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Myth Congeniality: John Gray Interviewed
Nick Talbot , June 10th, 2013 04:24

Nick Talbot (aka Gravenhurst) talks to contemporary thinker and Quietus hero John Gray about The Silence Of Animals, Straw Dogs and the failures of humanism

Andrew Marr called John Gray "the closest thing we have to a window smashing French intellectual". But Gray doesn't go around smashing windows – he smashes assumptions, unargued assumptions, whole rafts of them. His book Straw Dogs threw a spanner into the works of the polarised and familiar debate between religion and reason. “Anti-theist” polemics by the likes of Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling saw dignified and intellectually substantial responses by Christian apologists such as Alister McGrath, but with the battle lines drawn so rigidly, there were significant groups of people for whom neither side spoke. To the many atheists who found the Dawkins camp's rabid proselytising not only smug but tinged with an oddly religious fervour, the prospect of an intellectual heavyweight tearing up the very foundations of the rationalist position was a beautiful thing. Enter John Gray.

For the Anti-theists, rationalism – the enlightenment project of progress through the application of reason – naturally draws one away from religion and towards liberal humanism. By helping people purge themselves of irrational religious beliefs, evangelical atheists believe they are doing their bit for progress towards a better humanist society of the future. But Gray argues that the rationalists are themselves in the grip of religious dogma. Humanism is a residue of theism, and created in its image. Rationalism is a utopian delusion and humanism is nothing more than "a secular religion thrown together from decaying scraps of Christian myth". The belief in progress is derived from a Christian conception of humans as morally autonomous beings differentiated from other animals by their possession of souls. Where Christians make moral decisions that progress towards an afterlife, the humanists believe their rational choices ensure progress towards a Godless heaven on earth. But unlike scientific knowledge, Gray argues, social progress is not cumulative, but cyclical, and human nature is a recurring obstacle to the advances of civilisation.

Gray shows us there is more truth to the story of Genesis than there is to the Enlightenment myth that life is best lived through the application of reason. The Genesis myth of original sin tells us that human nature is flawed, and that knowledge cannot save us from our nature. The barbaric evidence of the last century alone shows that to be true. Gray the atheist has sympathy with religions, for many of their myths speak truths to the human experience; what angers him is the secularists who refuse to acknowledge that their world view is informed by myths also.

He goes further. Not only is he sceptical about the role of reason in informing the choices humans make, he casts doubt upon the very notion of free choice, citing a highly controversial experiment by the neuroscientist Benjamin Libet. The study looked at the patterns of brain activity exhibited by volunteers as they chose to undertake a simple activity such as pressing a button. To Libet's surprise, brain activity that precipitates motor function actually preceded the time when the conscious choice to undertake the action was registered. In other words, the decision to move came after the movement started. The worrying conclusion that could be drawn from this is that freewill is a myth; far from being the instantiation of conscious desires, our physical actions come first, and the intentions come after, a mere sideshow that gives us the illusion of freewill. Critics have raised the possibility of measurement inaccuracies, an accusation which, if it sticks, could debunk the whole study. But, in Straw Dogs, Gray suggests it as just one possible source of scepticism regarding human agency. It may be our subconscious, not our reason that is in control. Freud looms large in Gray's vision; the psycho-analyst's view of the competing instincts of Eros and Thanatos – love and creativity versus destruction and hate - providing us with a far more realistic picture of human nature than the Enlightenment cult of reason.

Gray's new book, The Silence Of Animals, marks a change of pace. The combative tone of Straw Dogs has been exchanged for a meditation on poets, novelists and naturalists who neither embraced Christianity nor fell into the trap of creating something crude in its image to fulfil a need for certainty. Drawing from a broad range of literary, historical and philosophical sources, Gray reflects on the works of deep thinkers whose atheism didn't detract from the scope of their contemplation, but allowed them to embrace a 'godless mysticism'.

