Straw Dogs, Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

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This philosophical bestseller by John Gray is composed of a collection of essays, rather independent from one another. Some of these essays are of direct relevance to what this Wiki is all about and we will briefly comment on some quotes from Straw Dogs to indicate where the authors of this Wiki stand in relation to Gray's thinking.

Animal Virtues

(Quotes from chapter 3, essay #14 from John Gray's "Straw Dogs")

If you seek the origins of ethics, look to the lives of other animals. The roots of ethics are in the animal virtues. Humans cannot live well without virtues they share with their animal kin.

This is not a new idea. Two and a half thousand years ago, Aristotle observed the similarities between humans and dolphins. Like humans, dolphins act purposefully to achieve the good things of life, they take pleasure in exercising their powers and skills, and they display qualities such as curiosity and bravery. Humans are not alone in having an ethical life. In thinking this way, Aristotle was at one with Nietzsche, who wrote:

The beginnings of justice, as of prudence, moderation, bravery - in short, of all that we designate as the Socratic virtues - are animal: a consequence of that drive which teaches us to seek food and elude enemies. Now if we consider that even the highest human being has only become more elevated and subtle in the nature of his food and in his conception of what is inimical to him, it is not improper to describe the entire phenomenon of morality as animal.

The dominant Western view is different. It teaches that humans are unlike other animals, which simply respond to the situations in which they find themselves. We can scrutinise our motives and impulses; we can know why we act as we do. By becoming ever more self-aware, we can approach a point at which our actions are the results of our choices. When we are fully conscious, everything we do will be done for reasons we can know. At that point, we will be authors of our lives.

This may seem fantastical, and so it is. Yet it is what we are taught by Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, Descartes, Spinoza and Marx. For all of them, consciousness is our very essence, and the good life means living as a fully conscious individual.


Outside the Western tradition, the Taoists of ancient China saw no gap between is and ought. Right action was whatever comes from a clear view of the situation. They did not follow moralists - in their day, Confucians - in wanting to fetter human beings with rules or principles. For Taoists, the good life is only the natural life lived skilfully. It has no particular purpose. It has nothing to do with the will, and it does not consist in trying to realise any ideal. Everything we do can be done more or less well; but if we act well it is not because we translate our intentions into deeds. It is because we deal skilfully with whatever needs to be done. The good life means living according to our natures and circumstances. There is nothing that says that it is bound to be the same for everybody, or that it must conform with 'morality'.

In Taoist thought, the good life comes spontaneously; but spontaneity is far from simply acting on the impulses that occur to us. In Western traditions such as Romanticism, spontaneity is linked with subjectivity. In Taoism it means acting dispassionately, on the basis of an objective view of the situation at hand. The common man cannot see things objectively, because his mind is clouded by anxiety about achieving his goals. Seeing clearly means not projecting our goals into the world; acting spontaneously means acting according to the needs of the situation. Western moralists will ask what is the purpose of such action, but for Taoists the good life has no purpose. It is like swimming in a whirlpool, responding to the currents as they come and go. 'I enter with the inflow, and emerge with the outflow, follow the Way of the water, and do not impose my selfishness upon it. This is how I stay afloat in it,' says the Chuang-Tzu. In this view, ethics is simply a practical skill, like fishing or swimming. The core of ethics is not choice or conscious awareness, but the knack of knowing what to do. It is a skill that comes with practice and an empty mind. A.C. Graham explains:

The Taoist relaxes the body, calms the mind, loosens the grip of categories made habitual by naming, frees the current of thought for more fluid differentiations and assimilations, and instead of pondering choices lets his problems solve themselves as inclination spontaneously finds its own direction. ... He does not have to make decisions based on standards of good and bad because, granted only that enlightenment is better than ignorance, it is self-evident that among spontaneous inclinations the one prevailing in greatest clarity of mind, other things being equal, will be best, the one in accord with the Way.

Few human beings have the knack of living well. Observing this, the Taoists looked to other animals as their guides to the good life. Animals in the wild know how to live; they do not need to think or choose. It is only when they are fettered by humans that they cease to live naturally.

As the Chuang-Tzu puts it, horses, when they live wild, eat grass and drink water; when they are content, they entwine their necks and rub each other. When angry, they turn their backs on each other and kick out. This is what horses know. But if harnessed together and lined up under constraints, they know how to look sideways and to arch their necks, to career around and try to spit out the bit and rid themselves of the reins.

