Monday, October 24, 2005

Nostalgia for the Stone Age

It is occasionally good to read a book you expect to hate, a book designed to irritate. I have done so, and now you, dear reader, must suffer the consequences.

The book is Straw Dogs by John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the LSE. It is a sustained attack on what he takes to be the prevalent "humanism" of modern culture: the claim that humans are radically different from other animals (for instance, in being free, or conscious, or rational, or moral), which supports an unbending faith in progress. His goal is to put humanity in its place, to prick our misplaced arrogance: "human life has no more meaning than the life of slime mould".
Home rapiens [sic] is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone the Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.
It is clear from similar passages that Gray identifies with Gaia – to use his term – not with humankind. He is looking forward to our extinction almost with excitement. Straw Dogs gives misanthropy a bad name.

I had expected to write a post attacking Gray's arguments, but this is not to be. For one thing, the book consists largely of unargued assertion, so it is hard to know where to resist (if not everywhere). There are many contradictions. For another, I don't question Gray's doubts about our future happiness – though that doesn't stop me from hoping for it. I do think he gets carried away, in hinting that the hunter-gatherers of the Stone Age enjoyed a neo-communist utopia, in suggesting that "humanism" leads inevitably to the search for virtual or cryogenic immortality (!), and in his apparently sincere (gleeful?) prediction of the rise of the machines:
Natural life forms have no built-in evolutionary advantage over organisms that began their life as artefacts. [...] As machines slip from human control they will do more than become conscious. They will become spiritual beings [...]
The question, how we are different from other animals, is more recognizably philosophical. But Gray is impatient with, and frankly ignorant of, philosophy and its history. He remarks without irony that Socrates "was guided by a daimon, an inner oracle, whose counsels he followed without question", and suggests that "Hume has had little influence". While being critical of philosophy, Gray does not attempt to do better – though he gives the impression that he thinks it would be easy. (His treatment of freedom and determinism is sophomoric.) When we do find arguments, they tend to the bizarre, as in his critique (?) of science:
According to [...] Karl Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it is falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted. [...] As pictured by philosophers, science is a supremely rational activity. Yet the history of science shows scientists flouting the rules of scientific method. Not only the origins but the progress of science come from acting against reason.
When Popper's theory conflicts with scientific practice, the right moral to draw is not that he is wrong about reason or scientific method, but that science is irrational? It's certainly an original move.

Gray's book has been hailed as "powerful and brilliant" (J. G. Ballard), as "a remarkable new work of philosophy" (Will Self), as "daunting and enthralling" (Adam Phillips). In reality, it is shallow and lazy. It makes one despair to think of it as an emblem of public philosophical reflection.

The topic could have been important, and even timely: one of the great conflicts in philosophy of mind is between reductive naturalism (which, despite Gray, is the orthodox view) and what might be thought of as a kind of "humanism", on which there is a radical discontinuity between rational beings and "brutes", between the space of reasons and the space of natural law. These questions about our place in the scheme of things are much discussed by philosophers, though you wouldn't know it to look at Gray. They have a long history, from Aristotle to the present. (Gray is wrong to suppose that "humanism" is a Christian legacy, or that it is obviously refuted by Darwin.) But they are difficult. If there is to be such a thing as popular philosophy, it will have to make much greater demands on the attention and intelligence of its readers. I hope the reception of Straw Dogs is not good evidence of what we can expect.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is so pleasing to read that a person whose opinion I respect also thinks negatively of this appalling book. I could not finish the book, and it is the only book of several thousand I have purchased which I have ever thrown away; I did not want its physical presence anywhere near me.

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Paddy Carter said...

Hooray! Like Anonymous, I have been reading this book thinking it is terrible tripe, yet uncomfortably aware that many people who I believe to be smarter than me seem to be terribly impressed by it. Although that fool Appleyard's review made me laugh: "it will be read by future, wiser generations" (or something like that) er... future, wiser? Did he read the book?

Gray's form of argument was (repeatedly) "we are not completely in control, therefore we are not in control at all". He ridiculously mischaracterises and exaggerates the positions he wishes to criticise, and then after he's skewered a point of view that nobody believes anyway, he goes on to draw absurd hyperbolic conclusions of his own. As for his incoherent babble about Gaia ... words fail me.

And, while I'm at it - either he doesn't know what "falsifiable" means, or I don't.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to Paddy Carter (and Brian Appleyard), I suggest you may find solace in knowing that Ludwig Wittgenstein, a terribly clever man if ever there was one, apparently admired the book "Sex and Character" by Otto Weininger (1903). The book is complete nonsense, from first sentence to last, and one doesn't have to be any wiser or even younger to see this.

2:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You got this idea from Ray Monk's biography on W., right? Even if Wittgenstein did admire _S&C_, it's not necessarily the case that his reasons for doing so are the same reasons that we use to explain our resentment of it.

Paddy comes so close to an appeal-to-authority fallacy and you're only making things worse by introducing a claim about Wittgenstein that is ad-hominem.

1:19 PM  
Anonymous Matthew Mullins said...

I concur with that last commenter. Let me add that Wittgenstein apparently thought it was Weininger's enormous mistake which was great. Further in Rhee's _Recollections of Wittgenstein_ Drury reports that Wittgenstein thought Weininger "full of prejudices." Therefore, I think it inaccurate to simply portray Wittgenstein as an admire of Weininger.

8:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

appeal to authority fallacy?

I fear that you come close to a "wielding grand sounding terms in the wrong place" fallacy

2:48 AM  
Anonymous Keith Douglas said...

The bit about Popper sounds like the usual pomo blather that Feyerabend is often attributed as doing, i.e. refuting all possible notions of scientific method. Since there were some written after his book, this would take some doing.

12:45 PM  
Anonymous wmr said...

It is clear that Gray has little knowledge of what Popper actually wrote. In several places, Popper stressed how much he was impressed and influenced by the fact that Einstein himself proposed specific tests of the the Theory of Relativity.

Also, while he long thought that Darwin's theory was untestable, he later reversed this position.

8:19 PM  
Blogger John Wilkins said...

I've got a short discussion of Popper's views on evolution here.

2:13 AM  

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