Straw Dogs: 2. The Deception

Following the schedule of our Reading Calendar

(I have to admit that it is long, long ago that I am not that virulent against a writer)

Well, as David guessed and I didn’t, the first chapter was intended as a quick overview of Gray’s ideas and that is why everything seemed written in a aphoristic way. We have much more detail and argumentation in this second chapter. That is good.

The central point of the chapter, as far as I understand it, is that the human consciousness, that rational agent that is us with free will and moral values that perceives the world, makes decisions and acts according to that decisions is nothing but an illusion. We are in reality a battlefield of different animal drives, brain modules, ideas, mental agents etcetera, each one with its own agenda and “we” are just spectators of “our” actions.

To defend his point he mixes through the chapter two strategies which seem to me to be incompatible. On one side the philosophical approach. We cannot know if the world exists because the only thing we have are sensations from which we create illusions to make sense of that sensations (Hume) and the biggest and more dangerous of that illusions is the idea of ourselves (Schopenhauer). So neither the world neither us exist and if they/we exist, we cannot know about their/our nature and reality.

The other strategy assumes that the world do exist, that is populated by animals that have a biological and evolutionary history, some of which have developed brains and by studying them scientifically we are advancing in the idea that consciousness, free will etcetera are not but illusions.

So, I think that it would be great for Mr Gray, in order to clarify his position, to decide if the world exists and is knowable or not. If Science is a tool for knowing anything and if this anything tells us something relevant about the real world. Are we playing the neuroscientist or the Schopenhauerite?

For my part I feel satisfied with this two paragraphs of the first sections of the chapter:

Other animals are born, seek mates, forage for food, and die. That is all. But we humans -we think- are different. We are persons, whose actions are the results of their choices. Other animals pass their lives unawares, but we are conscious. Our image of ourselves is formed from our ingrained belief that consciousness, selfhood and free will are what define us as human beings, and raise us above all other creatures.

In our more detached moments, we admit that this view of ourselves is flawed. Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactments of conscious selves. We control very little of what we most care about; many of our most fateful decisions are made unbeknownst to ourselves. Yet we insist that mankind can achieve what we cannot: conscious mastery of its existence. this is the creed of those who have given up an irrational belief in God for an irrational faith in mankind. But what if we give up the empty hopes of Christianity and humanism? Once we switch off the soundtrack -the babble of God and immortality, progress and humanity- what sense can we make of our lives? (p. 38)

From that point on everything gets confusing to me with some pearls here and there:

Kant’s dogmatic slumber may have been disturbed by Hume’s scepticism, but it was not long before he was snoring soundly again. (p. 42)

My problem with this book is that I have the feeling that it contradicts itself at every two sentences and plays, unnecessarily, to be a naughty boy. Let’s go to the beginning of section 8,

The calls of birds and the traces left by wolves to mark off their territories are no less forms of language that the songs of humans. What is distinctively human is not the capacity for language. It is the crystallisation of language in writing. (p. 56)

that is a vivid example of what you DON’T have to do ever. He is going to talk about the effects on humanity of writing. He could have begun by saying: “Writing is a human distinctive capacity with such and such impact”. But no, he decides to include a gratuitous assertion without ANY relevance for the following argumentation, an assertion that he is not going to use or refer to any more, implying that human language is essentially nothing different from animal language. This can only have the effect of upsetting and alienating the reader and disposing him against a quiet and rational reflection on what comes later. This is rebel teenager writing.

And, just playing to the philosophers, if there is no relevant difference between humans and the rest of animals, the “distinctively human capacity of writing” should have no relevance at all and this section should no exist.

But the worst comes at the end:

Plato’s legacy to European thought was a trio of capital letters – the Good, the Beautiful and the True. Wars have been fought and tyrannies established, cultures have been ravaged and peoples exterminated in the service of these abstractions. Europe owes much of his murderous history to errors of thinking engendered by the alphabet. (p. 57)

What? Wait a moment. You are writing a book arguing that we are animals driven by our passions without any conscious abstract decision mechanism and now you write this? Are you drunken? Wars and tyrannies have being fought and established by the lust and thirst of power and sex and riches and by the hates and loves of people behaving like animals. And all Plato’s legacy abstract constructions were just nothing more than an illusion to justify such behaviours.

That’s my feeling with the book at every step. A writer that has interesting things to say but doesn’t know how to say them without complicating and embroiling everything.

He ends the chapter explaining the aim of his work:

(…) we should set ourselves a different aim: to discover which illusions we can give up, and which we will never shake off. (…) Henceforth our aim will be to identify our invincible illusions. Which untruths might we be rid of, and which can we not do without? -that is the question, that is the experiment. (p.83)

Which I don’t understand and maybe someone can help me.

Also, since I know nothing about Buddhism, I would like to hear what do you think of his vision of the Buddhist approach that he considers, well oriented but doomed to fail.

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2 thoughts on “Straw Dogs: 2. The Deception

  1. Yes, I see what you mean Carlos. What makes this text interesting is also what makes it very annoying: the author’s desire to be witty, to shock the reader also makes him to be inconsistent, hyperbolic and simplifying too much. So it is great fun when he jokes about Kant returning to his dogmatic sleep, but not so much when he attributes Plato all the catastrophes in the world for talking about good and beauty.
    Me, I hate it when I have to check every sentence to decide whether the author really means what he says or he just being hyperbolic.
    Let’s take the first part, when he discusses philosophy. However i sympathize with Heidegger described as a crypto-nazi, it is clear that he is much more than that. It is fun to present Nietzsche finally as someone attached to Christianity, but just saying that doesn’t make much justice to all his ideas.
    When he discusses Wittgenstein’s famous dictum “If a lion could talk we wouldn’t understand it” he is misatributing him. He didn’t mean to say that Humans are much cooler than lions because we talk, or that lions wouldn’t be able to talk. What he wanted to argue is that in order to understand a language, you have to share the form of life with the other speaker. If the forms of life are too different they won’t understand each other. This could be true or false, but has nothing to do with the debate about humans being special or not.
    On Buddhism: I think that Buddhism is subtler than Gray believes it is. I suspect he got his ideas on Buddhism from Schopenhauer. But in Buddhism there is no redemption. If Gray dedicated a little bit more thought about that he would realize that it is contradictory to state that Buddhism is also a religion of redemption, like Christianity. If there is no self, who the heck are you trying to redeem?
    Actually, the main point of Buddhism is the same that Gray is trying to make: Humans are not special, they are just a part of the universe, interconnected with everything. And nirvana is just being able to realize that we are not special, that we are not different from a fish, a tree or even a rock. And this is something shared with Taoism as well.

    The last quote you make, and say you didn’t understand it. My own impression -but I could be wrong- is that he meant that humans are by nature full of biases, some of them we will never be able to get rid of. But maybe some of those biases, with proper education, we could get rid of. This is a common idea of critics of humanism. Humanism wants to get rid of every unjustified belief and just be able to live by reason. But this is an illusion. There are some superstitions, dogmas, rituals -called what you want- without which humans wouldn’t be able to live. To some anti-humanistsm humans can’t live a proper life without the belief of an external God.
    From that I infer that Gray is inviting us to try the experiment of living our lives without believing that we are special, without believing that we are just another species. Sounds like something worth trying.

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