Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 15

Section 13:  Gnosticism and the Cybernauts:

Firstly a word on Gnosticism, which derives from the word gnôsis, the Greek word for "knowledge" or "insight."  It is possible to trace its roots back to the second and first centuries BCE.  Central to Gnosticism is a very strong "anti-cosmic world rejection," and consequently it is mistaken to call it a dualism.  We read the following in the IEP (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

According to the Gnostics, this world, the material cosmos, is the result of a primordial error on the part of a supra-cosmic, supremely divine being, usually called Sophia (Wisdom) or simply the Logos. This being is described as the final emanation of a divine hierarchy, called the Plêrôma or "Fullness," at the head of which resides the supreme God, the One beyond Being. (See this link: IEP)

In brief Gnosticism refers to belief systems generally united in the teaching that humans are divine souls trapped in a material world created by an imperfect god, the demiurge.  There we shall leave it as it is a very arcane belief system which is extremely syncretistic. Gray puts it succinctly once again:

The flight from the prison of the flesh is the essence of the Gnostic heresy that, despite incessant persecution, persisted in Christendom for centuries, and which survives to this day in the Mandean community in Syria. (Op. cit., 142)

Gray is, of course, right when he says that Jesus promised the resurrection of the body, not an afterlife as a disembodied consciousness.  (See ibid., 143).  It is hard to deny that fact, and harder still for theologians to defend a totally spiritual heaven.

The next word that needs definition is cybernaut which is 1. a computer user who uses the internet or 2. someone who explores cyberspace.  Once again Gray refers to a novel and an author I have never heard of, viz., Neuromancer by William Gibson.  The plot of this novel does not matter a whit as he only uses it to illustrate the word cybernaut. In short, Gray describes today’s cybernauts as unknowing Gnostics. (See ibid., 142) Cyberspace, he argues, continues the Gnostic flight from the body. (See ibid., 143)  He also refers to a strange contemporary cult called Extropians who aim to shed the mortal flesh to arrive at the true spark of the divine in man. (See ibid., 144)

Section 14: Inside the Phantomat:

Once again I learn another new word.  Not alone that, but I am also introduced to another novelist and book I have never heard of.  The book in question is Summa Technologiae, which is a lovely pun on Thomas Aquinas’s theological work.  The author, this time, is Stanislaw Lem.  In his fantasy world Lem envisages a “phantomatic generator,” which enables users to enter into simulated worlds.  These are virtual worlds.  In this work of fantasy we are enabled through the phantomat to enter any world we like – win a marathon, accept the Nobel prize for Science or Literature, paint the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo etc.  However, Gray is correct when he says that Lem is doing nothing new at all because

Virtual reality is a technological simulation of techniques of lucid dreaming practised by shamans for millennia.  (Ibid., 147)

Section 15: The Mirror of Solitude:

Then Gray does it again.  He becomes extremely provocative, and I must say I love it.  Not that I agree with his or even violently disagree with him.  It’s just that I admit the courage of his questioning spirit which is so purely philosophical.  Everything and every action can be questioned by the true philosopher.  He questions the necessity of solitude for humankind.  Here he flies in the face of what the learned and deeply humane psychiatrist Anthony Storr has to say in his book Solitude which I am also reading at the moment.  I feel more deeply on the side of Storr who argues for the necessity of solitude to the very existence of humankind’s creativity.  Be that as it may, let me return to Gray who, with E.O. Wilson, believes that the next century will usher in The Age of Loneliness (Eremozoic Era)in the wake of the current The Age of Mammals (Cenozoic Era).  Again, Gray’s sheer pessimism sees a world which is devastated by overpopulation, followed by consequent diseases of alarming proportions which will usher in an Age of Loneliness or an Age of Mysticism.  Listen to this for both pessimism and sheer cynicism, but I praise Gray’s provocation:

Mystics imagine that by seeking out empty places they can open themselves to something other than themselves.  Nearly always they do the opposite.  They carry the thrash and litter of humanity wherever they go.  (ibid., 150)

