“Homo Deus”(Yuval Noah Harari) Critique and Commentary from a Philosophical Perspective(Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein) Part One: Humanism and the new human agenda.

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Humanity, Harari argues, is in the process of recreating itself during the twenty first century. It is no longer threatened by the kinds of catastrophe that have haunted mankind for tens of thousands of years namely, famine, plague and war. These are problems, it is claimed, that are fading into insignificance because man with his pragmatic/scientific approach to problems has largely eliminated them as global threats. Harari concedes firstly, that there are still hundreds of millions on the earth living below what is regarded by civilised countries as the “existence minumum”, secondly that there is still the risk, however small of locally restricted infections(Ebola–responsible for 11000 deaths). He must surely also admit to there being the risk of a conventional war in some regions of the globe and also to the fact that this possibility has probably marginally increased since his work was published. We are in agreement, however, that insofar as the humanist view of these matters is concerned there has largely been significant progress in world affairs.

The difference between the humanists perspective and that of the author’s is that the humanist is, in spite of what they see to be the slow march of progress, acutely aware of the fact that there are many important respects in which man is not living up to his potential. The humanist is aware that in this disenchanted world, there is a great deal of suffering and injustice which cannot be addressed by the mechanisms and methods that have brought about the changes in our physical well-being and health Harari refers to. The humanist is aware improvements have been made in the material quality of our life by knowledge of general biological, medical and political facts such as that bacteria and viruses cause disease, famines can be avoided with better political organisation, and even conventional wars have disastrous consequences for everybody. But the humanist is also acutely aware that these achievements have not been characterised by an corresponding level of psychological contentment: a fact which probably has its explanation in the “mythical” Apollo’s two challenges for humanity and the humanist, namely “nothing too much” and “know thyself”. The claim, for example that the peace we are experiencing today is not merely a temporary respite from war but is rather a peace based on the assumption that war is almost inconceivable today may manifest a misunderstanding of what might transpire in the future if Apollo’s warnings of “nothing too much” and “know thyself” are not heeded. Ignorance of both of these ethical imperatives were certainly among the causes of the two first world wars of the last century and just because 70 years have elapsed with a manifestly downward trend in the statistics of violence this in itself is not cause for celebration or the announcement of new human agendas. The global forces that are operating in global development (and ethics and knowledge(in the Aristotelian sense are two of these forces) are involved in an unseen war the outcome of which is uncertain because outcomes from this kind of conflict of global processes are measured in millennia rather than centuries(causing Kant to tentatively suggest that the conflict will be resolved in 100,000 years)

Harari in an attempt to explain our “good fortune” claims the following:

“We have managed to bring famine plague and war under control thanks largely to our phenomenal economic growth, which provides us with abundant food, medicine, energy and raw materials. Yet this same growth destabilises the ecological equilibrium of the planet in myriad ways, which we have only begun to explore.”(p23)

Not to mention the effect on our psychological equilibrium which Freud was beginning to register in his consulting rooms at the end of the nineteenth century. Apollo must be heaving a melancholic sigh at the sight of “too much” and “Ignorance of oneself”.

This work formulates a definition of humanism which inexplicably includes a desire to become divine. This is a misunderstanding of what key humanist thinkers such as Aristotle and Kant have had in mind when they spoke of the divine. Both thinkers through reasoning(neither believed in revelation) arrived at the conclusion that our reason was the presence of the divine in us in a finite form(Kant referred to what was holy about our will). Our finitude necessitated observing imperatives such as those uttered by Apollo or found in our religious texts. These imperatives were not, however orders which we blindly obeyed but rather prescriptions for which there were good reasons to obey that we could fathom if we led the life of contemplation that both philosophers recommended.The finite could never become the infinite and anyone possessing the desire to actually become divine would for these thinkers have been a sign of insanity and a candidate for treatment on Freud’s couch.

