After posting about John Gray’s new book “The Silence of Animals” I found this talk that he gave at the Royal Society of Arts in April. There Gray concisely expressed the argument in his book. He explained that he doesn’t deny the possibility of instances of progress, because such a statement is immediately, empirically false. Rather, he explained that he doesn’t think that the advance of scientific knowledge has any correlation with advances in our ethical and political practices. That is, we could get smarter and smarter, know more and more about the world, and yet the same deep flaws in the human constitution would continue to cause the same ethical calamities to occur over and over again.
Perhaps counterintuitively, language often obfuscates perception rather than clarifying. Whuddameanis, when we see chimpanzees in the wild conducting violent raids on enemy territory, there’s no confusion over the meaning of it. It is exactly what it appears to be. Humans have developed more intricate, complicated methods of attaining power and wealth, as well as a wide variety of proxy simulations of violent conflict, but let me suggest that you try looking at any Internet squabble, not as a potential participant, but as if you’re Jane Goodall describing events at Gombe Stream — ignore the abstract symbols, the linguistic justifications, and just observe the empirical reality, the neverending story of shit-flinging and status-seeking.
I’m not bemoaning humanity’s failure to embody its professed ideals, lest you get the wrong impression. I’m saying that anger, jealousy, greed, melancholy, pride, scheming after power, etc. are fundamental aspects of human nature. Not only that, none of them are absolutely bad things. There are contexts in which all of them are perfectly rational and effective. And even if these “flaws” do frequently snowball into what we judge disasters and tragedies, there is no philosophy or algorithm that can anticipate and prevent them from ever coming into being. Some people dream that broad, sophisticated taste in the arts will maximize empathy in the audience, while forgetting that the artists themselves are often spectacularly flawed human beings despite their intuitive insight into the human condition. Latter-day positivists favor hard knowledge over touchy-feely intuition and think that an ideal, just society can be rationally deduced into existence, even though the distinction between is/ought and facts/values has been demonstrated over and over, and despite the fact that conscious awareness is insufficiently capable of contending with all the variables of existence and manipulating them to its lasting advantage.
The tragedies and dilemmas we encounter, individually and collectively, are not necessarily errors which can be fixed with more knowledge. Increased knowledge will only be used in service to the same old unenlightened desires, possibly even creating new dilemmas in the process. And even when we know how little we know, we find a way to convince ourselves that we’ve learned our lesson and become smarter for the experience.
Atheists are, it must be admitted, particularly prone to this. Despite their pretensions to rational objectivity, a disinterested observer might be forgiven for suspecting that atheists are just another group of tribesmen who slew a rival desert god and ate his brains, believing they were ingesting his powers of omniscience. And so we find the Bad News Bears of social justice fighting (once again) over… hats. Seriously, tempers are getting hot and feelings are getting bruised as these oh-so-rational progressives desperately search for a way to justify the ancient urge to hate the everloving fuck out of someone just because. How ridiculous that anyone would ever fight to the death over the doctrine of the Trinity! How absurd that people would take skin pigmentation to be significant of anything important! How irrational that… hey, wait; that sunnamabitch over there is wearing the wrong kind of hat. And walking on our turf! I don’t like the looks of him. Let’s go fuck him up.
Like I was saying, I’m sure if chimps could talk to us, they’d also explain how, no, this is totally different, we have valid reasons for raiding their territory, they deserve it.
I realize this is just another group of dysfunctional morons on the Internet, of course; I’m not saying they’re an actual threat to anything other than their parents’ pride, no matter how “dangerous” their Napoleon-in-clown shoes leader likes to pretend they are. The point is just to notice how, even among a subculture that prides itself on its supposed clear, rational, scientific thinking, the same old behavioral templates are right there, ready to be filled in with new details. You know the old myth about the World Turtle? Well, when it comes to human psychology, despite all the fantasies and rationalizations, it’s Rattlers and Eagles all the way down.