John Gray on Immortality
January 10, 2011
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.
Thank you Robert, I am just so depressed on how Materialist think that Science belongs to them and how anything that contradicts their Materialist dogma is considered nonsense. Thank you so much for standing up to them, we are profoundly grateful to you.
Just look at how Materialists viciously attacked Stuart Hameroffs and Roger Penrose Orch-OR theory that the brain works on quantum principles, after reading what Michael Shermer and other so called skeptics had to say, I honestly believed that the Orch-OR theory has been rejected, but after doing some research I found out that In 1998 twenty testable predictions of Orch OR were published, a number of which by 2007 had been validated, and none refuted. (Theories of consciousness based on emergence from complex neuron-based computation have yet to produce any testable predictions, much less validations.) In the past 6 years, Frohlich coherence has been discovered in microtubules at 8 megahertz (8 x 10 to the 6th power), and warm temperature quantum coherence has been repeatedly observed in proteins supporting photosynthesis. Recent experiments also hint strongly at quantum coherence, entanglement and computation in DNA and microtubules. Life, at its core, may be a quantum process.
Read more: http://blog.beliefnet.com/intentchopra/2010/08/can-science-explain-the-soul-1.html#ixzz1AeADgIWX
Shame on the so called skeptics for attacking any idea of Survival of Consciousness, they claim to be open minded but they have already set limitations and boundaries.
Posted by: Kevin | January 10, 2011 at 03:33 PM
Yeah John Gray's earlier book title is from the Tao Te Ching which is tied to a long tradition of immortality -- only the opposite of science. Check out another new paranormal qigong master demonstration video! Pyrokinesis:
Posted by: drew hempel | January 10, 2011 at 03:38 PM
I'm not a believer in the afterlife - which shouldn't, I hasten to add, mean I'm a firm disbeliever in the concept - but I quite agree that Gray - who I'm a big admirer of - should be more wary of imputing views and motives to his subjects. For one thing it seems a bit too limply humanistic to imagine that another's motivations are so tangible.
Posted by: BenSix | January 10, 2011 at 05:20 PM
...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...
Are you sure of that? I mean, what if the afterlife was an unpleasant place that it would be reasonable to avoid, or, at least, stave off for as long as possible?
Posted by: BenSix | January 10, 2011 at 05:24 PM
agree that Straw Dogs was an extraordinary book, its strength being the clarity, unsentimentality and sharpness of Gray's underlying vision. I also agree this focus - present in his other writings (summarised in "Gray's Anatomy") - comes with a price, however, i.e. his oversimplified views on the illusory nature of human progress. For me this is a much more complex issue. We are as much subject to evolution as anything else, and there is abundant evidence that, left to themselves over time, at least some societies can and do learn from the past and progress. That said, of course tensions and destructive pressures (both internally and externally generated) inevitably build up; and their resolution can be appallingly violent and destructive. Who knows (apart from, perhaps, God) how things will eventully turn out. But, for me at any rate, I don't think it's a done deal that humanity is inevitably doomed.
Another strong feature of Gray's earlier writings was his scorn for scientism. It was this, I think, more than anything that made him so effective at debunking the 'New Athiests' and winding up their blogging followers on forums such as the Guardian's Comment is Free section. So I'm not sure he is guilty of scientism here. Rather, perhaps one or both of the following is going on. First, Gray might be guilty simply of the laziness, written about in Robert's recent book, of those who unquestioningly accept the views of sceptics without looking at the issue first hand themselves. Or it could be that - for all the frequent references to both Eastern and Western religions in his writings - Gray doesn't have much of a feel for spiritual subjects. Certainly his writings often leave me with the impression of having somewhere a God shaped - or perhaps understanding of spirituality shaped - hole.
For all that he is a fascinating writer and thinker, and I'm sure I will be reading his new book.
Posted by: Simon Oakes | January 11, 2011 at 09:39 AM
I haven't read much else of his, so didn't know about his views on scientism. But to me his comment here about accepting the limits of science seems to come into that category.
There is something refreshingly different about Gray's approach, and yet all flavours of atheism derive from these 'limits', in the end.
Posted by: Robert McLuhan | January 11, 2011 at 09:40 AM
'what if the afterlife was an unpleasant place that it would be reasonable to avoid, or, at least, stave off for as long as possible?'
Susan Blackmore makes this point somewhere, about it simply being 'assumed' that afterlife is happy and pleasant. But if we are going to concede that afterlife is real, we might also concede that the people who have been telling us this through the ages, from some inner experiential knowledge gained through spiritual practice, may know what they are talking about.
Their insight is that it's what we are, and what we have made of ourselves during our lives, that determines what we will experience. In that case, there are better ways of avoiding unpleasant experiences than trying to stave them off for as long as possible.
It's absurd, surely, to suppose that secularists might arrive at a more true understanding of what survival means, having long scorned the very idea of it, and ridiculed those who believe it.
Posted by: Robert McLuhan | January 11, 2011 at 09:53 AM
You're probably right (and anyway, speculating that one can evade death through immortality is, at least for the moment, a bit like suggesting that one can survive a train crash thanks to the Thunderbirds). I'd still be nervous if I was to plump for an afterlife theory, though. Not just because of how frightening some can be (Hell, for example) but because it seems that the behaviour that might determine the conditions one experiences isn't too explicable.
