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Humanism creates a false belief that we can explain everything

On Philip Roth, John N. Gray, George Orwell, Sigmund Freud, Samuel Beckett, Claudia Roth Pierpont, Barbara Ehrenreich, Fernando Passoa, Donald Rumsfeld and Errol Morris. The human animal and arguments against humanism.

This is my attempt to weave together a lot of thoughts that were inspired by reading a whole host of books over the past two months; books that had a recurring theme or could be cross-patched together whether through theory, serendipity or symbolism. I'm not certain that I've been successful, yet my failure may be your success - or vice versa.

Of late, I've simply been fascinated with how we live our lives. I now understand that I have a lot of research to do. In reality I am challenging my own outlook on life, or at least trying to make sense of it as I get older. The only thing that is clear is that everyday I wake up and I sense my body in a bed. I hear sounds. I feel my heart beating. I create a narrative for how the day ahead will unfold. I wrestle with myths.

Let me begin with this insight from John N. Gray in his book The Silence of Animals. "In the most general terms, humanism is the idea that the human animal is the site of some kind of unique value in the world."

Here's O'Brien belligerently informing Winston in George Orwell's 1984:  "You must stop imagining that posterity will vindicate you, Winston. Posterity will never hear of you. You will be lifted clean out of the stream of history. We shall turn you into gas and pour you into the stratosphere. Nothing will remain of you: not your name in a register, not a memory in a living brain. You will be annihilated in the past as well as the future. You will never have existed."

And this by Steven Millhauser from Phantoms, a short story in The Best of McSweeney's.  

"Explanation # 3: One explanation asserts that we and the phantoms were once a single race, which at some point in the remote history of our town divided into two societies. According to a psychological offshoot of this explanation, the phantoms are unwanted or unacknowledged portions of ourselves, which we try to evade but continually encounter; they make us uneasy because we know them; they are ourselves." 

And to wrap a proverbial bow around things: "Humankind can't bear very much reality." - T.S. Eliot in Burnt Norton.

Fernando Pessoa

Some words from from Fernando Pessoa as Bernardo Soares:

"If I carefully consider the life a man leads, I find nothing to distinguish it from the life an animal leads. Both man and animal are hurled unconsciously through things and the world; both have interludes of amusement; both daily follow the same organic itinerary; both think nothing beyond what they think, nor live beyond what they live. A cat wallows in the sun and goes to sleep. Man wallows in life, with all its complexities, and goes to sleep. Neither one escapes the fatal flaw of being who or what it is."

Bernardo Soares is but one nom de plume used by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. In Gray's view he says of Soares/Pessoa: "Some truths cannot be told except as fiction."

Gray, in his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts On Humans And Other Animals writes: "Mystics talk of finding sermons in stone. For seekers after inhuman truth there could be no worse nightmare. It is only because nature cares nothing for us that it can release us from human cares."

Here, Fernando Pessoa considers our relationship to nature:

Only if you don't know what flowers, stones, and

rivers are

Can you talk about their feelings.

To talk about the flowers, stones, and rivers,

Is to talk about yourself, about your delusions.

Thank God stones are just stones,

And rivers just rivers,

And flowers just flowers.

Gray says: "Anyone who truly wants to escape human solipsism should not seek out empty places. Instead of fleeing to the desert, where they will be thrown back into their own thoughts, they will do better to seek the company of other animals. A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery."

Philip Roth

On page 218 of her wonderful book, Roth Unbound, an account of Philip Roth's creative life, Claudia Roth Pierpont quotes the great writer: "I don't write about my convictions," he insists. "I write about the comic and tragic consequences of holding convictions." Elsewhere, Pierpont makes an interesting insight when discussing a Roth character in Goodbye, Columbus - Neil Krugman is struck by what he sees as the continuity of the impoverished residents of the Third Ward in the blighted city of Newark, New Jersey. He saw that continuity as a form of progress. Pierpont sees it differently; "Progress, of course, was not as reliable as he'd thought."

As we will see later, progress is a myth that humans are too eager to embrace; there can be tragic consequences as a result of clinging to myths.

On page 316 Pierpont relates the story of two characters in Roth's book Nemesis. They are Arnie and Bucky, his school teacher, both of whom contract polio. Both survive. Arnie is less inflicted than Bucky who was "physically crippled yet no worse off than many other polio victims of the time, including President Roosevelt." Unlike Arnie who marries and creates a company that specializes in adapting buildings for access by the handicapped, Bucky turns down marriage and retreats into himself becoming despondent and living alone. Pierpont writes: "...he has never stopped hating the God who made everything happen the way it did." Bucky's hate for God tells us that he believes "in a God" and he bases the rest of his life on a vision of God as...

