The following is an excerpt from my new book, The Caretakers of the Cosmos: Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World (Floris 2013). Its central theme is that humans - we - have a unique and indispensable responsibility to existence: that of saving it from meaninglessness. In this section, through the work of the biologist Jacques Monod, the weird fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, and the contemporary social philosopher John Gray, I look at some arguments against our having any reason to exist at all.
Give Life a Chance
According to the latest estimates, our earth formed some 4.5 billion years ago, roughly ten billion years after the Big Bang, from cosmic dust and gas left over from the sun’s formation. It is believed life appeared on earth within a billion years after our planet formed. The standard account of the ‘birth of life’ suggests that self-replicating molecules accidentally emerged from the primordial soup some 3.5 billion years ago, and through an equally accidental process, over millions of years eventually turned into myself writing these words and you reading them – with, of course, quite a few different organisms in between. As with the Big Bang, the emergence of life is another example of the ‘something from nothing for no reason’ scenario popular with many scientists today. According to the same scenario, the consciousness I am exhibiting in writing these words – humble, indeed – and which you are employing in reading them, also emerged purely through accident, as an epiphenomenon of purely physical interactions of our brains’ neurons, which are themselves the result of the purely mechanical process of evolution, the Darwinian version. (An epiphenomenon is a kind of side show to the main attraction. Steam is an epiphenomenon of boiling water; it has no existence in itself, and without the boiling water, there would be no steam. For many neuroscientists and philosophers of mind today, our consciousness is little more than a kind of steam given off by the brain.)
To dot the i’s and cross the t’s on this, let me say it in the simplest way possible. According to the most commonly accepted scientific view, no one wanted the Big Bang to happen. No one wanted the earth to form. No one wanted life to appear on the earth. And no one wanted life to evolve into us. There is no reason for any of it. It just happened.
This is a conclusion that the French Nobel Prize winning scientist Jacques Monod (1910- 1976), one of the fathers of molecular biology, put perhaps more eloquently. Monod writes that
Chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact. And nothing warrants the supposition – or the hope – that on this score our position is ever likely to be revised…The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.
From this insight, which is radically opposed to any kind of ‘anthropic principle’, Monod developed a rather bleak picture of our position in the world. ‘Man’, he tells us, ‘at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below; it is for him to choose’.
Although his countryman Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the most well- known existentialist, had a low opinion of science – according to his lover Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre ‘flatly refused to believe in science’ and believed that ‘microbes and other animalculae invisible to the naked eye didn’t exist’ - he nevertheless agreed with Monod on at least this proposition. For Sartre, man has existence, but no essence (‘his destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty’), and is ultimately a ‘useless passion’. Like Monod, Sartre believes that we must face this grim situation stoically and make the best of it, but there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. Suffice it to say, neither Monod’s view nor Sartre’s is one that sits well with our being caretakers or repairmen of the cosmos.
Matters Dark and Meaningless
Aptly, one character who shares Monod’s gloomy vision of a chance-ridden universe and of ourselves as purposeless creatures within it, is the American horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft. Although Lovecraft was not a scientist (he was, though, a keen amateur astronomer) throughout his short life he professed an astringently materialist view of life and the cosmos. To a correspondent Lovecraft wrote:
I am an absolute sceptic and materialist, and regard the universe as a wholly purposeless and essentially temporary incident in the ceaseless and boundless rearrangements of electrons, atoms, and molecules which constitute the blind but regular mechanical patterns of cosmic activity. Nothing really matters, and the only thing for a person to do is to take the artificial and traditional values he finds around him and pretend they are real; in order to retain that illusion of significance in life which gives to human events their apparent motivation and semblance of interest.
Note that for Lovecraft, we maintain our ‘illusion of significance’ by maintaining values that are ‘artificial’ and which we only ‘pretend’ to be real. For anyone who embraces the belief that pure ‘chance’ is responsible for our existence – and that includes quite a few of the most prestigious minds of our time - it logically follows that ‘nothing really matters’ as our actions can have absolutely no effect, one way or the other. It is difficult to see how values like love, freedom, truth, justice, beauty and others, that we hold give meaning to life, can have emerged from an existence accounted for by the ‘blind but regular mechanical patterns’ of ‘electrons, atoms, and molecules’, a vision of things that goes back to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus. In such a world, ‘values’ can have only a ‘subjective’ and consensual existence, as ‘fictions’ we agree on maintaining, as the only ‘real’ things are purely physical, and, so far as we know, beauty, love, and other values are not made of atoms or molecules. If values are real, they exist in some non-physical kind of reality, of the kind Plato had in mind when he spoke of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Although the conclusion, that the values which give life meaning are really illusions, follows from the premise that chance is responsible for life and the universe, it rarely gets mentioned by the scientists who accept that premise.