So, given our “good fortune” and the fact that three of the major threats to humankind are no longer global threats, what will humankind use its cognitive capacities to focus on in the future?:

“What else will humanity strive for? Would we be content merely to count our blessings, keep famine, plague and war at bay, and protect the ecological equilibrium? That might indeed be the wisest course of action, but humankind is unlikely to follow it. Humans are rarely satisfied with what they already have. The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more. Humans are always on the lookout for something better, bigger, and tastier. When humankind possesses enormous new powers and when the threat of famine plague and war is finally lifted, what will we do with ourselves?…humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity.”(p23)

Harari has no clear conception of normative values to assist in the interpretation of the phenomena he discusses. The conception of normative value we need to appreciate if we are to evaluate the phenomena discussed correctly comes from the mythical figure of Apollo and from Aristotle , Kant and their followers. The imperative mode of normative discourse proclaims what ought to be the case. Apollo probably saw countless examples of the hubris of man all around him and his imperatives were explicitly designed to mobilise the normative knowledge of the wise men of the community to lead flourishing lives instead of the lives of restless pursuit of a cluster of desires which were multiplying out of control. This normative knowledge is necessary if a correct diagnosis of the human conditions is to be recorded. Apollo might have been mildly surprised that our hubris had in fact infiltrated one of the branches of our knowledge to such an extent that it had produced weapons of mass destruction which had actually been used for the annihilation of non combatant civilians but he would also have been able to point to his imperatives as the reasons for this state of affairs.

Of course it is a fact that humans in general crave more and more if the culture around them does not normatively via the use of imperatives and reasoning regulate this vicious multiplication of desires. But facts are not themselves regulative in this situation. That is, it is not true that just because this is how humans in general behave that this is how they ought to behave. Normative knowledge is what regulates this states of affairs and allows humankind to know the facts about themselves but transcend these facts with what Harari refers to as wise judgement and behaviour. Speculating upon what excesses and deficiencies will lead to in terms of the cause-consequences frameworks of the businessman and the scientist, will merely ignore the role of the normative(the ethical) and the role of knowledge in the bringing about of happiness as a result of leading the flourishing life.

Humankind will seek after immortality Harari argues because death is no longer an ethical telos at the end of life but rather a technical problem which science(wearing the same white coats they wore whilst splitting the atom) will eventually “solve”. Fear of death or the survival instinct(the wish not to die under any circumstances) are equated and perhaps those are the only alternatives if one regards the human condition as primarily determined by its biology. There is, however, a psychological level above that, which may even wish to die peacefully or be prepared to even die violently by ones own hand. The one level is related to the other and the relation is complex, far more complex than is acknowledged in this work. This notion of levels does not stop here but reaches up to the social and political conditions of our existence. Reducing the human condition to its biological substrate of course enables one then to regard death as a scientific problem to be solved. It also enables one to view the acceptance of death as a result of leading a full life which has been , as the Bible puts it, “full of years”, as well as those committing suicide by their own hand, as anomalies to be explained by the physiological sensations these groups of people feel.

Of course one needs more than a primitive utilitarian theory to explain what is going on in the complex human relation to death but this is what we are provided with by Harari. He cites Bentham’s Psychological theory of being ruled by two sovereign masters, pleasure and pain. Harari concedes that the happiness principle which subsequent utilitarians have extracted from Bentham’s pleasure-pain rule at some point will have to admit that happiness is determined by expectations. Yet, contrary to the humanist position that peoples expectations are real and determining factors of almost everything important that we engage in, Harari wants to regard these expectations as subjective and reduce them to our biochemistry:

“On the biological level, both our expectations and our happiness are determined by our biochemistry, rather than by our economic, social or political situation…We never react to events in the outside world but only to sensations in our own bodies. Nobody suffers because she lost her job, because she got divorced or because the government went to war. The only thing that makes people miserable is unpleasant situations in their own bodies…people are made happy by one thing and one thing only–pleasant sensations in their bodies.”(p40-41)

