The fiction of humanity: An interview with John Gray
John Gray is one of our most celebrated contemporary thinkers, and an atheist. So why is he in constant, tetchy, conflict with prominent humanists – are their arguments really so incompatible? JP O’Malley finds out
For those of you who have come in contact with the ideas of the philosopher John Gray via this publication, I suspect your opinion of him might be clouded in prejudice. For your average progressive-thinking-liberal-atheist, Gray is often regarded as the enemy.
For example in a New Humanist interview with Gray in 2006, Laurie Taylor, while conceding that Gray makes his arguments with a “verve and wit that had elicited a chorus of admiration from a high-powered bunch of writers and commentators”, takes him to task for his sweeping criticism of the idea of progress which, Gray claims, defines contemporary humanism. Taylor even suggests that Gray is a nihilist and his arguments might provide an “intellectual licence” for complacency and political torpor.
Philosopher AC Grayling, reviewing Gray’s book Black Mass for New Humanist in 2007, wasn’t so kind. He opens his stinging review like this: “John Gray is a curious figure whose habitual assaults on humanism are all carried along with such breezy assertion and generalisation that his underlying bitter pessimism is cloaked in motley.” For Grayling Gray is a “backhand defender of religion”, and his book a tissue of “baldly stated error”.
Gray himself hardly shies away from these battles, seeming to relish his role as humanism’s bête noire. There is scarcely a book or public pronouncement of his in which he neglects to mention that humanism is kind of religion-lite premised on a misreading of science and a naïve belief in human progress that is flatly contradicted by history and the facts of human nature. In a review of one of Grayling’s books he had the opportunity to repay the compliment, in subtly devastating terms: “The possibility that scientific advancement might actually undermine his convictions is not one that Grayling seems to have entertained. This is hardly surprising, for his views on ethics, politics and religion, while adamantly held, are commonplace.”
Granted this intellectual knockabout can be fun, but it may be time to suspend hostilities, just for the moment. While New Humanist readers may not agree with all sides of Gray’s argument – I certainly don’t – there is no doubting the scope of his intellect, his fluency on the page and his influence. Rationalists might, for example, welcome his ability to challenge certain assumptions that can be too rarely questioned in today’s rational Western liberal societies. Reading his latest book, The Silence of Animals, convinced me that there might be something to be gained by taking his arguments at face value and pressing him on what he really means. I managed to convince the editor, which is how I find myself at Gray’s publisher in the Strand, in a small room overlooking the Thames, sitting next to Gray himself.
We begin with a conversation about the novelist JG Ballard. For many years, until Ballard’s death in 2009, they were close friends. They often met for lunch, discussing literature, philosophy and anything else that came to mind. Ballard, says Gray, was the most fascinating conversationalist that he has ever encountered.
“I think Ballard was on to something important when he talked about how things that humans have constructed can be beautiful in ways that they don’t understand. What I like about his writing is the lyricism: his novels are full of the most beautiful images. He always said he wanted to be a painter, but didn’t have the talent. But when you read his books you see they are galleries of images.”
In The Silence of Animals, published in February, Gray uses examples from a wide selection of writers, thinkers, poets and philosophers to illustrate his central theme, that myth has an enormous power to give meaning to human beings.
Ballard is just one of many writers – along with Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, John Ashbery and Wallace Stevens – that Gray marshals to guide the reader through his mosaic of ideas. Though he is trying to make a persuasive case, he is not, he insists, trying to convert anyone to anything. It’s important to him to maintain this distinction, since one of his main targets is the proselytising zeal of “messianic humanists” like Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling.
“I don’t care what people believe, unless it is in some way demonstrably toxic or harmful. What I am trying to do, however, is to speak to those who are not entirely content with their view of the world, and suggest different ways of thinking, which they might find useful. I want readers to at least produce a moment of suspension of belief in the myths that they take for granted, so that they can explore other myths. This book does that, partially by poetry, but also by looking at the lives of people who have lived by a variety of different myths.”
