Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Other Shoe - Fleshing out the "Straw Dog" reference from my earlier review

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars

To look up and find not Jesus, but a dog. Nothing would be better, which seems to be the point of this book. Nothing is all that there is.

That's what I wrote after the first reading dimmed. I've just re-read the book, and it wears OK. I went from 3 to 5 stars.

But the entire work is written as if it were a challenge to prove the author wrong. It's a little bit hard, even, not to hear John Gray complaining that no-one really loves him. It seems that if someone did, or dared to try, he might be more inclined to true belief of the sort that religionists prescribe. It would be only human. But if someone did it also seems that he might leave them feeling silly.

He is quite right, of course, that science as pursuit of "truth" is structurally identical - perfectly homologous in every way - to the religious Christian belief system it genetically descends from. He even makes that fact trite, if the reader had not already come to the same conclusion on his own. He then proceeds to ridicule fantasies about personal identity, and the self as an invented creature of choice. But I think he misses a point which he himself raises effectively right near the book's beginning.

Early on, he talks of empathy, as a kind of demonstration of the fact that we are not quite so individual as we sometimes seem to think we are. "We think we are separated from other humans and even more from other animals by the fact that we are distinct individuals. But that individuality is an illusion (p 41)." "Morality is not a set of laws or principles. It is a feeling - the feeling of compassion for the suffering of others which is made possible by the fact that separate individuals are finally figments (p. 42)."

Neither "empathy" nor even "emotion" and certainly not "feelings" are in the index to this book. And yet toward its end, Gray supposes that machine minds too will develop spirituality, souls, and fellow feeling. This, he supposes, will obfuscate communication among them, making their machine language as natural as that of humans.

Well, there's the rub. Machines can be described completely, though their interactions might not be. (when is a machine a machine, and when a grouping of interacting automata?) Fellow feeling is surely all about the interactions, but why, this reader wonders, does he leave "feeling" located in the same place where he denies reality to the self.

What if feeling were thought of as actually being "out there" in some analogous sense to that other stuff which can be measured and described and manipulated without sensations "inside" the manipulator? Physical stuff is not thought to have any sensation of it's own, but we internalize what it feels like in the process of identifying it; giving it identity; giving it a name.

If feelings were not located subjectively on our "inside", but rather were thought of as objective also, just like other "things", it should be nothing strange that our subjective sensation of them remains "within", in just the same way as does any sensation. If emotional feeling were, as they most certainly are, a function of relations among, but not intrinsically "of" individuals, why then Gray might actually have to accept that humans really are just a little bit different.

Our distinction might even made be by virtue of the simple fact that we do name things. And our written language means that humans without physical knowledge of or contact with one another might be still be stirred as if they were actually close.

I wanted to write this review as a kind of "bookend" to the review I wrote about a new book called Who Owns You, by David Koepsell (look it up). That book set up its own "straw dog" of conscious evolution. The burden of its argument was that the basic code for our identity as individuals as well as a species distinct from other species - our genetic map - should not be allowed proprietary patent status. It should and must, rather, remain a kind of unenclosed "commons" so as to prevent the basic human sin of ownership of one human by another.

I called Conscious Evolution a straw dog in that review in precisely the same way as does John Gray here. We are fools to think that we ever could take control of a life process which is as far beyond us - and ever shall be - as is the entire collected history of the cosmos which has brought us to this point. We are not its culmination, and to think so would be to become as absurd as any other impossibility. We simply would not last long as a species, any more than would any creature without medium to live and breath in.

No creature can live in a fantasy world, as a fantasy being, though we may be the only creature to have tried and tried so hard to do so. This is the point of the entire book.

But our language is what gives us the capacity - the weakness - for fantasy. It also describes the boundaries, for individuals, for species, for in from out; and in so doing creates the spaces for their interactions.

No, we are not the culmination of anything, and certainly not the processes of evolution. But it does remain possible that "emotion", the thing left out from this book's index, might actually describe the relations among organisms which define the eventual direction for their transformation; which would be the "direction" for evolution too. This need not be toward anything at all. Certainly not toward culmination. It's just a direction, precisely identical to that of time.

And it just might be those feelings, after all, which should be familiar to us as driving our honor, our decency, our aspirations, These are what we mean by "human" most if not all of the time.

It is precisely true that this does not distinguish us from any other creature in its own quest not just to survive, but to thrive in its proper context. But it does distinguish the human creature from the reductive sense urged here in this book, that humans are but technology to further the purposes of its constituent cells, genes, and colonizing bacteria. That just places the boundaries wrong.

If that were so, then there would be no limiting reduction to the game. Technologies being the one thing which, if not in their development, then in the handling of them by "individuals" are only ever responsive to direction from somewhere else. Self directed technologies, as if the self were alone, are the very thing which is in the end the properly so-called illusion.

I love the book, if not the man, whom it is impossible therefrom to know except as the curmudgeon he presents. Too bad, John Gray, too bad.

View all my reviews.

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