I think many people found Straw Dogs fascinating but disturbing. I wondered if you felt the need to offer some hope to those who came away feeling battered and pessimistic. Is this what motivated the move from polemic to a more meditative mood?

John Gray: You’re right to note a shift from an assertive to a more meditative style. There is a continuity, though: in neither Straw Dogs nor The Silence of Animals am I trying to convince the reader of anything. I’m simply offering a view of things – which happens to be mine – that others may find worth thinking about. Unlike neo-Christians such as Dawkins and Grayling, I’ve no interest in converting anyone to, or from, any belief-system. This is partly because I’m sceptical of the role of belief in human action; but also because I find the post-Socratic idea of philosophy absurd. The idea that examined lives tend to be better on the whole than others seems to me obviously false. The only benefit that philosophy can confer is a certain kind of mental freedom – but this can’t be achieved as long as philosophical inquiry is understood as an attempt to ground or prove anything, and then persuade others of it. The very idea of philosophical inquiry as a project of persuasion seems to me little more than a rationalist version of proselytising religion. I’m not even sure that what I’m doing is philosophy, and I don’t much care. The Silence of Animals may be less polemical in tone than Straw Dogs, but that isn’t about offering hope so much as pointing out that the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived have done so without any belief in the possibility of progress of the sort that so many now insist is humanly indispensable. In that sense the book does offer a bit of reassurance: if you don’t believe the future of the species can be better than the past, don’t worry — you’re in good company. Many people have lived meaningful and fulfilling lives without any such faith.

You write about J.A.Baker who derived great pleasure from writing from the perspective of animals, especially meditating on the freedoms of birds. Would humans in general do well to consider the world from the perspective of other animals?

JG: The value of other animals to humans is that they offer a window out of the human world. Without some such window, humans tend to go mad. As a result of his observation of the peregrine, J.A. Baker was saner – as well as happier – than a great many human beings. Of course, seeing the world imaginatively from the perspective of another species doesn’t mean you can become like that species or that you should try to emulate it. Other animals are superior to humans in many ways: partly because they don’t organise their lives on the basis of beliefs, there are no feline suicide bombers. But humans can’t emulate this animal freedom from belief. That’s one reason why we – unlike other animals, so far as we can know – need myths.

You criticise humanism for failing to recognise its own utopian mythology, but you celebrate the value of certain myths. (You mention the stories of Icarus and Prometheus as cautionary tales against the dangers of hubris.) Is there a way to distinguish harmful myths from truthful myths, delusion from insight?

JG: The first test of any myth is an ethical one – whether it’s intrinsically harmful. Any myth that demonises other human beings fits into this category. The Nazi mythology of anti-Semitism is a prime example (even though it claimed to be based in science), but there are many others. A separate test is the truthiness of a myth – whether it captures deep and enduring aspects of human experience. In this sense the Christian myth of original sin is truthier than the modern myth of progress. The prevailing belief in progress assumes humans are already sufficiently advanced to be moved by rational persuasion; if they persist in cruelty and oppression, it’s because of ignorance and error. The Christian – or more exactly, Pauline – myth is superior because it recognises that humans are congenitally and incorrigibly fond of error (and then it’s not just error...) Of course the myth of original sin has had some harmful effects, notably by being morbidly obsessed with sexuality, but I don’t think it’s like racist myths in being intrinsically bad. True myths are like other precious things: they always come with some dross.

I’ve talked here of tests for myths. That doesn’t mean I think myths are typically chosen by those immersed in them. The most powerful myths aren’t consciously embraced – they possess those who follow them. (This is certainly true of the prevailing myth of progress.) A certain scepticism can protect against this sort of possession. But the best protection against bad myths is normally a good myth. That’s why I’m friendly to traditional religions, whose core myths — while often abused — seem to me better suited to human beings than the dangerous conceit of reason.

If I've read you correctly, you encourage us to see that the usefulness of reason is constrained by the limitations of human nature, which is flawed, and this limitation marks a boundary beyond which human beings need mythology to guide them. Why is it that, at this point, mythology becomes better suited to the job?

