Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 6

Here, once again I’m continuing with my commentary on Straw Dogs.  When I am really fascinated with a book I read it several times.  That I have done with this book, and like Will Self, I find myself making notes, as I am doing in these blog entries.  Obviously, my points are no mere summary as they contain my interpretation and impression of John Gray’s thoughts.

Section 7: Animal Faith:

This is the shortest section of the book and contains a mere two sentences.  I shan’t write them here.  Buy the book and read them.

Section 8: Plato and the Alphabet:

The whole tenor of Gray’s thoughts is that human beings have vastly over-estimated their own importance and that our cultures conspire to keep the myth going.  He points out that all creatures have their own languages and that what separates humankind from their animal brothers and sisters is the fact that they can write their communications down.

Sumer and indeed ancient Egypt had their pictograms and hieroglyphics which were, in effect, “metaphors of sensuous realities,”  that is, things one could feel, see and touch – actual things and events of the workaday world.  However, the development of “phonetic writing” led us off into the realm of ideas and thoughts of a very abstract variety. (See op.cit., 56)  Plato and all other philosophers and authors who followed him needed this phonetic writing to communicate their ideas because a world of “bodiless forms” could not be shown in pictograms.  Interestingly, while classic Chinese script is not purely ideographic, it still did not encourage abstract thinking of the Platonic variety.  Now Gray gives what I consider a clear exposition of the Realist versus Nominalist positions in philosophy, and for the present writer this clarification is important.  I’ll quote Gray directly here for clarity:

Plato was what historians of philosophy call a realist – he believed that abstract terms designated spiritual or intellectual entities.  In contrast, throughout its long history, Chinese thought has been nominalist – it has understood that even the most abstract terms are only labels, names for the diversity of things in the world.  As a result, Chinese thinkers have rarely mistaken ideas for facts.  (Ibid., 57)

Then Gray underlines the fact that Europe owes much of its “murderous” history to fights over various ideologies sparked off by ideas of what the Good or the Beautiful or the True should be or not be, depending on the whim of the Emperor, the King or Queen or the dictator or whatever. 

Section 9:  Against the cult of Personality:

Here Gray questions the very reality of “personhood” or “personality.”  These are mere human constructs he adds – again my words.  He gives the following as a working definition of person accepted by the generality of humankind: “A person is someone who believes that she authors her own life through her choices.” (ibid., 58)  Nothing could be further from the truth as history illustrates.  Again being a person “is not the essence of humanity, only – as the word’s history suggests – one of its masks.  Persons are only humans who have donned the mask that has been handed down in Europe over the past few generations, and taken it for their face.” (ibid., 58-59) Riveting and revolutionary stuff, no?  Good food for thoughts indeed!

Section 10: The Poverty of Consciousness

Again we have vastly overrated the power of consciousness and Gray points out that it “counts for less in the scheme of things than we have been taught” (Ibid 59) by the likes of Plato (with his reality being essentially that of Ideas and abstractions) and later by Descartes (knowledge presupposes conscious awareness).  While Gray, strangely enough, does not allude to Freud in this section, one can feel his shadow cast firmly over the very text.  With Freud and others we can say that the human being knows more than he or she is aware of.  We learn so much subliminally and through our unconscious as opposed to conscious and aware mind.

Plato believes that ultimate reality is spiritual while Descartes saw humans as thinking beings – his famous dictum being, “cogito, ergo sum.”  For him, animals were mere machines.  Try telling that to any animal lover, or even any very matter of fact human and you’ll get a strange reaction indeed.

Gray does concede that where “other animals differ from humans is in lacking a sensation of selfhood.” (ibid., 61)  Once again he describes this difference as being as much a handicap as a benefit.    Self-awareness is overrated and he points out that a brilliant pianist or conductor or sculptor or even, come to think of it, any motorist on his/her way to work may not be aware of their movements as they go about these activities.

Section 11:  Lord Jim’s Jump:

In this section Gray is extremely provocative indeed, and questions the very existence of “free will.”  We experience ourselves as beings who make decisions and choices on a daily basis – such is my experience and your experience for the greater part of our lives.  This morning I had to return home from work as I have succumbed to a violent stomach bug.  I certainly had no real choice in the matter – my body told me in no uncertain terms by voiding my stomach in both directions.  I certainly was not totally free in my actions this morning.  I’m not so sure I go along with Gray’s arguments, though they are indeed cogent.  I cannot say I’m totally convinced as I need to give his thoughts deeper reflection.  After all, I, like all of my fellow citizens, have been brought up on a diet of “free will” and “self-consciousness” as being at the very heart of what a human really is.

Gray recalls Lord Jim’s jump for us, that is that central scene from Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Lord Jim where our hero is the first mate on the ship called the Patna which hits a submerged rock.  The ship is holed and the crew believe that sinking is imminent.  There are 800 Muslim passengers on board who are on their way to Mecca, and there is only a lifeboat for the crew.  Jim is the last to jump, and after a pause does so.  However, the Patna is unharmed and Jim has to face the disgrace of a public inquiry alone as the Captain has fled.  Let me return to Gray’s succinct prose:

Lord Jim’s life is overshadowed by a question he cannot answer.  Did he jump?  Or was he pushed by event?  The idea that we are authors of our actions is required by ‘morality.’  If Jim is to be held accountable for his jump, he must have been able to act otherwise than he did.  That is what free will means – if it means anything.  Did Jim do what he really did freely?  How can he – or anyone else – ever know?  (ibid., 65)

Gray is of the opinion that he did not act freely and gives arguments for his view by saying that we are ourselves “products of chance and necessity.”  He goes on to outline scientific argumentation which proves that there is “the half-second delay” between the electrical impulse that initiates the action and the conscious decision to act.  We have actually acted before our thought processes have begun at all. (See ibid., 66)

Interestingly, Gray points out that Conrad had read much of Schopenhauer’s philosophical works. Why are we not surprised?  

Section 12: Our Virtual Selves:

At last Gray brings Freud into his narrative and agrees with his conclusions that much of the life of the mind goes on in the absence of consciousness.  He also accepts the Freudian contention that by bringing repressed memories into conscious awareness helps heal many of our neurotic disturbances – again my terms, not Gray’s.  He continues to press home his point that we have over-valued thinking (and consequently free will) in our everyday world:

We think of our actions as the end-results of our thoughts.  Yet much the greater part of everyone’s life goes on without thinking.  The sense of conscious agency may be an artefact of conflicts among our impulses. (Ibid., 70)

I was also struck by Gray’s alignment of Buddhist thought and recent scientific findings that “cognitive science and  ancient Buddhist teachings are at one in viewing this ordinary sense of self as illusive.  Both view selfhood in humans as a highly complex and fragmentary thing.”  (Ibid., 70)  There is no central homunculus or inner person or centre or inner self, no central actor or controller at all.  Modern science and ancient Buddhism helps us to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of trying to find that illusive central control.  Provocative thoughts, to say the least.  I’m still thinking and still wondering.  John Gray, you have done it again.  You are provoking me to deeper thought.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of one of our fellow creatures on this clod of earth - Clare, June 2008.

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