Is It All an Illusion?

British philosopher John Nicholas Gray is probably the most broadly respected intellectual in the world today, gaining acclaim from the Right for his book on Isaiah Berlin and his work that influenced Margaret Thatcher, and appealing to the Left with books criticizing “the delusions of global capitalism” and supporting an agnostic liberalism. Neither wing will be pleased with The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom.

The aim is ambitious—to tackle a large subject in a brief compass. For all its concision, Gray’s new book is a heavy lift. His theme is that all the world is an illusion recognized by the one obvious truth, the “fact of unknowing,” which can only be escaped by an “inner freedom” that rejects any higher form of consciousness trying to “impose sense on your life.” To avoid “becoming an unfaltering puppet” of some higher rationale, one must simply make one’s way as best one can in this “stumbling human world.”

Gray (not to be confused with the American psychologist and author of Men Are from Mars) concedes that this is a difficult sell, saying “today practically no one could accept such a stoical ethic” even though it was “common in the ancient world” of Greece and Rome. Stoicism was defeated first by Christianity’s promise of happiness in another world, and then by “a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity” called modern scientific materialism. Even Nietzsche, who criticized both the “brew” and the “scraps,” himself bought into the resulting materialism through his “absurd figure of the Ubermensch” embodying the “fantasy that history can be given meaning by force of human will.”

Gray is unrelenting: “If you want to reject any idea of God, you must accept that ‘humanity’” also “does not exist.” But few materialists will follow the logic. With God and Christianity dead, the modern world retains its faith in humanity through a modern gnosticism that claims to know mankind in full through reason and science. Far from “being seemingly annihilated by Christianity, Gnosticism has conquered the world. Belief in the liberating power of knowledge has become the ruling illusion of modern mankind.”

Modern gnostics believe “human beings can be fully understood in terms of scientific materialism” and so must deny that they have free will. That science will allow humans to escape and free them from their natural limitations is the “predominant religion” of today’s “boldest secular thinkers,” Western intellectuals generally, and much of the modern world. The religion of science sees humankind as “puppets on genetic strings, which by an accident of evolution have become self-aware.” If marionettes could have a religion it would be gnosticism.

Traditional Gnostics saw humans as created by an evil demiurge so that freedom must produce evil. True freedom could therefore only exist in a world without choice. The goal of moderns is to turn randomly-evolved humans into machines, or puppets who will behave well. The problem Gray sees is that the perfected version will have to be programmed by the existing, flawed version. Contrary to the widespread materialist belief, violence and mayhem have not been overcome in the 21st century; Gray brings in enough facts to show that things may even be worse than the horrible last century. Much that goes under the rubric of popular mass movements and desires for freedom and democracy is actually manipulated by the same Old World powers to produce the same (or even more) violence. Moderns simply use the “sorcery of numbers” to hide the true depths of brutality today.

According to Gray, in ancient times, humans lived in ignorance but did not pretend to any universal truth. With its “claim to be a revelation for all, Christianity undermined this tolerant acceptance of illusion,” displacing philosophy’s earlier skeptical illusion of paralyzing uncertainty with universal truth. But as Christianity waned, its claim to universal truth was adopted by materialism, science, and modern ideologies of imperialism, communism, and human-rights democracy that have produced even greater destruction. Gray argues that the whole scientific revolution is a “by-product of mysticism.” Socrates consulted oracles, Newton believed in alchemy and numerology, Kepler was a mystic. The Renaissance and Enlightenment were developed in Christian environments. Even modern views assume that humans are mechanical flesh but somehow have a self-aware spirit.

Self-awareness is the predominant illusion but there is no scientific basis to the claim that human beings are unique in having consciousness. Dolphins and chimpanzees show self-awareness. If they do not fully comprehend their consciousness—and clearly they don’t—the same is true of humans. The illusion of unique human consciousness is “a prejudice inherited from monotheism.” It is an extension of the Christian notion of the soul. Without a Genesis-like Creator specifically placing humans higher with special consciousness, there would be no such idea. Indeed, the whole belief that the world is composed of matter is “metaphysical speculation.”

Indeed, the dominant power of the materialist culture today suppresses “religion’s most valuable insights. Modern rationalists reject the idea of evil while being obsessed by it.” The most important difference is that “religious believers know they face an insoluble difficulty while secular believers do not.” Traditional believers know evil “cannot be expelled from the world by human action. Lacking this saving insight, secular believers dream of creating a higher species.”

The goal of the futurist Ray Kurzweil is to have humans cease being biological organisms altogether and become wise machines, and since Kurzweil is himself a multi-millionaire with control of Google’s genetic research resources, he just may have the billions to finance the transformation.

Christianity’s illusion presents a “more truthful rendering of the human situation” and may even be “the least harmful illusion.” Christianity is anti-tragic given its ideal of salvation in another world but is in this world “closer to ancient understandings of tragedy than it is to modern ways of thinking.” Yet it, in the end, is an illusion too—indeed the one that started it all.

Today, the world faces a new period of instability as faith in political solutions fades and “renascent religion contends with the ruling faith in science to replace it.” Civilization implies restraint but “violence has a glamour that is irresistible.” Social freedom defined as “mutual non-interference” is a “rare skill.” That type of freedom is not natural. Practices, such as the rule of law, that have allowed such freedom where it has appeared in the past (mainly in the West), are being compromised or “junked” altogether. The only solution for one who values freedom is an inner freedom so interior that it matters not what kind of government one lives under.

But why is having a government that will allow even that degree of freedom not an illusion, too?




What is this distinctive form of life, human life, open to the pursuit of self-transcending, even self-forgetting knowledge and seeks a habitable home.