Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Straw Dogs

I once used to know a guy who would smoke pot and philosophise on the meaning of life, ponder the depths of the universe and question the very fabric of reality; he would then conclude that life is just a dream, we are merely creations of our own imaginations and that everything is just a shadow of an otherwise empty reality. To this we would politely listen, gravely nod and turn up Pink Floyd or Dire Straits and bring the conversation back to shallower subjects; such as football and pretty girls.

After reading John Gray’s ‘Straw Dogs: Thoughts on humans and other animals’ I am beginning to think he may have been on to something all those years ago. I had always dismissed this school of thought as a product of age. Too old to blithely live an existence in blind ignorance, though not yet old enough to have any real control or means of affecting that life, thus creating a nihilistic view of a cruel and ultimately empty world. John Gray poses a similar outlook, however coming from the Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, he is a little more difficult to dismiss than my pot smoking friend from yesteryear.

As an atheist my hopes were firmly based in a vaguely humanist/secularist philosophy; man would through progress and science, eventually arrive in a place of peace and prosperity. All would be equal, hunger vanquished, superstitions quelled by knowledge. Or at least things would inevitably get a little bit better over time at any rate. According to Gray, this is just as starry eyed as belief in a deity, and is in fact a relic of Christian logic, as are many tenets of Enlightenment thought.

This book will be somewhat of an anathema to those who were laboring in the belief that humankind is somehow special, different or set aside from the rest of nature; we are neither the masters of our destiny nor the controllers of our fate. We are simply animals like any other, locked into our automatic waking dreams. It would seem, if we accept Gray’s extremely skeptical philosophy, then we must accept that our lives are just a by-product of genetics, most of what we perceive are illusions created by our brains and the ultimate end is that there is no purpose or point to our lives; there are no happy endings in this book!

I thoroughly enjoyed reading ‘Straw Dogs’ and found its assertion that humanism is no more based on reality than any of our more mystical beliefs insightful. Some of Gray’s arguments are weaker than others and he is generally lacking in any attempt at substantiation, though the logic is at times convincing.

On the whole it’s a good read if not an uplifting experience.

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