"an omnipotent being whose nature and purpose was to be adduced not from doubtful biblical evidence but from irrefutable historical proof, gleaned through a lifetime passed on this planet in the middle of the twentieth century. His conception of God was of an omnipotent being who was a union not of three persons in one Godhead, as in Christianity, but of two--a sick fuck and an evil genius."

Pierpont again: "To Arnie, this is not blasphemy--Arnie thinks in terms of chance, not of God--but merely "stupid hubris": "the hubris of a fantastical, childish religious interpretation."

Of course Bucky is a fictional character, and although Philip Roth insists that he doesn't instill his characters with his personal convictions, Bucky's "vision of God" certainly reads like an example of one; a conviction that suggests God exists, however dastardly "He" acts. Bucky's anger stems from his idea, shared by many I'm sure, that God should only be a benevolent "god." When people are struck down through natural disasters, accidents, epidemics  or warfare, especially young people, the human response is the wringing of hands and shaking of fists and a wrought question - how could 'He' let this happen? 

We can't deduce from Bucky's theism, or Arnie's trust in chance, what Roth's own beliefs might be. We will see why later.

Here, it's worth considering the terms atheist and God. The meaning of the term atheist is often perceived to mean anti-theism or anti-God; the atheist presumes to "know" that God does not exist; yet atheist and God are only words as John N. Gray describes below.

In The Silence of Animals Gray points us to the writer-philosopher Fritz Mauthner, a prolific man of words who was overshadowed by Wittgenstein (who, by the way, had no compunction against borrowing some of Mauthner's ideas.) Gray writes: "An uncompromising atheist and author of a four-volume history of atheist thinking, Mauthner noted that 'atheism'-- like 'God'-- is only a word. His atheism has nothing in common with the evangelical unbelief of his day or ours. In a pure form, atheism is no more to do with unbelief than religion is about belief. Strictly understood, atheism is an entirely negative position. You are not an atheist if you deny what theists believe. You are an atheist if you have no use for the concepts and doctrines of theism."

Bucky might have done himself a favor if he'd been able to read Gray, especially his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. Meanwhile, back to Roth and those convictions, or the lack thereof. 

Philip Roth was interviewed by Daniel Sandstrom, the cultural editor at Svenska Dagbladet. The interview was published in the New York Times Book Review section. In it, Roth reinforces his adamance for not imposing his own convictions upon his book's characters:

"Perversely enough, when you ask about a question that has been ignored by journalists, I think immediately of the question that any number of them cannot seem to ignore. The question goes something like this: “Do you still think such-and-such? Do you still believe so-and-so?” and then they quote something spoken not by me but by a character in a book of mine. If you won’t mind, may I use the occasion of your final question to say what is probably already clear to the readers of the literary pages of Svenska Dagbladet, if not to the ghosts of the journalists I am summoning up?

Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction. Seeking out a writer’s “thoughts” violates the richness of the mixture that is the very hallmark of the novel. The thought of the novelist that matters most is the thought that makes him a novelist.

The thought of the novelist lies not in the remarks of his characters or even in their introspection but in the plight he has invented for his characters, in the juxtaposition of those characters and in the lifelike ramifications of the ensemble they make — their density, their substantiality, their lived existence actualized in all its nuanced particulars, is in fact his thought metabolized.

The thought of the writer lies in his choice of an aspect of reality previously unexamined in the way that he conducts an examination. The thought of the writer is embedded everywhere in the course of the novel’s action. The thought of the writer is figured invisibly in the elaborate pattern — in the newly emerging constellation of imagined things — that is the architecture of the book: what Aristotle called simply “the arrangement of the parts,” the “matter of size and order.” The thought of the novel is embodied in the moral focus of the novel. The tool with which the novelist thinks is the scrupulosity of his style. Here, in all this, lies whatever magnitude his thought may have.

The novel, then, is in itself his mental world. A novelist is not a tiny cog in the great wheel of human thought. He is a tiny cog in the great wheel of imaginative literature. Finis."

