Allen Lane £18.99
The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, By John Gray
Our greatest anti-utopian thinker returns to a favourite theme: that there's no such thing as human progress, and science cannot save us
Sunday 30 January 2011
Last February, I had a long argument in a Starbucks with one of the cleverest conservatives in our country. (He was subsequently elected to Parliament).
We disagreed on the question of whether or not John Gray is a philosopher.
I said that he is. My argument at the time was based on two propositions. First, if its etymology is anything to go by, philosophy is the love of wisdom, and anybody who has read Gray, or made cursory enquiries into his academic career, cannot reasonably doubt that he is a lover of wisdom. Second, if The Oxford Companion to Philosophy is anything to go by, and philosophy is "thinking about thinking", well, see above.
To this came the impressive retort that, at least in recent years, Gray has been banging the same drum. Far from being the wide-ranging public intellectual for whom no subject is off bounds (Bertrand Russell is the archetype), Gray has revisited and revised the same arguments in each of his works since Straw Dogs (2002). Not for him, vast reams on the epistemology of logic, the limits of Kierkegaard or the sanctimony of the Stoics. Rather, Gray's hatred of utopianism in all its forms has infected each recent book, so that they have really been mere variants on that same unifying theme. This makes him not so much a philosopher as a pamphleteer – one who satisfies William Buckley's conservative ideal of the steward who "stands athwart History, yelling stop".
So evidently is this true that, by a happy dialectic, my companion and I alighted on common ground. John Gray is a pamphleteering philosopher obsessed with hatred of utopianism. To this view, The Immortalization Commission is a brief but cogent addition.
Gray's life was changed by his reading of Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium. (It happens to all of us). In that seminal work, Cohn argues that the millenarian movements of medieval times and secular totalitarianisms of the 20th century shared a foundational characteristic with the Abrahamic religions. They saw history as teleological. More than that: they considered history rectilinear, and so possessing both a direction and a destination. The secular totalitarianisms were essentially religious, because in sponsoring this teleology they saw human history as a moral drama whose final act is salvation. But whereas traditional religion is animated by faith in God, these secular religions are animated by faith in progress, as delivered by science.
Yet science, Gray contends, cannot deliver what we want it to, which is salvation from ourselves. Scientific knowledge grows incrementally, but moral knowledge can be lost as easily as it is gained. The cult of progress suggests that our values and goals will converge as knowledge grows, but 20th-century history suggests that the opposite is true.
And what is the search for immortality, but the quest for salvation from ourselves? It fits neatly into Gray's scheme of animosity, and shows that we are yet to heed the central lesson of Darwin's work: humanity is no different from other species in being doomed to extinction on an unforgiving planet.
This book comes in two halves. In the first, Gray documents the late-Victorian and Edwardian intellectuals who, through their research into the psychic realm, presumed correspondence with the dead was possible. This fantasy infected the cream of English society, but is yet to yield any tangible evidence of the afterlife.
In the second half, Gray relates the familiar and grizzly history of the Bolshevik God-builders, who were similarly animated by a belief that science could overcome mortality. The absurd body set up to preserve Lenin's corpse was the apogee of this project, and provides the book's title.
Linking these two worlds is HG Wells, the utopian whose affair with Maxim Gorky's third wife furnishes Gray with some splendid reportage.
In documenting this history, he exposes the tawdry relationship between theology and ethics. Many immortalists, like the great ethicist Henry Sidgwick, think that without an afterlife there is no point in acting morally: the promise of heaven is the sole incentive to be good. Yet this view is a first step on the path to tyranny, because it empties moral actions of their true worth. Being good must be good in and of itself – rather than merely instrumental to some future experience – if people are to be convinced to act ethically. Gray's debunking of theology's grip on ethics is therefore timely and timeless.
Gray has made himself the most compulsive iconoclast and anti-humanist writing in English today. His prose stinks of perspicacity. This book is written with his customary urgency and wit. But those of us who have made a serious study of his writings for several years have little new to work with in this tome. The aria is familiar, the conductor is the same – only the orchestra is new. Gray has played this tune before, and better. For the sake of the philosopher within him, it is time to move on.
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