And then this clincher of a sentence which almost makes me laugh, though I like it for its boldness: “A zoo is a better window from which to look out at the human world than a monastery.” (Ibid., 151)

Section 16: The Coast Opposite Humanity:

This is the short concluding section of chapter 4.  It’s a short summary and a rallying cry to his cause.  Once again he reminds the reader of humankind’s penchant for self-inflation and for pumping up his own importance.  We are animals and that is that.  We have vastly over-valued our significance.  In fact, he maintains we are living in our own solipsistic world, blind to other animals and to the fact that we are very much a species like they.  Then he says, in the epitome of pessimism, that “Homo sapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving… The Earth will forget mankind.  The play of life will go on.”  (ibid., 151)

I might add here that I cannot go all the way, even half way, with Gray on some of these monstrous generalisations, but I admire his philosophic courage for questioning our over-inflated sense of ourselves.  I agree that we have over-inflated ourselves, but, even if we place ourselves firmly on the level of other animals, we too, along with our fellow animals, have many redeeming features.  Gloriously exhilarating pessimism - so said Richard Holloway in his review of this book in the Scotsman newspaper.  Methinks he is right, whatever about Gray!

Above Benny the seal recuperating at the Irish Seal Sanctuary which we visited today with the school for a CSPE project. The Irish Seal Sanctuary will be found at this link here: ISS

The Hubris of Humankind 14

Section 11: Nikolai Federov, Bolshevism and The Technological Pursuit of Immortality

Gray continues with his riveting discourse on the delusions of humanism, which he argues is just another mask for religion and stems from the same  human needs.  Nikolai Federov (1828-1903), as his name indicates, was a nineteenth century Russian teacher and librarian who spent most of his career working in the Rumiantsev Museum, at the time Moscow’s leading lending library.  He is also known as Nikolai Fyodorovich Fedorov, with his surname spelt with either an “e” or an “o”.  He is one of the most important, but perhaps most ignored, prophets of space flight.  Here is what the commentator Nader Elhefnawy says about Fedorov on the site The Space Review:

Like these other thinkers, his thought was powerfully shaped by both Orthodox Christianity and Hegelian philosophy. Also like many of them, he had little trouble reconciling religion and science in a way that would shock the belligerents in today’s war over Creationism. A common product of this combination of ideas was not just a focus on eschatology, but a “Christianity of action.” Rather than passively waiting for God to bring on the Millennium, being a good Christian meant participating in the building of heaven on Earth.

It was the way in which he expected this to come about that really separated Fedorov from the others. In his thinking there is only one evil in the world that really counts, death. Moreover, rather than being accepted as a part of “the human condition,” part of the human mission is the technological conquest of death. This means not only achieving immortality, but restoring all the people who have ever walked the Earth to life so that they may share the gift as well, making the heaven of the afterlife a physical reality. (Put in Fedorov’s terms, there must be “sonship” as well as brotherhood in the human family, which entails duty to our ancestors, for whom death must also be conquered.) [See the following link: Space Review ]

Gray puts it more succinctly: “The human enterprise was the technological resurrection of the dead.” (Op. cit., 137)  Our philosopher argues forcefully that Federov (the spelling Gray prefers) influenced greatly the Bolsheviks, especially in their overpowering and all-pervading belief that technology could emancipate mankind from the Earth itself.  Gray informs us that Federov’s ideas inspired the leading  Russian rocket engineers.  Again returning to an oft-repeated theme our philosopher comments:

Federov’s view of humanity as a chosen species, desperate to conquer the earth and defeat mortality, is a modern formulation of ancient faith. (Ibid., 137)

That technology could achieve the emancipation of humankind Gray calls by the beautifully sounding name of “Technological Gnosticism.” (Ibid., 138) I love this powerfully loaded term.  Gray follows the development of the influence of Federovian thought on the likes of Karl Marx and the early and late communists and states that the horrific nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl was a direct consequence of such “flawed” thinking – again my terms, not Gray’s.  It’s hard to disagree with our philosopher that the legacy of Soviet Russia was a devastated environment.

