“Homo Deus”(Yuval Noah Harari) Critique and Commentary from a Philosophical Perspective(Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein) Part Two: The Anthropocene era

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Never before has something born of the earth been a threat to that earths very existence but this has become the case with Homo Sapiens in what Harari calls the Anthropocene era. This work rightly raises the question as to whether we ought to fear Homo Sapiens more than we do the tectonic plates that cause earthquakes and tsunamis.

Homo Sapiens since the beginnings of the Agricultural Revolution has domesticated the wild animals of the earth and the question is raised as to whether this causes suffering. Pythagoras, when a fellow Greek kicked a dog in the street causing it to yelp and howl, complained about his fellow’s behaviour on the grounds that given the response it was obvious that dogs have souls and therefore should not be made to suffer unnecessarily. Harari and many other interpreters of materialistic bent think they know what the Greeks mean by the term “psuche”. They assume, that is, that psuche means some kind of spiritual entity dwelling “in” a physical body. We know that Aristotle used the term “psuche” to refer to a life-principle, which roughly amounts to an idea or a form which explains the behaviour of those organisms that function in accordance with this principle. It is possible that Pythagoras the mathematician also thought in this way about the dog’s psuche. Materialists often complain that such an idea or form transcends experience and is therefore an unverifiable metaphysical entity. They fail to realise that the arguments in favour of gravity are also transcendent and metaphysical in exactly the same way. One cannot verify gravity without using the idea in a hypothesis which we then apply to falling and orbiting bodies. This is why Newton retained the term “philosophy” in the title of his book. Harari believes that Philosophers sit in their ivory towers contemplating transcendental and metaphysical entities which are merely figments of their imagination woven into a web of the stories they tell each other about the existence of things. The truth of the matter is that the philosophers being referred to in this work are committed to principles. Principles for example, which explain the changes we see in nature and are present in these processes in the way the form of an animal psuche is present “in” the dog that howls when it is kicked. The quotation marks around in indicate that there are not two things in one relation here but rather one thing in a process of change which is explained by a principle.

Whatever the confusions over the philosophical issues here, Harari’s basic point, that we are in the name of the superiority of our species subjugating animals to a life of abject suffering, needs to be taken seriously even if he sometimes seems to be wondering whether animals really suffer and are instead just a collection of algorithms:

“how can we be sure that animals such as pigs actually have a subjective world of needs, sensations and emotions? Aren’t we guilty of humanising animals, i.e. ascribing human qualities to non human entities, like children believing that dolls feel love or anger?..In recent decades life scientists have demonstrated that emotions are not some mysterious spiritual phenomenon that is useful just for writing poetry and composing symphonies. Rather, emotions are biochemical algorithms that are vital for the survival and reproduction of all mammals.”(p96)

An algorithm is a formal descriptive “device” for bringing about changes in machines or for bringing about changes in a material world of ingredients(as when one follows a recipe to bake a cake). Algorithms in relation to machines have a mathematical character because instead of a declaration at the beginning of the recipe of the ingredients needed we have a declaration of the variables to be manipulated. These variables all have values relating to the function of a machine which in itself was created by an algorithm that resembled a recipe. The origins of applying a machine analogy to animals goes all the way back to Hobbes and Descartes, the first two philosophers to rebel against the hylomorphic philosophy of Aristotle. There is no mental “substance” Hobbes argued, not realising that what Aristotle meant by this term was “form” or “principle”. Man the animal is a physical substance whose elements are to be determined by the resolution -composition method and his bodily life was to be characterised in much the same way one characterises the springs and wheels of a machine. Descartes added to this that animals are just machines without any mental “substance”. If “substance” does mean “principle” as Aristotle maintains then neither Hobbes’ or Descartes remarks make much sense. Yet it is these assumptions that form the background to the thought that animals might just be a bundle of algorithms. Harari is more Hobbesian than he is Cartesian and this is revealed in his determination to use the term algorithm to depict lifeworld activities such as drinking a cup of tea:

“Over the last few decades biologists have reached the firm conclusions that the man pressing the buttons(of a vending machine) and drinking the tea is also an algorithm. A much more complicated algorithm than the vending machine, no doubt, but still an algorithm. Humans are algorithms that produce not cups of tea but copies of themselves…The algorithms controlling vending machines work through mechanical gears and electric circuits. The algorithms controlling humans work through sensations, emotions and thoughts. And exactly the same kind of algorithms control pigs, baboons, otters and chickens.”(98-99)

