Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Significance of being Insignificant

One of the interesting things about reading books is that one gets new insights.  I get a lot of such insights from writers of the calibre of John Gray.  The above title is a combination of words that spring to my mind from reading the first chapter of this book once again.  Let me start with three quotations he uses within the first thirty-one pages, one from which he obviously gets the title for his book and the other  two which capture the substance of my title for this post:
“Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.”  Lao Tzu
“All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.”  Jacques Monod.
For Monod, humanity is a uniquely privileged species.  It alone knows that its existence is an accident, and it alone can take charge of its destiny.  John Gray (op.cit., 31) 
These are the type of quotations we find in Gray’s work and they give the tenor of his arguments and come in rather like a chorus to the substance of his well marshalled thoughts.  I remember once, years ago now, seeing a documentary programme about some primitive tribe either in Africa or in South or Central America, which showed this group of men crossing a great river in flood in several boats.  Before they had gotten to the other bank one boat had been submerged and its crew swept away.  The commentator proceeded to tell us that the rest of the hunting group continued on about their business without too much concern.  It was quite simply taken for granted that life was quite insignificant and indifferent and that it was just a question of chance.  This scene has stayed in my mind ever since.  Hence my title.
Like Gray, I feel that humankind has vastly magnified its own importance.  As a species we have created myth after myth after myth to capture ever anew our own hubris and self-inflation.  The first quotation above is quite obviously the provenance of the title of the book.  We are mere straw dogs, mere straws in an indifferent wind.  I recall several quotations from Nietzsche along the same lines as those given above:
Nature is indifferent beyond measure… at once fruitful and barren and uncertain.  If you regard this indifference itself as power, how can you live in accordance with it?
What did I care about man and his agitated willing!  What did I care about the eternal “You Ought” and “You ought not”!  How different was the lightning, the storm, the hail : unrestrained forces devoid of anything ethical! … This is nature’s grandiose indifference to good and evil.
(all quoted in Nietzsche:  An Introduction to Understanding his Philosophical Activity by Karl Jaspers, C. F. Wallraff, F. J. Schmitz, JHU Press, 1997,  328)
These quotations are enough for anyone to meditate on and attempt to digest because their import runs counter to humankind’s belief systems whether of the religious or scientific variety.  Whether we are believers or nonbelievers, whether we are committed religionists of whatever variety or equally committed adherents of humanism of any kind at all, we are all guilty of being unwitting believers in our own myths.  We are often singularly unaware of our own gullibility in believing our very own delusions.  And scientists are no different to creationists in this matter.  So argues Gray.  And his arguments are convincing if you read him and digest his perspicacious analysis.  Enough for today!

Above a winter tree, Phoenix Park, February 2009.

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