Thursday, 30 October 2008

John Gray's Straw Dogs

I've already written quite a lot about one of the claims that John Gray makes in 'Straw Dogs' about the bandwidth of consciousness, but I also wanted to post a general review of the book, because its a very interesting piece of work.

On the front cover of the UK paperback, Jim Crace writes that "Straw Dogs has enraged me and engaged me more than any other book this year". This seems to sum up the experience a lot of people have with the book - its a bracing read, but there's plenty to disagree with.

For example, compare Terry Eagleton's generally dismissive review in the Guardian with the much more positive one that Jason Cowley wrote for the Observer in the same week. They both make plenty of points that I agree with:
"Drawing on a wide range of sources, from science to fiction to more speculative theories such as Gaia, Straw Dogs unfurls in a series of numbered paragraphs. The style is terse and pithy; sometimes bold assertion supplants argument and there is repetition, overstatement and too much direct quotation from the work of EO Wilson and others. But there are moments of beauty and insight, too, and disgust at the excesses of history - the wars, destruction, the ideological follies." - Jason Cowley
"It is just that Gray cannot resist mixing these vital truths with half-truths, plain falsehoods, lurid hyperbole, dyspeptic middle-aged grousing and the sort of recklessly one-sided rhetoric he would surely mark down in a student's essay. ... In rightly stressing the affinities between humans and other animals, he slides shiftily over some key differences ... Gray does not want to hear of human value, which would wreck his sensationalist case." - Terry Eagleton
One persuasion trick that John Gray deploys a couple of times is this:

- People say that attribute A makes Humans different from animals
- But animal Y can do A- (where A- is something a little bit like A)
- Therefore, Humans are vain to imagine they are any different from other animals

For example, in chapter 1, section 5, this mechanism is used with A = Technology, Y = Ants and A- = fungi growing by leaf-cutter ants. The point he seems to be making is that the technology created by humans is nothing worth getting excited about because other species also farm and use tools in a limited way. But this argument obviously ignores the degree of complexity of the technology or tool-use.

In chapter 2, section 8 he does it again with A = Language, Y= Birds and A- = Birdsong (also Y = Wolves and A- = scent traces). He goes on to say "what is distinctly human is not the capacity for language. It is the crystallisation of language in writing". Again, he seems to be saying that human language is no big deal because other species of animals also have forms of communication. Again, the degree of complexity is brushed aside.

A few pages later, in chapter 2, section 10, we have A = Consciousness, Y = Bacteria and A- = Sensing the environment. Gray points out that sensation and perception exist throughout the animal and plant kingdom. He also points out that apes have shown to have versions of some of the mental capacities that we once thought were uniquely human - "Despite an ancient tradition that tells us otherwise, there is nothing uniquely human in conscious awareness". Degree of complexity is not examined.

Gray does concede that humans have a sense of Self that other animals may not have. Before we have time to pat ourselves on the back though, he pulls the rug from under our feet. Self-awareness is not worth having, he contends, and is an illusion that hold us back. He argues that human consciousness is overrated, using a three pronged attack based on the bandwidth of consciousness, the supposed power of subliminal adverising and Benjamin Libet's famous experiments. I've written about the first of those in detail, and I hope to get around to the other two sometime.

So, I agree with Terry Eagleton that John Gray (who, by the way, is Professor of European Thought at the LSE) sometimes uses "the sort of recklessly one-sided rhetoric he would surely mark down in a student's essay". But there is still a lot of great stuff in the book. The foreword to the paperback edition has some very thought provoking concentrated pearls of Grayness:
"Straw Dogs is an attack on the unthinking beliefs of thinking people. Today liberal humanism has the persuasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition ... outside of science, progress is simply a myth ... the prevailing secular worldview is a pastiche of current scientific orthodoxy and pious hopes. Darwin has shown that we are animals; but - as humanists never tire of preaching - how we live is 'up to us'. Unlike any other animal, we are told, we are free to live as we choose. Yet the idea of free will does not come from science. Its origins are in religion - not just any religion, but the Christian faith against which humanists rail so obsessively"
He goes on to explain the Christian roots of secular humanism; how ideas such as Christian salvation were transformed into secular ideas of universal human emancipation. From the paragraph above it might appear that he is moving towards being an apologist for religion, but that is not his aim. It is interesting stuff, but I remain unconvinced by his argument that our free will is an illusion and that our consciousness is overrated.

