John Gray is a European philosopher who I have found to be enlightening and at the same time disheartening in some ways, yet I agree with him on probably 95% of his ideas.
He is extremely pessimistic and many will find his ideas highly disconcerting, but this doesn’t diminish the truthfulness of them.
Truth doesn’t make us happier, but it’s important for navigating life more skillfully. The truth actually may make us less happy in many situations in the short term, but in the long term, I don’t believe it makes a difference.
Gray’s thinking had a significant impact on me. His main ideas can be found in the book “Straw Dogs: Thoughts On Humans And Other Animals.”
This post is a summary of his thoughts. Whether you agree or disagree with his ideas, I think being introduced to them once is useful to broaden your mind, as an intellectual exercise.
John Gray’s Ideas
In no particular order, these ideas are some takeaways from Straw Dogs. Some of the expositions are my own additions.
1) Humans have a limitless capacity for self-delusion, even the most rational among us
Humans didn’t evolve to find the truth, but rather to mate. For example, Gray says that when we are in the grip of sexual love we tell ourselves we will be happy once it is satisfied; but this is only a mirage. Sexual passion enables the species to reproduce; it cares nothing for individual well-being or personal autonomy.
My take: I’ve noticed self-delusion fills my own life. As I get older I notice my own patterns of delusion and similar ones in others. There’re delusions that I don’t have that are pervasive in society.
Even if you see delusion in others, you aren’t spared from them. A friend I have who recognizes that humans have a limitless capacity for self-delusion is almost as deluded as everyone else, albeit in different ways. So realizing we have delusions doesn’t stop us from having them.
One common delusion is overemphasizing the importance of our endeavors. Whatever we work on, we inflate the importance of our projects and think it will improve our happiness and self-satisfaction. We think if we get XY and Z done…..then some great thing will happen.
How this idea can help us: Realizing we have this capacity for delusion may make us more aware of our own delusions. I think our own delusions are the largest impediment for all kinds of success in life, but these delusions are also helpful in many ways. By listening and being more mindful, we’re more likely to pick up these patterns and just maybe prevent the negative ones from occurring in the future. Also, by realizing our own delusions and those of others, we won’t waste money on marketed products that aren’t valuable.
2) Wars and destruction are inevitable, especially as the population gets larger
Humans have shown a propensity for violence since time immemorial and especially when resources get limited, in cases of population expansion.
We take peace and stability for granted like when we make investments and sign up for cryonics, etc… In a video, he mentions that whether cryonics will work or not, we are trusting the organizations/institutions that are freezing us -that they will be around in 100 years. How many institutions have survived 100 years without going bankrupt? So much has happened in 100 years,
The book was written before the financial collapse, which he predicted. Institutions that we thought would never fail crumbled so fast.
He predicted that the war in Iraq would be a disaster. The whole reason we went to war was for the sake of progress, thinking that if we only introduced democracy to the middle east, the world will be a better place. Instead, Iraq is less stable than ever and not democratic or free. The same goes for Afghanistan.
The future, according to Gray, will see a return to resource wars and “wars of “scarcity… waged against the world’s modern states by the stateless armies of the militant poor” that are “certain to be hugely destructive.”
“So long as population grows, progress will consist in laboring to keep up with it,” he explains, and the only way humanity can prevent this is by “limiting its numbers”. However, “limiting human numbers clashes with powerful human needs” – not just the sociobiological imperative to reproduce, but also the interests of various ethnic groups in ensuring their survival and increasing their military and electoral strength.
Therefore, “zero population growth could be enforced only by a global authority with draconian powers and unwavering determination”. Unfortunately (or perhaps not, depending on your perspective), according to Gray, “there has never been such a power and never will be”.
He thus darkly prophesies, “we may well look back on the twentieth century as a time of peace.”
My take: I’m more of an optimist, so I don’t share Gray’s pessimism in this arena. There’s plenty of evidence that the world is also getting safer. However, it’s good to pay attention to contrarian ideas.