For people in thrall to 'morality', the good life means perpetual striving ("telic" in the words of this Wiki). For Taoists it means living effortlessly ("paratelic" in the words of this Wiki), according to our natures. The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose. Rather than agonising over alternatives, he responds effortlessly to situations as they arise. He lives not as he chooses but as he must. Such a human being has the perfect freedom of a wild animal - or a machine. As the Lieh-Tzu says: 'The highest man at rest is as though dead, in movement is like a machine. He knows neither why he is at rest nor why he is not, why he is in movement nor why he is not.'

The idea that freedom means becoming like a wild animal or machine is offensive to Western religious and humanist prejudices, but it is consistent with the most advanced scientific knowledge. A.G. Graham explains:

Taoism coincides with the scientific worldview at just those points where the latter most disturbs westerners rooted in the Christian tradition - the littleness of man in a vast universe; the inhuman Tao which all things follow, without purpose and indifferent to human needs; the transience of life, the impossibility of knowing what comes after death; unending change in which the possibility of progress is not even conceived; the relativity of values; a fatalism very close to determinism; even a suggestion that the human organism operates like a machine.

Autonomy means acting on reasons I have chosen; but the lesson of cognitive science is that there is no self to do the choosing. We are far more like machines and wild animals than we imagine. But we cannot attain the amoral selflessness of wild animals, or the choiceless automatism of machines. Perhaps we can learn to live more lightly, less burdened by morality. We cannot return to a purely spontaneous existence.

If humans differ from other animals, it is partly in the conflicts of their instincts. They crave security, but they are easily bored; they are peace-loving animals, but they have an itch for violence; they are drawn to thinking, but at the same time they hate and fear the unsettlement thinking brings. There is no way of life in which all these needs can be satisfied. Luckily, as the history of philosophy testifies, humans have a gift for self-deception, and thrive in ignorance of their natures (see below for the why and how).

Western virtues versus Taoism, a Reversal Theory perspective

(Comments on John Gray's "Straw Dogs")

In the above essay Gray points out an important difference between western Christian thought and eastern philosophies like Taoism. In western Christian thought the best achievable condition is one of high virtue where a "good" way of life has successfully been strived after and achieved. In Taoist thinking on the other hand, the best achievable condition is one of effortlessness, of being able to flow with the current.

As explained elsewhere on this Wiki, if one has knowledge of the basic mechanisms of (human) emotions and motivations and if one is aware of the function of "telic" and "paratelic" states of motivation, it has become clear that western thought does not escape from thinking in telic dominant terms, not understanding the function and usefulness of paratelic states. Taoist thinking on the other hand does manage to incorporate paratelic states in its considerations, be it in different terms and words, and it points out that an achieved and enlightened person generally manages to dwell (sufficiently often) in playfull effortlessness and goal-lessness (which is the meaning of the Greek word "paratelic").

In this way the information on this Wiki can bring deeper insight into the phenomena that Gray brings to our attention and also about the technical details of the underlying mechanisms.

Gray furthermore points out that humans have an uncanny tendency for self-deception and a peculiar ignorance about their own functioning. This also makes it possible that the above mentioned awareness of what we call the paratelic states and the desirability of being able to effortlessly flow with the Tao, is virtually absent in our culture. This makes it possible that such basic and elementary characteristics of our own personal behavioural system, behavioural elements that are essentially very simple and easy to understand for anybody who's mind is not blocked, have nevertheless stayed completely out of view in our culture(s).

With the information as presented on this Wiki we not only can understand how this peculiar blindness for the own behaviour operates in us humans, but also can understand how this peculiar blindness came about. It is explained here that any evolutionary emergence of a higher intelligence by necessity has to go through an evolutionary phase of blindness, and that otherwise intelligence cannot grow above a certain level. It is furthermore argued on this Wiki that such a state of personal and collective blindness, in which we are still stuck till over our necks, is also a transitory state and that a different type of functioning is laying in wait for us on the other side of the blindness barrier. By laying bare the technical behavioural details of our intelligent, and not so intelligent, functioning and the motivational mechanisms involved, it is shown that our present state of blindness and thorough confusion already is the dominant state of affairs for over 10,000 years, but that it is basically unstable and is likely to collapse all of a sudden some time in the future (see also here).

Artificial Paradises

(Quote from chapter 4, essay #12 from John Gray's "Straw Dogs" on the role of drugs in present day society)

Consciousness and the attempt to escape it go together. Drug use is a primordial animal activity. Among humans, it is immemorial and nearly universal. What then accounts for the 'war on drugs'?