Gray believes that many liberals in western society today are too quick to dismiss myths from antiquity, rich texts like the the Iliad and the Bible. Such thinking, he says, suggests that the lives described in these books are somehow not fully human. “There is a certain type of liberal fundamentalism, which says: ‘What human beings have been until quite recently is different from what they really want to be, which is to be free. But the idea that human beings are, by their very nature, free is one of the most harmful fictions that has ever been promoted anywhere.”
When Gray gets going, his answers are fascinating, albeit long-winded. Trying to find the right moment to interject isn’t easy. When he reaches for his mug of tea, I find my cue: isn’t freedom just a basic human need and desire?
“I don’t deny that freedom is a human impulse,” says Gray. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have the periods of freedom that we’ve had in human history. But it’s not the only human impulse, and it’s rarely the most powerful one. You can see that when life becomes unsettled, or when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand. Then human beings tend to look at solutions to these problems that typically involve restricting freedoms.”
Gray is not a member of a church, nor does he worship a deity. It seems almost paradoxical, then, that he would have so little in common with rational humanists.But he insists there is clear daylight between his view and that of, what he calls, “evangelical atheists”: “Actually I would describe myself as an atheist. But I’m friendly to religion on the grounds that it seems to be distinctively human, and it has produced many good things. To be a humanist and to hate this distinctively human feature is very odd.”
Gray has been labelled as a cantankerous-doomsday-know-all in many intellectual circles. His critics point out that while he does not subscribe to any dogmatic ideology per se, he contends that history is essentially a series of accidents, with no trajectory as such. Human beings, in Gray’s worldview, can never really progress beyond their primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts, particularly when factors beyond their control make them more fearful.
The central argument in most of his books refutes the idea – that has been put forward by ideologues on both the left and the right – that history is a series of stages that will incrementally lead to a better outcome for humanity.
As Gray sees it this optimism is simply giving people false hope. There has been no utopian society as Marx or Lenin foresaw; nor has the neo-conservative doctrine of universal American global capitalism, as envisioned by Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History, come about. The progressive rationalist society that atheists like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker predict is on the way, once we all stop believing in God and discover the true merits of science, is, for Gray, yet another illusion.
In his latest book Gray boldly declares: “Humankind is, of course, not marching anywhere. Humanity is a fiction composed from billions of individuals for each of whom life is singular and final.” With such a pessimistic view of the world is he comfortable being labelled an existentialist philosopher?
“To me that term carries too much baggage. I’m more of a sceptic. I don’t mean just standing back from belief, and not having any, but exploring different views of things that have been part of the human world before: like the pagan philosophers, and to see what benefit they can be to us.”
Given Gray’s pessimistic view of the world, it seems strange that he would go to the trouble of writing books, or to even remotely care about the purpose of knowledge. A better way to put this to him might be to ask him two questions he poses in his own book: why is meaning so important? And why do humans need a reason to live?
“One of the chief reasons human beings need meaning – which is different from knowledge – in a way that other animals don’t seem to, is that humans are conscious of their own mortality. We have a sense of time that other animals don’t have. If we have an idea of our mortality, then we see our lives in a different way because we think we see them as a whole, and we want them to be a single coherent story.”
While many secular rationalists follow the Enlightenment mode of thinking – that knowledge is the key to making the world a more progressive, safer and more humane place – Gray disagrees. Knowledge of human nature and human psychology, he argues, is not an unalloyed good. Knowledge is neutral and as likely to lead to bad outcomes as good.
“Take economics as an example,” says Gray. “One of the purposes of economics is to see what causes hyperinflation, because it’s supposedly a terrible evil, so economists are all working away trying to find its cause. But if you were a Russian revolutionary like Lenin, you might use that very same knowledge, if you could, to get control of the central bank and bring about your revolutionary project. So knowledge can never eradicate the conflicts of the human world, or produce harmony where there are conflicting goals to start with. Because knowledge is used by human beings as a tool to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve.”