How this idea can help us: We tend to think that our investments in solid companies are a safe bet. Nothing is too safe. Our idyllic lives can all change very soon. We shouldn’t plan our lives in the span of decades since we don’t know what awaits us. As a matter of policy, we should do everything we can to prevent the growth of the world population to maintain world stability, which we’re already trying to do, but not very effectively.
3) Technology doesn’t make us happier, it only allows more people to live and to work less, albeit less happily.
Before agriculture, we were just as healthy and perhaps happier, Gray contends. Agricultural technology allowed for a rapid expansion of the human population.
Our current technology – GMOs and the like – likewise allow more people to live, but we aren’t necessarily healthier or happier as a result. If anything, many of the technologies are making us less healthy and happy, but there is no alternative as our population expands.
He acknowledges, however, that technology can make us live longer and be healthier.
4) We are merely a part of the animal kingdom, neither a special creation nor particularly unique
Darwin has shown that we are animals. Unlike any other animal, we are told, we are free to live as we choose. Yet the idea of free will does not come from science. Its origins are in religion – not just any religion, but the Christian faith against which humanists rail so obsessively.
If you believe in evolution and are an atheist/agnostic, it makes no sense to believe in free choice.
If you believe in evolution – that we evolved from primates and primates don’t have free choice, then free choice had to come at some point in our evolution. Since we evolve one mutation at a time usually, there’s likely a single mutation that gave us free choice. If you don’t believe that some higher being put a spirit in us that allowed us to have free choice, then how did we get it?
Isn’t it odd that through a mutation, all of a sudden we have free choice, while all other animals don’t? Doesn’t this strike you as bizarre? Nothing about the universe has changed and our brains probably didn’t change much, yet we supposedly acquired free choice.
If you argue that we have free choice and so do other animals, then that would change the argument, but most people wouldn’t hold this opinion.
This means at some point, a child with this genetic mutation was born. Imagine that – a parent with no free choice and her child with free choice, as a result of a mutation. And as a result of natural selection, the free choice gene spread throughout the population.
I think the illusion of free choice came as a result of religious dogma and our desire to view ourselves as special, not any mutation.
I say we have just as much free choice as an ant (but we think we have more, whereas the ant doesn’t have beliefs). Just like an ant can choose to go left or right and ultimately does one action over the other based on genes and environment, it has free choice. If you think this is ridiculous then use apes as an example. An ape can choose to do or not do something. We can’t deny this. It can slap you in the face or not. What made it decide one course of action over another? Genes and environment.
To think only humans have free choice is arrogant, simple-minded and demonstrates our limitless capacity for delusion. Even the most educated intellectuals fall for this, such as the “skeptic” and religious atheist Daniel Dennett.
How this idea can help us: Understanding ourselves as animals can illuminate our understanding of human nature in general.
5) Technology and science will progress, but human nature won’t, therefore, we will use technology for both evil and good purposes and lots of destruction will inevitably occur
We think technology will save us, but humans are the users of technology, so technological use will reflect our own human nature.
Progress in science and technology, he argues, does not invariably lead to social and political progress. On the contrary, he observes, “without the railways, telegraph and poison gas, there could have been no holocaust.” Thus, according to Gray’s criteria, “death camps are as modern as laser surgery.”
He acknowledges that technology can definitely help us, but we shouldn’t be deluded into thinking that only or even mostly good will come out of it. I’m a bit more optimistic and I think technology is better than not.
He claims and I agree that scientific progress is unstoppable and self-perpetuating. After all, “any country that renounces technology makes itself prey to those that do not”.
However, the same is not true of political, social and economic progress. On the contrary, a country excessively preoccupied with moral and ethical restraints would surely be defeated by an enemy willing to cast aside moral constraints for the sake of victory.
Gray predicts, “even as it[technology] enables poverty to be diminished and sickness to be alleviated, science will be used to refine tyranny and perfect the art of war” and “if one thing about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on humanity by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it.”
He says “though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive animal that is also one of the most predatory and destructive” and therefore “the uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves”.
How this idea can help us: We tend to think that our investments in solid companies are a safe bet. Nothing is too safe. Our idyllic lives can all change very soon. We shouldn’t plan our lives in the span of decades since we don’t know what awaits us. World unrest and instability will come – the question is when not if.
6) Religious impulse and drive for a purpose are as innate as our drive for sex and lead to our need for salvation
As organized religions decline, we instead take on the religion of Humanism, Morality, Truth, Goodness, Progress, Technology and Science.
Almost all cultures and societies sought salvation by one means or another, and modern culture is no different.
He claims that today liberal humanism has the pervasive power that
was once possessed by organized religion. Humanists like to
think they have a rational view of the world, but their core
belief in moral progress is a “superstition”, further from the truth
about the human animal than any of the world’s religions.
The Silicon Valley/Tech world (a group I fit into in large part) doesn’t have Liberalism/Humanism as a religion but rather, substitutes this with the belief that science and technology will be our savior. Even a group of people most averse to religion will develop into a form of religion as we see among atheist, skeptical and tech communities.
7) Becoming more “moral” as a society can’t happen for sustained periods of time
Gray believes that human nature is more powerful than any moral ideals. Since there is no ultimate truth to morality, but rather only something that humans construct as a kind of salvation, morality can and will change with the blink of an eye.
At the height of their killing machines, Russia and Nazi Germany thought they were the most moral of all.
From one moment to the next, the West condoned and supported torture after the 9/11 attacks, even among liberals.
The Golden Rule as a moral principle (do unto others as you would want them to do to you), has been around for thousands of years, but that didn’t stop any of the atrocities in history.
Even now, we are beating the drums of war about how we need to attack ISIS because we are threatened in some way, or so we tell ourselves. What’s more likely going on is the excitement humans have for going to war and defeating another or some other psychological absurdity other than our stated need for self-preservation.
I believe our morals now are ludicrous and will surely change, mostly because there is no absolute moral system. Liberalism is in fashion right now among the intellectual elite, but I don’t believe that this is more “moral” than societies that lack liberalism like Japan and Korea. Gray has helped me realize that Liberalism is just another religion.
Modern liberals have a moral system that always favors the underdog and the historically repressed to an insane degree. Political correctness has taken on an extreme insanity.
Affirmative action is a bizarre idea that comes from this insanity. If you are dirt poor and highly disadvantaged, you may get a tiny boost in your chances for admission to some university, but if you’re 1/8th black and filthy rich then your grades and test scores can be significantly worse and you will still get in, simply because you have some black blood. Any disadvantages blacks have in society by being black should surely be addressed to the best of our abilities, but this is not the way. Yet liberalism enthusiastically supports this.
Paradoxically, modern liberals who are advocates of free speech often block freedom of speech – for example, when liberals torpedoed Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Netanyahu from speaking at their universities. And what about when Larry Summers got sacked as the dean of Harvard for suggesting that there may be differences in intelligence at the tail ends between men and women (but not the mean).
We are living in a time that freedom of speech is only tolerated by most intellectuals if it conforms to certain beliefs.
Gray doesn’t talk about these topics specifically, but he’d argue that we’ve taken on these moral postures as a kind of religion and savior. In the absence of religion, Liberalism gives us purpose, but this surely won’t last the test of time, nor will any other ideology or zeitgeist.
I am pessimistic about humans being rational and don’t expect rationality from people, no matter how intelligent we are. We didn’t evolve to be rational, but rather simply to reproduce.
How this idea can help us: I used to get annoyed when I saw people taking irrational positions. I am much more accepting of people’s irrationality now. In business and everyday dealings, we shouldn’t view people as completely rational actors. This idea allows us to be more skeptical of people’s opinions and experts.
8) Most jobs in the economy are for entertainment, not necessity
Gray seems to view ‘distraction’ as central to life, at least in the affluent West. Gray contends that economic life is no longer geared chiefly to production, but rather to distraction.
In other words, where once the common people were satiated only with ‘bread and circuses’, now they seem to demand cake, ice cream, alcohol, soap operas, Playstations, Super Bowls and reality TV!
I agree with him here. As technology progresses, our basic needs are met. Think about how much you need to sustain a very simple life, without entertainment. In most places of the world, you can rent a simple room for less than 400 dollars a month (with internet and electricity) and eat for less than 300, even eating healthy.
If people have health problems, it’s not mainly because we don’t have money for healthy food, but rather because we eat too much, we sleep too little, we don’t get sun or enough exercise and we’re too stressed. All of these problems can be fixed for free, so not having money isn’t an excuse to not be healthy.
We don’t need anything else except food and shelter, and ordinary health.
If you want a computer, you can get a perfectly good one for 200 dollars. You can get a prepaid phone plan or just use Gmail/Google voice. Remember, we didn’t always have cell phones, so that can’t be considered necessary.
The point is you can survive on 700 dollars a month, which isn’t a lot of money. In the West, even people with lower income jobs make this in a week. If someone makes 15 dollars an hour (soon to be the minimum wage in Seattle) and works 47 hours in a week (a relatively normal workweek), they will come out with $705. So even lower-income people technically need to work for less than 1/4 of the year and not be worried about survival. And let’s be real, most of us have clothes to last us a lifetime.
And if you do make this small sum, the government will provide health insurance and perhaps other benefits and you won’t pay taxes because you’re earning too little ($8400 a year).
The point is, even up to now we can have all of the information at our fingertips and work relatively lightly for 1/4 of the year, even if our income isn’t good. This poverty doesn’t hold us back from being successful or learning any kind of trade since all of this information is free on the internet (MOOCs).
Isn’t that incredible? We can have all our needs met AND learn any trade AND obtain any piece of information while working a quarter of the year even on a bad salary. That’s technology for you.
Yet with all of our needs met, most of us are still working hard. Why? Because humans will always want to attain status, but also because we LOVE distractions, entertainment, and possessions, none of which lead to occupational success. We love designer brands of clothing and then get bored with it. We like going to Starbucks and dropping 6 bucks on a coffee and cookie instead of making our own for a fraction of the cost.
I would argue that the government desperately attempts to make people feel useful, so it ups the requirements for every job we can think of and the professions themselves form guilds that create requirements to artificially up the salary of the profession.
To be a doctor, you need to go through 10 years of schooling and then residency. And on top of all that we get shitty doctors who have to follow a specific protocol and act like robots. I say that you can take any competent person and train them for 3 months on how to be a doctor and they’ll do the job perfectly fine. Maybe the best doctors will need more than this, but most ordinary primary physicians don’t. I would be open to the creation of super-doctors who take on especially difficult cases, but again, 90% of cases people just need an antibiotic or something simple.
Almost every job I can think of can be performed by a competent person with just a few months of training. But we create barriers to block competition and artificially up salaries. We require many years of schooling for things like speech therapy and occupational therapy. My sisters work in such jobs and they’ll admit that they’d be able to do the same job with just a few months of schooling/practice, instead of 7 years of study. Perhaps years of study produces marginal benefit, but is it really worth it from an efficiency standpoint? Every occupation you can think of has these artificial barriers that aren’t necessary. You can’t practice law without a law degree, no matter how much law you know. (and btw, doesn’t this impinge on our freedom of speech?)
The only occupations that produce innovation and make society better are those that have no requirements except raw talent and skill. Occupations that are truly innovative are very difficult and create their own barriers to entry. To be a great software developer or engineer you have to be really intelligent and have lots of knowledge. There’re no regulations that require you to have a degree in this area to practice it, like law. Snowden got hired by the NSA with a GED and no college degree because he simply had the skills.
From an efficiency standpoint, teachers have become irrelevant. The most efficient system would be to give a kid a computer with Khan Academy videos and software while having a responsible adult monitor them to make sure they behave. Then have small quizzes at the end of each session to make sure kids are focused. No degrees or teachers required.
The point is, most occupations are either not needed for society or can be done without years of schooling or other needless barriers. Yet we work essentially as hard as ever to attain status, pay off school loans (as a result of needless barriers) and most importantly for entertainment and distraction.
Isn’t it insane that with all of this status-seeking, education, and entertainment, we’re likely not happier because of it? Most people I know have plenty of entertainment and education and aren’t happy (no one ever has enough status). We constantly hope the future will be better, which is a testament to our unhappy lives.
