“Homo Deus”(Yuval Noah Harari) Critique and Commentary from a Philosophical Perspective(Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein) Part Three: The Human Spark and the Mind.

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The myth that human beings have eternal human souls is still:

” a central pillar of our legal, political and economic system. It explains why, for example, it is perfectly okay for humans to kill animals for food, or even just for the fun of it.”(p118)

This is a puzzling and complex claim. It assumes that the popular religious idea of a soul inhabiting and surviving the death of a physical body has had more influence on our legal and political systems than the philosophical idea of a soul as a principle explaining and justifying our human activities. Since Philosophical discussions of this idea have been systematically ignored it is difficult to evaluate this particular claim. The philosophical opposition to many religious claims and an acceptance of the ideas of the soul and God as principles which reasoning can illuminate (even if not completely understood) has been an important part of the historical development of Homo Sapiens. These philosophical ideas are, it could be claimed uncertain as to the implication for animals rights discussed in this section. Many people are vegetarians and it is not out of the question that some are reasoning philosophically about the rights of animals to a natural existence without unnecessary suffering. We wish our dogs, cats, and pets to lead flourishing lives and we systematically relieve their suffering and allow them to lead “semi-natural” lives. We establish national protective parks which enable animals to lead a natural life. Should these attitudes be generalized to all animals?

There is a long fruitless discussion relating to the scientific attempt to “prove” that there is no such entity as a “soul” inhabiting our physical bodies or the physical bodies of animals. In one sense it is as obvious that there is a principle guiding the activities of a human psuche in much the same way as it is obvious that gravity is the principle explaining the falling of bodies and the orbiting of heavenly bodies in outer space. We do not observe gravity in separation from its effects. In the same way, we can not “observe” human attitudes separate from its effects. It was the philosophy of the later Wittgenstein which brought to our attention the fact that there are grammatical criteria helping to “connect” attitudes to physical behaviour. In his work the “Philosophical Investigations” he famously claims that our attitude toward a person is an attitude toward a soul. He does not mean here that we can observe a soul in the way in which we can observe a person. This talk of attitude towards persons does not then preclude a justified belief in the theory of evolution which is a theory of how our bodies(and animal bodies) achieved the shape they have and possess the organs that they have. The claim that Harari makes that “Darwin has deprived us of our souls”, however, does not make any sense. How can a theory about the evolution of a physical body deprive us of a philosophical theory of an attitude which is an expression of a principle?:

This claim could only be true if science could engage directly with the argumentation of Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein and “prove” that there is no principle governing out attitudes, thoughts, etc. How would that be done? By observation? This is completely ignoring the fact that Darwin’s theory is as much a theory involving reasoning about animal populations as it is a theory incorporating the observation of animal populations. The person standing before me now might have been evolved “by degrees” over millions of years but my recognition of this person as a human is only partly constituted by this long history of his human bodily form. He stands before me and I recognize him to be the kind of being that is capable of discourse and a source of rational argumentation in spite of the fact that he is at the moment staring at the cat in the room. It is my expectations of him and his expectations of me that constitute the kind of interactions we can have with one another. Referring to these expectations as either “subjective” or “intersubjective” is an “idle use of language” as a Wittgensteinian might be inclined to comment.

Many “secular people” Harari claims believe that humans possess something spiritual that endures throughout life and continues in some sense to exist post-mortem. And many secular people would believe the former and not the latter claim. That is, we believe in our legal system that refuses to accept that a person at one point in time is for legal purposes significantly different from a person at another period of time, perhaps decades later. You will be held responsible for your actions on the basis of the assumption of a continuous personal identity. The legal system, however, does not have rules and regulations for the bringing to account of souls that have vacated their bodies. Here the legal system is philosophical to its core– and not on scientific grounds, it must be added– because the assumption of a continuous personal identity is a philosophical assumption partly captured by the Wittgensteinian claim that our attitude toward a person is an attitude toward a soul. The political system’s major responsibility is the forming and passing of laws and this means that both these systems jointly accept the continuous personal identity assumption.
The confusion of the idea of the immortality of the soul and the assumption of a continuous personal identity enables Harari to then claim that there is an indivisible, unchangeable, enduring self.

The word “indivisible” is important in this context because there is a discussion of the meaning of the word “individual” in terms of its meaning,i.e. in terms of its indivisibility. Now the individual can mean the individual body that Aristotle was happy to define as the sum of its parts: the sum of its tissue, bone, organs etc and the individual can also refer to the principle which sets these parts into motion and wills perhaps all the parts to come to rest and take a nap. “The will” for Kant was the principle behind all ethical behaviour when it was willing that the maxim of its action become a universal law and treats people as ends in themselves in a social/political arena where one willingly obeys the moral law which was such a focus of Kant’s awe and admiration. If one thinks of this individual holistically in terms of an indivisible will then the fact that the individual’s body is composed of neurons, hormones, and muscles is irrelevant to the claim of the formal and final cause of one’s action.

Harari is happy to speak freely of minds and claims that minds are divisible and possess a flow or a stream of conscious subjective experiences the components of which are sensations, emotions, and thoughts that appear momentarily and then disappear. Here the mind is being reified into a divisible substance. For Harari this rag bag is then held together by a thread of Cartesianism, a thread of Philosophical certainty that is not further discussed.

Sensation and desire, it is claimed are the so-called fundamental characteristics of subjective experience that robots cannot share because robots are not capable of experience. Now, this is a curious argument from someone who has been arguing so materialistically and concretely throughout both this work and his earlier work “Sapiens: a brief history of mankind.” Resting one’s case against robots on Cartesian dualistic grounds which is the final motivation for an idea of a disembodied mind is inconsistent. Aristotle would have argued against the robot being able to experience anything on the grounds of a physical embodiment that is the substrate of our human experience. He would have argued that robots do not have sensations and desires because only a being with a certain bone, tissue and organ constellation is able to have an experience. This physical embodiment possesses a “form” or “principle” that is the source of its “experience whether that be the passive reception of sensations of pain or the activities of discourse and rational argument.
The question is then raised by Harari, as to whether animals have a conscious mind similar to human minds and the surprising admission is made that science knows very little about minds and consciousness:

Aristotle would agree that the entire organ(including the brain tissue and bone system) is the “material” cause of consciousness but would argue that the cognitive, emotional, and conative powers thus produced then require other types of explanation that will fall under what he called the formal and final causes of the consciousness or the mind of a person. Materialist assumptions, the methodology of observationalism, and experimentation alone will, however, need other assumptions and another methodology if the enigma of the mind or consciousness is to be resolved. This would mean that science would have to retrace some of its theoretical steps back to philosophy. The more likely alternative, however, is that of denying the relevance of the enigma and continuing the work of studying brain activities, together with individual and social behaviour in accordance with current nonphilosophical assumptions. One immediate consequence of this is, of course, an abandonment of the sphere of value because, as is pointed out by Harari there is no difference of value between neurones firing in relation to the behaviour and the institutions involved in torture, and the neurones firing in relation to the behaviour and institutions that contribute to humans leading flourishing lives. The whole arena of human value collapses because there is nothing significant that science can say about it. The Aristotelian framework of formal and final causes would undoubtedly include an awareness of the reasons why one is behaving in a certain manner and an awareness of the value of one’s institutions: these are capacities which undoubtedly for Aristotle required a language using being. Of course, animals are aware of what they are doing and an example of A Swedish ape throwing stones at onlookers is cited in evidence. Not only is this ape aware of what he is doing he can also plan the activity by collecting the stones he is to throw well ahead of the event. This, however, does not imply that the ape knows why he is doing what he is doing. The onlookers may irritate him but the kind of logical connection between the two events of irritation and the action of throwing the stones are probably not integrated into the logical unit of conscious intention and action. This is probably partly due to the fact that the ape is not an animal for whom epistemic states of understanding and asserting the truth are part of his nature, It would be absolutely absurd to arrest the ape for disturbing the peace because an epistemically oriented animal is the only kind of animal that would be able to understand such an action.

Harari discusses then the idea that it might be the case that the Swedish ape Santino is conscious but lacks an awareness of self that psychologists have referred to as self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is an awareness that one is undergoing or has done something or is about to do something: this is an epistemic state connected to the Philosophers notion of consciousness. Brian O’Shaughnessy in his work “Consciousness and the World” points out that a self-conscious being observing a lightning strike on a tree both notices the event and knows that the lightning has struck the tree. The event activates the state of possibly exclaiming or asserting that the tree has been struck by lightning. Here we see a complex integration of the powers of attention, perception, conceptualization, and judgment that, whatever the similarity of the neural substrate with apes is not a possible activity for our primate cousins.

