Monday, February 15, 2010

Why John Gray is not a sceptic

The Yard calls John Gray a ‘great sceptic’ and Jason Cowley in The Observer describes Gray as “Britain's most sceptical thinker”. Neither of these descriptions is accurate – the latter I can immediately disprove because in this very post I will demonstrate that there is at least one more sceptical British thinker than Gray, namely me.

Peasants and other rural folk often stop me on the lanes hereabouts, sometimes to impugn me and sometimes to ask: “Brit, what in your opinion is the most common error in general philosophical musings?” To which I reply: “Conflating the ability to doubt something with having a reason to believe that that something is false.” A common example amongst Philosophy undergrads is solipsistic idealism. The ability to doubt that the world I perceive is objectively real is not by itself a reason to believe that I am plugged into the Matrix being fed a hallucination of the objective world.

In Straw Dogs John Gray makes errors of this kind frequently. He is very sceptical about commonly accepted ideas but he only applies this scepticism to his enemy, ie. progressive liberal humanism. He makes many claims of his own, often about the distant future, to which he applies no such scepticism. In this sense he is a mystic.

There are two cornerstone arguments in Straw Dogs. The first is that western Enlightenment-based liberal progressivism equates to a utopianism as deluded and doomed to failure as other utopian projects such as Marxism and Nazism, because no matter how much technology and living standards might evolve, mankind cannot improve morally. (Indeed, Gray argues that the two twentieth century evils are the direct offspring of the Enlightenment – a somewhat cantankerous claim, simplistically expressed, which ignores the fact that western liberal systems rejected and destroyed both. In Britain Nazism was always a joke and in America communism was anathema),

Being anti-utopian and disbelieving in the perfectibility of mankind are basics of conservative thought – in this sense Gray is only saying what, for example, many of the commenters here say all the time: that Man is Fallen. I agree. Where Gray is unusual is in his insistence that perfectibilism explains all forms of liberal progressivism, ie. that any technological or social ‘improvements’ are driven by the hope of a perfect future. This looks like a sceptical claim but in fact it is merely a cynical claim. Cynicism is as much opposed to true scepticism as is wide-eyed optimism. At no point in Straw Dogs does Gray address the possibility that perfectibilism may be only one of many motives to explain the history of western ‘progressivism’, and sometimes not a motive at all. If I have a toothache I go to the dentist to get it fixed because I wish to remove the pain. I do not go with the idea of one day having a set of perfect American-style choppers. Some part of me may indeed wish to have such a perfect set and from an outside perspective the fix may look like a step on the road to it, but it was not my prime motive. You can ‘progress’ away from something as well as towards something. Gray does not acknowledge that amelioration is not the same as perfectibilism, but this is the difference between the medical researcher who aims to alleviate a particular form of human suffering, and the transhuman who wants a world of medically immortal superhumans. The same applies to ethics: the desire to correct particular behaviour which is perceived as immoral is not the same as the belief that we will one day live in a wholly moral world.

There have been plenty of reactionary thinkers with similarly cynical views of progressivism and bleak views about mankind’s future prospects. (I've just read Michael Wharton's excellent The Missing Will for one example). John Gray’s USP is an argument from Darwinism (this is the second key argument in Straw Dogs). Gray claims that virtually everybody has failed to understand Darwin’s lesson that man is just another animal. For Gray it makes no more sense to say that man can control his destiny – by which he really means achieve genuine moral progress – than it does to claim that a cow or a wolf can do likewise.

Here Gray greatly overinterprets Darwinism's predictive power. Darwinism can provide an explanation of the physical processes by which the human brain evolved. It is silent on what happens thereafter, socially and ethically. The human genome has not altered for tens of thousands of years, perhaps 100,000 years. But human social and ethical structures have changed many times, for better or worse, so Darwinism is just not a very useful tool for making vast societal claims, whether explanatory or predictive. It may be that Gray is right even in his bleakest predictions, but he is making unsceptical, highly debatable, often quasi-mystical claims. In this sense he is as much a Darwinian mystic as the daftest evolutionary psychologists.


Peter Burnet said...

