Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 7

Section: Mr Nobody:

With this heading I am reminded of the famous song of The Beatles from the 1960s called Nowhere Man. The opening lyrics of this famous song, written by the late John Lennon, are:

He's a real nowhere Man, Sitting in his Nowhere Land, Making all his nowhere plans for nobody.

Doesn't have a point of view, Knows not where he's going to, Isn't he a bit like you and me? Nowhere Man, please listen, You don't know what you're missin', Nowhere Man, the world is at your command.

Gray contends in this section that we are all literally nobodies. This I found a hard section to take on board, that is, to reflect on the fact that I, and you, the reader, if there is a reader of this post, are literally nobodies and don’t really count at all. Whatever John Lennon had in mind for his “nowhere Man” or who he thought him to be or whether he believed we were all such, but the last line quoted above seems to suggest that he felt that his nowhere man could transform himself. Gray returns to discuss that first great empiricist, the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711 – 1776) and a more contemporary novelist and philosopher Goronwy Rees (1909-1979), whom I have never heard of before in my life. On checking him up on Google I find that he was a Welsh journalist, academic and writer. He was educated at the University of Oxford and had been briefly port of the Cambridge Five spy ring. Anyway, Mr Rees’ activities are immaterial to our discussion here. One of his books was called A Bundle of Sensations: Sketches in Autobiography (1960) and, on checking the bibliography, I see it is this book that Gray quotes from. When Rees looked at himself, or rather looked into his heart, he found no more than a succession of disjointed episodes. He questioned all his life the idea of a personal identity. Indeed Rees quotes Hume liberally in this book. I’m presuming that our man had studied philosophy at Oxford. Gray quotes Rees quoting the following from Hume:

Setting aside some metaphysicians…I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they are nothing but a collection of perceptions which succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement. (Quoted ibid., 75)

Rees’s daughter, we are informed, confirmed his account of himself as “Mr Nobody, a man without qualities, a person without a sense of “self.” (See ibid., 75) In short, Gray, argues, rehearsing the old Humean empiricist position, that we are no more than bundles of sensations which appear to be hardwired for the illusion of self.

Section: The Ultimate Dream:

Here Gray disabuses our minds of the Buddhist dream, i.e., that awake from our dreams and illusions by cultivating a practice or habit of awareness which will sever our links with (i) our evolutionary past and (ii) with our clinging to the things of the mind and (iii) our clinging to the things of the world. Once again Gray dismisses all of this rather sweepingly: “This is only another doctrine of salvation, subtler than that of the Christians, but no different from Christianity in its goal of leaving our animal inheritance behind.” (Ibid., 79)

Gray goes on to argue quite cogently that we cannot rid ourselves of our animal kinship or evolution – my terms:

The lesson of evolutionary psychology and cognitive science is that we are descendents of a long lineage, only a fraction of which is human. (Ibid., 79)

Then Gray explicates the difference between Buddhism and Taoism. Buddhists maintain that they can awaken out of dreaming that life is, while Taoists say that we can never awaken from the dream that is life, we only awaken to dream more lucidly. Chuang-Tzu (a Taoist text similar to Lao Tzu) admits no idea of salvation: “There is no self and no awakening from the dream of self.” (Ibid., 81)

Section 15: The Experiment:

What is philosophy at all? Gray considers it to be that which encourages us to a “clarity of thinking.” (Ibid., 82) For ancient philosophers the aim of philosophy was “peace of mind” – for Socrates, it was a way of life, a way of being in the world. Contemporary aims for philosophers, argues Gray, might be in asking such questions as: What illusions can we give up? What are the ones we will never shake off? We will, he argues, 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. (Ibid., 83)

Above I have uploaded a photo I took of some flora in The Burren Co. Clare in June 2008

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