on April 1, 2011
This is a fascinating extended essay on the nature of religion, science and death.
Gray takes as his starting point the publication of Darwin's 'The Origin of Species'. It is perhaps difficult now, even with the continuing furore in some quarters over the theory of evolution, to really comprehend the enormous impact that this had on Victorian society. Darwin situated human beings firmly in the animal kingdom. And animals die. They do not have immortal souls. As Gray says in the Foreword:
'Science had disclosed a world in which humans were no different from other animals in facing final oblivion when they died and eventual extinction as a species. That was the message of Darwinism, not fully accepted even by Darwin himself. For nearly everyone it was an intolerable vision, and since most had given up religion they turned to science for escape from the world that science had revealed.' (P 1)
Gray follows the results of this huge and probably final displacement of humanity from the centre of creation in two closely linked but radically different situations.
The first section, entitled 'Cross Correspondences', looks at how many in the English upper and upper-middle classes resorted to trying to develop psychic research in order to find a way of subverting or avoiding the conclusions forced on them by evolution theory.
In the second section, 'The God Builders', he looks at the more material (and murderous) attempts at transcending base humanity utilised in Lenin's and Stalin's Russia. He also draws fascinating links between these two apparently disparate approaches.
In the third and final section of the book, 'Sweet Mortality', Gray brings the threads together and considers current attempts to transcend our inevitable biological and evolutionary demise. He looks at both cryonics - the hope that deep frozen bodies may be revived at a later date once science has reached a sufficiently sophisticated level, and at Kurzweill's ideas of 'The Singularity', where computing power becomes so huge that humans may transcend their mortal bodies and live eternally in virtual worlds and virtual bodies.
However, this is not simply a book about a 'quest for immortality'. Gray uses the conflicting ideas and approaches as the basis for a critique of science itself. As he says in the Foreword:
'...it was the rejection of rationalism that gave birth to scientific enquiry. Ancient and medieval thinkers believed the world could be understood by applying first principles. Modern science begins when observation and experiment come first, and the results are accepted even when what they show seems to be impossible. In what might seem a paradox, scientific empiricism - reliance on actual experience rather than supposedly rational principles - has very often gone with an interest in magic.' (P 6)
The sections are filled with the biographical details of the main protagonists - and a fascinating (if unsavoury) bunch they were. The first section looks, in particular, at the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Using mediums, automatic writing and so on, he relates how various attempts were made by the researchers to establish 'cross-correspondences'. Briefly, members of the SPR promised to attempt to communicate after they had died. These communications would be cross-referenced to try to 'prove' their validity.
However, Gray doesn't simply stop there - he attempts to unravel what the members of the SPR considered the afterlife might consist of. Not simply a 'heaven', would the afterlife be a dissolution of the individual into a 'god-mind', a universal whole, or would there still be individual consciousnesses and, if so, would these consciousnesses be the same as their previously living counterparts or would they in some way be better, more 'perfect'? In trying to answer these questions, Gray narrates, in some detail, the associations, friendships, affairs and lives of members of this English elite, from Arthur Balfour, H G Wells, Frederic Myers, Bruce Lockhart and Russian emigres such as the amazing Moura Budberg.
Moura Budberg also features heavily in the second section of the book. Russia certainly had its fair share of psychical researchers and spiritual thinkers as, along with Budberg, characters such as Gurdjieff and Ouspensky make appearances. But the main thrust of this part of the book is a consideration of how the Bolsheviks attempted to recreate humanity, to go beyond what they saw as the degenerate peasantry to create a New Man. Of course, the way to do this was to slaughter millions, pitilessly, remorselessly, but the aim was to transcend evolution in a thoroughly Modernist sense.
Again, there are detailed histories of several of the individuals involved - Lenin, Stalin, Gorky and many others. And there are many links between these people and their SPR counterparts in the West - H G Wells being the most obvious example. The title of the book also comes from this section - 'The Immortalization Commission' was the body set up to decide on how best to bring Lenin back to life or, failing that, how best to preserve him.
