Humanism, John Gray tells us, can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress. But progress is an illusion, he believes, and his purpose in writing this book is to explain why. He presents his ideas in a series of often quite short fragments, and he invites his reader either to read the book consecutively or to dip in at random. Non-consecutive reading is possible because Gray keeps circling back through a number of recurrent themes which form a central thread in his argument.
The most important of these ideas is the claim that humans are not intrinsically different from other animals. We have been familiar with this notion since Darwin, but we have not fully taken account of its significance. Philosopher–scientists such as Jacques Monod want to have their cake and eat it; they acknowledge the contingency of human life (there is nothing inevitable about our existence) but believe that, now we are here, we have control of our destiny. We think that because we have technology we can free ourselves from the constraints of the natural world by controlling our environment, but Gray regards this hope as a secular version of the Christian promise of salvation.
He is by no means the first modern writer to question our faith in progress and to tell us that we have little hope of avoiding famine, plague, and super-destructive wars, but he is remarkable for the thoroughness with which he demolishes this faith and for the bleakness of his vision of our future. This is in fact a pretty dysphoric read.
Gray has his heroes and his villains. The villains include Nietzsche and Heidegger, both of whom fostered the illusion of humanism. Schopenhauer, in contrast, is a hero, praised for his pessimism and his destruction of the idea of the human subject underpinning both Christianity and humanism. A more recent hero is James Lovelock, whose Gaia hypothesis informs much of Gray's thinking.
Gray has some respect for Buddhism, especially because of its "no Self" doctrine, but he does not accept the Buddhist view that meditation can liberate us from suffering by showing us things as they really are. And he finds the Buddhist aim of escaping from the cycle of birth and death to be irrelevant for those of us who think that this life is the only one we have. He prefers instead the Taoist position, which he takes to be an acceptance that we can never escape from the dream of the self. His title, in fact, is taken from Lao Tzu ("Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs"), and his super-hero is Chuang Tzu, with his famous account of having dreamed he was a butterfly and, on waking, not known if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.
Gray, in short, finds no hope of salvation either in this world or any other. There is no refuge to be sought in religion, mysticism, or technology, and the quest for a universally applicable morality is a superstition originating in the Old Testament. There is, he concludes, no purpose in life, yet we humans seem incapable of accepting this fact. As for our much-vaunted consciousness, this plays a smaller role than we like to suppose, for most of what goes on in our brains never reaches consciousness at all and we are largely unaware of our own motives. As might be expected, Gray decisively rejects the notion of free will.
This book is undeniably a powerful denunciation of the ideal of progress, and the writing is brilliantly clear. But is the reader in danger of being made the victim of a confidence trick? In a number of places Gray adopts one theory or one interpretation of the facts that happens to suit his argument, while failing to mention possible alternatives.
For example, the idea that mammoths, mastodons, and other extinct mammals were hunted to death by humans is not universally accepted, and the supposition that palaeolithic cave paintings were made under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs is simply a plausible guess. Highly speculative ideas in physics, such as the many-worlds hypothesis and Julian Barbour's admittedly fascinating view of time as non-existent, are slipped in as supporting evidence for the claim that the world we are programmed to perceive is a chimera. And is it true that atheism is only possible as a reaction against monotheism? There seem to have been atheists in ancient India, a notably polytheistic society.
These things are admittedly not central to Gray's argument, but a more serious difficulty I found with this book is that Gray seems to have a rather inconsistent attitude to science, which he sees as having replaced the Church as the fount of authority. True, he acknowledges (p.20) that science can "[N]ow and then … cut loose from our practical needs, and serve the pursuit of truth", but he rejects the notion that science can actually give us "truth". Yet his whole argument depends heavily on Darwinism, and his complaint against humanism is largely based on its perceived failure to take Darwinism seriously enough. At least some scientific ideas do seem to have radically transformed our understanding of ourselves and the world. It is questionable whether Gray himself would have been sufficiently detached from traditional ways of thinking to have written a book like this in a pre-scientific era.
As for seeing science as a replacement for religious authority, this is at most a half-truth. The best scientists are often refreshingly free from dogmatism; one finds little of that, for example, in the writings of Richard Feynman. Gray seems to me to be setting up straw men here rather than straw dogs. Nevertheless, in spite of these reservations this book is worth reading, even if you disagree with it; at least you will be in no danger of being bored. Modern philosophy is often accused, with some justice, of dealing with technicalities and trivia that are of little relevance to major human concerns, but Gray has at least not done that.