Still, there are lots of enjoyable quotes from the book that I'd like to share here, either for their insight or their audacity:
"As commonly practised, philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs."

"Justice is an artefact of custom. Where customs are unsettled its dictates soon become dated. Ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions in hats."

"The ideal of the chosen life does not square with how we live. We are not the authors of our lives, we are not even part-authors of the events that mark us most deeply. Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen ... Yet we have been thrown into a time in which everything is provisional. The traditions of the past cannot be retrieved. At the same time we have little idea of what the future will bring. We are forced to live as if we were free.
The cult of choice reflects the fact that we must improvise our lives. That we cannot do otherwise is a mark of our unfreedom. Choice has become a fetish; but the mark of a fetish is that it is unchosen."

"Nirvana is the end of suffering; but this promises no more than what we all achieve, usually without too much effort, in the course of nature. Death brings to everyone the peace the Buddha promised after lifetimes of striving ... For those that know themselves to be mortals, what the Buddha sought is always near at hand. Since deliverance is assured, why deny ourselves the pleasure of life?"

"We are approaching a time when, in Moravec's words, 'almost all humans work to amuse other humans'."

"Bourgeois life was based on the institution of the career - a lifelong pathway through working life. Today professionals and occupations are disappearing. Soon they will be as remote and archaic as the ranks and estates of medieval times."

"The Situationists and the Brethren of the Free Spirit are separated by centuries, but their view of human possibilities is the same. Humans are gods stranded in a world of darkness. Their labours are not the natural consequence of their inordinate wants. They are the curse of a demiurge. All that needs to be done to free humanity from labour is to throw off this evil power. This mystical vision is the Situationists' true inspiration, and that of anyone who has ever dreamt of a world in which humans can live without restraint."

"Financial markets are moved by contagion and hysteria. New communications technologies magnify suggestibility. Mesmer and Charcot are better guides to the new economy than Hayek or Keynes."

"A high-tech Green utopia, in which a few humans live happily in balance with the rest of life, is scientifically feasible; but it is humanly unimaginable. If anything like it ever comes about, it will not be through the will of homo sapiens ... So long as population grows, progress will consist in labouring to keep up with it."
So this is all great fun, but what does John Gray think we should be doing instead of chasing the illusion of progress? Ultimately, he promotes the Eastern idea of life as contemplation:
"If the hope of progress in an illusion, how - it will be asked - are we to live? The question assumes that humans can live well only if they have the power to remake the world. Yet most humans who have ever lived have not believed this - and a great many have had happy lives. The question assumes the aim of life is action; but this is a modern heresy. For Plato contemplation was the highest form of human activity. A similar view existed in ancient India. The aim of life was not to change the world. It was to see it rightly."

"Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction in itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?"
Finally, in defence of the book, here is part of Bryan Appleyard's review, quoted inside the front cover:
The book's overwhelming virtue - and it is one that should silence all dissent - is that it counsels only humility. It subverts all contemporary vanities, and, in advocating contemplation rather than action, it asks only that we should find peace within ourselves and the world.
Which is a nice way to offset some of the gloomy predictions within the book. But if seeing the world rightly is important, my own humble view is that John Gray needs to contemplate further. For all his undoubted skill, I am still not convinced by many parts of the book. Although the book counsels humility, and in Bryan Appleyard's view, that 'should silence all dissent', if I don't agree with all of its premises then I cannot go along with everything that it counsels.

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