economic uncertainties) and not fall into the dark possibilities of social engineering and unsustainable cultural trends is a vital question for us to be thinking about.

It is easy in today’s highly anthropocentric culture to assume that the evolution toward ultra-sociality was simply a rational response to environmental, climatic and social uncertainties, but I think such an interpretation misses a fundamental point of both evolutionary and climate research: we are grounded in a responsive and cycling cosmos. It is in recognition of such a context that I wrote about Thanksgiving in my paper as one interesting approach to the question of what it is to be human. From individual prayer, to communal rituals, to mythic stories to social taboos to gift economies, there are a host of social adaptations that have emerged in culturally unique forms the world over and very likely have their common genesis in the evolutionary story told by Wilson and others. Whatever short-term actions are chosen, we need to figure out how to actively engage the social potentialities already latent in cultures. For an act of Thanksgiving, when done with feeling, instils in us a recognition of our dependence on a whole cosmology of others, and in that act of opening ourselves to something bigger we are also given a responsibility to humbly listen to the creation for a sense of how we should act.

We have a responsibility to act in a way that recognizes our true measure while never forgetting there is something larger and more mysterious informing our lives at their very core. It seems we are in the process of re-learning how to think and act with local, regional and global ecological realities and, as such, I agree with Wilson that the move toward interdisciplinary and, I would add, intercultural knowledge sharing reflects a choice to be more socially open to the world. At the same time, our current politics (at least in Canada) highlights not only a cultural resistance to engage this learning, but presents us with a future reality where that learning will be more constrained and painful than it had to be. The world is a very social place, and to choose an adaptation based on sociality rather than individual self-interest is a challenge that, if accepted, could well reflect our intent to approach something like the Omega Point. The tension is between a dark future passively muddled through with rational precision or a hopeful possibility actively engaged through a balance of knowledge and humility.
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