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John Gray on ghosts, Walter de la Mare, and the limits of scientific materialism


The relationship between supernatural horror and scientific materialism is a neverendingly fascinating subject, not least because the enormous and ongoing popularity of supernatural horror stories among the thoroughly secularized Western consumerist democracies, where scientific materialism has a cultural stranglehold, represents a striking philosophical fault line. One may say, as everybody from H. P. Lovecraft to S. T. Joshi to Peter Penzoldt (in his classic 1952 study The Supernatural in Fiction) has said, that enjoyment of supernatural fictions in a secular-scientific society is simply a matter of art fulfilling an intellectual-emotional need that has been inculcated in the human race over millions of years. But one may also argue that the very nature and persistence of these fictions constitutes a literal challenge to the dominant worldview.

This second approach is definitely a minority one, but it’s the one taken by English philosopher John Gray (characterized three months ago by The Telegraph as “the world’s pre-eminent prophet of doom), who argues in a recent and fascinating essay for BBC News  that the real-world plausibility of the materialist paradigm is directly challenged by Walter de la Mare’s literary evocation of the ghostly and the uncanny:

During the later decades of his long life — he was born in 1873 and died in 1956 — de la Mare was a familiar feature of the English literary landscape, a poet and anthologist whose poems were learnt by heart by successive generations of schoolchildren and whose books were widely available in public libraries. So why is he so little known today? It may be because his work conveys a sense of the insubstantial quality of everyday things, a point of view that runs counter to the prevailing creed of scientific materialism. At his peak of public recognition, de la Mare was most celebrated as a writer for children, but in nearly everything he wrote he explored experiences of the uncanny.

. . . Materialism — the philosophy, not the perennial human tendency to pursue and accumulate material things — sees the universe as a physical system. Everything that exists in it must be some sort of matter, or something that emerges from matter. In a fully scientific view of the world, only material things are real. Everything else is just a phantom.

In this view, science is a project of exorcism, which aims to rid the mind of anything that can’t be understood in terms of physical laws. But perhaps it’s the dogma of materialism that should be exorcised from our minds. Science is a method of inquiry, whose results can’t be known in advance. If scientific inquiry is the most powerful tool for increasing human knowledge, it’s because science is continuously changing our view of the world. The prevailing creed of scientific materialism is actually a contradiction, for science isn’t a fixed view of things, still less a dogmatic faith. The belief that the world is composed only of physical things operating according to universal laws is metaphysical speculation, not a falsifiable theory.

. . . De la Mare was much too refined and penetrating a mind to imagine that ultimate questions can ever be settled. Instead, he unsettled the reader’s view of things while leaving these questions open. His stories suggest that the everyday world contains gaps, anomalies and singularities, which may — or may not — point to a larger reality. The uncanniness of these tales comes from the impression they leave in the reader that our everyday existence is insubstantial and perhaps chimerical.

Materialism asserts that anything apart from physical phenomena is a figment of the imagination — a kind of apparition, which must be exorcised from the mind. It’s a very simple-minded philosophy. For de la Mare’s traveller [in his short story “Winter”], it’s not the strange visitor he encounters that’s the ghost. It’s the ordinary world that surrounds every one of us.

More: “Ghosts in the Material World

Also note that you can listen to Gray read the essay aloud in its entirety as part of the BBC’s “Point of View” series. In this version the title is “The Limits to Materialism,” and it comes with a teaser line that nicely summarizes the piece’s overall message: “John Gray draws on a story by Walter de la Mare to argue that the prevailing creed of scientific materialism is a ‘simple-minded philosophy’ too limited for an unknowable world.”


Image: Henry Fuseli, Hamlet and his father’s Ghost (1780-1785, ink and pencil on cardboard), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.