The final and shortest section of the book takes the themes developed previously and shows how they are still alive and well today - in the attempts at physical immortality through cryonics or a less material life in virtual realities. But more interesting than that, the section also includes Gray's thoughts on the relations between religion and science, implicit in the previous sections. For example:
'Enemies of religion think of it as an intellectual error, which humanity will eventually grow out of. It is hard to square this view with Darwin's science - why should religion be practically universal, if it has no evolutionary value? But as the evangelical zeal of contemporary atheists shows, it is not science that is at issue here. No form of human behaviour is more religious than the attempt to convert the world to unbelief, and none is more irrational, for belief has no particular importance in either science or religion.' (P 224)
Finally, Gray suggests:
'Science is like religion, an effort at transcendence that ends by accepting a world that is beyond understanding. All our enquiries come to rest in groundless facts. Just like faith, reason must at last submit; the final end of science is a revelation of the absurd.' (P 227)
There is so much more to this book that I have not been able to cover. I admit I found the biographical details a bit lengthy, but they serve a purpose. The final section, though, apart from providing a really interesting view of the relationship between religion and science, is also almost poetic and quite beautiful. It has made me reassess quite a few of my beliefs and assumptions.
on September 15, 2011
Anyone who knows me knows that I have nary a bad word to say about anything Prof. Gray has published from "Straw Dogs" onward: I find his to be an incredibly lucid and relevant voice, which cuts through a suffocating miasma of contemporary cultural studies / philosophy writing. Unlike the majority of philosophical writers entrenched in the publish-or-perish academic environment, Gray's ideas themselves remain challenging and pertinent enough that he doesn't have to do hide them behind impenetrable walls of effusive verbiage and ephemeral jargon. What I especially like about Gray is that he treats all species of interesting thought as having critical value, not limiting himself to readings of the work by fellow researchers in his field: that is to say, J.G. Ballard (a regularly quoted Gray favorite) is treated in his writings as a cultural critic on par with, say, Bruno Latour. By sticking to his guns as such, he has even earned the respect of people much closer to this academic milieu I mention (e.g. Slavoj Zizek) and provides a tremendous inspiration for anyone who wishes to write on human nature without genuflecting before the small handful of "acceptable" Continental thinkers and theorists.
So, that said, this current book is no deviation from that standard of excellence. Gray states his case calmly and convincingly, and - as was done in both "Straw Dogs" and "Black Mass" - ends the often pessimistic ride with a surprisingly uplifting realization that mortality is not the curse it appears to be (of course, you'll have to read it in his far more erudite words to appreciate it, and I won't spoil it for you here.)
This book reads very much like a volume-length extension of a small episode in "Straw Dogs," wherein Gray cataloged a number of ridiculous beliefs among Soviet leadership dealing with perpetual progress and a fully-automated utopia. His discussion of the so-called "God builders" not only succeeds in showing how secular creeds have attempted to keep alive religious faith's promise of immortality, but shows the full extent to which bona fide religious imagery was rehabilitated in an atheistic culture (check, for example, the esoteric origins of the design of Lenin's tomb, as Gray describes it.) You're unlikely to find trenchant criticism of Marxist policy such as this anywhere else within the academic world- Gray unflinchingly states that "for Marx, the natural world had no intrinsic worth...only by being imprinted with human meaning could the earth have value," and this critique of short-sighted anthropocentrism is long overdue. Some of the books coming out of amusingly named "posthumanities" departments attempt to bring anthropocentrism down a notch while still supporting Marixan modes of thought, and Gray easily points out the hypocrisy inherent in embracing both the "otherness" of the natural world and an ideology that is totally inimical to it.
That said, illumination of Marxism's attempts at salvation is not the only thing on tap here, as the book deals a good deal with 19th-century British variants on trying to make consciousness survive physical death (in this case, at a time when the post-Darwin field of scientific naturalism was positing theistic belief as just another evolutionary mechanism, one which had no grounding in objective truth.) In fact, this comprises the first half of the book, building up chronologically to the "God Builders" episode. Gray's tour of "automatic writing" techniques, seances and other means of crossing death's threshold without actually dying, is tragic. Yet it makes us empathize with their practicioners rather than merely laughing at or mocking their folly. He is wise to remind us that these modes of paranormal experimentation are born out of things we all experience - the loss of loved ones - and that people adopting these practices are not a homogeneous mass of crazed individuals wishing to become as gods. A series of respectful period photographs of these individuals are included, seeming to reinforce Gray's empathy for them (this is the first title of his I know of that uses illustrations of any kind.)
