In his book, Straw Dogs (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), professor of European thought, John Gray, argues that the humanist belief in progress is deluded in part because our experience of “consciousness, selfhood, and free will” are uneven at best (p. 38):
Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactments of conscious selves. We control very little of what we most care about; many 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 gave 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?
Gray’s observations and questions here are good ones, and I find the thrust of his critique of humanism hard to answer. Perhaps the best I can suggest is that a collection of unevenly conscious humans that record their moments of rational lucidity in the form of books, podcasts, blogs, etc. are ratcheting humanity slowly forward and upward even as we are, individually, and in our average moments, mostly irrational and out of focus. Just as capitalist public spaces like Starbucks tend to be cleaner, more organized, and more rational than the average suburban household, so it might be that the efforts directed toward humanist education and the practice of rationality have the effect of making humanity as a whole more humanist and rational than it would otherwise be.
Then again, maybe rational lucidity—critical thinking—modelled, taught, and practiced is simply another form of vanity, a striving after wind (as the writer of Ecclesiastes might have put it). Perhaps there is no escaping our irrational selves.
But shouldn’t we still try? Isn’t that civilization? Where would humanity be today without books and dialogue; without the scientific method? The answer, quite obviously, is that life would be far more brutish, nasty, and short than it already is.
The more I’m writing here in response to John Gray, the less impressed I am by his skepticism.
I knew blogging was for something.