Your Problems Aren't Real

Straw Dogs by John Gray

Sometimes you read a book and it gives you some tactical pieces of knowledge about the world. Some new tools in your toolbelt that you can go out and attack the problems of daily life with.

Other times you read a book and it presents arguments you’ve never heard about questions you’ve never asked.

By the end, you realize that some of the foundations of your worldview have been woefully unexamined, and perhaps you’re not so certain about your understanding of the world after all.

Straw Dogs is the second kind of book. A book that you cannot get through without deeply questioning something you took for granted as “true” about the world you think you know.

Here are some of the topics I covered in today’s podcast and in this edition of Nat’s Notes:

  • Why Progress is a Myth

  • Why We’re No Different from Other Animals

  • Why Science Requires Faith

  • Why there is No Coherent Self, No “You”

  • Why History and Morality are Cyclical, not Progressing

  • Why We Obsess Over the Illusion of Control

  • Why We’re Terrified of Our Own Uselessness

  • Why Action and Productivity are Forms of Escapism

  • And Why Some of Our Biggest Problems Don’t Need to Be Solved, Rather Recognized as Non-Problems

And as always, if you want to listen to the audio, subscribe to the Nat’s Notes podcast on YouTube, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts by searching “Nat’s Notes.”

Progress is a Myth

According to Gray, we make strides in technology, but we are still the same. We feel the same things, try to grope with the same problems, and we’ve been dealing with the same problems for all of history.

“Progress is a fact. Even so, faith in progress is a superstition. Science enables humans to satisfy their needs. It does nothing to change them. They are no different today from what they have always been.” (Page 155)

I see this as one of the big benefits of reading philosophy. It’s a good reminder that we’ve never solved some of these eternal problems.

What Gray is arguing is that while technology moves forward, we don’t necessarily always move forward. We’re more cyclical, or even stationary. Just because we’ve had certain trends towards, say, secularism doesn’t mean those trends will continue.

It’s an idea that’s also argued at length in The Fourth Turning, which talks about how history is better understood through repeating cycles and themes, not a linear narrative.

And the reason I think Gray is arguing all of this is that he wants to drive home the point that we are much less in control of our fates and our minds than we think we are. We’re more like animals.

Humans and Animals Aren’t So Different

Humanism essentially argues that humans are special. We are rational, scientific agents who control our destinies.

But I tend to agree with Gray here that anyone who’s spent some time with humans knows this really isn’t the case.

“Hunter-gatherers saw their prey as equals, if not superiors, and animals were worshipped as divinities in many traditional cultures. The humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is an aberration. It is the animist feeling of belonging with the rest of nature that is normal. Feeble as it may be today, the feeling of sharing a common destiny with other living things is embedded in the human psyche. (Page 17)”

He later argues that reflective meditation shouldn’t be done alone, rather, it should be done in a zoo:

“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. (Page 150)”

It reminds me of one of the core points of another book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Evolution discredits humanism when you take it seriously. We are just another step in the long chain of the evolution of various animals. There’s no reason to think that we’re special besides our desire to feel special.

Science is a Form of Faith

Gray explains that some of our most influential scientific theories do not meet the modern expectations for “science”:

“According to the most influential twentieth-century philosopher of science, Karl Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it has been falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted. When they were first advanced, each of them was at odds with some available evidence; only later did evidence become available that gave them crucial support. Applying Popper's account of scientific method would have killed these theories at birth.” (22)

And he continues to argue that science has ascended into a replacement for the void left as we’ve abandoned christianity and other religions:

“Science promises that the most ancient human fantasies will at last be realised. Sickness and ageing will be abolished; scarcity and poverty will be no more; the species will become immortal. Like Christianity in the past, the modern cult of science lives on the hope of miracles” (Page 123)

But we’re still living in a judeo-christian monotheistic faith-based world, only we’ve replaced God with a modern obsession with science and scientists.

You can easily see this in the fervor with which people rush to defend “belief in science.” Questioning scientific authority brings with it the same castigations that used to accompany heresy. But this is a distinctly monotheistic culture behavior.

“No polytheist ever imagined that all of humankind would come to live in the same way, for polytheists took for granted that humans would always worship different gods. Only with Christianity did the belief take root that one way of life could be lived by everyone.” (125)

Ultimately the obsession with science is helping to address the same mortal anxieties we’ve always had. We don’t want to believe that our destiny is out of our control, so we turn towards someone who claims they can deliver certainty.

“The technological pursuit of immortality is not a scientific project. It promises what religion has always promised - to give us freedom from fate and chance.” (139)

But part of that fear and anxiety comes from an obsession with our self, and Gray also argues that the idea of a “self” may be an illusion.

The Self is an Illusion

“Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactments of conscious selves. We control very little of what we most care about; many of our most fateful decisions are made unbeknownst to ourselves. Yet we insist that mankind can achieve what we cannot: conscious mastery of its existence. This is the creed of those who have given up an irrational belief in God for an irrational faith in mankind.” (38)

We’re fixated on our “selves,” but we also often think of our best selves as the self that isn’t aware of itself:

“Self-awareness is as much a disability as a power. The most accomplished pianist is not the one who is most aware of her movements when she plays. The best craftsman may not know how he works.” (61)

And so many of our decisions are automatic and unthinking. Our brain kinda tricks us into thinking we made a decision.

“We think of ourselves as deliberating what to do, then doing it. In fact, in nearly the whole of our lives, our actions are initiated unconsciously: the brain makes us ready for action, then we have the experience of acting.”

