Sunday, June 24, 2007

John Gray

I write about a good friend in The Sunday Times - John Gray. Not to be mistaken with the guy who wrote Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, this John Gray is one of the great thinkers of our time, a true sceptic, and the man who invented memes long before Richard Dawkins. The difference is that Gray's memes - 'ergonemes' - were a joke - 'something as far away from genuine science as possible, something akin to creationism or alchemy.'


  1. Excellent essay, Bryan. So good, in fact, that I just ordered the book.

    He can’t be seen as an orthodox political thinker because his perspective is far too broad. And he can’t be seen as a philosopher because he is too impatient with the “arguments about arguments” in which philosophers tend to indulge. He says philosophy is just a way of finding good reasons for holding utterly ordinary opinions.

    Sounds like my kind of guy.

  2. Thanks, Ronin, you'll love the book.

  3. Another excellent article Bryan. However, right at the end you say that "at our best we learn, tolerantly, liberally and realistically, to live with [the fact that progress and rationality are illusions]." But if this were true, if there were something which is a 'best' attitude, then the wholesale adoption of this attitude would constitute progress, which, ex hypothesi, doesn't exist. Scepticism, moral or epistemological, does have a tendency to eat itself in this fashion.

    Is belief in progress or the capacity of humans to create a better world, really a secular belief? It's certainly a belief held by both theists and atheists, and it's a belief that's currently held most strongly in the USA, which is also a strongly religious nation.

    You might argue that belief in human progress is an idea infused into the religious world by the Enlighenment. But the later Roman Empire conducted its wars against the barbarians under the name of progress. The Roman Empire was initially polytheistic, and eventually Christian. This doesn't make belief in progress a polytheistic belief or a Christian belief any more than it is a secular belief. And wars fought in the name of progress are clearly not a post-Enlightenment phenomenon.

    The unattainability of a human social and political utopia does not entail the impossibility of human progress. If progress is defined to be the reduction of human suffering, then progress is undeniably possible. Some actions intended to reduce suffering have the opposite effect, but other actions do indeed reduce suffering. For example, the introduction of anaesthetic in the conduct of medical operations, reduced human suffering.

    Belief in the attainability of a political and social utopia is indeed just as daft as belief in the existence of a supernatural deity. And wars fought in the name of achieving a political and social utopia are just as bad as wars fought from tribal and religious conflict alone. However, I would rather live in a world where people believe that suffering is contingent, than a world in which people believe that human suffering is a penance we must serve to atone for 'original sin'.

  4. Thanks, Gordon. 'At our best' does not mean a best attitude and does not imply progess. Say, I was playing Roger Federer at tennis. I might be at my best when I scored a point but there would be no prospect of this moment being extended to victory. Furthermore, of course there is better human behaviour, otherwise there would be no worse. But the broader point is that they will cancel each other out. 'At our best; involves the phase 'at our worst'. The contingency of suffering is, of course, a given, but that does not itself exclude the concept of original sin. Shit may happen because the world is fallen, but each particular piece of shit need not have any direct casual relationship to a sin. I hope I have understood you correctly.

  5. River of DeceitJune 24, 2007 4:09 pm

    Nice article. Genius thinker. It's a shame Gray is a lone voice pointing out the seemingly obvious:

    "because that century was dominated not by religious belief, but by secular belief in progress or the capacity of human beings to create a better world. It also featured unprecedented levels of mass murder."

    I pointed this out to one of my socialist-religious bashing friends who constantly talks about the wicked acts done by religion. He just rolled his eyes and says that Marx would have been horrified at what Stalin did. Then, the other day my Uncle, a former communist and nice guy, came out with: "Mao Tse-tung was the greatest thing to happen to China, he clothed them and fed them". Then before i know it my two aunts are agreeing with him and the whole room kind of nods in silent agreement.
    I seriously think people just don't care about mass murders unless they're made to do so. How many films and documentaries have been made about the horrors of the holocaust and nazism compared to the non-existant line up for communism?
    The victims of the holocaust are rightly scared we forget. It seems no one wants to know about the atrocities of communism.

  6. President Bush recently inaugurated a new monument to the victims of Communism near Washington's Union Square station. It is a bronze version of the Statue of Liberty briefly erected in Tiannamen Square. The world's press ignored this commemoration of the 120 million victims of global Marxist-Leninism which was attended by elderly Latvians and Chinese.

  7. Not only do most ordinary folks show little interest in hearing about massacres by leftist regimes, there seems to be almost no interest in the Western intellectual community in exploring who was responsible for them. The ICC sure doesn't seem to care. With Germany, Chile, Serbia, etc., arguing about guilt, human rights, reparations, international law and whatever is a luctrative cottage industry for academics and international lawyers that never ends, but the massacres of the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, etc. are either the 100% responsibility of a dead leader who got a little carried away or the work of a faceless bureaucracy nobody is able to identify.

    Recently I got into a blogging discussion about the "Good German", the defensive German from WW11 who tries to distance himself from responsibility for the horror and only earns mockery for it. It struck me that never in my life have I had a similar discussion about the Good Soviet.

  8. Maybe because at various times throughout history, Germany has been a world leader or important contributor in the realms of music, philosophy, engineering, industrial process, education, air and space flight, military theory and tactics, science, and medicine, whereas Russia and especially the Soviet Union were known mostly for horses and misery.

    In a sense, we expected horrible things to happen in Russia, and especially in the Soviet version.

    When the Germans did horrible things, we saw it as an aberration.

  9. One thing is certain, there is no doubting Gray's impact on glibertarianism:

  10. yes, it was a good piece of writing but I was confused that it was headed ''interview''. I thought this meant that the interviewer/interviewee ratio of words was in the order of 40/60%. nevermind, I know more about him now than I did on Saturday. so he doesn't think men are from mars anymore...

  11. It's curious that Gray's "ergonemes" were (as far as I can tell from your article and from a little Giggling) first discussed in the 1980s whereas Dawkins introduced memes in "The Selfish Gene", first published in 1976.

    It seems Gray "anticipated" Dawkins by reinventing the notion some time after Dawkins first came up with it. Perhaps evidence for memes doing just what they were supposed to do?

  12. Sorry Bryan, I was so excited by the contents of this piece that I forgot to come back and say I'd linked you!

    Gray's anatomy of human nature

  13. That is very interesting. Having seen closely how much human societies change not just from place to place but from time to time, how casually things are accepted, then later abhorred, yet always humanity retains an essential nature, i find it hard to believe that scientific knowledge can radically transform human life or nature. As we see from science-fiction, people can live on other worlds & have godlike powers, but their basic natures are unchanged. Perhaps it's more like navigating the sea and taking account of trade winds: don't deny they're there, use them, or tack.

    People have generally had some kind of religion, whether it be Zeus, or that funny looking rock, or old one-eye, or Christ or 'the fatherland' or 'scientific progress' or 'Mankind', etc., anything you can use to justify murder, torture, bigotry, crusades, theft, self-righteousness. It's always been there and i really doubt a few bunsen burners and lab coats will make it go away. Just look at that freak Dawkins: he looks like a 17th Century witch-burner. He would have been called "Eli Dawkins" or "Josiah Dawkins" and worn exactly the same face.

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