Section 12: Artificial Paradises:

This is an interesting section as it recounts humankind’s enchantment with drugs and their effects.  In an article called “Mescaline, Psilocybin, and Creative Artists,” available on the internet, Stanley Krippner reports that the actor Cary Grant praised LSD for giving him "a new assessment of life," that Blues singer Ms. Ronnie Gilbert improved her mental health in LSD therapy.  I have already referred to the fact that our own Professor Ivor Browne used LSD in his early psychiatric practice here in Dublin; something that he had learnt in the States.  Needless to say, he discontinued it soon afterwards.  In Krippner’s article he reports that of all the chemical substances, LSD was mentioned by more artists than any other drug, followed by marijuana, DMT, peyote, mescaline, morning glory seeds, psilocybin, hashish, DET, and yage.  To read the article in full see the following link: Creativity and Drugs

At college we were all informed of the opium-addicted great Romantic poet and philosopher S.T. Coleridge - he was using as much as two quarts of laudanum (opium mixed with brandy, which was freely available at apothecaries in England at the time) a week. Eventually he had the good sense to put himself under the care of a Dr. Daniel in 1814 in an effort to kick the habit. In 1817, Coleridge, with his addiction worsening, his spirits depressed, and his family alienated, took residence in the home of another friendly physician James Gillman, with whom he remained for the rest of his life.  he was never to beat the habit.  If the reader has read Kubla Khan and other such poems by S.T. Coleridge, one would be little surprised if the effects of opium can be seen in these works.  Again we read concerning Yeats in Roy Foster's monumental work (W.B. Yeats: A Life, Vol 1) on Ireland’s favourite and arguably greatest modern poet that W.B. is very much of our times:  he was drug-taking (he preferred hashish to mescal) and was drawn to mysticism.  Probably one of the two activities helped the other.

These are the types of artificial paradises that Gray has in mind in this section, though he does not many any of the above authors I have alluded to, though he does mention Henry Havelock Ellis (1859 - 1939) who was a British sexologist, physician, and social reformer and who experimented with the drug Mescal (the fresh or dried button-like tubercles of peyote plant, chewed as a drug by certain Native American peoples. Also called peyote)and wrote of his experiments.  Gray argues for the legalization of drugs where the prohibiting of them has driven the practice underground and has caused an escalation in drug-related crimes. (See ibid., 140-141)  In the USA Gray sees the war against drugs as “a puritan war on pleasure.” (Ibid., 141)

All of the above is a consequence, Gray argues, of the failure of humankind to admit the “normal unhappiness of human life.”  They prefer rather to propagate myths of afterlife (Religions) and infinite human progress (Humanism)

Above the sea at Donabate, late 2007. The Sea, the Sky and the Strand are one in a great greyness (or Gray-ness) of being! Stupid Pun!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Laughter is the Best Medicine!

Oh my God, if there is a God, these posts are getting way too serious in tone!  Now, I certainly am not a depressive or pessimistic type of person, even if I am on the happy pills – my attempt at making some fun!  One thing, I suppose, among many others, that the separates us from our animal brothers and sisters, is our capacity for laughter.  And boy do we need to laugh at ourselves.  Remember the old joke that goes something like this: any God who created creatures like us who have such an awkward way of making love must have had a sense of humour.  At times we do take life way too seriously.  Reading and writing an account of my responses to Gray’s riveting thoughts have more than ever convinced me that what’s needed is a good dose of humour.


Many years ago when I way in middle twenties I had to take a cousin on a walk up around Howth Head here in Dublin.  When finally we got to the summit we had a 360 degree view of the whole of Dublin, land, sea and city and all.  The landscape and seascape was nothing short of riveting except for one blemish on the picture.  Right there below us we could see the rhythmic movement of white human cheeks - underpants and trousers down about the calves – as some fellow made love to his beloved.  We laughed ourselves silly.  Human life is made of such moments.  It’s not all gloom, doom and dyspepsia as my erstwhile teacher Mr Bart Doyle, M.A. used to say.  Because the poor man was so dark-featured, with a full head of black hair until he died at 61 and a rather husky voice we called him “Dracula” or “Drack” for short.  He was, indeed, an erudite man, but oh so eccentric.