Yet an algorithm is not a principle. The principle behind an algorithm is theoretically a hypothetical principle or practically an instrumental principle, both of which presuppose basic categorical principles or forms. The principles governing the tea drinking human psuche are the principles governing the rational animal capable of discourse. Pigs oinking at the drinking trough are not socialising or arguing rationally about whether what they drinking is good or not. To characterise this difference in terms of a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind requires further argumentation. It may be the case that homo sapiens can only appreciate differences in degree because they can understand and even perceive differences in kind. The difference of degree versus the differences in kind are more akin to the difference between the laws of electro-magnetic radiation and the laws of gravity. The comparison with these physical laws fails in some respects because there is a kinship relation between the form of life of a pig and the form of life of homo sapiens. This kinship can be expressed in terms of both being mammals or more basically in terms of both being life-forms or forms of psuche. The sensations, emotions and biological problems associated with being animals have to be partially expressed in modified forms and partially regulated because of the fact that we are social and rational animals who need to behave in a civilised manner in the company of each other. Our behaviour here is more a matter of social attitudes than of socially based emotions and it is these attitudes that enable us to form cooperative bonds with one another. Harari does not say that the algorithms are different, he insists they are the same and this is going to create difficulties even at the perceptual level. Many psychologists claim that there is built into the perceptual systems of different animals a species recognition function which even at this level recognises a difference in kind rather than a difference in degree. Tigers recognise other tigers in a way that they do not recognise lions as lions: a threat is not the same as a sexual partner. The grounds for saying the algorithm is the same is probably conceptual and categorical: man is both a mammal and an animal. For Aristotle these are forms of psuche and the categories that name them register this way of thinking about the infinite continuum of possible life forms. Yet on the developmental line of mans biological and psychological powers the latter acquire increasing significance as the organism matures or actualises its essence or nature, and in fact it is the actualising of linguistic and rational powers which serve both in hylomorphic theory and in terms of language as criterial differentiators between man and animals. The infrastructure of subjective-objective-intersubjective is the typical scientific framework that is used to reinforce Harari’s prejudice in favour of the argument that the significant difference between animals and man resides in his power of sensation, emotion, imagination and language: these four capacities are systematically separated from action and reason and thereby from the philosophical frameworks of hylomorphism, Kantian critical Philosophy and Wittgensteinian Philosophical investigations.

Behaviourism is a topic that is touched upon in order to highlight the importance of the emotions in childhood development. John Watson’s childcare advice is rightly ridiculed and the following conclusion is reached:

“Today we look back with incomprehension at early 20th century child rearing advice. How could experts fail to appreciate that children have emotional needs, and that their mental and physical health depends as much on providing for these needs as on food, shelter and medicines?”(p104)

Freudian childcare advice aside. One can wonder why Freudian ideas from this period were ignored in this discussion except for a brief mention. Perhaps it was because it was “too philosophical” for the scientific subjective-objective-intersubjective framework. After all Freud himself suggested that his Psychology was essentially Kantian. Perhaps it was because Freud saw the limitations of the emotions and the imagination for the purposes of leading a flourishing life in accordance with what he called the reality principle. For Freud, language was amongst other things an instrument for making what was unconscious conscious and in so doing connecting to memory systems in order to restore a more healthy relation to ones past. The real memory of real events is distinctly distinguished from the wish fulfilment and anxiety orientation of the imagination. For Freud as was the case for Aristotle the emotions involved in wish fulfilment and anxiety need regulation by the kind of self reflective reasoning about oneself which occurs in therapy or philosophical examination.

The above reasoning is then used to further conclude that homo sapiens in the process of domesticating animals were in their practice of removing these animals from their mothers perhaps guilty of breaking the most essential emotional bond in the animal kingdom. The argument of the farmers for doing this was essentially religious it was argued. The sacrifice of animals to the gods was commonplace in pre Christian temples. So, it is claimed that the Agricultural revolution was both an economic and religious revolution which justified the inhuman exploitation of animals. Animals were property and fodder to placate the gods.

According to Harari it was Science that silenced the gods in favour of homo sapiens who now stood alone on the world stage. Newton himself is God. Newton not only believed in Philosophy, he also believed in the relevance of religion and the bible for the leading of a human flourishing life.The argument then transitions to our scientific/technological oriented societies in which humanists worship humans and the implication is that humanists condone the suffering of domestic animals. The explanation for this state of affairs is as follows:

“Whereas the Agricultural Revolution gave rise to theist religions, the Scientific Revolution gave birth to humanist religions, in which humans replaced gods. While theists worship theos(Greek for “god”), humanists worship humans. The founding idea of humanist religions such as liberalism, communism and Nazism is that Homo Sapiens has some unique and sacred essence that is the source of all meaning and authority in the universe.”

The conflation of the ideas of religion, liberalism and Nazism is a reminder of the limited infrastructure which earlier conflated differences in degree with differences in kind. The absence of attention to ethical issues of rational justifications for action explain claiming that political positions such as liberalism are “religious”. This is the inverse position of that adopted by Euthyphro in his discussion with Socrates in which he was conflating the holy with the just. This section of the work is conflating the religious with the political.This is a minor objection however, compared to the willingness to call Nazism both humanistic and religious. Language and the philosophical criteria for the use of these terms are completely ignored and we find ourselves deposited in a relativistic post modernist world where nothing can mean everything and everything can mean nothing. This is of course the kind of world that the Nazis were striving to create, with some success apparently. The image of Science allowing factory farming on massive scales where animals are cramped together in small spaces whilst waiting for eventual slaughter of course take the mind back to the Nazi “final solution”, to the problem of the Jews who were literally thought of as animals thanks to the Science of the times. Given this it is somewhat paradoxical to focus on Religion as being solely responsible for the narcissism of human beings. Newton, like Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein saw no contradiction in searching for explanations and justifications of phenomena whilst at the same time being religiously committed to their philosophical ideas of God. All three would have taken the general thesis of homo deus with considerable skepticism. The situation is, however, complex, given, for example, the implications of Kantian Philosophy that God is an idea of reason “in” the mind of man.

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