Prohibiting drugs makes the trade in them fabulously profitable. It breeds crime and greatly enlarges the prison population. Despite this, there is a worldwide drugs pandemic. Prohibiting drugs has failed. Why then will no contemporary government legalise them? Some say organised crime and the law are linked in a symbiosis that blocks radical reform. There may be some truth in this, but the real explanation lies elsewhere.

The most pitiless warriors against drugs have always been militant progressives. In China, the most savage attack on drug use occurred when the country was convulsed by a modern western doctrine of universal emancipation - Maoism. It is no accident that the crusade against drugs is led today by a country wedded to the pursuit of happiness - the United States. For the corollary of that improbable quest is a puritan war on pleasure.

Drug use is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth. For most people happiness is beyond reach. Fulfillment is found not in daily life but in escaping from it. Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure.

Religious cultures could admit that earthly life was hard, for they promised another in which all tears would be wiped away. Their humanist successors affirm something still more incredible - that in future, even the near future, everyone can be happy. Societies founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life. As a result, they are bound to wage war on those who seek an artificial happiness in drugs.

Drugs for and drugs against power structures

(Comments on John Gray's "Straw Dogs")

This Wiki shows that the present state of mankind is governed by power structures on the "meme level". That implies that malleability and obedience of us humans in respect to the power structures in place, is far more important than is personal happiness. Rather, a mild but stable level of unhappiness and neuroticism is the best a power structure can opt for.

Therefore, in case a power structure allows for drug use to be incorporated in a local social structure and political organization, then these drugs are likely to help maintain neurotic states rather than help to overcome them. For a power structure, awareness boosters, like e.g., LSD, Peyotle, San Pedro, Ayahuasca, pure marihuana, etc. are dangerous, because they may lift the awareness of the individuals in question over a threshold beyond which the control over such an individual may start to waver and break down. Awareness expanding drugs tend to break the rather unstable prison bars of fear and neurosis and tend to trigger awareness of what is really going on, of what individuals really would wish and would need. They bring awareness of what other levels of well being are possible and how to get there and, what is even more crucial, how one could escape from the fetters of customary unhappy slavery. And that is lethal for the power structures in charge, for thus they would lose their power over their carriers, us humans.

Drugs like coffee, cocaine, nicotine and alcohol on the other hand, can easier be incorporated in a thriving power structure, because they diminish awareness rather than boost it or they produce short energy boosts at the expense of later autonomous energy levels. And the latter is conducive to power structures, because that sort of "borrowing" of energy in turn reduces the likelihood of autonomous paratelic states (see here) and thus stabilizes neurotic states for the long term. And it is precisely a stabilized general neuroticism that power structures and their governments really want, be it unconsciously.

Any government not playing along with these rules is likely to undermine its own stability. General well being and stability of power structures do not go hand in hand.

Moreover, power structures thrive best if they keep their masses unawares of these mechanisms. By maintaining blindness for the general unhappiness and stressfulness of oneself and everybody around, the power structures prevent their carriers to use their intelligence for questioning their situation. The best slave is a slave who is not aware of his slavery. Drugs use is just one of the examples where this general tendency can be observed. In our societies the information about drugs is therefore in general incomplete, wrong, absent or upside down. The more confusion on these matters, the better.

The Lessons of Japan

(Quote from chapter 5, essay #13 from John Gray's "Straw Dogs" on the inescapable influence of predatory states (power structures))

Japan's rulers were able to shut out the modern technologies that threatened its peace because it had the option of isolation. When Commodore Perry arrived with his black ships in 1853, Japan's rulers knew it had to switch course. By the first decade of the twentieth century it had a modern navy, which destroyed the Russian Imperial Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima - the first time a modern European power was defeated in war by an Asian people.

Any country that renounces technology makes itself the prey of others that do not. At best it will fail to achieve the self-sufficiency at which it aims - at worst it will suffer the fate of the Tasmanians. There is no escape from a world of predatory states.

Power structures ................. predatory states

(Comments on John Gray's "Straw Dogs")

What is underlined with these quotes from Gray is that human societies in the end are ruled and determined by large power structures and their demands. Only large power structures that are able to compete successfully with their competitor fellow power structures, can survive. Peoples either are wiped out or win, or are subdued and incorporated in another people's power structure, thus making it their own. Whichever way, they have to submit to being neuroticized, to being blindfolded, to being unhappy rather perpetually, in short, to being enslaved thoroughly and forever.

That's why and how power structures tend to devour or absorb social structures with less structured unhappiness and a less perfect malleability of its carriers. Whereas these tendencies between societies and states happen on a very unconscious basis, the apparent "behaviour" of the surviving states rightly deserves the epitheton "predatory states" as used by Gray.