The scholars tell us that the word humour can be traced back to ancient Greek times as the term derives from the humoural medicine.  This archaic theory held that the human make-up comprised a mix of fluids known as humours that controlled human health and emotion.  Indeed, that’s why I used the word “medicine” in my title, and readers of this post will know that there was, and probably still is, such a column in the monthly edition of The Readers Digest.  Without a sense of humour to keep things in context, we can be wont to get sick.  I believe that laughter is one key way of letting out the stress that builds up within us.  There are other ways, of course, like good exercise and diet, but humour helps greatly, especially if we find the other two difficult or even impossible.  Literally humours (chymos, literally juice or sap) were the juice or sap of our very bodies.

Last night I possibly overdosed on humour, no bad thing indeed, by viewing the last four episodes of Series 1 of Fawlty Towers.  I cannot remember when myself and Pat, my brother, laughed so much.

Fawlty Towers is a British sitcom produced by the BBC Television and first broadcast on BBC2 in 1975. Although only twelve episodes were produced (consisting of two series, with six episodes each), the programme has had a lasting and powerful legacy.  I remember watching all the original episodes on BBC 2, then in their repeats on RTE.  In fact so popular was the first series that it was repeated almost immediately.  The show was written by Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth (Polly in the series), both of whom played main characters.

Picture of a lovely Dog Daisy, which I took some time in 2008

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 13

Section 7: Dying Animals:

Here once again Gray continues with his refrain – we are animals, and let’s get used to the fact.  As animals we are predestined or “hardwired” to die.  It’s all in our genes and there is no escape.  These are my words, but Gray’s sentiments.  One of the great differences between the animals and us humans is the fact that we are burdened by time while they simply are not.  Here is the way Gray puts his argumentation:

The truth is we do not fear the passing of time because we know death.  We fear death because we resist passing time.  If other animals do not fear death as we do, it is not because we know something they do not.  It is because they are not burdened by time.  (Op.cit., 130)

One thing I especially like about Buddhism is that it encourages us to use practices like meditation whereby we can go beyond our base human desires (I say human, not animal) of wanting to cling onto things, indeed to cling onto life itself.  Gray puts it in a nutshell; “Perhaps what distinguishes humans from other animals is that humans have learnt to cling more abjectly to life.”  (Ibid., 131)  It’s time for this present writer of these words to turn again to contemplating and meditating on The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.

Section 8: Krishnamurti’s Burden:

Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986) was a well known writer and speaker on philosophical and spiritual subjects. His subject matter included: the purpose of meditation, human relationships, the nature of the mind, and how to enact positive change in global society.  Gray points out that it was the Theosophists (an early New Age-like cult) who deliberately groomed J.K. as a new Messiah like Jesus or the Buddha.  Like them he sought to spurn his basic animal nature.  It is when spiritualists, religionists or scientists or humanists “believe they have left their animal nature behind that humans show the qualities that are theirs alone: obsession, self-deception and perpetual unrest.”  (Ibid., 132)  While Krishnamurti may have spurned human nature, he was not short of human flaws on the sexual front or the ego front for that matter.  In this, Gray argues, he merely became a caricature of humanity.

