After the thankless exertions of blogging and follow-up from a couple of weeks ago, I missed two opportunities to blog the week before last, and I have only just caught-up with last week’s Dennett lecture, so I need to record some items I’ve missed. They are, of course, all connected.
I listened to John Gray in conversation with Will Self the Wednesday before at Islington Assembly Halls. I tweeted half a dozen comments #GuardianLive, and started to read his latest “The Soul of The Marionette – a Short Enquiry into Human Freedom” – more about freedom and choice in liberal democracies rather than immediate free-will per se. I’m new to Gray and more intrigued than necessarily in agreement at this point, but it’s his aim to create thinking beyond the herd. Too soon to publish a review of the book, so I’ll just summarise first impressions based on what I noted on Twitter.
Secondly, I was already in the process of reading Åsne Seierstad’s “One of Us“, her biographical portrait of Anders Breivik and the story of some of his victims. “The hardest book I have ever written” says this war-zone-hardened journalist. I’ll say. Unputdownable, yet still probably one the hardest things I’ve ever read too. Harrowing, step-by-step, bullet-by-bullet, brutal detail in typically Norwegian matter of fact style, not to mention the thoughts of Templar Knight Breivik. I finished it at the weekend. You may recall I took a special interest in Breivik and his trial specifically for his “extreme rationality” in the ongoing debate between rationality as we know it, and religion as irrational superstition – particularly since Breivik’s agenda was explicitly anti-Muslim.
John Gray in Conversation with Will Self
So first the conversation with John Gray, as recorded in a few tweets.
#GuardianLive – John Gray talks with Will Self on free will at Islington Assembly Hall
As advertised it looks like another “free will is an illusion” agenda, but that misses Gray’s real point. Free will is not an illusion because it’s not objectively explainable by science – that’s a given. The point is more that freedom itself is kinda “overrated” in liberal democracies. There are not that many points where we (a) have effective influence and (b) really want decision-making responsibility. Most of life is about living and making the most of the one we have.
#GuardianLive – Gray’s target audience is individual liberal humanists who have doubts about received wisdom
That would be me.
#GuardianLive – unlike science and tech progress, moral progress is now in individual mortals, and is not accretive in culture.
This is the dangerous consequence of our privileging science over “non-rational” knowledge. Yes, we have the right or, more accurately, the freedom, to objectively and evidentially decide each and every case of good and bad decision making, but if we don’t have a codified resource of moral rules and values to fall back on, this is a tremendous waste of human mental effort on reductive analysis. Without authoritative codification, the learned moral knowledge dies with each mortal human. Science on the other hand has a growing body of documented knowledge – contingent but nevertheless established as accepted – as well as its embodiment in ever more technologies and products whose nature persists and evolves in the physical world
#GuardianLive – Gray questions whether self-knowledge of the examined life really helps us live better lives
#GuardianLive – Self responds that it is exceptional. Vast majority of life’s choices are mundane.
Yes, this is the point already summarised. Sure, we have the freedom, not to mention rights, to challenge, question and analyse anything and everything, but we can’t all spend all our time questioning everything, not even all the things we don’t understand or agree with. We don’t need to have the vote on every democratic decision. The scientistic meme might itself gain in advancing its kind of future knowledge, but life still needs to be lived. The wisdom of flourishing humanity is more than the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Governance – self-regulation – of life must involve some element of trust in what we already “know” individually and collectively, or all progress stalls.
Breivik – One of Us.
As I mentioned, having previously taken a deep interest in Breivik’s extremist rationale, his extreme rationality, Åsne Seierstad’s book was a must read for me. Rather than sensationalist, the dramatisation of the plot in all its harrowing details, is extremely emotive – and the same shocking level of evil in the trajectory of Breivik’s life according to his own rationale is simply reinforced by the Nordic style. A rationale that left him found to be of sound “rational” mind. Personally, I was always for insane and culpable – extreme rationality is insane or at least autistic in the technical sense. The gap between arguments he expressed – easily expressed in near-identical terms by many concerned with islamisation – the same “raping our women” cry – and the action rationale he developed to inhuman ends are scarily narrow. He really was one of us.
Having read Seierstad and having also just read Kenan Malik’s philosophical “textbook”on the evolution of morality to date – the quest for a moral compass – imagine my surprise at also reading Malik’s very brief work “Multiculturalism and its Discontents“. Surprising, and indeed gratifying, in that whilst it’s clearly a post-9/11 critique of arguments around multiculturalism, he leads and closes with the Breivik case – Norway’s 9/11. What Malik’s book shows is how fine these lines of argument are, how very similar reasoning leads to perverse conclusions and opposite actions whichever side of the debate you find yourself. Extreme care in reasoning – and in the associated terms and language – is needed, and even then, unintended consequences mean we need to reign in our arrogance to intervene with political governance decisions and actions when we might be better off understanding cultural evolution more naturally.