Most of Lovecraft’s weird fiction (of which I am a great fan) was published in the ‘pulp’ horror magazines of the 1920s and 30s, of which Weird Tales is the best known. But while other Weird Tales writers, like Robert E. Howard (the creator of Conan) and Clark Ashton Smith, still have readers (I myself am occasionally one of them), Lovecraft’s frankly overwritten stories acquired a serious critical cachet denied his friends and colleagues. Perhaps understandably, this critical importance was first recognized in the 1950s by the French, who a century earlier had embraced Edgar Allan Poe, a major influence on Lovecraft, when he was ignored by his fellow Americans.21 Lovecraft’s acceptance by the French, I would argue, had something to do with the bleak vision his stories portray, which is in essence the same as that of Sartre’s grim philosophy and Monod’s biological lottery. It is this atmosphere of existential dread, of some dark and terrifying knowledge breaking into our consciousness, that gives Lovecraft’s tales a flavour as unmistakable as Kafka’s, and which he shares with Sartre, whose existentialism Lovecraft would no doubt have turned his nose up at. For both the protagonists of Lovecraft’s stories and Sartre’s novels, knowledge is a trigger for a cosmic pessimism.
For Sartre this cosmic pessimism is the ‘nausea’ of his most famous work, his first novel Nausea (1938), which I first read as a teenager. The hero of this novel has come to the startling recognition that things exist. But their existence has nothing to do with him, or with the stories or ideas he tells or has about them. They exist aggressively, in their own right; the names and categories and meanings we usually use to understand them – tree, stone, cloud, star – are simply falsehoods we tell in order to keep their strangeness at bay. But now he knows, and the knowledge paralyzes him. At one point in the novel, Roquentin, the protagonist, looks at the root of a chestnut tree and is perplexed by it. ‘I no longer remembered that it was a root’ he tells us. Its existence frightens him. Like everyone else, he had taken existence for granted, and now it suddenly presses in upon him. It has lost its ‘harmless appearance as an abstract category’. It had become the very ‘paste’ of things, and he cannot get away from it. At another point in the novel he is about to open a door when he looks at the strange thing in his hand and has no idea what it is. It was the door knob. Sartre’s ‘nausea’ is not unlike states of mind associated with schizophrenia, when the connection between perception and feeling is unhinged. It is also suggestive that much of the inspiration for Nausea came from a bad mescaline trip Sartre had in 1936, in which he was attacked by devil fish and followed by an orang-utan, and in which umbrellas turned into vultures and shoes into skeletons.
The Misanthropic Cosmological Principle
Lovecraft’s protagonists are also discomfited by knowledge. But while for Sartre a root or a doorknob spells doom, Lovecraft’s dark insights are occasioned by more eccentric items. What knowledge means for Lovecraft can be best expressed by quoting the opening paragraph of his most famous story, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, first published in Weird Tales in 1928. ‘The most merciful thing in the world’, Lovecraft writes:
…is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but one day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
The theme linking the stories making up Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, a literary mythology that Lovecraft’s fellow Weird Tales writers contributed to and to which contemporary writers still add today, is that in dim ages past, well before man appeared, the earth was inhabited by strange, monstrous creatures, The Great Old Ones, who were expelled from it but who ‘yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again.’ The Great Old Ones are terrifying indeed. Cthulhu him – or it – self is usually described as ‘blasphemous’, ‘eldritch’ , ‘loathsome’, or another string of evocative adjectives, and is usually depicted as a kind of winged, tentacled, squid-like monstrosity of enormous size, who resides in the lost city of R’lyeh, sunken beneath the South Pacific. But while the actual beings of the Cthulhu Mythos – Yog-Sothoth , Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, ‘the black goat of a thousand young’, and the rest – are disturbing indeed, what is truly frightening about Lovecraft’s cosmos is that these entities are not, as in traditional horror tales, supernatural, but merely products, like ourselves, of the chance work of accidental evolution in a ‘wholly purposeless’ universe. In our case, the ‘boundless rearrangements of electrons, atoms, and molecules’ that constitute the ‘blind but regular mechanical patterns of cosmic activity’ gave rise to us, and our ‘artificial values’ that allow us to live give us the false idea that, all in all, the cosmos is a relatively friendly and cosy place. But there we’re wrong. The same blind forces that gave rise to us – and to Beethoven, Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, the Buddha, and Mother Theresa – also gave rise to these loathsome beings for whom we are negligible insects, when we are not mindless slaves or a tasty hors d’oeuvre. What is scary in the best of Lovecraft is this sense that we are ignorant of the truth about reality – like Sartre’s Roquentin – and if we only knew, we would be afraid.
