Choose Your Own Myth, with John Gray

Sorry I missed last week’s newsletter. I’ve had some hardcore flu which robbed me of all will-power, ambition and desire, and left me flitting like a dead bat through the fevered corridors of my mind. Have you ever seen a dead bat flit? Not pretty.

I managed to get out of bed to run a London Philosophy Club event last week, where the philosopher John Gray gave an interesting talk about his new book, The Silence of Animals. He seemed a very nice guy, who gave up his evening for free, and the audience (the biggest we’ve ever had at an LPC meeting) seemed on the whole to like his humility and humour, bar one lady who said ‘if I’d written your book it would have been very different’, and then left! Ah, the great British public.

His new book has been billed as a sequel to his 2002 bestseller, Straw Dogs, which was a blast of pessimism after a decade of blithe optimism. The problem with liberal humanism, Gray declared, was that it assumed humans were at the centre of the cosmos, when in fact we are contingent. Nature could carry on perfectly well without us, and probably will, if James Lovelock was to be believed.

Liberal humanism prides itself on being more rational than religion, says Gray, but it’s actually just as much of a superstitious dogma, grounded as it is in a religious faith in human rationality and in man’s ethical improvement through science. ‘Humanists are also ruled by myths’, he writes in The Silence of Animals, ‘though the ones by which they are possessed have none of the beauty or the wisdom of those that they scorn.’

Humanists, he says, have a religious faith in progress, in the idea that every day, things are getting better. Nonsense, says Gray! Humans’ capacity for barbarism remains just as strong as ever. Ethical progress is not the same as scientific progress. It’s not cumulative. While we are unlikely to suddenly forget how to build a car, we can and often have suddenly thrown off the shackles of civility and happily started murdering each other in our millions. He repeats these points in The Silence of Animals.

Well and good, though I don’t think modern secular humanism is necessarily so optimistic about human rationality, if you think about Sceptics like Daniel Kahnemann, Michael Shermer or Jon Ronson, who have a profound sense of humans’ capacity for self-delusion.

Choose Your Own Myth!

In The Silence of Animals, Gray ventures cautiously beyond the pessimistic scepticism of his last books to look for something positive to believe in. He suggests that one of the fallacies of secular humanism is that we can rid ourselves of myths. He writes: ‘life without myth is like life without art or sex – insipid and inhuman’ (this is a bit harsh on the large percentage of humanity like me who don’t have regular sex – we’re not just losers, we’re inhuman!) ‘If there is a choice’, he suggests, ‘it is between myths’.

We have to learn to choose between myths, between ‘acceptable fictions’. And how do we do that? In his LPC talk, Gray suggested that some myths are better than others, because they ‘fit better with the enduring facts about human nature’. And some myths are worse than others, because they depend on scapegoating outsiders and on a Them / Us mentality. I agree. I argued in my book that even Skepticism can have a Them / Us mentality – Skeptics are the shining knights of reason, battling the babbling hordes of irrationalism. Good myths, I suggest, teach us to confront our own darkness, rather than projecting it onto others.

Gray then embarks on an extended defence of psychoanalysis, which I found surprising. If there is one instance of religious faith dressing itself up as science, I’d suggest it is psychoanalysis – the prophet-like founder, whose writings are reverently quoted as if gospel-truth, the hated apostates, the grand metaphysical claims without any evidential support (besides the words of the prophet, He Who Must Be Believed).

Gray likes psychoanalysis because it offers so little consolation and hope. Life is tough and miserable, Freud tells us, so get used to it and stop looking for a cure. It’s like a form of Stoicism, Gray suggests, except it’s more pessimistic than Stoicism – there’s no Logos, no over-arching cosmic reason, in Freud. Gray also likes psychoanalysis because it seems to him a sort of ‘acceptable fiction’ – obviously Freud’s theories of Eros and Thanatos are ‘just metaphors’ or myths, but they’re useful myths.

Really? First of all, Freud didn’t think the Thanatos or Death Instinct was a myth, he claimed it was scientific fact, within all of us, just like the Oedipus Complex and his other grand metaphysical inventions. Don’t let him off that easily for being a dodgy scientist, because it was his claim to scientific authority that gave him such power over other people’s lives and minds.

Secondly, Freud did think of psychoanalysis as a ‘cure’ – he actually called it ‘the talking cure’, a phrase used by Anna O, the founding patient of psychoanalysis. That, presumably, was why people would pay so much to see a psychoanalyst every day for years – because they believed it would improve their emotional situation. If psychoanalysis was just a sort of gritty Stoicism, then why pay a therapist for years? Why not just read some Freud? Gray doesn’t seem to like psychoanalysis as a therapy, more as a philosophy or mythology, but Freud and his followers certainly sold it as a therapy. It just turned out not to be a very good therapy, in the sense of actually helping people to recover from emotional suffering.

Why do I think CBT is better than psychoanalysis? Because it works for more people and helps them recover from emotional suffering quickly and cheaply. It ‘fits with the enduring facts of human nature’ – with how our emotions arise and how we can change them. And it helps people get better without relying on the weird power games of psychoanalysis. The best way to choose between the two therapies, it seems to me, is through scientific evidence, looking at whether people are better after a treatment of CBT or psychoanalysis.

I have no doubt whatsoever that psychoanalysis is better written, more literary, and more mythologically verdant than CBT. It is a Gothic mansion, while CBT is a Bauhausian bungalow. But you can spend years wandering in that Gothic mansion, marveling at its features and designs, getting no better and a lot poorer.