JG: It’s not so much that when reason runs out myths are better at guiding us, but rather that humans will always turn to myth at that point. Of course the turn isn’t usually a conscious process. Truthful mythologies aren’t deliberately contrived – as anthropologists say, myths have no authors - they enter into and occupy the mind seemingly of their own volition. I’m far from taking a post modern Rorty-esque view in which we can freely choose our mythologies: we are captured by myth. This is an important point, since as I’ve often stressed some myths are inherently malignant. Any myth that demonises sections of mankind – such as the anti-Semitic mythology found in many Christian traditions and at the heart of Nazism – falls into this category. The best immunisation against bad myths is a better myth: the kind that reflects enduring and universal human realities and enables us to live well without denying these realities.

Why humans need myths at all is an interesting question. I suspect the answer has to do with our awareness of our mortality. In order to feel the meaning of life is secure, we need a story that is not cut short by death. Much of the power of the modern myth of progress comes from the fact that it answers to this need.

Some of your opponents (such as A.C. Grayling) have accused you of attacking straw men. They say they don't know of any humanists who see progress as inevitable.

JG: Mixing metaphors here, this a very old chestnut. I’ve never suggested that secular humanists think ethical or political progress is inevitable, nor is my claim that progress is a myth primarily an attack on utopianism. What I’ve criticised is what every secular humanist actually believes: that, over time, despite much back-sliding and any number of set-backs, civilisation advances along with the growth of human knowledge. In this view, advances in ethics and politics are like advances in science – normally cumulative and potentially irreversible. For secular humanists the evils of human life are, at bottom, errors – and error can be gradually diminished.

The modern belief in the possibility of gradual improvement goes with a view of history quite different from that of the ancient world. In Greece and Rome, India and China, for example, history was understood in cyclical terms as the rise and fall of civilisations. Advances in ethics and politics were real and worth fighting for, but they would always be lost in the course of a few generations since – while knowledge may increase over time – human beings remain much the same. The inherent and incurable flaws of the human animal will eventually always prevail over any advance in civilisation. As I’ve put it in The Silence of Animals, civilisation is natural for humans. But so is barbarism.

I think this ancient view is much closer to the truth of the matter than any modern view. Of course the ancient view is difficult for some to understand, still less accept. This may be partly a problem of parochialism: When I’ve presented it to audiences composed of Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Russian people, it’s understood at once and in many cases seen to be obviously true. If the response is different in Britain, the US and some western European countries, it’s because these countries have experienced something like gradual improvement over the past two or three generations and can’t imagine the gains that have been made being suddenly lost. No argument will dislodge this conviction. Myths aren’t disproved, they simply fade away and vanish along with the ways of life of which they are a part.

It’s sometimes supposed that I want to convert those whose lives are informed by a myth of progress to some other world-view – my own, for example. Nothing could be further from the truth. My writings are aimed at a particular kind of reader – one who isn’t completely satisfied with the prevailing view of things. If these readers see things differently after reading me, that’s great – but I’d be disappointed if they saw things in only one way.

To those who react to what I’m saying with horror or incredulity, I’d say this: progress in civilisation is a very recent myth, only a few centuries old; it will pass away just as other myths have done. All I’m doing is to restate a view of things that most human beings have always held. If my critics can’t understand this, that’s their problem.

Richard Dawkins seems to just see religious beliefs as sets of literal (but false) assertions about the nature of reality. But they aren't, are they?

JG: As I understand them, religions aren’t composed of beliefs but of practices. Secular rationalists think of religions in creedal terms as sets of propositions, or else as primitive versions of scientific theories, then attack religion on this basis. This is a fundamental error, but quite understandable since under the influence of Greek philosophy sections of western religion have in fact been creedal in form. In this as in many other respects, secular rationalism is a mirror image of the least interesting strands in western monotheism.

In another sense, religions are assertions about reality —the perennial human realities of mystery and mortality, which neither science nor philosophy can adequately deal with.

