Several readers have recommended that I read philosopher John Gray because they have noticed some similarities between the things he says and the things I say on this blog. So I've ordered his books Straw Dogs and Black Mass. I'll read them when they arrive.
Naturally, I was curious about what I would find in those books, and I found some excerpts from Straw Dogs on the web. Here's a sampling.
In the Middle Ages, philosophy gave an intellectual scaffolding to the Church; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it served a myth of progress.
Today, serving neither religion nor a political faith, philosophy is a subject without a subject matter, scholasticism without the charm of dogma.
Without getting into the details of my graduate studies in 20th century philosophy, I couldn't agree more with this characterization. Note that Gray refers to the "myth" of progress.
Formerly philosophers sought peace of mind while pretending to seek the truth. Perhaps we should set ourselves a different aim: to discover which illusions we can give up, and [those] which we will never shake off.
We will still be seekers after truth, more so than in the past; but we will renounce the hope of a life without illusion. Henceforth our aim will be to identify our invincible illusions. Which untruths might we be rid of, and which can we not do without? – that is the question, that is the experiment.
What is important for our purposes is the idea—I would say the observation—that human beings live in a self-constructed world of illusions. And they will fight to the death to maintain those illusions. Gray seems to be saying that we can distinguish between the essential illusions which make human life possible and less crucial illusions we can do without. Well, let's see. Is the illusion that humans can endlessly grow populations and economies on a finite planet an essential illusion? Or is it a subsidiary illusion we can identify and do without?
I know what my answer is: it is an essential illusion because the urge to have babies and increase our material comfort is an essential part of the human animal. That's why I believe our species is doomed, regardless of whether our self-destruction occurs sooner or later.
I thought this next example was particularly interesting. The commentary surrounding the highlighted Gray quote is by Ben Atlas.
John Gray wrote a review of Brian Christian’s new book in his New Statesman column – Techno Rupture. John Gray describes how the previous centuries [were] preoccupied with the definition of the human being compared to animals. Increasingly this comparison is shifting to defining the human being at the backdrop of the machine. John Gray frames the dilemma according to Daniel Gilbert who said that ” every psychologist must at some point in his or her career write a sentence of the form: “the human being is the only animal that ___.” Or the fast forward to the Turing test, they must now write: the human being is the only machine that ___. [But] then [there is] the concluding strike of the absolute genius from John Gray:
…the result may be to bring into clearer focus what it is that makes us different from machines. If history is any guide, however, human beings do not greatly cherish the features that truly make them what they are – finite creatures, with limited abilities. Quite the contrary, people will do anything they can to escape from being what they are. So, a version of the Sentence still holds true: the human being is the only animal that refuses to be itself.
Should you honestly look at ... human civilizations you would have to admit that from the entertainment to the inebriation and religions, humans are on a constant quest to escape self-awareness, to numb ... existence, even to transcend this world for the future promise. Indeed ... there is no animal or a machine that is [as] obsessed with forgetting what, how and where they are as ... humans are.
Clearly human beings are conflicted at their core. They won't acknowledge what they are—they seem to reject it as Gray says—but more importantly for me, at all times and places human beings are being exactly who they are, regardless of what they are pretending to be. This is the one jail from which there is no escape. Or as I like to say, with Homo sapiens, what you see is what you get.
In short, for us humans, this largely unconscious "rejection" of our true nature is manifest in the delusional world of conventional but demonstrably false beliefs, convincing half-truths, various faith-based religious tenets, bogus "scientific" theories in the social realm, unacknowledged prejudices (biases) and the like. People cling to the notion that there has been "progress" over the course of human history, but despite some hard-won gains for women, enslaved or oppressed minorities, etc., the bulk of the evidence points the other way—same as it ever was!
To bring this point home, look at the current presidential election in the United States. I don't know that I've ever seen a Grand Illusion (at least in my lifetime) which matches this one. Outside of the relatively few people with Bad Attitudes like me and most of you, Americans are pretending, with all their might, that the outcome of this election is the most important thing since sliced bread, that the outcome of this election will change social outcomes in the United States, that the powerful elites who run this country (and own or rent the candidates) do not exist, and so on. Simply astonishing!
Here's the FORA TV video John Gray In Conversation (54:02). Before you watch this, you should bear in mind that Gray is a philosopher, and as such, he doesn't seem to have done his homework in the scientific realm. If it weren't for the increasingly clear scientific results pointing to an untenable future, I would completely agree with Gray's dismissal of Francis Fukuyama's ridiculous "End of History"—history simply goes on and on, the future looks like the past, same as it ever was. (Tune in at about the 24:30 mark and watch the next few minutes.)
Unfortunately, the science says otherwise. And now our problems are global, not local as they were in the past.
Note: this embedded video only runs 10 minutes. To listen to the rest of the conversation, click Watch Full Program.