Yet Another Utopia

(Quote from chapter 5, essay #18 from John Gray's "Straw Dogs")

We can dream of a world in which a greatly reduced human population lives in a partially restored paradise; in which farming has been abandoned, and green deserts given back to the earth; where the remaining humans are settled in cities, emulating the noble idleness of hunter-gatherers, their needs met by new technologies that leave little mark on the Earth; where life is given over to curiosity, pleasure and play.

There is nothing technically impossible about such a world. New technologies cannot undo the laws of thermodynamics; but they can be friendlier to the Earth than the old technologies. Microchips allow technology to be partially dematerialised, making it less energy-intensive. Solar power allows energy consumption to be partly decarbonised, reducing its environmental impact. James Lovelock has suggested using nuclear power to counter global warming. E.O. Wilson has proposed that genetically modified foods have a role in a far-reaching programme of conservation and population control.

A high-tech Green Utopia, in which a few humans live happily in balance with the rest of life, is scientifically feasible; but it is humanly unimaginable. If anything like it ever comes about, it will not be through the will of homo rapiens.

So longer as population grows, progress will consist in labouring to keep up with it. There is only one way that humanity can limit its labours, and that is by limiting its numbers. But limiting human numbers clashes with powerful human needs. The Kurds and the Palestinians see large numbers of children as a survival strategy. Where communities are locked in intractable conflict, a high birth rate is a weapon. In any future we can realistically foresee, there will be many such conflicts. Zero population growth could be enforced only by a global authority with draconian powers and unwavering determination. There never has been such a power, and there never will be.

And yet. . . What if a shift in our place in the world were to come about without anyone planning it? What if our designs for the future were moves in a game in which we are only passing players?

Utopia or emerging new reality ?

(Comments on John Gray's "Straw Dogs")

The above quote from Gray leaves a rather pessimistic view of our human situation. And, true, history does not give us much encouragement to dwell on more optimistic world views and future possibilities. The naked facts show that human beings live quite unconsciously and seem ages away from being able to make clever decisions about their own future and way of life. Instead, they blindly follow the dictates of the power structures they happen to live in and keep committing the most inane, stupid atrocities and acts of destruction in the name of some "higher common cause".

Still, the data on this Wiki show that another viewpoint can be considered. That is the viewpoint of an increasing human intelligence that has been kept harnessed and blindfolded artificially for the purposes of the evolutionary struggle between meme level power structures, the viewpoint that these blinding mechanisms are basically unstable and that by a suddenly exploding awareness level the blindfolds will eventually be torn away and (self)realization will suddenly start to spread all over the human world. As soon as that happens, energies will be automatically withdrawn from fueling the power structures and be directed in more wholesome directions, like figuring out how to maximize human well being instead of maximizing the impersonal power structures in charge.

In fact, the issue of overpopulation is one of the recent developments that guides humanity towards an inescapable confrontation with its own staggering irrationality. And whereas power structures in general foster unawareness of the human condition and unawareness of possibilities to improve the human condition, this problem of overpopulation may prove to become such a strong trigger to overcome blindness on this spot that it may eventually serve as a starting point of (self) awareness breaking loose. After all, the current information explosion makes it ever more difficult for power structures to cultivate adequate and stable levels of ignorance.

Simply to See

(Quote, paragraph 5 from chapter 6 from John Gray's "Straw Dogs", final paragraph of his book.)

Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?

The Capacity to See, before and after Point Omega

(Comments on John Gray's "Straw Dogs")

"Simply to see" ? Yes we can, yes we will !

This Wiki argues that this "simply to see" is indeed a very accurate description of what human evolution inescapably is leading to and why this is so. It is shown why the human condition has been so difficult since some 10,000 years up till now, and why it has been an evolutionary necessity for humanity to go through this phase of blindness, of "not seeing".

It is shown that at this stage of human evolution and development the natural flow of evolutionary events will remove the blocks on human intelligence and release all the intelligence laying dormant in the human species for thousands of years. This will cause humanity to collectively escape from the clusters that were unavoidable so long for good evolutionary reasons ............ Point Omega.

And whereas in the enlightened state, awaiting us after Point Omega, that need for purpose, that need for clear goals, will dwindle away, because the telic states stop being overdominant, the "after Point Omega state" will be characterized by conscious evolution rather than by unconsciously being pulled around by blind evolutionary forces tearing us apart emotionally. Evolution towards more and more consciousness will then give way to conscious evolution (see definition) without suffering continuously from the urgent need for having a purpose or goal. We will have it, but we will not "need" it any more.