For the Sake of Dreams


Photograph from Hours with the Ghosts or, Nineteenth Century Witchcraft, Henry Ridgely Evans, 1891

From The New Statesman:

If existentialism did have an influence on popular social movements, how would we know? An even bigger question looms. What counts as an idea? Was the idea embodied in the cathedral at Notre Dame a Gothic idea in architecture? Or was it an idea about a transcendental God? How, in any case, can we tell?

Most puzzling in this fascinating compendium of ideas is Fernández-Armesto’s own idea that human imagination is an immaterial faculty. “Human intelligence,” he avers, “is probably fundamentally unmechanical: there is a ghost in the human machine.” Again, he is not the first to suggest that the human mind may not be wholly explicable in mechanical terms. Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer with Darwin of modern evolutionary theory, believed the human animal emerged via natural selection but at some point acquired higher mental powers from a non-natural source. Having studied animal minds and emotions, Darwin was horrified by Russel Wallace’s suggestion. What was at stake for Darwin was not just his own theory, which was meant to include the human mind. It was the idea of science itself, which – though he never unequivocally rejected theism – he thought meant explaining events in the world by reference to natural processes within it. Whether Fernández-Armesto rejects this idea of science is unclear.

The puzzle is deepened by his observation that most ideas are bad or wrong or both. If what makes humans unique is the power of seeing what is not there, what makes them so destructive is that they believe what they have seen to be real. Untold millions have killed and died for the sake of dreams – gods, utopias, visions of the past or future – conjured up in the imagination. The ancient Gnostics, discussed by Fernández-Armesto when he considers the origins of Christianity, believed a malignant deity or “demiurge” had consigned human beings to a lower world of ghosts and phantasms. It’s an entertaining metaphysical speculation. But perhaps we should consider the more mundane possibility that in the course of its evolution something went badly wrong with the human brain. The destructive power of ideas may have a natural explanation. There may be no ghost in the human machine, simply some crossed wires we cannot untangle.

“The perils of the human imagination”, John Gray, The New Statesman