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Archives: John Gray

Seven Types of Wishful Thinking

I’ve just finished that fine philosopher John Gray’s book, Seven Types of Atheism. As a counter to the modern orthodoxy of a woolly humanism, it is superb. The view that things can only get better as progress occurs by using a scientific approach ignores that humans are animals no better or worse than their provenance permits and that science is morally neutral. His argument is that humanism has taken over from Christianity, making the same mistake in thinking there can be immutable laws to life. The convolutions of a Rawlesian view of justice demonstrate how arbitrary and inadequate humanist laws are, as was the Jewish law. Having previously dismissed the existence of the Christian God as incompatible with the random and cruel world that exists, he then turns on the Christian notion of personhood as a soul with free will, arguing that brain science has effectively demonstrated a total absence of free will, indeed that there is no source of personhood. If we accept this, we could use our manifold instincts to live our natural lives in whatever circumstances we encounter, invoking animistic spirits if that’s how we feel. No meaning can be attached to events, to history, to our lives. The whole concept of salvation from our natures is not only flawed, but rendered unnecessary. Concepts of immortality are not grounded in any experience.
Much of what Gray says is how I feel. But I’m a cradle Anglican who, while making no exclusive claims for faith bringing salvation, finds that the imagery of the Christian message is deeply satisfying. Buddhism may be more cerebral, Christianity more visceral. I prefer Dylan to Leonard Cohen. Story can take you beyond logic and beyond history. The beauty of the King James Bible, the uplift in my spirit(s) from singing Victorian hymns, the joyful memories of the teenage Church Youth Club, will remain in that recurrent assembly of neuronal connections in the brain that I call me. That vastly more connections occur that I am not aware of as I live an instinctual life doesn’t negate this sense of personhood. That it will only exist until death or dementia take it away does create a feeling of sadness, a feeling more intensely suffered with the death of a loved one.
I don’t think that the notion of one God is incoherent. I’ve argued this on these pages before. As a Physicist who can’t accept infinite regress as an explanation, who understands enough of the Maths to be staggered at its ability to tell us so much about the physical world but nothing about how sensations feel, and which as Gödel has shown can never contain a full explanation, I can only keep my head together by taking the infinite and the spiritual out of the physical system, perhaps occasionally meeting on edges.
I’ve nothing against animism. My lovely old dog died last year and we put his ashes under an old oak tree on the Common, his favourite walk. A few weeks ago, there was a deer grazing under the tree who stood looking at me before eventually slowly disappearing into the bushes behind. It was comforting but proved nothing conclusive. I’ve had surprising occurrences which invoked memories from my deceased Mother and Father, a natural explanation of which would involve statistically impossibly large coincidences. They’ve led me to conclude that they or I projected the event or someone up there is taking the michael. I did have one moment when the world unaccountably stood still in my youth. I fancifully pretend it was a point where the edges met, and my resurrection body was taken ready for my spirit to play on at death. That would be a result, a youthful body and a mature soul.
One time, the dog ran off as I let him off the lead, down a busy road to some food he’d spotted a few minutes before. Worried, I chased after him, only to trip over a flagstone and crash over, cutting knees, arms and hands. He’d just reached the food. He heard me fall, looked round, looked again at the food and trotted straight back to see how I was. I’ll give full personhood to animals.
I’ll do my best and fail to live a life that follows natural instincts as informed by the occasional neuronal connection I’ll call conscience urging me to treat others as myself. That won’t earn me salvation. But what I want to be saved from is eternal death.
I know, I want never gets.