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.