Lovecraft called his philosophy ‘cosmicism’, by which he basically meant that if we truly grasped the size, age, and sheer strangeness of the universe – an idea of which I tried to present earlier in this chapter - we would recognize that human life can play no important part in it, and that we are only temporary residents on a planet whose previous occupants are planning to return. Possibly the earliest proponent of ‘cosmicism’, although he didn’t use the term, was H.G. Wells (1866-1946), whose novel The War of the Worlds (1898) tells us that our world was ‘being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s’ – the Martians - ‘and yet as mortal as his own…minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast, cool, and unsympathetic…’ When Lovecraft wrote ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, no one had yet thought of a Big Bang – the astronomer Fred Hoyle, an opponent of the idea, coined the phrase in 1949 - although Einstein’s relativity was seeping into popular consciousness and quantum theory was raising its head. One can imagine contemporary Lovecrafts having a field day with our current cosmologies. And we can say that if there is an ‘anthropic cosmological principle’ that suggests human life – or at least life like ours – is somehow necessary to the cosmos, Lovecraft’s ‘misanthropic principle’ suggests the exact opposite.
Of course not all fiction written from a ‘cosmic’ view is as dark as Lovecraft’s. His contemporary Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950), for example, took a similar theme, yet didn’t use it to scare his readers. Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937) are vast, cosmic future histories, in which different races, species, planets, and galaxies, arise from and sink into the cosmic depths. But reading Stapledon produces a sense of wonder and exhilaration, not terror. To be fair to Lovecraft, in his last work he too begins to see that the awareness that it’s a big universe can lead to some insights more productive than the need to ‘flee’ into the safety of a ‘dark age’, as his story ‘The Shadow Out of Time’ (1936) makes clear. Some of his other misanthropic views also seemed to have softened with time. Sadly, by this time, Lovecraft was dying, and the insight came too late for him to make much use of it.
It’s a Tough Cosmos Out There
Mention of a ‘misanthropic cosmological principle’ leads us to an insight into Lovecraft’s character. He was by all accounts an eccentric type, and for most of his life he lived in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was born, doted on by two aunts and surrounded by the remnants of his childhood. A brief marriage and life in New York proved disastrous. The asexual Lovecraft was not cut out for married life, and the immigrant population of New York offended his prim sensibilities. Lovecraft always fantasised himself as an aristocratic English gentleman of the eighteenth century, and to share the streets and subways of Brooklyn with Jews, blacks, Italians, Spaniards, and who knows who else was an affront to him. This aristocratic self-image was associated with a sense of an intellectual, or at least a cultural and aesthetic superiority. Lovecraft loathed the modern world, and as one critic has pointed out, we can read his ghoulish stories as a full out assault on it. He knew that the values that make life meaningful for most of us were sheer illusions. He knew that our sense of being at home in the world was born of sheer ignorance. But unlike the ignorant fools who needed God or some other supernatural reality, and who believed that meaning and purpose were at work in the universe and not mere chance, he was tough enough to face this truth. He detested those fools who weren’t, and so he wrote stories of cosmic terror to scare them.
