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Philosopher John Gray Believes Humanity's Desire for Freedom Is a Lie

We talked to him about Gnosticism, torture, and the economic crisis.

Johannes Niederhauser

Johannes Niederhauser

John Gray

In his new book The Soul of the Marionette, British philosopher John Gray aims to tackle humankind's relationship with freedom. He claims that people don't want more freedom of choice, but rather less, as they can't handle doubt.

Gray enjoyed a long academic career with positions at Oxford and the London School of Economics. However, after the success of his book Straw Dogs he quit academia to spend his time calling out what he sees to be the most questionable myths of our age, one of which is the assumption that the Western world is ethically more advanced than elsewhere, and that its ethical progress is both irreversible and ever-growing.

Some of his favorite opponents are Richard Dawkins, whom he calls a neo-Christian, and Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google who is famous for his Singularity theory—the idea that we can one day upload ourselves to the internet—which Gray regards as a scientific form of Gnosticism. In short, that's the belief that an increase in knowledge will automatically free man from the prison of the flesh.

In his new book, Gray suggests that most people in the West today hold Gnostic beliefs—not only those few lost souls who believe in the Singularity hocus-pocus because they don't want to face their own mortality. Gray claims that many educated Westerners want to escape the reality of their physical bodies and achieve a higher form of freedom in some form. Instead, he says, we need a different understanding of freedom, one in which we can allow ourselves to live in doubt.

I talked to John about his ideas of freedom and the blind belief in ethical progress at the the London School of Economics' Literature Festival in late February.

VICE: What's the central question of your new book?
John Gray: It tries to think about how we can be free in the human world as it actually exists.

In the book I refer to John Keats's concept of "negative capability." Don't bother reading philosophy, read Keats. He's fantastic. "Negative capability" is how to dwell in doubt and mystery. That's freedom. In other words, you've got to act in the world. You have things you care about, so you act on them. You do your best, but then you act in uncertainty, in doubt. You simply have to do the best with the values and goals you have.

Is that your response to the question of free will?
I don't try to answer such questions definitely. My aim is not to convert anyone. I don't care what you believe. I write for those that are curious, who want to question, who want to look at their thinking and reflect on it and see whether they want to carry on with it.

I write for individuals, not to generate a social movement or a political project. I write for those individuals who have some doubts as to the prevailing worldview. If you don't have any doubts, don't read me. Read Richard Dawkins, read someone else who'll make you happy. You're wasting your time with me.

How does negative capability differ from a prevalent view about freedom today?
A widespread wrong belief today is that knowledge will free us from our material nature. Lots of people—I would say the majority of educated people in Western Europe—now assume some version of a materialist picture of the world and themselves. But still they want to break free from the prison of matter. And I think this picture, as I try to show by the history of ideas, is a kind of Gnosticism.

What is Gnosticism?
The two elements of Gnosticism as a religion were: Humans are spirits trapped in a material body, the flesh. Second, Gnosticism believes that we can get out through a special kind of knowledge. That was a mystical knowledge in earlier times, but later one that got attached to science. Some people would claim that Gnosticism can't be reconciled with science, but on the contrary—it's very strong in scientific thinking.

The prevalent thinking is: We've discovered we're trapped in our bodies, so what human beings really are is minds. The way out of that dark cosmos under whose laws we stand, which force us to work, which force us to age and to die, is to acquire a special kind of knowledge. Then we would no longer be enslaved by matter. That is Gnosticism in a nutshell. But Gnosticism, even in its pre-scientific forms, is a radical error.

Why is it a radical error?
It is an almost purely paranoid religion. Monotheism is also paranoid because anything that happens is known to God—everything has meaning. By paranoia I mean the discovery—or, rather, the invention—of meaning where it doesn't exist. It is the perception of meaning where it is not.

What would be an example for Gnosticism in the sciences today?
Transhumanism. Their general idea is that we must liberate the mind from the body. Take Kurzweil's Singularity. He wants to free the mind from the prison that is our body by uploading the self to the internet. He would say, "I'm an ailing body unless I take my 500 vitamins a day so that I get to live until the arrival of the Singularity."

But unless the emerging virtual order is in some sense autonomous, then you haven't got very far. If it isn't, then you can only be semi-immortal in the virtual world. Someone just needs to unplug the computer and you're dead.

He really takes 500 vitamins a day?
He published a diet book, Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. If you live until 2042 then you can upload yourself to the internet and you can live forever.

But, overall, knowledge does give us power?
That is true. It doesn't, by itself, free us. It is a two-edged sword. You can use certain technologies to promote freedom but also to spy on people. One of the core thoughts of the book where I descend from a strong philosophical and religious tradition, in philosophical terms from Socrates, is that I hold that the advancement of knowledge is not in itself liberating.

The general view today is, I think, that the growth of knowledge leads to a growth of human freedom. But the human world isn't accretive in that way as the sciences. In human history what often happens is the destruction of whole civilizations.

