Current Events
On Man, Beliefs and Change

On Man, Beliefs and Change

El hombre: fe y transformación

John Gray

¿As human beings, what can we do to transform the world? Whatever human beings do changes the world. The question is whether projects which are formulated to change the world in certain, specific ways can succeed. And one of the problems here, of course, is that there is no “we”. Who is “we”? I mean, human speech is composed of billions of separate individuals with different goals, different plans, different values and different ideals. And yes, they can also change the world, but not in the way that they anticipate.

And do you think we can change the “we”?

The “we” changes all the time, but there never has been and there will never be a universal “we”. Because human beings, although they have many things in common, have conflicting goals. So there can’t be a “we” which has the same purposes, because even in a single individual, purposes have various conflicts with each other.

You are famous for criticizing beliefs. What do you believe in yourself?

I try to avoid beliefs. We need to have beliefs in contexts such as medicine or 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 what human history is developing; but I think that 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 have as few as possible. Make that as simple as possible and as few as possible. And the ones that we do have, when they concern manners of fact in the world–when they concern politics, for example–we should be ready to surrender them when the world changes. So I think one of the great errors of the last two or three hundred years is to formulate a system of political beliefs which is not revisable by experience, so that if you have a project you just call it Universal Democracy, or European Project, and that doesn’t work out. Rather than revising their beliefs about the project, what people tend to do is say, “well, we try twice as hard,” or “we change the circumstances for more enthusiasm or more commitment,” or “if there is a larger ‘we’ or a more harmonious ‘we’, we can achieve it.” That is always an illusion. It would be better to revise the beliefs.

So, during your lifetime, have you given up on beliefs?

No, because I didn’t have any to start off with. For me, politics is a series of temporary remedies for recurring human evils. Politics doesn’t consist of a system of universal principles or any kind of universal project. It is simply a series of temporary, provisional, partial remedies for recurring difficulties or evil. So, I believe factualism was necessary in the late seventies, eighties or nineties, but it lasted 30 years. It achieved some useful goals, but it is no longer workable. We need something different. That is normal. But one of the problems of late 20th century and even 21st century thinking about politics is that there is an assumption that there is a single project or a single strategy or a single set of responses that can always work: universal democracy, human rights, the European Project, or something of that kind. All of this should be seen as temporary experience for diminishing or reducing human evils such as poverty, torture, persecution or genocide. There are different ways of stopping or reducing these evils and if you are fixated on one, you will normally end, sooner or later, in failure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *