Friday, July 12, 2013

The Irreducibility of Humanity to Mere Animality

Tiger Swallowtail in my back yard

Thomas Nagel comments on atheist philosopher John Gray's new book The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. (Nagel, "Pecking Order: John Gray's 'Silence of Animals')

Gray is among those few intellectual atheists today who, instead of wasting their time arguing against the existence of God, are developing the contours of an atheistic worldview. Even though I am a theist, I applaud them for this. Gray's argument is against humanistic atheists, who are like Nietzsche's village atheists, unthinkingly retaining core beliefs of theism. Atheistic humanism, for Gray, is "secular faith."

The title of Gray's book follows from this idea. Quoting Gray:

“In a strictly naturalistic view — one in which the world is taken on its own terms, without reference to a creator or any spiritual realm — there is no hierarchy of value with humans somewhere near the top. There are simply multifarious animals, each with its own needs. Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.”

On atheism, surely this is correct. Assuming atheism to be true, it follows from this that humans ought to be "silent." Here Gray takes Nietzschean logic beyond the latter's demand that the lambs be silent, calling even the Ubermen to shut their mouths. 

Nagel writes:

"The book consists of three parts. The first deals mainly with the supposed myth of human progress, the second with the disposition of humans to mythologize themselves and the world through fictions; the third proposes an alternative of pure contemplation that just lets the world be. That is the meaning of the title: we are invited to become more like other animals, freed of the perpetual need for commentary, understanding and transcendence."

See that last sentence? That will never happen precisely because humans are unlike other animals, and will never be free from the need for commentary, understanding and transcendence. Gray's book attests to that as he strives to help us understand the truth of the whole thing. In the end Gray himself cannot remain silent. The desire for transcendence overwhelms humanity. It's as if we were made for something or Someone more, as indeed we were.