John N. Gray and Samuel Beckett

Language is an interface, language creates the white noise in our minds that leaves humans without peace - hence Gray's book title, The Silence of Animals. Only animals live in peace, free of the babbling that is the true state of human minds. Humans aspire to silence, to inner peace, but it is unattainable. Samuel Beckett, the greatest practitioner of saying the unsayable, (who happens to have been influenced by Mauthner,) wrestled with taking language to its limits. Gray shares a Beckett insight from a letter he wrote:

Thought words
Words inane
Thought inane
Such was my levity

Beckett kept a diary. This is an extract from around the time he first read Mauthner:

"...what we hold to be the eternal and unalterably fixed laws of our intellectual being [are] merely a game played by the coincidence that is the world; when we recognize that our reason (which, after all, is language) can only be a coincidental reason, then we will only smile when we consider the argumentative passion with which anthropologists have laboured over questions of custom, belief and collective psychological "facts".

Later, Gray points out that "...since human beings cannot live in silence this (Beckett's writings) willful wordplay was a kind of folly, as Beckett recognized in the last text he ever wrote, an unfinished work he produced months before he died in a nursing home":

folly -
folly for to -
for two -
folly from this -
all this...
what is the word -
what is the word

Such finality from Beckett leaves me with this: Language can bedevil and be dangerous.

Errol Morris on Donald Rumsfeld

In his four-part series, The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld  in the New York Times, Errol Morris shares with us how, in a press conference Rumsfeld obfuscated the issues, and avoided the question of where was the evidence of the weapons of mass destruction supposedly held by Saddam Hussein, prior to the invasion of Iraq: 

DONALD RUMSFELD: Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. And so people who have the omniscience that they can say with high certainty that something has not happened or is not being tried, have capabilities that are — what was the word you used, Pam, earlier?

PAM HESS: Free associate. [The phrase “free associate” came earlier in the press conference in response to a question about drones.]

DONALD RUMSFELD: Yeah. They can do things I can’t do. (laughter)

Meanwhile, Morris points out that "...Jamie McIntyre, the senior Pentagon correspondent for CNN, returned to the real question — the question of evidence."

[...] McIntyre did not give up. And Rumsfeld slipped into more gobbledygook.

JAMIE McINTYRE: But if we are to believe things —

DONALD RUMSFELD: I could have said that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, or vice versa.

JAMIE McINTYRE: But we just want to know, are you aware of any evidence? Because that would increase our level of belief from faith to something that would be based on evidence. [Emphasis mine.]

DONALD RUMSFELD: Yeah, I am aware of a lot of evidence involving Iraq on a lot of subjects. And it is not for me to make public judgments about my assessment or others’ assessment of that evidence. I’m going to make that the last question.

Morris again: "The power of dogma versus evidence. We have been transported back to 1633. To Galileo Galilei standing before the Inquisition disputing the geocentric versus the heliocentric solar system. For the Inquisition, Galileo’s calculations conflict with dogma. But for Galileo, his calculations reveal the true nature of the universe — the true nature of reality. (The scene is memorialized in a painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury, Galileo Galilei Before Members of the Holy Office in the Vatican in 1633 — a painting of a painting with Raphael’s Disputation of the Holy Sacrament looming in the background.)

These 17th century debates remind us that if you have an unshakable belief in something, then no amount of evidence (or lack of evidence) can convince you otherwise. (There are always anti-rationalist objections to everything and anything. It is curious, however, to hear them in the 21st century rather than in the 17th.)"

More from Errol Morris:

"John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who traveled through the Grand Canyon, compared the unknown known and the known unknown. Savagery versus civilization — the first use I can document of the two phrases in one sentence." Powell wrote:

"There is an unknown known, and there is a known unknown. The unknown known is the philosophy of savagery; the known unknown is the philosophy of civilization. In those stages of culture that we call savagery and barbarism, all things are known — supposed to be known; but when at last something is known, understood, explained, then to those who have that knowledge in full comprehension all other things become unknown. Then is ushered in the era of investigation and discovery; then science is born; then is the beginning of civilization. The philosophy of savagery is complete; the philosophy of civilization fragmentary. Ye men of science, ye wise fools, ye have discovered the law of gravity, but ye cannot tell what gravity is. But savagery has a cause and a method for all things; nothing is left unexplained.

In short, the savage is free to imagine anything; the civilized man is constrained by evidence. The known unknown “usher[s] in the era of investigation and discovery;” the unknown known is the savage’s false belief that he can explain everything."

Morris then slumps into a kind of despair:

"And then, of course, there are the things I once knew but can’t remember. It goes on and on and on. It begs us to answer the question what does it mean to know something? Or to know that we know something? Or to know that we don’t know something? Doesn’t it depend on evidence?"

