Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Book Review: John Gray and the Silence of Animals

A lot of very interesting people don’t like what the British philosopher John Gray writes and says. Then again, quite a few other equally intriguing people seem to admire his work. Either way, readers can’t seem to emerge from his books without a deep sense of the tragic and intractable nature of the human condition.

Mr Gray’s 2002 book, Straw Dogs, was a resounding success. It wonderfully coupled truly important philosophical ideas about modern life with smooth readability. Which, considering the long line of esoteric and often impenetrable philosophers writing through the centuries, this literary achievement is noteworthy in itself.

The London School of Economics professor has now written essentially a sequel entitled The Silence of Animals. It carries on with the ideas unveiled in Straw Dogs by sustaining his ferocious attack on liberal humanism’s failures, while bolstering his scepticism about the central value of humanity.

“In a strictly naturalistic view — one in which the world is taken on its own terms, without reference to a creator or any spiritual realm — there is no hierarchy of value with humans somewhere near the top.

“There are simply multifarious animals, each with its own needs. Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science,” he explains.

To his eyes, humans are animals - at least from the viewpoint of modern science. But what differentiates our species from the rest of the animal kingdom is our curious and irrational longing for metaphysical meaning in our lives. That desire often sends humans leaping into the consoling arms of religion.

So as with the eyeball and clavicle shoulder joint, our deep natural yearning for meaning is a multi-million-year result of the evolutionary processes which created the remarkable, but faulty, pattern-seeking human brain.

And yet just because the brain naturally senses a need for the transcendent myth, it doesn’t make the myth any more rational to believe. Religion has always been the balm for this deeply human desire for meaning. Today the modern alternative is the seemingly benign idea of liberal humanism.

But that’s no good for Mr Gray either. He says liberal humanism may as well be “Christianity without the God” due to its dreams of human perfectibility, the powers of reason and the worship of progress.

“In the most general of terms, humanism is the idea that the human animal is the site of some kind of unique value in the world,” he says.

Almost everyone feels this. The innate default position for most humans – arising from those blind evolutionary processes - is to assume human minds “reflect the order of the cosmos.” But this native understanding is an illusion.

But it is the idea of progress which gets the sharpest end of Gray’s dialectical stick. The most crucial mistake humans commit is believing that the story of history is one of inexorable human advance, or that rationality increases over time.

Progress, says Mr Gray, is a particularly painful illusion and we would all do better without it. Because progress is a modern myth equally as impossible and potentially destructive as any religion.

Not all progress is illusory, he hedges. Science and technology does indeed progress. That’s really an unarguable fact, even for Mr Gray, because what we learn about the world now can’t easily be lost from our collective memory. Once humans discover fire or the computer it’s a fair bet this technology will exist in some form for the foreseeable future.

Yet, as with most things, it’s the human operator dictating how the tools are used. No matter what belief or ideology we create, humans constantly prove that irrationality is the trait most evenly shared in the world, and one which no amount of progress seems to able to expunge.

None of this is surprising in Mr Gray’s view because humans can never be more than animals no matter what new type of social engineering programme is dreamed up to create the perfect human.

Unlike most thinkers observing the world’s problems - its barbarity and greed - Mr Gray is not flabbergasted by tales of human depravity. He looks to Schopenhauer, Conrad and Freud who each knew deep down that humanity does not ever get better.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, understood that a central tenet of religion might be worth holding on to if religious myths were going extinct. “Humans are cracked vessels”, he said.

That was nothing new, but where Herr Freud was unique was in realising that although humans are sickly creatures, the great thinker knew there was no cure.

To deny reality in favour of sustaining faith in an illusion is what makes us human. “Unbelief today should begin by questioning not religion but secular faith”, he writes.

What bugs Mr Gray the most are political projects based on a secular faith that some sort of collective human action in the world will lead to the realisation of political ends followed by a perfection of humanity. It doesn’t take a genius to think of a few current examples.

“Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion. It has become a surrogate for religious salvation and secularism itself is a religious myth,” Mr Gray writes. He suggests the idea of Nazism which was, after all, an entirely modern movement. So too are the militants of the Islamic State and al Qaeda modern iterations.

The only difference between them and other utopian ideals is their use of modern tools created by the progress of science. Their mistake to believe in ideological progress and salvation is the unfortunate human aspect which nevertheless wreaked havoc on their bloody way to utopia.

It’s absurd to place trust or faith in the evolution of our species or in the progressive amelioration of society, says Mr Gray. Political ideologues like Nazism, Islamism, Christianity, Communism, liberal humanism or any of the myriad progress myths each clamouring for unrealised utopia. Yet each time these myths rely on mass slaughter to establish their dream of heaven on earth.

There will always be people - other animals - blocking our way to paradise. Everyone wants utopia, but everyone’s utopia is different. So we will always clash, sometimes violently. And it will always be this way.

At heart, the myths animating each of these monsters live in the hearts and minds of all of us. We are all human animals. This is the frightening implication of Mr Gray’s philosophy, but it’s hard to disprove him.

If really pushed for an answer, John Gray would probably resign and label himself an atheist. Although the very idea of adding a label indicates a belief, which in turn suggests a person might believe in one of the many myths swirling around in human brains.

That would be unacceptable for the English philosopher, especially if that myth was not examined for what it really was - an illusion. Sound complex? It is, but Socrates told us that the examined life is not worth living.

The problem is, if we start digging deep enough into the human psyche, as Mr Gray implores we do, very quickly the world begins to look like smoke and mirrors. Mr Gray says constructed myths are all around us – even within his own brain – so it takes a concerted effort to uncover and guard against them.

His book might sound depressing, but that shouldn’t dissuade a careful reading. What differentiates Mr Gray from other thinkers is his enduring effort to examine his own life for persistent myths. He knows there is every chance some of what he believes now is too an illusion. But if you don’t know the shape of something it’s always difficult to look for it.

Mr Gray’s books deserve more attention regardless of where the reader comes out. His dissection of our capitalist economy - and his disturbingly accurate predictions of its failure - is a crucial explanatory stanza about why the 2008 crisis will not be the last cataclysm in the human animal’s financial economy.

His view of the world truly offers a safe refuge from the constant confusion and surprise at the capricious world. He knows humans are flawed and always will be. We constantly try to find futile ways to fix our human nature, and always will. His advice is to understand this reality, and let it be. Fixing won’t fix anything.

True, both Straw Dogs and The Silence of Animals are one way of looking at the world. His conclusions may be true (with a lower-case ‘t’) or they may be wholly wrong and it could be a terrible tragedy.

But few other contemporary philosophy books will rearrange your mental furniture in quite the same way. Who knows, maybe some illusions about progress are necessary for humans to live happily? If some myths really are essential the least we can do is recognise illusions for what they are even if we don’t often act accordingly.

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