I was surprised to see you so often characterised as a conservative thinker – you certainly don't hold any positions that characterise, say, the “paleo-conservative” American right. (You have identified strains of utopianism in free market neo-liberalism and liberal interventionism and your embrace of James Lovelock's Gaia theory is anathema to most on the right.) Is your conservatism more in the mould of David Hume, perhaps? A sceptical caution over the human tendency to see patterns where there are none.

JG: I’m not sure it makes much sense to talk of conservatism these days. Certainly I share the view, often held by conservatives in the past, that there is such a thing as human nature, that it’s relatively constant and in some ways inherently flawed. (Thinking this way is one reason why I’m not a post-modernist.) It was this type of conservatism that the painter Francis Bacon had in mind when he said he always voted for the right because it made the best of a bad job. The poet T.E. Hulme said something very similar. But that kind of conservatism scarcely exists any more: Today conservative thinking oscillates between neo-con progressivism – a species of inverted Marxism – and paleo-conservative reaction, which amounts to not much more than a collection of ugly prejudices (racism, homophobia, misogyny). Both these versions of “conservatism” seem to me hostile to the conservation of civilised life. The genuine scepticism of David Hume is much preferable to anything that passes as conservative today.

At the same time I doubt if Hume’s rationalistic Enlightenment variety of scepticism is enough – for one thing, he had the good fortune to live before the age of militant political faiths and modern fundamentalism. Montaigne is a better guide, possibly the best, to living in a time of modern wars of faith.

Why do you think the right has become riddled with climate change sceptics?

JG: I think it’s partly due to the fact that the right has been converted to a progressive project – neo-liberalism – that the fact of climate change confounds.

Given your embrace of Gaia theory, would you consider giving your support to the Green Party, perhaps if they became more realistic and embraced nuclear power?

JG: I can’t imagine joining the Greens. Wanting a large-scale alteration in the way we live, Greens disdain technical fixes, particularly those involving technologies such as nuclear energy, GM food etc. My view is that it will be a combination of such fixes that will enable adaptation to environmental changes that can’t now be stopped. Not that all is lost. The human animal will muddle through and survive, if perhaps in smaller numbers. There is an on-going mass extinction of other species, but even abrupt climate change will not turn the planet into a lifeless desert: We may yet see forests and brown bears again where the polar caps are today. The lesson of Gaia theory is that it’s only in a human-centred view that the environmental crisis is a planetary emergency. Another reason why I can’t support today’s Greens is because of their utopian fascination with social transformation and global redistribution. They tend to deny or underestimate the role of human overpopulation in the environmental crisis, whereas I think it’s crucial. There wouldn’t be a crisis if there were fewer than a billion humans on the planet.

You mentioned that your belief in human nature is one reason you’re not a post-modernist. It's a largely unargued assumption of post-modernism that there are no objective truths. So is it your view that a relatively fixed human nature gives us a constant on which to hang things, an objective truth from which others could follow?

JG: Yes, that describes my view pretty well. I’m generally suspicious of post-modernism since (as I wrote in Straw Dogs) it looks to me like another version of human solipsism. Also, while philosophy of science to which I incline is more instrumentalist than realist, I have always insisted that progress is a fact in science. It’s spin-offs from the increase of scientific knowledge that account for the fact there are currently around seven billion humans on the planet. The idea that science is merely one belief-system among many is too nonsensical to be worth arguing against. Though I’ve found illuminating insights in some post-modern thinkers (including Rorty), post-modernism is one of those philosophies – like secular humanism, of which it is a version – that I can’t take seriously.

You argue that popular music's trite language of self-realisation owes much to the Romantic movement's emphasis on originality, but I see it as a logical result of the culture of individualism perpetuated by the New Right; instead of thinking how they can contribute to their community, young people have been encouraged to indulge egoistic fantasies. Is there any hope for encouraging a communitarian ethos in young people?

