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.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Old Wine in New Wineskins

As the French say, “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.”  There was never a truer word spoken.  A similar saying with a biblical provenance states that “there is nothing new under the sun.”  We only repackage old truths in new clothing.  We only change the wrapping on the gift.  Use whatever metaphor you wish and we have the same basic truth.

This is essentially John Gray’s argument in the wee book mentioned in the previous post.  His foreword is succinct and very much to the point.  In it he paints his argument very clearly indeed.  the bones of which are:

1.  Humankind has always vastly over-rated its own importance in the scheme of things.  I thoroughly agree.  In his acknowledgements, immediately prior to the foreword, he states: “In this book I have tried to present a view of things in which humans are not central.” (Straw Dogs, Granta Books, 2002, ix)  Indeed, we are creatures of this world and we all share a common heritage and a common gene pool, not alone with all other animals but with all other vegetable life.  We may be thinking animals, but we are essentially animals. How we differentiate ourselves from our animal brothers and sisters is stuff for another post.  However, I use brothers and sisters with conviction, and recall that the famous Saint Francis of Assisi called even the inanimate elements his brothers and sisters.  Birth, growth, ageing, sickness and death are hallmarks of all animals.

2. In the foreword to the paperback edition Gray states: “Straw Dogs is an attack on the unthinking beliefs of thinking people.” (xi)  His argument is basic.  Traditionally, so-called revealed religions preached the hope of eternal salvation.  This hope of eternal salvation is, of course, a myth.  However, there is also a scientific equivalent of this myth, viz., the myth of progress.  In other words, Religion preaches salvation, science preaches indefinite progress.  They are both equally myths and superstitions.  If believers in Religion were totally bewitched by unprovable doctrines, we can argue in a parallel fashion that secular believers lie in the grip of equally unprovable “unexamined dogmas.”  Continual or indefinite or linear progress is one such “unexamined dogma.”  I have argued this before in these pages.

3. In typically paradoxical language, which underlines the essential contradictory nature of humanity, Gray avers that “[t]he irony of evangelical Darwinism is that it uses science to support a view of humanity that comes from religion.” (It uses evolution to support the freedom of choice – this last being a concept that emerges from revealed religious sources).  He also goes on to state that “the Christian origins of secular humanism are rarely understood.” (ibid., xii)  For Gray, Humanism is quite simply the Religion of Humanity.  All that we have done is cut out the idea of God and replaced it with Man (I use this term in its generic sense, needless to say.)  Gray’s words are very clear:

Humanism is not a science, but a religion – the post-Christian faith that humans can make a better world than any in which they have so far lived… The idea of progress is a secular version of the Christian belief in providence.  That is why among the ancient pagans it was unknown. (ibid., xiii)

4. Another point Gray makes is wonderful and one I had not thought of before (this again is another reason why I love Gray), namely that the growth of knowledge in science is accumulative while human life as a whole is anything but so.  Human beings have to learn things over and over again from generation to generation.  Every human being starts off from scratch in his/her own knowledge of self and the world.  Every generation practically repeats the mistakes of the past.  Has not history taught us this sad tale so well.  After all has not every generation witnessed yet another inevitable bloodletting. While science increases human powers – cars, airplanes, ships, spacecraft etc –unfortunately “it magnifies the flaws of human nature.” (ibid., xiii)  Again think of wars, terrorism etc.

5.  Gray couples two unlikely sources, or on second thoughts perhaps a little less unlikely, namely ancient Greek philosophy and the Eastern philosophy of meditation.  This coupling I think is brilliant and unique.  He argues that for both these groups the aim of life was “to see the world rightly.” (ibid., xiv)  On the other hand the aim of modern human beings  is to change the world.  Change at all costs, it seems, becomes the over-riding concern.  Change is good.  But is it so in all cases we rightly ask with Gray?  How far has progress brought us?  Is unquestioned progress per se good?

