In 2009 we asked philosopher and writer John Gray to comment on his current work and ideas that have influenced him…
Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
At the moment, while writing my next book, I am thinking of the ways in which science has inherited some of the hopes and ways of thinking of religion. This is most obvious in social science, where supposedly scientific theories such as Marxism replicate views of history that comedirectly from Western religion. Again, much of mainstream economics is based on suppositions about historical development that are actually very dubious. The life sciences and the physical sciences have also been used to foster unreal hopes. The growth of scientific knowledge is a fact. But science cannot save humankind from irrationality, for science is a human tool and shares the flaws of its human users.
What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
Nassim Taleb’s book, The Black Swan, has crystallised doubts I have long had about the role of the social sciences – particularly economics – in policy-making by governments and other institutions. Quite as much as human greed, mistaken ideas about risk and uncertainty lie behind the current financial, economic and soon geopolitical crises. The notion that the world had achieved a permanent condition of stable growth was absurdly unrealistic; but it was supported by the prestige of economists who claimed, and believed, that they could quantify risk. Taleb’s brilliant book is an invaluable corrective to this intellectual hubris.
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone shouldread and why?
The most important book of ideas people should be reading now is James Lovelock’sThe Vanishing Face of Gaia. As well as a wonderfully lucid exposition of the Gaia theory, the book contains a devastating analysis of conventional Green ideas about dealing with climate change. Human activity triggered the current wave of global warming; but as Lovelock shows, that does not mean humans can stop it. Major climate disruptionis now irreversible, and Lovelock is the best guide I know in showing how to cope with it.
John Gray’s most recent books are Straw Dogs, Al-Qaeda and What It Means To Be Modern, Heresies and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. He appears at the Bristol Festival of Ideas on 6th May.