I spoke in my recent review of John Gray’s Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern of “the delusory nature of the idea that we can remake human nature on rational foundations”. I’ve been thinking about this a bit recently.

The Christian-positivist vision of linear progress toward a total overhaul of our worldly lot has crept into most corners of modern life. It animated two of the great political projects, two of the great horrors of the 20th century: the Nazi attempt to initiate the Third Reich and Soviet efforts to rapidly collectivize and industrialize Russia. It also animates the now-dominant political model of neo-liberal free-market globalization. The negative consequences of this third push for ever-denser industrialization and “development” are—thanks to its more distributed, less centralized nature—a little harder to judge than for the previous two. It seems to me, though, that its political short-sightedness and mystical economic faith in the market may soon leave us stranded on a shore at least as repellent as those on which Nazism and Soviet Marxism ran aground.

(I’d like to pause to direct the attention of any reader who now thinks I’m a “doomsayer”, or whatever simplistic pigeon-hole you have handy, to the word “may” in the last sentence. Thank you.)

After spending a while heavily influenced by the eschatology of people like Terence McKenna, Norman O. Brown and Robert Anton Wilson, I ended up nurturing what I think is a healthy cynicism towards them. Most people with a strong positivist bent would—understandably—criticize the vision of someone like McKenna as being too passive and mystical. The idea that there’s some cosmic teleology at work in the world is anathema to the humanist vision of self-determination, of history being “in our hands”.

But then, in looking at the extreme humanism and self-determination of, say, Stalinism, I find myself thinking that some sort of balance between a positive, activist approach, and a larger vision of the limits of our powers within the system of nature is advised.

The pressing issue of our collective response to our huge ecological problems is the main arena in which I’ve been seeing this interplay between positivist activism and… heck, is there a word for it? For an acceptance of the existence of natural limitations (with room for debate on what they are), a non-human-centric view that isn’t confused with the resignation or despair of nihilism? Animism is certainly related, but far from accurate for what I’m trying to label. I’m sure there’s a fair few pejorative terms for the view, though I can’t even think of them off-hand. I suppose this just demonstrates further how removed from this philosophy our culture is. We can’t even refer to it easily. For convenience here, I’ll call it (with tongue firmly in cheek) “Grayism”.

The dark sides of both views can be found in Alex Steffen’s bold, generally well-reasoned “problem statement”, ‘Winning The Great Wager’. He talks of responses to the burgeoning planetary population, and discusses the “die off” idea: the proposal that we are living out a natural cycle, that humans are animals, and like many animal populations in the past, we have blindly overshot the capacity of the ecosystem to support us, and when we reach the limits of the resources we need, balance will arrive in the form of loads of people dying.

This strikes the heart of the positivist vs. Grayist clash. Positivism holds that science elevates us beyond the blindness of animals. Within this framework, the idea that we still bound by natural ecological cycles is a heresy. As positivists hold that we are masters of our destiny, Grayists are seen as actively choosing the distasteful limits of such cycles.

The die-off plan isn’t discussed much in liberal polite company. That it’s ever discussed at all—at the tail end of a century that saw the Nazis, the killing fields of Cambodia and ethnic genocides from Armenia to Rwanda to Bosnia—is disgusting. It rings like jackboots on cobblestones to imply that a large number of one’s fellow beings shouldn’t be here, or may not be able to survive.

Steffen makes no direct reference to the specific “die-offers” he’s responding to, so certain distinctions are lost. No doubt, there are people who think “those of us in the wealthy part of the world ought to hunker down, arm ourselves and let everyone else die off.” However, most people I know who consider “die off” as a plausible future scenario see it as a wholly abhorrent possibility to be mitigated by all means: a reality that may have to be faced, not a plan than should be put into effect. The reference to the atrocities of Nazism and the Khmer Rouge neatly forgets that the ideologies driving these regimes were positivist attempts to actively change social destiny. Passive acceptance of natural limits was the furthest thing from the minds of the architects of these slaughters.

We should also note how in the last sentence, the two positions (“that a large number of one’s fellow beings shouldn’t be here”, or that they “may not be able to survive”) are conflated using the jackboot image. The former is judgement, the latter speculation. But positivist humanism doesn’t allow speculation: we are in control. (There’s an obvious clash—or, more charitably, dynamic—here within positivism, between the active nature of humanism and the observational nature of science, but that’s another story.)

Having decided on everyone’s behalf that the concept of “die-off” can only be an active plan, not an observation of possibility, Steffen ends the debate in the strongest possible terms:

No, we need to table all talk of die-off, altogether, forever. In fact, as Bruce Sterling says, we ought to be compiling dossiers on those advocating inaction for use in later trials for crimes against humanity.

I shall have to tread carefully here. One wrong move and I’ll be executed in the future by a sci-fi writer! While I assume there’s at least a hint of humour in there, the zeal of good intentions gives me pause. There’s certainly some repellent attitudes involved: the assumption that one’s own vision of causality, in a matter as complex as the interactions between our entire species and the entire biosphere, is accurate enough to entertain the idea of legally judging people; and the totalitarian idea of punishing verbal advocacy as if it constituted an actual deed.

Well, let’s pass that bit off as relatively harmless over-enthusiasm. To me the key point is that Grayist die-offers who are genuinely nice people with enough integrity to consider negative as well as positive future scenarios generally tend towards strategies of mitigation. We’re going to hit natural limits, there’s nothing we can do about that. But we can choose how we respond to it. We can curtail our economic growth voluntarily to meet the limits with some dignity, rather than tripping right over them.

This, though, is clearly a form of positivist vision. Instead of remaking human nature in order to transcend natural limits, to make them irrelevant, the idea is to remake human nature to actively foresee and harmonize with natural limits. Is this not also a delusory idea that we can remake human nature on rational foundations?

OK, so it’s a bit positivist—though of a Gaian rather than Christian tone. While positivism has a definite place in human life, it will always be forced to interact with the realities of the natural limitations around us, and the instinctual foundations within us. Both are subject to change, but neither are wholly within our hands. Our free-market economies ignore both, to an extent, in their belief that mere market demand can conjure things out of thin air, and in their belief that anyone who buys stuff is a “rational economic actor”. Such fanciful notions can only fail miserably in the end.

Hopes and dreams are part of our nature, our foundations; an extreme Grayist position of trying to do without them denies its own philosophy. But history shows that they shouldn’t be allowed free reign, even—or especially—when faced with bleak situations. On the personal scale, the Milgram experiment suggested that obedience to authority, not aggressive self-assertion, lay behind the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. But was it not the entrenched, unquestioned positivist hopes of fascist nationalism (in Germany) and scientific progress (in Milgram’s America) that fuelled such devastating conformity? Possessed by the demon of hope, a demon which may rage all the more violently for being trapped in a corner, we are capable of terrible things. Let’s not banish the demon of acceptance too far from our midst.

No comments here for now, but if you want to you can chip in on Facebook or Twitter.