JG: I wonder if communitarianism means anything any more – think of Cameron’s big society. The prevailing individualism runs much deeper than anything owed to the New Right. Maybe we’re in a time akin to those in which the Buddha and Epicurus lived – in which it’s up to each individual, along with those they care about, to live as well as they can. To be sure, political and other types of collective action may be necessary to defend civilised values. But I don’t think any collective project can or should be viewed as providing meaning in life.

You write "All human institutions are stained by crime... Explaining human nastiness by reference to corrupt institutions leaves a question: why are humans so attached to corruption? Clearly the answer is in the human animal itself." The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently attempted to tar all benefit recipients with the brush of a sociopathic child killer. But Mick Philpott killed his children in a botched attempt to engineer another appearance on bear-baiting shows like Jeremy Kyle; I think that the "look at me" culture of such shows is more relevant to this case than the benefits system.

JG: Well, you’re right that reality television is a sort of organised recreational brutality. But all human institutions are stained, and I doubt that reality TV is currently the worst. Often the most malign institutions and practices are those based on the best intentions. The violence and destruction that’s underway at present in Syria is truly horrific. But action by Western powers won’t stop what is at bottom a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional hegemony. Instead, greater Western involvement will most likely create a failed state and a larger regional war. In that event – and not for the first time – it will be humanitarian intervention that will be the stained institution.

Human rights relies on the principle that all human lives have innate value. This conception puts humans at the centre of the picture, whereas you are at pains to give a picture of the world where humans are just one of many animals. How do you reconcile your view of slavery and torture as universal evils with a rejection of the human-centric view?

JG: I hold to a version of objective pluralism in ethics – the idea that while there is no single kind of life that’s best for all human beings, or even for a single human being, there are kinds of life that are bad for everyone. That’s why slavery and torture are universal evils.

This view doesn’t only apply to humans. I was persuaded of the objectivity of ethics many years ago by observing the differences between animals in good and bad zoos. Other animals don’t adapt well to bad zoos, they just live badly in them. Humans are the same. The objectivity of the good life is rooted in the fixity of our animal nature.

This might seem an Aristotelian view, but I don’t subscribe to any notion of the golden mean. There is no inherent harmony among the virtues, and universal human values conflict with one another permanently and intractably. Some of these conflicts – this where ethics can’t be objective in the way science might be – are rationally unresolvable. Contrary to Aristotle, human life has no overarching telos or end-state. There are only human beings, each of them with many different and conflicting purposes. From one angle, this may seem a kind of moral scarcity; but from another, it shows the variety and abundance of good ways to live.

An aspect of my view of ethics that might be worth clarifying is the idea that I’m a moral pessimist. In one sense this is true: I find the notion that human beings are wiser now than they were in the past comically absurd. But there’s another sense in which I’m far from pessimistic: I’m confident that none of the visions of a radically transformed world that have animated saints, revolutionaries and many bien-pensant reformers will ever come to pass. Lenin’s view of a Communist society wasn’t just impracticable it was also hideous. The deformed Soviet system impoverished human life far less than a genuinely Communist society would have done. The same is true of some versions of liberalism. I’m a great admirer of Maynard Keynes; but a John Stuart Mill-like world composed of Bloomsbury individualists would be intolerable. Happily such a world is also impossible.

I set out my views on ethics in Two Faces Of Liberalism (2000) and don’t plan on returning to the subject. I doubt there’s anything to say about ethics that’s both true and new.

I enjoyed your radio talk on Bitcoin where you said that anarchism's delusion lies in thinking that people actually want freedom from authority. Similarly the moderate left could make the mistake of assuming people want the kind of social justice it purports to offer.

JG: Glad you liked the Bitcoin talk. I share your view that a great many people have no interest in, or else positively reject, social justice of the kind the moderate left is now promoting. Of course the same is true of religion. One of the curious features of humanist progressivism is that its enthusiasts have little interest in what human beings (other than themselves) actually want.

The Silence Of Animals is out now, published by Allen Lane