Most humanists today laugh at the thought of mysticism and religion. But the theory they subscribe to, which sees humans as unique in the world, is, for Gray, actually a myth recycled into science. Furthermore, the myth from ancient philosophy, which states that human beings can use their minds to lift themselves out of the natural world, has somehow been garbled up into the language of evolution.
So does Gray not believe that evolution is a progressive process? “Even Richard Dawkins would have to agree that one of the significant attributes about natural selection is that it has no goal. The key thing about Darwinism, and natural selection – as Darwin himself put it in one of his writings – is that it’s just like the wind: it blows back and forth. Darwinian theory is non- teleological, and this is the crucial thing about it. But it’s nearly always interpreted as the opposite. In The Origin of Species, Darwin uses the phrase ‘progress to perfection’. But there is nothing of that in his theory. The actual theory – as he recognises in his other writings – is that natural selection is purposeless, pointless and has no direction.”
Even if humans are not unique in the world, in relation to other animals, Gray admits that our need to tell stories is an idiosyncratic trait of our particular species. This chiefly comes about because of our awareness of death, which other animals haven’t got: “If you are an animal who wakes up every morning, who doesn’t know it’s growing old, or doesn’t see its life in a part of a trajectory, leading to death, then you won’t need to tell a story. All human beings – if they live long enough – see death as not just something that happens to other people. In that case they need to tell the story about their own lives. Other animals don’t seem to use language to construct this story.”
But the book is called The Silence of Animals. Why does silence matter? Silence for most animals is natural, says Gray, because it means rest. But the noise that animals flee is actually created by other animals. Humans are the only animals that flee internal noise.
“It’s no surprise that humans, throughout history, and prehistory, have engaged in all sorts of meditation, either to shift the way they perceive the world, or shift the way they see themselves, to migrate into another world. But also to produce in themselves some state of silence, from which something else will come. That is like religion, or the particular type of language that one uses to tell the story of one’s life.”
We’ve talked for nearly two hours. We’ve passed through centuries of history; from Plato to Freud via Marx and Lenin. By this circuitous route we have somehow come back full circle to Gray’s old friend Ballard.
For Gray, Ballard was exemplary in how a human being can take myth and salvage meaning from it. Had he not, Gray says, Ballard’s adult life otherwise might have been utterly tragic: “When Ballard as a child walked into a ruined and empty casino [in Shanghai in the 1930s], he said it was like wandering into something from the Arabian Nights. To him it was a realm of magic. What he was able to do from that experience was to conjure beauty out of it. That, I believe, is the power of myth: this personal mythology that he fashioned for himself.”
By allowing a certain mystery into our lives, and letting myth serve the function it has already done since the dawn of history, we enhance the quality of our lives, says Gray. From this perspective the bold myth-busting of so much atheist activism is robbing the world of beauty, underestimating both the power and the resilience of myths.
“There is a certain kind of tradition in philosophy that says humans can understand what they themselves have produced, but they cannot understand necessarily what is outside them. I disagree. I don’t think they can understand what they have produced.”
Amid this inexplicable process lie some of the greatest gifts known to man, waiting to be discovered. By not understanding everything about them, it makes us cherish them all the more says Gray: “I’m glad we cannot understand everything. What we produce as human beings are things that are mysterious to us: like poetry, cities, other things that we almost stumble upon. It’s not that we have decided to see something beautiful, we just find it.”
Gray leaves in a hurry, catching up on other appointments around the city before his train journey back to Bath. Packing up my recorder, looking out to a grey London sky, I begin thinking that maybe the divide between Gray and his arch-enemies in the humanist movement isn’t as black and white as both parties perceive it to be. And if it is, I’m refusing to take sides.
As a rationalist, I don’t believe in God, utopian societies or any end point in history. But I find a certain beauty in the power of scientific discovery, as I equally do stepping into a cathedral for a moment of quiet introspection, albeit in the name of myth. Is this progress, reason or indulging in a far-fetched fairy tale? Maybe none of the above, but I’ll keep my options open.