There seems to be a certain monoculture in our thinking today, in our view of the world. Whatever side you're on, most people would believe in inevitable ethical progress that is attached to the sciences.
There'd be different content, but still the general assumption is that we are moving to a better state. Now, my view is that politics and ethics aren't like that. I take that ethics and politics are more erratic and discontinuous. There are serious advances, but then they are regularly lost.

And, unfortunately, good things are lost. For example, in the ancient world, pre-Christian Europe, there wasn't a persecution of gay people! That was then lost for 2,000 years. That's quite a long regression. People who believe in progress must allow the question, "But what about those 2,000 years?"

There are good events in history—there are genuine advances—but they are inherently fragile. That's my key message.

An example would be the relaxation on the ban of torture.
Yes. The ban of torture was a genuine, real, and important advance. Its origin goes back a couple of hundred years in Europe and was then put in treaties in the 20th century. Today it is clear to everyone that the US has been torturing. And now the situation is, I think, that torture is part of the system. During Bush already some proponents suggested the use of sterilized hot needles to prevent infections. That would be progress in the art of torture.

It's in the system. A few years ago Obama called for "prolonged detention." The irony is that, in that speech, Obama argued that Bush was terrible because he didn't respect the Constitution. But instead of banning torture and indefinite detention again once and for all, the constitutional lawyer Obama has made indefinite detention—the practical destruction of habeas corpus—in some sense constitutional. That's sheer cynicism.
That's right. So the practice, or some of the practices, installed by Bush are continued. Maybe not waterboarding—at least, not officially. But let me give you what even you might regard as a horrific possibility of what might happen over the next five to ten years: A presidential candidate runs in America on a platform which includes fully legitimating waterboarding. And he or she wins.

You think that's a possibility?
Yes! I'm not saying it's certain. When I anticipated the return of torture during the Bush years, I thought that was practically certain. But this is still a very realistic possibility.

But it would happen in the name of freedom and human rights.
Yes.

That's insane.
No, that's the irony. Look at the mindset of people. People would think that happens only in backward regimes like Russia, or is done by barbaric groups like Boko Haram—and I myself consider Boko Haram as genuinely barbaric. In the prevalent perception there is torture only in these places, not in the West. But then it happened. And even more so it happened because it was argued that it was in the name of human rights. But whenever this takes place, people will claim that it was just because democracy didn't work well enough; it was never put before the people. If it had been put before the people, it wouldn't have happened, they say. But suppose it is put before the people and it's passed. I'm not perfectly confident this will happen, but I think this is eminently imaginable.

Something else that seemed unimaginable to most only a few years ago was Europe on the brink of war...
True. Look at Europe now. Two years ago people would say, "Oh look at Steven Pinker, we'll never have a war again in Europe." To which I replied: "Why not?" But for them it was just unthinkable. Look at Ukraine. Could that spiral into a larger war? Very easily.

In your new book you also refer to Pinker, but without even mentioning his name, which I find fabulous. What Pinker and his acolytes show is an almost mystical, certainly superstitious faith in the power of statistics and numbers. Maybe we should have an app that continuously presents us with new figures that show how amazing everything is.
I actually have something to that extent in the book. What people like Pinker do is to attempt to manufacture meaning from figures, numbers and statistics. In my book I suggest that there might be, in the near future, a state-of-the-art electronic tablet that continuously generates that kind of meaning from numbers. In fact, I suggest that those who believe in reason—but at the same time lack any deeper religious faith and are too weak to live in doubt—should turn to the sorcery of numbers.

But what seems to give hope these days is Syriza's victory as a left-wing party in Greece.
I don't think Syriza will be successful because the power structure in Europe is situated in Germany, and they won't allow what Syriza wants. What they're probably going to do is push Syriza into submission, which will politically illegitimize them. Not now, but in six months from now, because now they still have the good will. But suppose in six months from now austerity will be reintroduced by Syriza. What will happen then? What's the endgame that these grand masters of strategy in Brussels have in mind? Have they asked themselves what will happen if Syriza fails? Have these geniuses in Brussels worked that out? They will probably force Syriza to the point of humiliation and defeat. Out of that we might get an even worse situation, with the Nazi party Golden Dawn as ruling party.

To return to how we started this conversation: How does that connect to negative capability? What to do in such a situation?
My view in a situation like that is that you are in the world, you don't know what will happen, you have sort of a responsibility to consider realistic possibilities, you shouldn't harm other people. But beyond that you don't know what will happen. So you have to act. You might act by resisting, by voting, by doing various things, or you might leave. Leaving is sad. But I wouldn't sit there in anguish and wait until it's all sorted out. Because it won't get sorted out. It's going to get progressively worse.

You see, my view is not a sort of fatalism in the vulgar sense. It's not about waiting until everything is resolved or things are getting worse. One of my heroes is Freud. And he makes clear that fate is not something you must surrender to or submit to. You can defy it. In fact, you should. But you can't necessarily overcome it.