John Gray on Fictions or What’s Wrong With Holding Beliefs

John Gray on Fictions or What's Wrong With Holding Beliefs

I think the dependency on beliefs, the idea that a set of beliefs or a system of beliefs can somehow provide meaning to human life, is a mistake. – John Gray

John Gray is an outstanding philosopher. If you are not familiar with his works such as Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals or The Silence of Animals, just read them and be ready to have a lot of your views of the world, man and society fundamentaly shaken. He puts an extraordinary, original and beautiful effort in demolishing conventional dogmas about man, man’s reason, and man’s supposed supremacy over other animals.

In his works Gray tackles some of the most fundamental topics: he challenges the sources of Western philosophical tradition (such as Plato’s Socrates, Christian worldview and finally the Enlightenment itself).

One of the most interesting cases he makes is his argument against “having beliefs”. Gray questions whether beliefs that give meaning to the world are useful and necessary at all.

To outline Gray’s view, let’s start with his thoughts from the interview with The Nexus Institute – On Man, Beliefs and Changes.

I try to avoid beliefs. We need to have beliefs in contexts such as medicine or the criminal law. We try to get the best beliefs we can based on the evidence. We all have beliefs about factual states of the world. And we even have general views of what human beings are like and how human history is developing.

But I think the dependency on beliefs, the idea that a set of beliefs or a system of beliefs can somehow provide meaning to human life, is a mistake. So I think we should economize on beliefs and do with as few as possible. Make them as simple as possible and as few as possible, and the ones that we have, we should be ready when they concern matters of fact in the world—when they concern politics, for example—we should be ready to surrender them, give them up, when the world changes.

So I think one of the great errors of the last hundred or two hundred years is to formulate a system of political beliefs which is not revisable by experience. So that if you have a project, such as communism or universal democracy or the European project, and it doesn’t work out, rather than revising the beliefs about the project, what people tend to do is to say well, if we try twice as hard, or if we change the circumstances, or if we’re more enthusiastic, or more commitment, of if there’s a larger we, or a more harmonious we, we can achieve it. That’s nearly always an illusion. It would be better to revise the beliefs.

Essentially, a belief should precede action. Belief causes action. How could one live without beliefs?

What else is so intuitive, true and simple as the need to have a belief that you can act upon? If you do not believe that something is right, how can you know if you are doing the right thing in life? If you do not have a belief, how do you act at all?

According to the Socratic myth, knowledge sets man free. True beliefs will help the man choose better. If you know what is right, you will do the right thing. In order to do the right thing, you must know right from wrong.

Gray proposes a different view. In The Silence of Animals he explains different modes for acting upon the world besides what we commonly call “reason”.

Beliefs constitute the basis for reason. As an alternative to strongly held beliefs, Gray talks about the notion of fictions.

… a life based on fictions cannot be impossible, since we live such a life every day. We may not choose the fictions by which we live, or not consciously. Our lives turn on fictions all the same.

The confusion is in the idea of belief. We are accustomed to think our lives stand on beliefs about ourselves and the world: science is a search for true beliefs and religion the sum of our beliefs about ultimate things. In this way of thinking, a relic of western philosophy, belief is all important. Stevens falls into this ancient confusion when he writes of believing in a fiction willingly. He wanted ‘to stick to the nicer knowledge of belief, that what it believes in is not true’. But fictions are not conscious falsehoods. Creations of the imagination, they are neither true nor false. We cannot do without an idea of truth. Things go their own way however we think of them. But we can live without believing our fictions to be facts. We need not always be patching our view of things to shut out a dissonant world.

An anxious attachment to belief is the chief weakness of the western mind. It is a fixation with a long lineage, going all the way back to Socrates, the founder of philosophy – at least as we understand it (and him) today. But outside of some currents in western religion and the humanist successors of monotheism, belief is not the foundation of practice. Religions have produced highly refined systems of ideas, such as Vedanta, Buddhist dialectics and the Kabbalah, but these are not apologies for belief. If they have a practical task, it is to point to realities that cannot be captured in beliefs.

Gray captures the attributes of fictions from Wallace Stevens:

A supreme fiction, Stevens tells us, must have a number of attributes: it must be abstract; it must change; and it must give pleasure. These are interesting requirements. Though they develop over time, myths are thought to be timeless. Why not admit the obvious, Stevens seems to be asking, and accept that the fictions that shape our lives are as changeable as our lives are themselves? It may seem odd to ask of a fiction that it give pleasure. But why else should anyone make it a part of their life? A fiction is not something you need to justify. When it comes to you, you accept it freely. As for other people, they can do as they please.

and explains the nature of fictions:

Fictions cannot be created at will. If they could be called into being as we wish, they could also be dismissed whenever we like. That is the project of humanism. But while the fictions by which we live are human creations, they are beyond human control.

Emerging in ways beyond understanding, our most important fictions are a kind of fate; but not a fate that is the same for everybody. No fiction could be supreme for everyone, or even for a single person, for ever. The supreme fiction is not the one idea worth having, for there can be no such idea.

Finally, to make a point, Gray highlights the upside of fictions. He explains why giving up on beliefs can lead to a different kind of freedom and meaning within life.

Admitting that our lives are shaped by fictions may give a kind of freedom – possibly the only kind that human beings can attain. Accepting that the world is without meaning, we are liberated from confinement in the meaning we have made. Knowing there is nothing of substance in our world may seem to rob that world of value. But this nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the world that exists beyond ourselves.


For better understanding of Gray’s ideas, make sure to read Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals or The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths

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