In a section entitled “Long live the Revolution” Harari points out that history has shown that the ability for large groups of strangers to cooperate with each other points to a significant difference between Homo Sapiens and other species of animal. This ability also allows revolutions to occur when relatively small groups can exercise power over larger groups once they have acquired power by being in the right place at the right time and doing what they need to do in order to acquire power.

Communism in Russia then fell, it is argued, because of an inability to cooperate and organize the country. Harari also discusses the dramatic fall of Romanian communism under Ceaucescu and points to the televised event when he was giving a speech to 80,000 of his countrymen who began booing and shouting. He points out that Ceaucesco maintained power for 40 years by understanding three essential requisites for the domination of his people. Firstly control of all the networks of cooperation in the country. Secondly the neutralization of rival organizations and thirdly assistance from sister communist parties in other countries. Harari maintains that Ceaucescu fell power once all three conditions failed to work in his favour.

Harari points out interestingly, that in such circumstances the power does not necessarily pass to the rebels but rather to those who are best organized and who can proclaim support for the revolution, in this case, the National Salvation Front, a branch of the communist party.

The interesting question to pose is what is the significance of cooperation and organization when viewed through the theories of Philosophical Psychology. Aristotle would maintain that being at the right place at the right time and proclaiming ones support for the revolution in front of the microphones of the media would fall under the heading of the efficient causes for the acquisition of power. But later philosophy would also insist that there are a large number of psychological powers at work in the processes of political cooperation and organization: sensation, perception, attention, imagination, will, language, conceptualization, judgment desire, expectation, and attitude. Many human powers are, as stated by P M S Hacker in his work “Human Nature: The Categorical Framework”, so-called two-way powers which are expressive of our voluntary choice or will to do one thing rather than another. These powers are both integrated with each other and some build upon others. It is the task of Philosophy and not Scientific Psychology to chart the relations of these powers to each other in an all-embracing theory.

The important role of language in the process of cooperation and organization is emphasized by Harari in a section entitled “The Web of meaning”. We cooperate with each other and organize ourselves into large institutions because we believe in the same stories. The limited infrastructure of subjective intersubjective and objective reality again is called upon to bolster up the argument and reference is made to the importance of communication. The example of money as an intersubjective entity is discussed and the importance of belief in the value of the entity is emphasized:

The polarisation of fact and value we encountered before again produces a confined debate. Desire, expectation, and attitude would have been better terms to use if one wished to systematically explore the nature of value and its relation to reality. Isolating the cognitive attitude of belief from knowledge is sometimes in some contexts useful but it might also be argued that the belief we have in money is justified exactly because of the desires, expectations, and attitudes of everyone using the money. This is similarly the case with language that is even more deeply embedded in our lives and consciousness. A word is connected to the practical desires, expectations, and attitudes of language users and there are objective criteria for its correct use: thus embedding it in the arena of value (the arena of what we ought and ought not to do). Claiming that this kind of objectivity is “subjective” is misleading. It is, in fact, the same kind of reasoning which will claim that ethical action is “subjective” and this has always been welcomed with open arms by communist and fascist leaders throughout history. One should add to Harari’s three conditions the taking hostage of knowledge and truth which all dictators know they must somehow control if they are to retain power. Given the fact that these dictators never reasoned their way to power, the only means to control these powerful values is of course by violence and by the use of stories which appeal to the limited use of the people’s imagination rather than the whole battery of cognitive powers people normally use when evaluating those in power. Description will, in such circumstances, eventually replace explanation and justification by raw power and violence will replace justification by theory and argument. It was such a state of political affairs that motivated Plato’s famous words relating to the state falling into ruin and decay unless philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers. The first task of these philosophers would be to keep the warriors of the state under control by educating them.

Harari diminishes the value of truth, explanation, and justification by emotionalizing our cognitive attitudes. We desire objective meaning and are prepared to suffer for it but there is only the imaginative meaning of the stories we hear and tell.

This is a weak account of meaning. The meaning of our words are connected to their objective use, according to the work of Wittgenstein, and whilst many stories may be describing events wished for or related to objects of our anxiety, many narratives, including historical narratives are judged by the objective criteria of truth and knowledge. Biblical narratives may even be more complex than historical narratives if they incorporate what Paul Ricoeur referred to as “symbolic meaning” when they reason about good and evil.

Harari even goes so far as to say that our convictions about human rights (resting upon over 2000 years of philosophical argument, theory, and justification) is only a story whose meaning might unravel in future ages.