It's absurd, surely, to suppose that secularists might arrive at a more true understanding of what survival means...
Well - St Paul used to roam about burning Christians but the descendants of his victims still think he did some valuable stuff once his eyes had been, er - opened. Still, I know what you mean: secularists aren't famous for being receptive to spiritual experience. To modify Woody Allen's old joke it's a bit like one woman saying, "There's no restaurants in this town" and another saying, "I know. And the food they serve is dreadful."
Posted by: BenSix | January 11, 2011 at 12:12 PM
"But if we are going to concede that afterlife is real, we might also concede that the people who have been telling us this through the ages, from some inner experiential knowledge gained through spiritual practice, may know what they are talking about."
We'd only concede the first with evidence to prove it, and the same would be true of the second proposition. Even if the first were true, it doesn't ncessarily follow at all that the second is. I recall one time at a horse racing event my friends finding me depressed, and were confused after learning that I'd won my bet and picked the winner. I explained that I'd expected the horse to trail behind other front runners who'd tire themselves out then my horse would come from behind to win. What actually happened was that my horse jumped to the lead and ran wire-to-wire. I explained to them that in reality I had no idea what was going to happen in that race. I wasn't *right*, I was *lucky*.The same concept holds to your two afterlife propositions.
"It's absurd, surely, to suppose that secularists might arrive at a more true understanding of what survival means..."
Not at all. Psychics have made claims about crystal balls but never delivered. Science came through with television. Witches made claims about flying on broomsticks but never delivered. Science gave us the airplane. Parapsychologists have spent 120 years trying to even provide repeatable, undeniable proof of the existence of mind reading, let alone commericialize it. Today I have a cell phone that lets me exchange my thoughts with others almost anywhere in the world. Modern medicine heal more than the televangelists and geologists do a better job predicting quakes than the cleric in Iran who claims they're caused by women showing cleavage. In the end, science may give us the immortality and resurrection of the body Christianity has promised for 2000 years. Heck, it may also give us the end of days too. :-)
Sorry, but nonsecularity hasn't given the species anything concrete (I could go on and on: golems vs. robots, turning lead into gold with particle accelerators, etc.) So science has been the Harlem Globetrotters and religions of all types (including the new spiritual/paranormal religion) have been the Washington Generals. Science has beaten esotericism to every single concrete effect and advance. This is a simple statement of fact. I've got no horse in this race - I'll go with whatever works. As the saying goes, "If it's winning, bet it,"
If there is an afterlife, science will produce EVIDENCE, not anecdotes or claims or dogma. Science will conduct experiments to tell us what we can KNOW about it, versus what is BELIEVED about it. As such, science has told and will tell us more about anything than any other system yet devised.Even if the internal revelations you speak of are true, they can't mean anything to someone outside the experiencer. Anything science produces will be verifiable. Those last two statements alone show why if there is an afterlife science can't help but be more useful in explaining it than any other means.
Posted by: Joseph | January 12, 2011 at 11:29 PM
Besides creating science, what has religious ( this case Christian) thought done for humanity? Oddly enough all your early scientist were Christians and it was the church that nurtured science in it's earliest stage. It was also Christian theism that laid the worldview that made science possible.
Of course this silly post above assumes one cannot do science and be religious which would certainly be a surprise to the folks here- http://www.asa3.org/
Historical and philosophical ignorance at it's finest.
Posted by: Kris | January 13, 2011 at 02:41 AM
"Witches made claims about flying on broomsticks but never delivered."
Uh, what? Where the hell did that come from?
Surely that's snark at it's finest. I don't see how the comment can be taken seriously after that.
Posted by: The Major | January 13, 2011 at 06:08 PM
What seems to go unchallenged is the declaration that we live in a 'meaningless' universe. This seems like pure metaphysics to me -- a logical postivist would be laughing! Sure, I get a *sort* of sense of what it means, maybe i.e.
1. It may refer to a non-teleological conception of the universe.
2. It may refer to the idea that the cosmos doesn't appear to be built for humans alone.
3. It may refer to a sort of Sartrean 'absurd' universe, all of the above, or none.
My general impression is that it refers to the fact that Darwin's theory caused significant problems for the 'design' arguments of Paley, etc., but again, it's never really explained -- just assumed to be true.
My view? I think the Cosmos suggests many things, but does not insist upon an interpretation one way or the other. I think that 'pointlessness,' like purpose, is a human concept we project upon it. As the Buddhists say;
the Universe is pointless
the universe in not pointless
the universe is not not pointless
It just is.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Monod mark deux ;-)
Posted by: Matt | January 16, 2011 at 04:57 PM
Just to let you know that Gray will be speaking for Intelligence Squared at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, London, this Monday 21st February. If you want to see him live and ask him questions about 'The Immortalization Commission' (or indeed anything else), he will be discussing immortality with psychologist Adam Phillips. If you want to find out more details and buy tickets, check out the website: http://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/immortality
We've also put together a Micro-site for the event with a bunch of video clips and articles related to Gray and the theme of his book. if interested see http://www.intelligencesquared.com/micro-site/immortality
Would be great to see you there. If you can't be, the event will also be live-streamed for free on the website.
(if you're tweeters, tell us what you think of the book/Gray using #iq2immortality)
Caroline (at Intelligence Squared)
Posted by: Caroline Wells | February 17, 2011 at 04:40 PM