6.  Then he finishes his introductory remarks with a verbal flourish that appeals to me: “…at the start of the twenty-first century the world is strewn with the grandiose ruins of failed utopias.” (ibid., xiv)  He also regales us  with his rather sceptical, but I fear all too true, view that: “[p]olitical action has come to be a surrogate for salvation,” and that

Humans cannot save the world, but this is no reason for despair.  It does not need saving.  Happily, humans will never live in a world of their own making. (ibid., xv)

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of muddy tracks in the Phoenix Park, February 2009.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Waking Up

One of things that Eastern Philosophy and Meditation practices seek to do is to wake us up to reality.  No matter what material one reads by Eastern scholars the message is the same: “Wake up!” Other ways of stating this imperative would be: “Become aware,” “Take stock,” “Live now,” “Cease to be dependent” or “Carpe Diem.”  All of these commands amount to the same thing essentially.  We are living in the shadows; let us come out into the light.  However, sometimes, if we are not well prepared that light of truth will blind us.  Needless to say, I’m here alluding to Plato’s great allegory of the cave.

Perusing an Awakening Book:

The books I like are always those which make me think.  I very seldom go for very light stuff, but that is just a personal predilection and is in no sense motivated by cultural snobbery, merely that I’m addicted to books with a philosophical twist.  Anyway, I recently read what I would term an awakening book, viz., Straw Dogs (Granta, 2002) by John Gray who at the time of writing was the Professor of European Thought at The London School of Economics.  The learned professor is the author of more than a dozen books, many of which have been widely translated.

Wake Up:

His message is that we have all been gulled and are being gulled by our own cultures which are rife with prejudices and unquestioned presuppositions.  The one thing which I like about John Gray’s books is that he questions everything, even things we take for granted.  His writing has the spirit of a fresh wind which blows away the cobwebs that have gathered about our thinking.  He also counsels humility.  He does not write as one who has all the answers or even some of them.  No,  true philosopher that he is, he persists in asking the big and great questions about all our cultural suppositions and presuppositions.

Lucid and Clear:

Gray provokes me to write in synonyms because his work is so good that I’m inclined to write two words instead of one.  I realise all too well that this is one of my major faults stylistically and philosophically also because it muddies the clarity.  That said, Gray is very clear and cogent in his arguments.  He only uses one word where we lesser mortals would use two or three.  So convincingly does he write that we want to argue at once with him and bring the debate to the dining table if others share our interest in philosophy or at least in good thought.  Our wanting to argue possibly and probably means that Gray has disturbed the faulty foundations of our thought structures.


Gray is telling us forcibly and clearly that we are creatures full of hubris, whose greatest flaw is our propensity for self-delusion.  We can convince ourselves of anything when our vanity and hubris is at stake. 

A Call to Question the foundations of Modern Culture:

Modernism, post-modernism, deconstructionism and post-Christian culture and I’m sure many many more terms with the prefix “post” in them have long since questioned the foundations of the Christian World.  This is a debate long since dead in many quarters save in those of the Church or any group interested in spiritual questions.  Gray is quite accepting of all the foregoing and of their rigid questioning of old certainties.  However, he keeps the rigid questioning going by asking the same questions of Humanism as was asked of Christian Culture.  This is what makes this ever such a neat and cool book, if I may be forgiven for using the latter colloquial term which fits this book so well.  It fits the book well because it is devoid of any egotism or smart intellectual one-up-man-ship – devoid of philosophical jargon almost completely.  Here is a philosopher who writes clearly for the layman.  A.C. Grayling is also a crystal clear writer, although I see Grayling is one of Gray’s critics.  I will return to this debate between these two philosophers when I have read their material more widely, and indeed when I have attempted to digest it.

Don Cupitt, that agnostic (or is it atheistic?) Anglican, whose theology-philosophy (I’m never sure which they are) books I also adore has this to say about Straw Dogs: “Tough-minded and entertaining, this is popular philosophy at its best.  The more you disagree with John Gray’s main line of argument, the more you will gain from him.  Splendid!”  These are wonderful words and they were the ones which made me buy this wonderful little gem, on a par with John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God.  What Honest to God did for theology Straw Dogs does for philosophy.  Over the next few posts I intend to follow Gray’s line of argument from beginning to end. 

Above I have uploaded a picture I took quite recently with my mobile phone shortly after awakening. The slightly blurred effect was not purposely done, being a mere serendipitous occurrence which nicely communicates a sense of Waking Up.