"For Donald Rumsfeld, evidence of anarchy and chaos is not evidence of anarchy and chaos. For Donald Rumsfeld, the presence of evidence isn’t evidence of presence."

Only humans suffer from this mental chatter. Clearly, Rumsfeld believes in his own myths and narratives, and the actions that he undertook based on his personal, internal chatter made him dangerous.

To Beckett language was folly, remember.

Paul Krugman

The noted economist and Nobel Laureate, Paul Krugman, often skewers his peers and critics for their misunderstanding of their own cognitive dissonance. This is from one of his most recent blog posts that rather serendipitously (for me anyway,) includes Krugman criticizing supporters of the Iraq war:

"One of the most frustrating aspects of economic debate since 2008 has been the preference of influential people for stories about our troubles that sound serious as opposed to those that actually are serious. The reality, all along, has been that our economy is depressed because there isn’t enough spending, and that what we need is something, almost anything, that increases total spending. But policymakers and pundits want to hear about tough decisions and hard choices, and they just recoil from any suggestion that terrible problems might have easy answers.

The most destructive example is, of course, the deficit obsession that almost completely dominated establishment thinking from late 2009 until very recently, and is still hanging on as a source of bad analysis. Yes, many of the deficit scolds were simply using debt panic as an excuse to dismantle social insurance programs. But many fellow-travelers either sincerely believed that we had a fiscal crisis or felt that it was important to sound as if they believed it, because that was the kind of thing people who make tough decisions and hard choices were expected to say.

As an aside, I think the same kind of policy machismo was an important reason so many people who really, really should have known better supported the Iraq war."


"The sad truth is that while disasters brought on by inadequate demand have an easy economic answer — just spend more! — the psychology of policy elites is such that they generally refuse to believe in this answer, and look for tough choices to make instead. And the result is that unless something comes along to jolt them out of that mindset — something like a war — the slump goes on for a very long time."

Alas, our "beliefs" can lead to disaster; the consequence of myths.

John N. Gray on George Orwell

In The Silence of Animals Gray refers to George Orwell's classic novel 1984. He writes: "O'Brien had told Winston that reality was a human construction."

"You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right... When you delude yourself into thinking that you see something, you assume that everyone sees the same thing you do. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the party holds to truth, is truth."

O'Brien goes on:

"The party seeks power for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power."

Gray: "This power is above all over human beings; but it is also power over the material world."

O'Brien: "Already our control over matter is absolute... There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation - anything... You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature. We make the laws of Nature."

Gray: "In the world that O'Brien is making, there is only power" - "If you want a picture of the future, says O'Brien, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever." Gray points out that "In 1984, it is the formula 'two plus two makes five' that nullifies human freedom."

Gray again: " It has been suggested that Orwell derived the phrase 'two plus two makes five' from the Nazi Hermann Göring, who is reported to have declared, 'If the Fürher wants it, two and two make five.' But another source exists in a book Orwell reviewed in the New English Weekly in 1938. In Chapter Fifteen of Book Two of his book Assignment in Utopia, which is entitled 'Two Plus Two Equals Five', Eugene Lyons wrote of his time in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Lyons: "The slogan 'The Five Year Plan in Four Years' was advanced, and the magic symbols '5-in-4' and '2 + 2 = 5' were posted and shouted throughout the land.

The formula 2 + 2 = 5 instantly riveted my attention. It seemed to me at once bold and preposterous - the daring and the paradox and the tragic absurdity of the Soviet scene, its mystical simplicity, its defiance of logic, all reduced to nose-thumbing arithmetic... 2 + 2 = 5: in electric lights on Moscow house fronts, in foot-high letters on billboards, spelled planned error, hyperbole, perverse optimism: something childishly headstrong and strikingly imaginative..."

It's a cliché to use the adjective 'Orwellian,' yet if we follow the path that Rumsfeld led unwitting journalists down, it leads to General Colin Powell, who at the time was the United States Secretary of State, declaring to the UN Security Council: “We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction, is determined to make more … Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-September 11th world.” 

If that's not Orwellian it definitely has the same sinister ring to it, ala O'Brien.

Powell's speech was effective. It led to the invasion of Iraq, even though the true warmonger was Osama Bin Laden hiding out in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Further, it led to the deaths of hundreds of thousand Iraqis, as well as that of thousands of American and coalition troops. 

Powell had been misled. There were no 'weapons of mass destruction.' He later called that speech "the lowest point in my life." Rumsfeld's Newspeak had won out.