The idea that those who embrace chance as the sole force at play in existence are tough enough to do without the illusions the rest of us enjoy, is a theme that comes up again and again. Even Lovecraft himself was accused of not quite making the grade. Of one story, ‘The Whisperer in the Darkness’ (1931), his biographer, S.T. Joshi, remarks that in it, Lovecraft couldn’t ‘quite bring himself to admit that human penetration of the unknown gulfs of the cosmos is anything but an appalling aberration.’ Often those who reject meaning and purpose accuse those who look for it of wanting the world to be that way – who wouldn’t, they concede – but of not being strong (or honest, or hard, or brave, etc.) enough to face the truth. But it strikes me that the opposite can be just as true, although it rarely gets a mention: that those who embrace meaninglessness and chance want to be seen as tougher (or more intelligent, honest, brave, etc.) then those who ‘need’ meaning and purpose. Frequently the search for or expectation of meaning is seen as a weakness. Yet again, the opposite can be just as true. The embrace of meaninglessness can be an expression of a hunger for superiority, the need to feel more intelligent and strong than the rest of us fools, just as it can be seen as a form of misanthropy, of a dislike of human beings. Both motives seem to me to be at play in the work of John Gray, considered one of the most important social philosophers of our time.
Shades of Gray
As in the case of Stephen Hawking’s pronouncements on how the universe began, I find myself perplexed as to why John Gray’s philosophy has acquired the aura of importance it has, at least for some readers. Prestigious names have sung his praises. For the late novelist J. G. Ballard, Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002) was ‘the most exciting book since Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.’ James Lovelock of Gaia fame tells us that Gray ‘forces us to face the mirror and see ourselves as we are’. And for the critic Bryan Appleyard, whose opinion on other matters I’ve found cogent, Gray’s book was ‘unquestioningly one of the great works of our time’. Others have expressed similar appreciation. It may seem aberrant to fly in the face of such universal celebration, but as far as I can tell from reading Gray’s books, he is basically a misanthropic pessimist, whose pro-nature and pro-animal remarks express little more than an emotional dislike for human beings. This misanthropy is something we’ve already seen in Lovecraft and is obvious to anyone who reads Sartre, his championing of human freedom notwithstanding.
I say I am perplexed by the importance Gray is given, because his philosophy seems as grim as Schopenhauer’s, who also believed existence was meaningless, and expresses a ferocity toward human values reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade. I would even go as far as to say that remarks similar to Gray’s anti-human rhetoric have been used in other contexts to justify murder, although I don’t believe Gray himself intended his own comments for that purpose. Yet Gray’s dislike of human beings leads me to suspect that he would not be too troubled if some of them quietly disappeared. Sadly, his animosity toward humans is predictably welcome because of our environmental concerns and guilty conscience about the planet. We have such a bad conscience about ourselves that one could say practically anything negative about human beings and be applauded for it as a deep thinker. Concern for the planet, however, can lead to some troubling places.
In Straw Dogs Gray remarks that from ‘Gaia’s’, or the earth’s, point of view ‘human life has no more meaning than the life of a slime mould’. When I wrote an article about Gray’s idea some years ago, I pointed out that a similar assessment of human importance was championed by Charles Manson, currently serving a life sentence for the murders of Sharon Tate and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca in 1969.32 Of the many pseudo-philosophical remarks Manson made and which were taken seriously by otherwise intelligent people, one was that a scorpion’s life was more important than a human’s. While in prison, Manson had time to reflect on this insight, and to elaborate on its application. According to Manson, people and the ‘system’ were killing the planet. When Manson’s ‘Family’ killed Sharon Tate – eight months pregnant – as well as Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, according to Charlie they ‘gave their lives’ and ‘took lives’ in order to ‘clean up ATWA…the whole life of the earth, in love and concern for brothers and sisters of soul’.
ATWA is Manson’s acronym for Air, Trees, Water, Animals (sometimes All The Way Alive), the name Manson gave to his radical ‘ecological movement’, shepherded by himself and two members of his Family, Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and Sandra Good. It may seem unbelievable, but as Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke points out, in recent decades Manson has been re-invented as an ‘eco-warrior’, and much of his rhetoric is eerily resonant with that of influential eco-groups such as Earth First!, the Animal Liberation Front, the Greens, and a good portion of New Age philosophy. The Earth First! founder Dave Foreman declared that ‘we are all animals’ and agreed with Manson that human life is of no particular importance. ‘An individual human life has no more intrinsic value than an individual Grizzly Bear (indeed, some of us would argue that an individual Grizzly Bear is more important…).’ Although Gray would probably agree with this, I don’t believe he would go to the lengths Manson did to make his point. But some of Gray’s remarks make clear that being nature-oriented is not all sweetness and light. Whether we want to recognize it or not, there is a dark side to Gaia.
