One of the most unusual books I've ever read is John Gray's Straw Dogs, a rant against secular humanism. Many CSICOP-type sceptics consider themselves to be humanists, and since sceptics can be such a pain in the ass it got my attention.
It's actually not atheism that annoys Gray, it's the belief in progress, that humans will inevitably go onwards and upwards to make a better world. Rubbish, he thinks: the notion of eternal progress is a ridiculous illusion. As the dominant lifeform, all humans are good for is exploiting all the others, which we're doing to the verge of extinction. We're destroyers, not improvers or creators.
More than that, the humanistic belief in the power of technology to bring ever greater progress is a quasi-religious ideology, Gray insists, a hangover from Christianity, just without God and afterlife. It's something we need to grow out of. He ends by saying, 'Why can't we be just be content to be?'
In the same spirit, Gray is now gunning for the continuing obsession with immortality (mainly the secular, not the religious kind). In Saturday's Guardian review he had a big piece trailing a new book coming out at the end of this month: The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death. In it he talks about Frederic Myers, Henry Sidgwick and other nineteenth century psychic researchers, then goes on to discuss the Russian communists obsession with embalming Lenin, HG Wells's scientific utopianism and Ray Kurzweil's way-out ideas about thinking machines. The intro reads:
How do we deal with a purposeless universe and the finality of death? From Victorian séances to the embalming of Lenin's corpse to schemes for uploading our minds into cyberspace, there have been numerous attempts to deny man's mortality. Why can't we accept the limits of science?
But what are the limits of science? As Chris Carter has admirably pointed out in both his books, the conservative science that denies the reality of psi is firmly wedded to the kind of classical physics that quantum physicists believe no longer provides an adequate description of reality. Myers, Sidgwick and the others - with their studies of telepathy, mediums, apparitions and other spontaneous psi phenomena - helped build a body of data which leaves this worldview seriously compromised.
But that's invisible to those like Gray who live inside it and have complete faith in its validity. Inevitably, he follows the consensus among British intellectuals that Myers and his colleagues were sad individuals, their wits addled by the impact of Darwinism, desperately searching for hope and meaning in a world becoming devoid of either. Scientific curiosity is never considered an adequate motive: it's always personal. So Gray depicts Myers as being driven by the tragic suicide of a woman he was in love with, leading him to spend the rest of his life visiting mediums, which makes him sound utterly banal.
Perhaps I should wait to read the book before passing judgment. It may be that Gray really has considered what Myers actually thought and wrote. But I'd be surprised: secular writers prefer to see him as a quasi-fictional character in their own narrative.
Take the case of Janet Oppenheim, who considers Myers, Sidgwick, Hodgson and others at some length in her book The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. She brushes away their conclusions as obviously confused and wrong yet hardly at all examines the route they took to reach them. It's extraordinary to watch. Yet when, as if by accident, the implications of the research penetrate her brain, she's impressed, despite herself. About the cross correspondences she thinks it's extraordinary that all these different mediums could have produced messages, some in different parts of the world, that closely related to each other. Yes Janet, exactly: this was what psychic researchers found so fascinating, and what motivated them to pursue this kind of thing. But Oppenheim never makes the connection, she can't see the point.
Typically Gray too repeats the claim that the cross-correspondences indicates the reality of survival of consciousness after death, but without - here at least - even trying to assess its validity. (I shall be interested to see if he goes any further in his book). He quickly goes on to describe the Willett-Balfour affair, in which researcher Gerald Balfour, brother of the former conservative prime minister, had a secret love child with 'Mrs Willett', one of the mediums who was producing the cross correspondences, allegedly 'designed' by dead scientists trying to fashion a new Messiah (a farcical story described by Archie Roy in The Eager Dead). And of course as long as psychic research is conflated with this sort of dotty, flamboyant spiritualism it will never be taken seriously.
What I liked about Straw Dogs - as a literary work, at least - is that it offered a vision of living without illusions. Of understanding what reality is, and living by that. I didn't actually believe its core idea - how can humans survive without illusions, the belief in a better tomorrow? - but I admired its coruscating clarity.
Here I agree with Gray that these graspings for immortality substitutes - downloading our minds to mechanical robots, or finding ways to make the biological organism last practically for ever - are banal distractions. But obviously for quite different reasons: If consciousness and personality survive the death of the body then it's our minds and spirits we should be tending to here, not worrying about the package that they come in.
What Straw Dogs doesn't really make clear, as this new book seems to, is how deeply wedded Gray's vision remains to an ideology which itself faces all kinds of challenges, not least from people like Myers who he so glibly dismisses. I thought of him as a free spirit, but this rather locates him firmly as adherent of scientism.
'Why can't we accept the limits of science?' If history teaches us anything, it's that the limits of science are constantly being pushed beyond what humans can easily conceive of. That's the challenge we face, trying to keep up with reality, not learning how to passively accept it.