Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 3

Section 7: Science’s Irrational Origins:

Once again Gray surpasses himself with the paradoxical nature of his titles.  He really does want to provoke us into questioning our presuppositions and suppositions.  He asks whether science really is the embodiment of rational enquiry as its proponents would have us believe.  Again Gray cuts to the point is nothing if not provocative:

The origins of science are not in rational enquiry, but in faith, magic and trickery.  (Op.cit., 21)

Without ‘chaos’ there would be no knowledge.  Without a frequent dismissal of reason, no progress.  Realities like intrigue, jealousy, envy, prejudice, conceit and passion opposed reason and forced it to make progress.  The greatest scientists like Galileo, Newton,Tyche Brahe and Johannes Kepler were all believers in God

As pictured by philosophers, science is a supremely rational activity.  Yet the history of science shows scientists flouting the rules of scientific method.  Not only the origins but the progress of science comes from acting against reason. (Ibid., 23.)

Section 8: Science as a Remedy for Anthropocentrism:

I remember well when I first heard the term “anthropocentric.”  I was a young student of 18 in first year college and was studying Scripture, and our teacher, Rev. Dr. Michael Maher explained to us that when God was presented as “walking in the garden in the cool of the evening,” that this was an example of anthropocentrism, painting the godhead as a human being or anthropos.  Humankind needs to make sense out of the world.  The ancient writers of the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament sought to make sense of their world and in so doing they sought to impose an order on it.  Indeed their order was a mythic order – a great tale of creation and later of the fall of humankind to give some meaning and order to human affairs as they saw it in those early times.

Here Gray reminds us that such leading scientists like Erwin Schrodinger and Werner Heisenberg point out that world is far from being an orderly cosmos:

It is a demi-chaos that human can hope to understand only in part.  Science cannot satisfy the human need to find order in the world.  The most advanced physical sciences suggest that causality and classical logic may not be built into the nature of things.  Even the most basic feature of our ordinary experience may be delusive.  (Ibid., 23)

Quantum Mechanics reminds us that we (the observers) change what we observe.


Section 9:  Truth and Consequences:

Gray reminds us yet again that Humanism is a Religion, as if we needed reminding.  Yet, I suppose the maverick nature of his provocative views would allow for such a repetition.  Humanism believes in “truth,” as if this entity existed somewhere.  Once again humanism’s belief in truth is yet again an unacknowledged expression of faith.  And so the progress of this faith can be expressed thus:

Socrates founded European thought on the faith that truth makes us free.  he never doubted that knowledge and the good life go together.  He passed on this faith to Plato, and so to Christianity.  The result is modern humanism.  (Ibid., 24)

I have always unquestioningly accepted Socrates’ great dictum which was repeated so often during my years at college that I swallowed it whole.  That dictum is the famous one: “The unexamined life is not worth living.’  Gray even puts a big question mark under this by stating that the examined life may not be worth living either.  Indeed he proposes that here there is a trace of ancient or archaic religious belief – insofar as Socrates claimed to hear an “inner voice” or “the voice of God.”  In this he was guided by a “daimon” or an inner oracle or angel power which he followed.  This, Gray argues quite cogently is a trace of shamanic practices.  (See ibid., 25)  In other words European rationalism may have been born in mystical experience.  However, [m]odern humanism differs from Socratic philosophy chiefly in failing to recognise its irrational origins – and in the hubris of its ambitions.” (ibid., 25)

I loved Gray’s outright dismissal of memes as a ridiculous concept.  Once again he sees this proposal as one which illustrates man’s illusions and delusions of grandeur; his sheer and unadulterated hubris and his sheer belief in his own ego.  Memes are clusters of ideas and beliefs, which are supposed to compete with one another in much the same way as genes do.  This theory supposes or proposes that the fittest memes survive:

Unfortunately memes are not genes.  There is no mechanism of selection  in the history of ideas akin to that of the natural selection of genetic mutations in evolution. (ibid., 26)

A cursory look at history is all that is needed to realise that this theory is piffle because look at what The Roman Catholic Church, the Muslim religion, The Jewish Religion, The Nazis under Hitler and then Stalin did  and these winners were not the ones with the great memes.

An interest in the truth is not necessary for survival or reproduction.  They Gray cuts us to the quick by stating: “Deception is common among primates and birds.” (Ibid., 27)  Truth, he avers, has no systematic evolutionary advantage over error.  Ponder that now!  Again he cuts through all the shibboleths to state that the “uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves.”  There is a lesson here for all of us.  Human beings are animals seeking to protect their offspring and often they are very irrational in this pursuit.  The Enlightenment is a gospel of despair if it were to be true to being totally rational, in accepting the irrationality of humankind and the absurdity of hope or faith.

Section 10: A Pascal for the Enlightenment:  

Pascal admitted that we human beings need our illusions to give us hope and meaning.  In short such illusions do, in fact, keep us going.  We must “stupefy our reason and fortify our faith in mankind.”

Section 11: Humanism versus Naturalism:

Here I was spell-bound by Jacques Monod’s beautiful, if not poetic, prose.  Gray quotes him at length.  Monod was one of the founders of molecular biology.  This biologist argued that life is indeed a fluke – we are just a lucky draw in the lottery of life.  Let me quote a little of Monod’s wonderful words:

[Humankind] must at last awake from his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation.  He must realise that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering and his crimes. (Quoted ibid., 30)

According to Monod we are the lucky species among the millions of others as we know that we are an accident through our being self-conscious.  The Christians who argued so forcefully against Darwin feared that it left humanity looking so insignificant.  Gray’s message to us is to grow up and realise that we are in deed insignificant in the scheme of things.

Section 12: Straw Dogs:

This section repeats the very title of the book.  Once again Gray reminds us that Humanism is a Secular Religion.  Yes, John, we’ve got the message.  Here, he gives us an insight into the Gaia theory of James Lovelock which I have already mentioned in my last post.  Gray points out, interestingly that Lovelock’s theory of Gaia is very much built on pre-Christian or archaic or primordial religion, viz., animism.  Humanism believes in the myth of progress, a mere unreflecting re-presentation of the Christian myth while the world of the Gaia scientist is one very much of the animists where we are creatures of the very slime of the earth whence we first crawled.  If the more orthodox humanists clash with the Gaia humanists, it is merely a collision of myths.

Critics of the Gaia theory say they reject it because it is unscientific.  The truth is they fear and hate it because it means that humans can never be other than straw dogs.  (Ibid., 34)

Above a picture of the track marks of some agricultural vehicle in the mud of the Phoenix Park, February 2009.

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