Brilliant, although I doubt I shall ever forgive you for bequeathing us such a horrid word as perfectibilism.

Gray claims that virtually everybody has failed to understand Darwin’s lesson that man is just another animal.

Thus does Mr. Gray enter the pantheon of deep thinkers who dove into the swirling currents of ethereal profundity, only to be washed up on a bank of banality and silliness.

Gaw said...

Well put. I wonder why this surely fundamental flaw in his thinking isn't remarked on more? It's not as if Gray isn't out there regularly making all sorts of dubious, non-sceptical claims. It's when he begins applying his analysis to the real world that the contradictions become wholly manifest. He appears to have swallowed unquestioningly the positive view of the Chinese economic 'model' that's put about by a variety of China boosters, for instance. I posted on it here (it's on the for most people tedious subject of economic history).

Robert Iddiols said...

Nice critique, though you missed the principle flaw of Gray's central conceit. In a work of modern philosophy, drawing primarily from the Socratic method of argument, the notion that progress is an illusion, as Gray claims, rather renders his thesis pointless. Then again, if you reject the claim on these terms, the thesis stands. We're left with an irreconcilable paradox that Gray fails to address, even in passing. I've been meaing to write about this for a while.

ghostofelberry said...

i enjoyed Straw Dogs but his "human beings are just animals" argument seems to me to have a false view of animals - as if animals are just robots; they aren't - they're much more aware than human beings realise. Human beings have a lot more in common with animals than we'd like to think but that doesn't so much lower us as (to me at least) suggest animals are much much more interesting than we commonly suppose.

Also all this controlling one's destiny stuff is a bit weird, what's he on about?

Susan's Husband said...

Perhaps he is conflating "control" and "influence". I don't think Man can control his destiny, but I certainly think Man can greatly influence it. E.g., we can engage in genetic engineering on humans. Can we control that? Doubtful, but it's hardly going to fail to influence our destiny.

Brit said...

Robert - can you clarify or expand on that? Sounds interesting but I don't follow you.

Stephen said...

I don't know about anyone else but I fancy being a medically immortal superhuman.
I've just finished reading Straw Dogs and I get the feeling that the book would benefit from Gray explaining in more detail what he actually means by progress.
I don't think sensible people believe in progression to a Utopia, either in this world or another world that we have to assume might possibly exist.

Rob said...

"Where Gray is unusual is in his insistence that perfectibilism explains all forms of liberal progressivism, ie. that any technological or social ‘improvements’ are driven by the hope of a perfect future."

I'm not sure this is what he's saying regarding technology, or even social improvements( after all, social imrovements were going on long before christianity and the enlightenment, though maybe to a lesser extent). He's pretty pro- science, he thinks it's wrong to think it's just man replacing god with science etc. In fact, in straw dogs he says progress in science is a fact and that we shouldn't discount the goods it has brought us.(i could be wrong on this, i've not read the book in a while)
Also, science was around long before the enlightenment, or even Christianity.
It's that humans eventually misuse technology for nefarious means. A little known story is that the gov plans to use the unmanned spy drones deployed in Afghanistan for Britain soon - for the purpose of combating fly tipping, drivers and god knows what else.

Put it this way, it's illegal to drink outside where i live (glasgow). Robots don't discriminate, they take a picture and bang you've got a fine. Personally, I think Phillip K Dick was Nostradamus on this stuff.

On the enlightenment, he definetely has a good case for communism and Nazism being influenced by it. Marxism without a doubt shares many of the central tenants of the enlightenment. While nazism was expressly against it, it absorbed it's belief that we could transform the world completely and beyond recognition for the better of all ( the all being white people). I'm not entirely sure Nazism was solely the product of the enlightenment like he hints, but there was probably some influence.

Brit said...

Thanks Rob. I'd have thought that the direct association between progressivism and utopianism is the most oft-repeated message in Straw Dogs.

I don't say that his argument that nazism and communism are the offspring of the Enlightenment (and Christianity) is out-and-out wrong, but I did describe it as 'cantankerous'. Actually, it is almost saying nothing. It leaves out the important consideration that liberal democracies, also the offspring of the Enlightenment (and Christianity), destroyed both.

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