Firstly one ought to note that there is a difference between situations where expectations are embedded in a cognitively structured situation such as education where one is learning much because of the expectations of the teacher and emotional situations such as those described by Harari. Emotions are, as we have learned from William James, producing psychological effects from physiological disturbances. But not everything psychological is caused by a physiological disturbance. The “psychological” use of Knowledge, for example is related to truth which in its turn refers to an object and not the sensations which the objects cause to occur in us. Normative knowledge, i.e. knowledge of what we ought and ought not to do is based on action and its intentions, and not on the kinaesthetic sensations accompanying action or sensations(if there are any) connected to the formation of intentions.

Harari rightly points out the transitoriness of sensations:

“The bad news is that pleasant sensations quickly subside and sooner or later turn into unpleasant ones.”(p42)

This is the “fault” of evolution it is claimed because our biochemistry is attuned not to our happiness but rather to our survival. Let us be clear here about the nature of our criticism. It is not being denied that underlying everything we do is a physiological substrate. Humans are, as Piaget pointed out, sensory-motor systems. Piaget was influenced both by Aristotelian assumptions(being a biologist himself) and Kantian Philosophical Psychology which distinguished between that which happens to man(which involves sensations and sensory experiences) and that which man freely does(involving the sensory-motor system). This means for example that action involving the motor system can regulate the sensory system. The role of thought in this process is not sensation related but rather related to the objects of action, that is to the reality one is intending to change. Aristotle and Kant, both believed that what we do is subject to an evaluation system much more complicated than the survival imperative and also that this evaluation system is more a matter of thought and its objects than the private sensations of individuals. It is also worth pointing out in this case that were emotions to be based only on sensations and not also the behaviour elicited, third person descriptive language about them would not be possible, as Wittgenstein and many other philosophers have pointed out.

Harari then argues that if it is true that happiness is essentially a biochemical matter then “the only way to ensure lasting contentment is by rigging this system”. We could also, it is argued, send electrical signals to the brain.

There is a then a brief discussion about the efficacy of Buddhist meditation and its supposed goal of merely reducing our craving for pleasant sensations the following is the conclusion:

“At present humankind has far greater interest in the biochemical solution. No matter what the monks in their Himalayan caves or philosophers in their ivory towers say, for the capitalist Juggernaut, happiness is pleasure. Period.With each passing year our tolerance for unpleasant sensations decreases, and our craving for pleasant sensations increases. Both scientific research and economic activity are geared to that end.”

So, the new human agenda is going to be determined by the capitalist juggernaut and the norm-free scientist who has never probably even heard of the mythical thousand headed monster of the ancient Greeks whose heads keep multiplying in accordance with the growth of the desires of the monster.

These scientists will be engaged on reengineering the mind of Homo Sapiens and at this point we will achieve the status of gods. Homo Sapiens will become Homo Deus. This is inevitable it is argued because, if we apply the brakes to this process, the economic systems of the world will collapse based as it is on a logic of endless growth and an endless number of projects. Apparently Eugenics the favourite project of the Nazis will also make a comeback.This in spite of the fact that it is claimed that we study history in part in order to shake ourselves free from its “logic” based on the assumption that the past must be like the future.

In this discussion it is clear that Humanism is a straw man erected for the purposes of the impending bonfire. It is not true as is claimed that the projects of humanism have been a striving for immortality divinity and happiness. The humanism of Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein all acknowledge the essential finitude of man, they all acknowledge an inevitable death and a long long period of time before mankind as a species can achieve lasting happiness. The humanist is not an atheist nor is he a blind believer in the popular idea of God. He is a believer in blind justice which does not distinguish between classes or races in the dispensation of justice. He is a believer in knowledge and ethics both of which are steered by reason and both of which are global processes required to achieve a global community: in other words he believes in norm defined progress. The humanist is not a desperate pessimist or a reckless optimist, he is a man leading a contemplative reflective flourishing life.

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