Is there life after John Gray?

John Grey

by Peter Sutherland, originally published in the 2013 Summer edition of Humanitie magazine.

Is there life after death? Virtually all humanists would answer “No.” However, in his new book. The Immortalization Commission; The Strange Quest to Cheat Death, philosopher John Gray considers some other possibilities.

One is to preserve the body – as was done with Lenin for many years by the communists in the former Soviet Union. This is the origin of the title of the book. The Immortalization Commission was set up by Lenin’s successors. For many years this was successful in the sense of the body still being there.

John Grey

Those of us who visited his mausoleum in Moscow during the communist era can testify to this. The book is divided into three sections (rather than chapters): 1/Cross correspondences (by far the largest at 97 pages). 2/God-builders, and 3/ Sweet Mortality. In the first Gray discusses our opposition. Christians such as Balfour and Sidgwick argue that morality is not possible without God and his promise of a wonderful afterlife for those who are moral in this life and Hell for those who are not. Of course, Balfour and Sidgwick put their case in far more intellectual, academic terms than this. I found God-busters the most interesting of the three sections. Here Gray considers the ideas and life of HG. Wells at some length. Gray makes a convincing case for raising Wells’ reputation from the dead.

Sweet Mortality examines phenomena such as séances with the dead, and occultism. He also praises cryonic suspension: preserving the body until new technology can bring it back to life. More interesting for a scientific person is Kurzweil’s prediction that the incredible acceleration of development in computers and artificial intelligence robots may make death obsolete. Nanotechnology may reverse the aging process.

However I am unclear where Gray himself stands in all this. Is he one of us or isn’t he? He barely mentions Richard Dawkins, the dominant humanist protagonist of the current time. He mentions Hume only briefly. He seems sceptical about what science can achieve. He fails to admit that it is science in the form of modern medicine which has enabled so many people to survive until their 90s. The Penguin version cites the Financial Times’ reviewer calling Gray “humanism’s most vocal critic.” So he is not one of us. The independent’s reviewer Mark Kohn calls him a “counter prophet” -whatever that means?

He comes across to me as a neutral, refereeing the great debate between the new atheists (such as Dawkins) and the religious apologists (such as Balfour). Most of Gray’s material is interesting. He is a good read most of the time. I recommend this book as an interesting discussion on a topic of great interest to us all, which is death.

Gray failed to draw any clear conclusions. It needs a short, concluding section where he sums up his argument. At the end I am still not clear where Gray stands.

 Does he like most of us believe that this life is all we have or does he actually give some credence to the other ideas which he discusses? Perhaps you need to read it for yourself and make up your own mind.




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