All told, this book does not break that much new ground for Gray's thought, yet it provides a much more detailed illustration of ideas that he has touched on in the last decade. Readable, at times engrossing, and never inessential.
on July 25, 2013
Credit Darwin for using his head. Wary of the paranormal, he sent his son and T.H. Huxley to a séance to confirm his doubts about communicating with the dead. Darwin remained unconvinced after one such gathering, and Huxley and George Darwin came from theirs feeling duped. The séance was a sham and Spiritualism, to Darwin's great relief, posed no threat to scientific materialism. There were others, however, among them prominent men and women, who considered the afterlife a given and used scientific methods to prove man's immortality. It would take magic to support the claim and in the end those respectful of science admitted to have proved nothing.
The Immortalization Commission follows a dozen or so individuals associated with psychical research in Victorian England and resurrection science in Bolshevik Russia. In England, the Judeo-Christian belief in salvation was in doubt. Faith in science, however, urged a number of scholars to prove what religion had only promised: that the soul outlived the body in something like an afterlife. For Henry Sidgwick this meant ushering in a "universal well-being" that man had never known. Although he found Christianity anathema, his belief in theism remained steadfast. Only God made morality possible. There could be no justification for good social behavior without an omniscient being keeping score.
F.W.H. Myers, co-founder of the Society for Psychical Research with Sidgwick, made telepathy his life's work and automatic writing a means to reach the dead. Those participating in the cross-correspondences included Arthur Balfour, William James and Rudyard Kipling's sister, Alice Fleming. The research continued after his death. Despite numerous claims by mediums to have received messages from Myers, his close friend William James never heard from him again. They had had an agreement, after all, in that the first to die would somehow communicate with the survivor. Myer's so-called spiritual evolution came to nothing.
H.G. Wells is Gray's link between the English psychics and the Russian revolutionaries. Wells believed an intelligent minority would "rid humankind of all that was feeble and unlovely, so that what remained was practically a new species." The sci-fi writer's world view smacked of fascism, for in his New Republic "humanity must be shorn of everything weak and ugly." And yet it was Bolshevism, not Nazism, that attracted Wells. He shared a belief with his friend Maxim Gorky that "humans would become like gods." Gorky introduced him to Lenin, and from Lenin Wells met Stalin.
Lenin's burial reads like a Vladimir Voinovich satire, a project that seemed to attract Russia's damnedest fools. It spawned the Immortalization Commission whose aim was to resurrect Lenin by "defeating death through technology." Stalin had the corpse embalmed, which was embalmed again and again, then cooled by a top-of-the-line German refrigerator. In time decay set in: "...the lips were further apart, the nose was losing its shape, one hand was turning greenish-grey, the eyes were sinking in their sockets and the ears had crumpled." Despite efforts to restore him, Lenin began to rot. "Instead of opening the way to deathless humanity," writes Gray, "science could only create a lifeless dummy."
The Immortalization Commission is a thoroughly engaging book by the grumpy--although convincing--political philosopher, John Gray.
This book is broken into two main parts. The first covers a period of Victorian England and the paranormal researchers in that period who were trying to prove that something continues after death by contact with the dead in some spiritual realm. The second was mostly about communism and the scientific state. It was only the last 30 pages titled "Sweet Mortality" where Gray really gets deep into the subject matter and then it is too short.
Here's the thing. Gray obviously has a powerful grasp of his subject matter and I found the historical analysis and ideas engaging and interesting. The problem was the vast majority of the text was historical and not the analysis of immortality that I was expecting.
So for what it is, it is pretty good. However I would warn prospective buyers to be careful. You don't get really much of a critic of the current scientific search for immortality. It is there a bit, but not much.
on April 11, 2012
This book's theme of science as a means to escape mortality provides a very amenable platform for John Gray's ideas, as anyone familiar with him would guess. It's cut into three distinct but related sections. Of the three, the last section is by far the shortest, but the nearest to my expectations. I'd been interested in the John Gray perspective on Ray Kurzweil, whose his ilk and ideology seem to me indicative of the times. There was little explicit examination of that but what there was was articulate and thought provoking, especially in the context of the main portions of the book.
The first section is on Victorian period elites seeking knowledge of the afterlife by a bizarre interweaving of occult rituals with scientific posturing and psychology. Having only read Heresies, which compiles articles written for The New Statesman, I found Gray's writing more elegant here than before. His biographical renderings of F.W.H. Myers, Henry Sidgwick and Arthur Balfour were usually quite interesting, if not exactly riveting. They did serve to provide a human dimension to all of the idealizing about life, death and afterlife. That the occult was popular with many Victorians is common knowledge now. Their methods were almost comical, of course, but at times they were heartbreakingly earnest as well. I found myself having more sympathy for them the stranger and more desperate their quest became. Gray examines their ideas and their mission articulately and respectfully, never dismissing them out of hand simply because they were silly or unconventional. What comes clear is that, behind all the seances and automatic writing there is a human longing quite universal and not at all abstruse.
The second section explores similar themes of conquering death through technology and science as religion in Communist Russia. I found this section interesting but also rather digressive at times. The soviet mission of progress at all costs certainly had relevant lessons for Gray's topic here, but the biographical bits about H.G. Wells and especially Moura Budberg seemed of dubious relevance despite their being interesting characters. There was a kind of meander through many of the perils of living in Russia during this period and the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and others. I thought this was hardly necessary since it was of only cursory relation to the central focus of the book, and since it's all been explored so much more thoroughly in many, many other books. The kind of ideology that Gray discusses here certainly has it's most extreme historical example in this period, but there were many other factors involved in these atrocities that can hardly be explored in this book. I got the feeling he lingered on certain bits here just to give the book a little more meat.
The last section was a short but superb conclusion in which Gray expresses his perspective and ideas more eloquently than in anything I'd previously read of his. I have my particular bones of contention with his philosophical arguments, but this is hardly the place to get into that. One never agrees entirely with any writer, and it's usually beneficial to be at odds on at least a few things. The two previous stories present humanity desperately seeking certainty and control, loathe to tolerate long any conditions that undermine the illusion of either. We may feel rather distant from them in the 21st century, but here Gray reminds us that the same messianic view of technology is alive and well today in many new forms. The methods may have changed, but the mission bears frightening resemblance to the justifications that spawned the horrific nightmares of the past. In the quest for absolute control over nature and fate, the human race has proven itself capable terrors our ancestors would never have imagined. Gray also makes the excellent point, so often ignored or downplayed by the new atheists, that science and progress have been just as guilty of engendering these terrors as religion ever was. Perhaps more so, when one considers that the greatest calamities of the twentieth century(which also happen to be the greatest in recorded history) happened at the hands of progressive regimes.
I've often felt that if our progress in the sciences demonstrates one thing for sure, it's the ultimate ignorance and finitude of human beings. Every new truth discovered undermines a previous one, and yet we remain so sure of ourselves. Contradiction and even ignorance are nothing to be ashamed of, once you recognize how unavoidable they are. In fact, the recognition of it allows for humility, and the retention of a sense of mystery and curiosity. The last portion of this book quotes several beautiful poems, and contains wonderful prose by Gray himself in places. It reminds us that, as much as death may make life appear absurd at times, life without death would be at least as absurd. In a way, it's that very end that imbues our lives with so much of their beauty and their novelty. Here, Gray says it better than I -
"Without seasons nothing ripens and drops to the ground, the leaves never change their colors nor the sky its vacant blue. Nothing dies, so nothing is born."
on June 8, 2011
John Gray once again shows the basic flaws that shape human perception. The consequences of the merciless zeal that guides secularist God makers who want to see in human the very purpose of nature is exposed in two different parts of the world in the late 19th and early 20th Century. However, as always, John Gray also reminds us that none of these events or passions belongs to past. Varios attempts to make a God out of Human or to make Science a religion still persist.
Although at times the book becomes too macabre to read (as always honest talking is painful) , the last pages are quite optimistic: acknowledging that chaos is the essence of universe is not a reason for despair but on the contrary it is a very good motivation to feel happy; there is no hidden order or predetermined destiny; we can expect anything from life.
I strongly advice this book to anyone who read Gray's other books. However, if this is the first Gray book for you, then you should read more of Gray's enlightening (though quite tough) books.
on December 28, 2012
AN INTERESTING READ ON THE HISTORICAL QUEST TO CHEAT MORTALITY. ON THE WHOLE VERY ENTERTAINING AND WELL WORTH BUYING AND READING
on August 8, 2015
A truly boring book. Get a pizza and watch TV instead.
on May 12, 2011
The essence of this book is opinions of later Victorian thinkers (ie 1870-1910) of the possibility and forms of "life after death". It really is not a book but an extended essay. I bought the book in Kindle format and was disappointed that none of the copious references at the end were footnoted from the text. To me it looks like the author made a "hurry-up" conversion from PDF format.
on May 9, 2011
My impression is that the author had notes for three or four books, put all together in one book, and picked a title out of a hat.
I quit reading midway through the section on communism.