John N. Gray

With regard to an earlier war, here's Gray on Jung and Freud on Europe during World War Two: 

"Like Jung, Freud viewed interwar Europe as having descended into mass psychosis. Unlike Jung, he never welcomed this development. The forces that were released during this period were not numinous powers emerging from an unconscious repository of mythic wisdom. They were repressed impulses liberated from inner restraint. Without the ruin of bourgeois life by economic collapse, Nazism might never have developed into the hideously destructive force that it became. For many in interwar Europe, however, Nazism had a positive appeal on account of the promise of barbarism that it held out. Freud understood this appeal, but that did not mean he shared it. Modern civilization might be sickly, but so was the human animal. Embracing madness would not make the soul whole."

The savage's false belief that he can explain everything, in other words.

Barbara Ehrenreich

"The world flamed into life..."

From a New York Times book review of her book Living With A Wild God: A non-Believer's Search For the Truth About Everything

"Ms. Ehrenreich is a person worth knowing, and “Living With a Wild God” gets us as close as we are likely to get. But this discursive and repetitive and claustrophobic book is more fully about the mystical experiences she began having as a young girl, experiences she has long been wary of speaking about, perhaps with reason.

“Try inserting an account of a mystical experience into a conversation, and you’ll likely get the same response as you would if you confided that you had been the victim of an alien abduction,” she says.

One of these reverberating experiences occurred in her early teens at a horse show in Massachusetts. “Something peeled off the visible world,” Ms. Ehrenreich recalls, “taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels and words. I was looking at a tree, and if anyone had asked, that’s what I would have said I was doing, but the word ‘tree’ was gone, along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language.” [My emphasis. DA]

Another occurred a few years later during a predawn walk in Lone Pine, Calif., when “the world flamed into life.” She writes: “There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me, and I poured out into it.” She admits she was hungry and sleep deprived at the time.

Ms. Ehrenreich, an atheist and a skeptic, goes in search of what these early experiences — they mostly stopped as she grew into adulthood — meant and mean. She becomes “intellectually prepared,” she says, “to acknowledge the possible existence of conscious beings — ‘gods,’ spirits, extraterrestrials — that normally elude our senses, making themselves known to us only on their own whims and schedules.” We have, she declares, “made ourselves far lonelier than we have any reason to be.”

Steven Millhauser:

How Things Are

"For most of us, the phantoms are simply there. We don't think about them continually, at times we forget them entirely, but when we encounter them we feel that something momentous has taken place, before we drift back into forgetfulness. Someone once said that our phantoms are like thoughts of death: they are always there, but appear only now and then. It's difficult to know exactly what we mean about our phantoms, but I think it's fair to say that in the moment we see them, before we're seized by a familiar emotion like fear, or anger, or curiosity, we are struck by a sense of strangeness, as if we've suddenly entered a room we've never seen before, a room that nevertheless feels familiar. Then the world shifts back into place and we continue on our way. For though we have our phantoms, our town is like your town: sun shines on the house fronts, we wake in the night with troubled hearts, cars back out of driveways and turn up the street. It's true that a question runs through our town, because of the phantoms, but we don't believe we are the only ones who live with unanswered questions. Most of us would say we're no different from anyone else. When you come to think about us, from time to time, you'll see we really are just like you."

We are human animals living our lives based on myth and the narrative we conjure up each waking day. We don't live in silence or even in the present like other animals, as we are betrayed by humanism.

As Gray points out, Freud said that the pursuit of happiness is a distraction from living. It would be better to aim for something different - a type of life in which you do not need a fantasy of satisfaction in order to find being human an interesting and worthwhile experience. Gray also notes that modern humanists think that in the future human beings must be more reasonable. As he says: "[...] the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion. Since it requires a miraculous breach in the order of things, the idea that Jesus returned from the dead is not as contrary to reason as the notion that human beings will in future be different from how they have always been."

In closing, four final insights:

"If there is anything unique about the human animal it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience." - John N. Gray

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human [...] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.” - David Foster Wallace - Infinite Jest (1996)

"Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity."

Joan Didion - The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

Unlike other animals, we are not aware of how alive we are, or as Freud put it "[...] you do not need a fantasy of satisfaction in order to find being human an interesting and worthwhile experience." We are too busy thinking about death and how to survive in the hope that we will not become mere phantoms. Yet, as Steven Millhauser wrote of those phantoms: they make us uneasy because we know them; they are ourselves.


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