Section 9: Gurdjieff’s Work and Stanislavski’s Method: 

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866 - 1949), was a Greek-Armenian mystic, a teacher of sacred dances and a spiritual teacher.  At different times in his life he formed and disbanded various schools around the world to utilize his teachings. He claimed that the Eastern teachings he brought to the West from his own experiences and early travels expressed the truth found in ancient religions and wisdom teachings relating to self-awareness in people's daily lives and humanity's place in the universe.  However, he was eclectic and syncretistic and blended all types of ancient beliefs together to form his particular system of belief.  Some people claim him to have been a mystic and a spiritualist of high standing while others look upon him as a charlatanGray sees him as an occultist and a “latter-day shaman.”  With typical dismissal, he discounts some so-called scholars who traced Gurdjieff’s work back to Sufi or Tibetan teachings as deluded.  He most probably was influenced most by Constantin Stanislavski’s Method of teaching dancing. Stanislavki’s outstanding productions included many of the plays of Chekhov, in which he tried to strip away the very language of the play to enter the emotional core and complex psychology of the characters. Stanislavski (1863–1938, Russian theatrical director, teacher, and actor.  His name is also spelt ending with a ‘y’) stressed the importance of the actor's inner identification with the character and the actor's natural use of body and voice. His training for actors, now termed the Stanislavsky method, or “method acting,” had a vast influence on modern schools of acting. In New York City, The Actors Studio adapted many of his ideas to their use. Stanislavsky also achieved renown as a director of opera.

Gray points out the Gurdjieff also used theatre and dance as devices to assist disciples to gain mastery of their bodily movements and hence they might awake from their waking sleep.  However, hard these two so-called scholars would try they could not raise humanity to a level of consciousness that could totally forget our animal nature.

Section 10: The Aerodrome

Here Gray quotes Rex Warner’s wartime novel The Aerodrome.  I have heard neither of the author nor the book.  Gray tells us the book is part tragedy and part farce in which an Air Vice Marshall, inhabiting an aerodrome with his command, seeks to cut off himself and his air corps from outside influence and contagion, and in so doing create a Nietzschean Superman.  This deluded autocratic Air Vice Marshall preaches to his men thus:

Science will show you that in our species the period of physical evolution is over.  There remains the evolution or rather transformation, of consciousness and will, the escape from time, the mastery of the self… (Quoted ibid., 135)

Of course, this is complete delusion.  Who can deny their animal nature in all its baser desires.  Maybe the instincts denied are more important?  In demanding that his airmen cut themselves off from their families and girl friends we find that ironically even he cannot do so – as the very narrator turns out to be his son.  However Gray’s commentary on this novel has a serious intent:

The Air Vice Marshall’s philosophy may be a caricature, but it expresses a powerful trend in modern thought.  From Francis Bacon to Nietzsche, Enlightenment thinkers have lauded will over the purposeless life of common humanity.  Other animals may live without knowing why, but humans can impress purpose on their lives.  They can raise themselves up from the contingent world and rule over it.  (Ibid., 136)

Aren't horses wonderful? With dogs, they are my favourite animals! No animal lover could ever be a misanthrope!!!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 12

Section 3: In Praise of Polytheism

Thanks to Rev Tom Hamill, B.A., S.T.L., L.S.S., a maverick priest and consummate scholar, I have believed for the last twenty years that all the various gods from the various religions about the world represent some aspect of the human make-up or psychology.  I shall return to this point at a later time in these posts, as my central personal belief these days is that life is all in base a question of our psychological make-up.  Perhaps this is a bit of a reductionism.  However, I do need to some some deeper thinking on this subject.  Be that as it may, let me now return to the arguments of John Gray.

The first great monotheistic religion is, of course, Judaism.  The Jews believed that their God was the one true God and that all the gods of other peoples and races were mere shoddy imposters.  There is a lot of nationalist egotism (if I may coin a new phrase) and pure xenophobia in monotheism too, I believe. Xenophobia is an intense dislike and/or fear of that which is unknown or is different from oneself, especially in the case of foreign people.  The Jewish people were “the Chosen People”, the people set aside by God as special.  The implication of this is that all others are lesser beingsGray argues that it was only with Christianity that monotheism really took root.  I quibble with him here as I feel it was with Judaism that the root first struck fertile soil.  Anyway, there’s no use splitting historical hairs as Christianity is the first born child of Judaism and it did spread like wild fire around the then known world.