Gray even wonders how much you should care that much about your future self.

“Why should a youth suppress his budding passions in favour of the sordid interests of his own withered old age? Why is that problematical old man who may bear his name fifty years hence nearer to him now than any other imaginary creature?” (105)

Which brings us back to how limited we can really predict the future, and one theme Gray talks about as being more cyclical than progressive is morality.

The Cycles of Morality

Gray expands on the “good times create weak men, weak men create bad times…” meme, he says:

“Humans thrive in conditions that morality condemns. The peace and prosperity of one generation stand on the injustices of earlier generations; the delicate sensibilities of liberal societies are fruits of war and empire. The same is true of individuals. Gentleness flourishes in sheltered lives; an instinctive trust in others is rarely strong in people who have struggled against the odds. The qualities we say we value above all others cannot withstand ordinary life.” (107)

And he takes an interesting detour to talk about drugs and diversion. Basically Christianity promised us a meaning to life, a source of happiness in the divine. Then we abandoned christianity for humanism, a faith in science and progress.

“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.” (Page 141)

Drugs, deviant behavior, extreme sloth, these are all ways to reject the dominant ideology of the day because it isn’t delivering the happiness we were promised. So Gray argues we might see a return to a faith-based morality of some sort:

“How will satiety and idleness be staved off when designer sex, drugs and violence no longer sell? At that point, we may be sure, morality will come back into fashion. We may not be far from a time when 'morality' is marketed as a new brand of transgression.” (166)

But our big resistance to faith and the inherent meaninglessness and uncontrolability of life comes from our obsession with control.

Obsession with Control and Freedom

Gray argues that we have a fixation on control over our lives:

“For us, nothing is more important than to live as we choose… This is not because we value freedom more than people did in earlier times. It is because we have identified the good life with the chosen life” (109)

We’re so obsessed with control and chasing our goals that we cannot appreciate the world around us, or even realize how turned off we are to the present moment:

“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.” (113)

There’s a moral component here, we think action is good. Striving is good. Progress is good. But this is an inherently humanist idea. There’s nothing inherently good about trying to enforce our will upon the world. That’s just part of our modern faith.

“For people in thrall to 'morality', the good life means perpetual striving. For Taoists it means living effortlessly, 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.” (114)

And Gray points out how this is another example of us trying really hard to solve a problem that isn’t even there in the first place if we can look at it carefully enough:

“Humans think they are free, conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals. At the same time they never cease trying to escape from what they imagine themselves to be. Their religions are attempts to be rid of a freedom they have never possessed.” (120)

He doesn’t call this out explicitly but there is something very funny about the modern use of meditation. It should be a way to recognize our lack of control, but instead we use it as a means to increase our control. We see it as a productive act.

“Contemplation is not the willed stillness of the mystics but a willing surrender to never-returning moments. When we turn away from our all-too-human yearnings we turn back to mortal things. Not moral hopes or mystical dreams but groundless facts are the true objects of contemplation. (199)”

But instead of learning to see, like Gray describes, we often give ourselves up to distractions.

Our Fear of Uselessness

Gray expands on the idea that we all live in denial of our death by discussing how relevant our fear of uselessness is, and how that drives some of our less admirable behaviors.

“In rich countries, that time has already arrived. The old industries have been exported to the developing world. At home, new occupations have evolved, replacing those of the industrial era. Many of them satisfy needs that in the past were repressed or disguised. A thriving economy of psychotherapists, designer religions and spiritual boutiques has sprung up. Beyond that, there is an enormous grey economy of illegal industries supplying drugs and sex. The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which - though it is busier than ever before secretly suspects that it is useless.” (160)

When we feel useless and like we have no control over our lives, we tune out. We turn to drugs and diversion, porn and video games, to numb that feeling of uselessness. In a society where action and productivity are the highest good, idleness is a sin.

This wasn’t as much of a problem until recently when there’s the technological capacity for so few people to work. We’re entering an era now where most humans work to amuse other humans.

But some of us take the other route of course, and we use action as a form of escapism

Action as Escapism

In the intro to the book, Gray says:

“If the hope of progress is an illusion, how - it will be asked are we to live? The question assumes that humans can live well only if they believe they have the power to remake the world. Yet most humans who have ever lived have not believed this - and a great many have had happy lives. The question assumes the aim of life is action; but this is a modern heresy. For Plato contemplation was the highest form of human activity. A similar view existed in ancient India. The aim of life was not to change the world. It was to see it rightly.” (1)

He conjures the Myth of Sisyphus and points out how most of us would rather keep pushing the boulder around than sit and look at it. But pushing it around isn’t really any better than doing nothing.

“For the ancients, unending labour was the mark of a slave. The labours of Sisyphus are a punishment. In working for progress we submit to a labour no less servile.” (196)

We’re so extreme in this belief that we can’t even “play” properly anymore. Kids don’t meet for pickup soccer games, they get programmed into competitive leagues.

“The point of playing is that play has no point. How can there be play in a time where nothing has meaning unless it leads to something else? In our eyes, Homo ludens lives a life without purpose. Since play is beyond us, we have given ourselves over to a life of purposeless work instead. To labour as Sisyphus does is our fate.” (196)

But if accept that life is ultimately pointless, and we aren’t as masters of the universe as we think we are, then we are more free to play and appreciate the present moment.

“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?” (199)


Thank you so much for reading.

If you learned something, please forward this to a friend.

I’ll return next week with another fascinating book to share.