(Note: Gray doesn’t mention most of what I speak about here)
How this idea can help us: This idea is useful in many ways. If we realize necessities don’t demand much work, this can free us to pursue our passions. Also, if we realize how much the economy has to do with entertainment and distraction, we won’t find such paths meaningless. With this philosophy, I realized the importance of formal education, since society is structured in an irrational way so as to disadvantage you and prevent you from making a reasonable income if you don’t have a degree. The only way to escape this is to provide entertainment that appeals to people, to have family connections or to work really hard and create great technology/businesses that are innovative.
9) Getting rid of religion won’t make society better
This is because instead of religion, people just find other irrational salvations, which could be better or worse than religion.
Communism and Nazism were types of salvation that were not based on religion but were the most destructive in the 20th century.
Gray claims the religion of the secular people today is that of progress and the hope that the future will be better, but he doesn’t view this as bad since people need religion. He’s just stating reality.
Gray’s position can be illustrated by a popular discussion: will the world be better without Islam?
What I would say is that the world would feel safer without Islam, specifically the extremist part of it. Islamic extremists are unique in wanting to cause mass destruction of the West, but without Islamic radicalism, the same people would turn to other ideologies that may be more or less destructive – it’s impossible to guess. If not for Islam, tribalism may dominate and sow similar destruction.
Concerning the casualties to date, Islam doesn’t seem to be particularly harmful as a religion, but Islamic fundamentalists only need to be successful once at a mass killing for all that to change (say by poisoning a water supply). And just the threat of this is causing mass fear.
How this idea can help us: By realizing that bad behavior comes mainly from “bad” people rather than culture or creed, it leads us to change our response to such people. Instead of sticking around them, hoping they’ll change, we’ll flee from their clutches sooner – or create a new situation that forces them to change.
10) The self is an illusion and this “self” controls very little
I’ve spoken about this before, but here are some quotes from his book.
“We see ourselves as unitary, conscious subjects, and our
lives as the sum of their doings. Recent cognitive science and
ancient Buddhist teachings are at one in viewing this ordinary
sense of self as elusive. Both view selfhood in humans as a
highly complex and fragmentary thing.”
“Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactments of conscious selves. We control very little of what we most care about; many of 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.”
The last quote is interesting. Just like individuals are deluded, societies are just a mass collection of deluded individuals. On a collective level, we decide to invade Iraq and Vietnam and believe the world will be a better place by our interference. How wrong we were….
But we are naive to think we will learn lessons. People elect politicians who are “active”, to give us a sense that the future will be better.
So these politicians create laws and more laws and we end up with a tax code that no one fully understands and now a healthcare law that the creators aren’t completely familiar with.
We create wars with other countries and even wars on our own citizens.
What has the “War On Drugs” done, except put millions of people in prison? Japan has 20X fewer people in prison as a proportion of its population.
Gray says drug use is a primordial animal activity, which he supports with animal research showing baboons frequently eat intoxicating fruit to escape their consciousness. Among humans, it is immemorial and nearly universal.
Gray claims the West waged the war on drugs because of our belief in progress, which also implies that happiness is within reach for all of us. He says “Societies founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life. As a result, they are bound to wage war on those who seek an artificial happiness in drugs.”
These ideas are interesting. I say we waged these wars in large part because we favor action over inaction. Action gives us the hope that the future will be better. When we see people addicted to drugs, we feel things must change, so we elect politicians who change things.
But people are just as addicted to drugs as ever. We spent 1.5 trillion dollars on the War On Drugs, without even a slight change in the drug addiction rate. Yet I’m sure the wagers of this war got a lot of press and votes by the public.
11) Our conscious mind plays a very small role, and we resist this because it strips us from a sense of control
“Our conscious selves arise from processes in which conscious
awareness plays only a small part. We resist this fact
because it seems to deprive us of control of our lives. We
think of our actions as the end-results of our thoughts. Yet
much the greater part of everyone’s life goes on without
thinking. The sense of conscious agency may be an artifact of
conflicts among our impulses. When we know what to do we
are hardly conscious of doing it. That does not mean we are
ruled by instinct or habit. It means we spend our lives coping
with what comes along.