I like Gray’s practical rather than theoretical distinction between Monotheism and Polytheism:

For polytheists, religion is a matter of practice, not belief; and there are many kinds of practice. For Christians, religion is a matter of true belief.  If only one belief can be true, every way of life in which it is not accepted must be in error.  (Op.cit., 126)

I also like another fact that he elucidates – that polytheists were never missionaries.  Indeed, nor were they ever fanatics or crusaders or inquisitors as were the great monotheistic religionsIndeed monotheism produced political faiths, too, like communism and socialism – themselves often fanatical crusaders and indeed inquisitors.

Section 4: Atheism, The Last Consequence of Christianity:

I an at one again here with Gray.  If the debate between Theists and Atheists were a chess game, Theists make the first move and Atheists the second.  It is consequently hard to envisage there being a second move unless there is a first move.  The former is my analogy, not Gray’s – I point this out, as it is probably a very poor one.  In Gray’s words: “To deny the existence of God is to accept the categories of monotheism.  As these categories fall into disuse, unbelief becomes uninteresting, and soon it is meaningless.” (Ibid., 126)  Again, I like his analogy here: “Unbelief is a move in a game whose rules are set by believers.” (ibid., 126)  Again, this is insightful and very true.  In my words, atheists are denying propositions made by theists.  Having watched the horrible violence in Northern Ireland from the late sixties to the late nineties of the last century, and having listened to the shibboleths of the more extreme Protestant groups who always said “No” or whose religious and political faiths were based only on the premise of the denial of what the Catholics believed or achieved, I reckon such inter-denominational war merely mirrors the theist versus atheist debate.  All of these arguments seem extremely trivial on an intellectual level, but on a personal and social level they are very explosive, if not murderous ones indeed.

Gray rightly argues that Christianity and Atheism are declining together.  The answer I feel is simple: they live in a symbiotic relationship.  I’ll finish this section with a sentence from Gray: “Atheism is a late bloom of the Christian passion for Truth.” (Ibid., 127)

Section 5: Homer’s Vultures:

This is a section that I find overpowering and disturbing.  It is sheer nihilism.  In its definition of this term the IEP gives the following:

While few philosophers would claim to be nihilists, nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche who argued that its corrosive effects would eventually destroy all moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions and precipitate the greatest crisis in human history. In the 20th century, nihilistic themes--epistemological failure, value destruction, and cosmic purposelessness--have preoccupied artists, social critics, and philosophers. Mid-century, for example, the existentialists helped popularize tenets of nihilism in their attempts to blunt its destructive potential. By the end of the century, existential despair as a response to nihilism gave way to an attitude of indifference, often associated with antifoundationalism. (See this link here IEP )

Gray quotes from Homer’s Iliad a section where the gods assumed the likeness of birds (vultures) who just provoked men to war with one another for their entertainment.  There is no nihilism there, he claims, because the vultures do not seek to redeem human life.  There is simply nothing in that life that needs redemption.  Gray works on the assumption, which seems to run counter to the definition quoted above, that nihilism is the idea that human life must be redeemed from meaninglessness. I simply don’t understand Gray here.  The failure is all mine.

section 6: In Search of Mortality:

Here Gray has a go at Eastern philosophy and meditation practices.  One could be appalled, but one is led onwards by his strength, courage and sincere conviction, if I am not committing a tautological heresy here in my language:

Nirvana is the end of suffering; but this promises no more than what we all achieve, usually without too much effort, in the course of nature.  death brings to everyone the peace the Buddha promised after lifetimes of striving.  (ibid., 129)

Strong medicine indeed.  But maybe, that’s what greedy, avaricious humankind needs more than ever, the strong medicine of realising his/her own mortality.  In short, our man Gray maintains that Buddhism is essentially a quest for mortality.  Brilliant.  Here Gray, in my opinion has written a modern koan for us which is worth meditating on as one sits.

A picture I took last June in a field near The Cliffs of Moher. A young bullock or just a source of burgers? Excuse my agricultural ignorance as I am a city lad!