The dangerous power of myths

Myths have a way of wrapping themselves round us

While I agree with Gray’s wider point that myths are powerful things and a life without myth would be boring and insipid, I think we need a way of balancing myths with science, and of using science as a way of choosing between myths. It’s dangerous to turn away from the Enlightenment project, abandon scientific thinking and look instead for a pretty myth to embrace. Dangerous partly because we don’t just embrace myths – they also embrace us. Myths can wrap themselves round our faces like the aliens in Prometheus, and use us as vessels (there’s an interesting thought: Prometheus is actually an allegory for the invention of religions!)

While Gray has a very post-modern, Rorty-esque attitude to myths – he’s able to pick at them like an hors-d’oeuvre while recognising their essential emptiness – for most of us, myths rapidly wrap themselves round our brains and become something of deep emotional significance and sacred power. How do we stop myths from becoming toxic and blinding us dangerously to reality? I can’t think of a better answer than scientific evidence.

I’ve noticed a strange new apologetics for religious faith recently, along the lines of ‘hey, it’s just a story, but isn’t it beautiful?’ I heard it in the Book of Mormon, of all places – hey, it concluded, Mormonism is just a myth. But so what? Star Wars is just a myth too, right? Lord of the Rings is just a myth. We need myths! Likewise in the Life of Pi, which I found a particularly fey and insipid form of magical realism. Was there really a tiger in that boat all that time, or was it just a story, a myth? The answer, we are told, is ‘whatever we prefer to believe’. The shipwrecked boy prefers to believe that God is looking out for him all that time. This helps him survive. But then you’d also have to believe that God chooses to personally save you while also killing your family (and also six million Jews and so on). Why are you so special?

Life of Pi: pretty but insipid

We are desperate for any stories that re-assure us our lives have a higher pattern and the cosmos cares about us. This explains the success of Paulo Coehlo, another peculiarly insipid writer. It also explains why magical realism has flourished in western reading markets in the last 40 years – western readers desperately want a holiday from scientific rationalism, so they read some charming magical realist book from South America, or a book by a white Canadian pretending to be Indian, and for a while they can imagine themselves back in the world of meaning and magic.

But I think we need a better way to ‘choose between myths’ than whatever feels good or sounds pretty. We need to find a way to hold myths to some sort of account – scientific, ethical, rational. We need to find a way to live that connects both our rational, sceptic pre-frontal cortex (Socrates) and the rest of our brain with all its capacity for ecstasy, awe and emotional abandon (Dionysus). At the moment, these two parts of our psyche are somewhat dissevered. Or rather, the Dionysiac has been pushed to the margins by the scientific revolution, into pop culture, which is why pop suddenly became the most powerful thing in western culture in the 1950s.

Gray’s book ends with a strange and rather interesting reach towards ‘godless mysticism’. He tells us about JA Baker, a man who for years would go off tracking a peregrine falcon, simply watching it, and trying to see the world through its eyes. Imagine if we could look on the world like animals, Gray wonders, without needing to change or redeem it, simply seeing it. Well, as myths go I don’t think that one’s particularly going to take off, though Gray’s books certainly sold quickly enough at our event. But Gray is asking the right questions.

As climate change continues to rough up our humanist optimism, I have no doubt we are going to start looking around for myths to give us a stronger sense of meaning and hope in a more cruel and uncertain world. A big challenge of this century, then, will be finding a way to balance myth with scientific rationalism, finding a way to achieve the psychic consolation of myth without abandoning the gains of science.


  • Thank you for an excellent blog! I can’t say that I’m now dying to read Gray’s book… However, it does make me wonder: doesn’t his book mention that very powerful myth, positive thinking? It meets all the criteria: it’s a stick-your-head-in-the-sand philosophy, based on faulty but so-called ‘scientific’ reasoning, and encourages people to be completely self-centred, promising fulfillment of every whim and desire. Positive thinking is now so widespread, and has already done so much damage, especially in America (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s book on the subject, ‘Smile or die’), that I’m confused why Gray thinks we need any more myths.

  • Thomas Heron says:

    Great blog Jules,
    Some very acute observations about society and magical realism.
    You’ve hit the nail on the head in your book and blog and the central dilemma would appear to be balance. But is it really possible to reconcile Dionysus and Apollo, or individual whim and community commitment. Can you have your cake and eat it? An excellent sequel to your book could be a practical exploration of how it would all come together.

  • Koan says:

    Fantastic post Jules. Your lucidity is greatly appreciated. My comment is about your reflex to psychoanalysis. I see it simply as another method for what CBT which you are a fan of also claims to undertake, namely the deliberate correction of maladaptive thinking. Freud used mythology as reference points for new (at the time) concepts otherwise impossible for the public audience to wrap their early 20th century minds around and he needed to convince the academia of his day that the myths are real to provide the pseudo-scientific validations they required to accept his entirely novel methods.
    I am not defending psychoanalysis as I do find many flaws in the methodology, not least of which being the encouragement of patient-analyst symbiotic addiction, but if given a choice I do prefer the ambiance of mythology that psychoanalysis introduced over the cold and clinical approach of CBT. What maters in the end is the effects you get from the approaches you take more so than the labels you give the process. Myth is the art of explaining the intellectually challenging in a way that not only works but also pleases the artistic sensibilities of the soul. Your suggestion that we should use “scientific, ethical, rational ways” to evaluate myths is akin to deconstructing an emotionally moving symphony. It can be done, but should it and will its magic, as real as you choose to believe it is, not be destroyed in the process?

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  • Dear Colleague in Search,
    Thank you for your lovely blog. I think you missed it about Freud. Have
    you ever read Freud? I have never met a person who has read much of Freud who didn’t love him I am not a Feudian, bit I believe all psychological thinkers following him stand on his shoulders and thus can see farther. Yet most fail to realize without his caring dedication we would be a century behind.
    James McMahon

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