Gray’s central idea is that ‘humans think they are free conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals,’ a borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who, in his Genealogy of Morals (1887) said that ‘man is the sick animal’. (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra called us the ‘cruellest animal’ as well, a sobriquet with which Gray would no doubt also concur.) Free will, morality, and other specifically human concerns are for Gray simply illusions, just as they are for H. P. Lovecraft and the neuroscientists who believe consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon. We are, for Gray, fundamentally a rapacious species, intent on eradicating other forms of life, and we should own up to this, and forget all the nonsense about being anything other. Rather than call ourselves homo sapiens Gray suggests homo rapiens. Of course, not everyone agrees with this, and not all critics of this position are weak-kneed spiritual types. At the New Humanist website – where one finds ‘ideas for Godless people’ - Raymond Tallis, a secular humanist philosopher, takes Gray to task for arguing that we are nothing more than animals, a symptom of what Tallis calls ‘Darwinosis’. A similar sensibility informs the historian of science Kenan Malik’s book Man, Beast, and Zombie (2001). Yet both Tallis and Malik would, I suspect, be surprised to find themselves in the company of a spiritual thinker like the poet Kathleen Raine (1908-2003), who agrees with them and against Gray that ‘nowadays the term ‘human’ has been inverted to the point of signifying precisely what is least human in us, our bodily appetites…and all that belongs to natural man.’
All our problems, and those of the planet, according to Gray, stem from our misconceptions about ourselves, and from our inveterate fantasy about being able to ‘transcend’ the ‘human condition’, which, as far as I can tell, is for Gray of the ‘only human’ character spelled out in the Introduction. Gray apparently has no capacity to grasp human greatness, and any reference to it is merely the cue for some remark to cut us down to size. What Maslow’s ‘fully human’ would elicit from him I can only guess. ‘A glance at any human,’ he tells us, ‘should be enough to dispel any notion that it is the work of an intelligent being’. This remark would not be out of place in the writings of the Romanian arch-pessimist and one-time fascist enthusiast Emil Cioran (1911-1995), the titles of whose books – The Trouble with Being Born, A Short History of Decay, On The Heights of Despair – would not be incongruent with Gray’s own. ‘In every man sleeps a prophet, and when he wakes there is a little more evil in the world,’ ‘By all evidence we are in the world to do nothing,’ ‘So long as man is protected by madness, he functions, and flourishes’ – these are all taken at random from A Short History of Decay (1949). Cioran’s misanthropic reflections are on first glance effective, because their aphoristic style has a shock effect, like a sharp jab to the ribs. Prolonged reading, however, reveals their basic hollowness. The same, I think, can be said of Gray’s work. Cioran’s misanthropy and cynicism about human values paved his way to a profoundly anti-democratic political philosophy that had no qualms about eradicating undesirable human beings, like Jews. The flipside of not liking human beings is not always saving the planet.
What seems to raise Gray’s ire is the idea that we can in any way be ‘masters of our destiny’. In 1957, Julian Huxley (1887-1975), brother of Aldous Huxley, and one of the most important biologists of the twentieth century, said that the universe was ‘becoming conscious of itself…in a few of us human beings’, and that we had been appointed ‘managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution…’ He made these remarks in an essay entitled ‘Transhumanism’, in which he expressed his belief that ‘the human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself.’ For Huxley this meant ‘man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature’, a sentiment with which I, and this book, are in accord – although Huxley’s term ‘transhumanism’ has been adopted by proponents of a ‘man-machine merger’ with which I am not in sympathy. Huxley even spoke of ‘the cosmic office’ to which we find ourselves ‘appointed’, a phrase with obvious similarity to the idea of ourselves being cosmic caretakers. Gray will have none of this and would, I suspect, greet any idea that we can direct our evolution with derisive scorn. Like Jacques Monod and Lovecraft, Gray sees little but chance at work in ourselves and the world. Not surprisingly, at the beginning of his chapter headed ‘The Human’ in Straw Dogs, Gray quotes Monod on mankind’s desperate efforts to deny its ‘contingency’, a favourite word of Sartre’s, which expresses, for Sartre at least, the fact that we are in no way essential to the world.