We deal with the death of a friend in much the same
way we step aside to avoid a falling slate. We may be in
doubt as to how to show our sadness or comfort others
who have been bereaved, but if we succeed in doing so it is
not because we have altered our beliefs or improved our
reasonings. It is because we have learned to cope with things
How this idea can help us: When we recognize that “we” aren’t in control, it will help us let go and experience less anxiety.
12) The unexamined life may be worth living
Gray explains that the false ideology of only the examined life is worth living came from the belief that truth and goodness were one and the same:
“Socrates was able to believe that the examined life is best
because he thought the true and the good were one and the
same: there is a changeless reality beyond the visible world,
and it is perfect. Socrates would think that when humans live the unexamined life they run after illusions. They spend their lives searching for pleasure or fleeing pain, both of which are bound to pass away. True fulfillment lies in changeless things. An examined life is best because it leads us into eternity.”
Socrates thought the truth can set us free. But Gray rejects these notions and says truth and happiness have nothing to do with each other. “We need not doubt the reality of truth to reject this Socratic faith. Human knowledge is one thing, human wellbeing another. There is no predetermined harmony between the two. The examined life may not be worth living.”
Gray says that according to evolution, truth is not necessary for reproduction and if anything truth is a disadvantage to survival. If we lie and believe our own deception, that will help convince others of such deception and increase our chances of survival.
“Truth has no systematic evolutionary advantage over error. Quite to the contrary, evolution will ‘select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray – by the subtle signs of self-knowledge – the deception being practiced’. As Trivers points out, evolution favors useful error: ‘the conventional view that natural selection favors nervous systems
which produce ever more accurate images of the world must
be a very naive view of mental evolution’.”
How this idea can help us: People are convinced of their position in business and when their self-interest is at stake. Don’t mistake another’s conviction as evidence against your position.
13) The earth is self-regulating and we will be destroyed far sooner than we will destroy the earth
I think technology will solve the problem before we destroy ourselves.
14) Only in the modern era is work considered virtuous. This is because we believe in progress and progress condemns idleness
How this idea can help us: Recognizing this may cause us to have less anxiety when we don’t feel like working, rather than thinking something is inherently wrong with us.
15) Markets are run by hysteria, not rationality
How this idea can help us: Maybe paying attention to people’s sentiment matters quite a bit when making investment decisions, but we should also realize that the mass’s emotions are fickle and can change at any moment.
John Gray’s Advice For A Better Life
Gray doesn’t clearly prescribe how to live in a direct way but rather talks fondly of some philosophies. From the entirety of his work, he seems to think there’s more than one way to be happy or unhappy if that’s the destiny of the person.
Gray believes happiness is beyond reach for most people. Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks distraction and pleasure. He doesn’t see this as good or bad, but inevitable.
He mentions how the only thing we can do is learn to live life more skillfully and recognize which illusions we can and can’t disillusion.
He seems to favor a kind of Taoism but doesn’t outright endorse it. He speaks fondly of living life more effortlessly by not agonizing over choices and accepting whatever comes. He says:
“For people in thrall to ‘morality’, the good life means perpetual striving. For Taoists, it means living effortlessly, according to our natures. The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose. Rather than agonizing over alternatives, he responds effortlessly to situations as they arise. He lives not as he chooses but as he must. Such a human being has the perfect freedom of a wild animal – or a machine. ”
“Contemplation is not the willed stillness of the mystics but a willing surrender to never-returning moments. ”
“Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?”
Gray views most human activity as little more than escapism. Thus, he contends “it is not the idle dreamer who escapes from reality” but rather “the practical men and women who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance”. Yet Gray doesn’t disparage distractions or diversions – he just sees it as a mode of life that helps people cope with their existence.
“Since happiness is unavailable”, he writes, “the mass of mankind seeks pleasure” instead. “Fulfillment is found,” he concludes “not in daily life, but in escaping from it.” This isn’t necessarily a prescription, but rather just an observation.
I disagree with Gray here. I think technology and the right attitude can make “happiness” achievable for many.
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