“Sapiens, A brief history of humankind”(Yuval Noah Harari) Critique and Commentary from a Philosophical Perspective(Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein) Part five

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The Chapter entitled “The Secret of Success” makes an interesting claim that the move toward the telos of globalization is due to historical processes or forces. Three mechanisms are postulated:

“Commerce, Empires, and universal religions eventually brought virtually every Sapiens on every continent into the global world we live in today. Not that this process of expansion and unification was linear or without interruption. Looking at the bigger picture, though, the transition from many small cultures to a few large cultures, and finally to a single global society was probably an inevitable result of the dynamics of human history”.(p264)

Harari raises the issue of determinism in his subsequent discussion of how and why it was that Christianity took over the Roman Empire and claims that whilst historians seem to have no difficulty describing how this process occurred they have considerably more difficulty explaining why it occurred. He distinguished between these two questions in the following manner:

“What is the difference between describing “how” and explaining “Why”? To describe “How” means to reconstruct the series of specific events that led from one point to another. To explain “why” means to find causal connections that account for the occurrence of this particular series of events to the exclusion of all others. Some scholars do indeed provide deterministic explanations of events such as the rise of Christianity. They attempt to reduce human history to the workings of biological, ecological or economic forces. They argue that there was something about the geography genetics or economy of the Roman Mediterranean that made the rise of a monotheistic religion inevitable. Yet most historians tend to be skeptical of such deterministic theories. This is one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline–the better you know a historical period, the harder it is to explain why things happened one way and not another.”(265-6)

The above explanation of the difference between describing how something happens and explaining why it happens does not clarify the issues raised relating to what philosophers refer to as the logical status of “future contingent” statements. Describing is obviously something one does in accordance with the principles of judgment that are operating at a conceptual level and where the correctness of one’s judgments are determined by the correct use of the criteria for the concepts one is using in one’s description. These criteria will inevitably use various categories of being that may or may not include causation linking events together in a narrative-like structure that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This narrative structure will largely be composed of what one takes to be the facts. We can see how history has an important descriptive role in our knowledge of the events of the past. Explanation however, is at another logical level. It presupposes “something described” and gives a “reason” for the fact or facts as presented. Here a logical structure supplants a narrative structure and we do indeed find reference to explanatory theories in many historical texts. Justification will not be at the conceptual level composing individual judgments (did these happenings meet the criteria for a revolution?) but rather at the level of the relation between judgments. The role of “causation” here will not be solely restricted to what Aristotle refers to as the material and efficient causes but will include the more complex formal and final cause that arise in logical structures where justifications are not merely at the conceptual level but at the level of combinations of claims that produce an argument for a conclusion. The claim that Christianity took over the Roman Empire is a descriptive judgment. Asking the question why it succeeded is a reasonable question to ask but it is probably not a question we can answer definitively as yet. We may need first to establish its role in the bringing about of globalisation, for example. But we are, if Kant is right, only at the beginning of the process of globalization and whilst its ethical essence was clear to him (but not for the author of the work “Sapiens”), and whilst Kant regarded the end of this process as necessary, many historians regard the end of this process as a future contingent and adopt an unfinished narrative attitude towards Kant’s claim. What for Kant was a future necessity is for historians a future contingent except perhaps for that small tribe of historians who believe that some states of the world are predictable and not chaotic. Plato, Aristotle and Kant all believed that logical explanation transcended a fact retrieving narrative but that narrative would not, to take a philosophical/historical example, ever reveal that man is not essentially a potentially rational animal. This, for the philosophers is a future necessity and transcends the workings of the imagination so important for this author. Philosophically one cannot imagine a human being that did not possess a rational potential. One can of course imagine a man that is factually not rational: an insane cannibal for example, but the explanation for why this man is an insane cannibal will presuppose what he lacks, namely rationality. The explanation will presuppose a potential that did not actualise for a number of reasons. Without this presupposition we are left with chaotic narratives of such phenomena.

The issue being raised is determinism and Aristotle rejected determinism insofar as future contingents were concerned but he did not reject determinism for his theoretical explanations. Human beings are necessarily rational animals capable of (non-post modernistic) discourse. Four different kinds of explanation will fully explain why anything with an essence has that essence it has. A human being rationally discussing with himself or others the reasons for a future action or a future judgment and carrying out that action or making that judgment is a “causal” sequence. These are not examples of a material cause related to a material effect. One of the forms of explanation(or “causes”) relates to a human action that according to Aristotle is to a large extent “determined” by the final cause or intention of the action (and to some extent by material and efficient and formal causes). Voluntary action is “chosen”. The Emperor Constantine could have chosen a number of religious cults as the religion which would unify the Roman Empire but he chose Christianity, Harari, argues. One can wonder whether Constantine’s choice was “rational” because his choice helped to convert Christianity into a so-called “universal” religion. Did he fully understand what he was doing? We no longer have access to his thoughts but we do have access to documents recording his actions and thoughts. If those documents contain direct or indirect proclamations of the future importance of Christianity, it would be a valid historical judgment to claim that it was his intention to create a universal religion. In such a case the choice was fully voluntary and the intention of the action explains why it was performed. Could we say before the choice that the factors to determine the action were present in the mind of Constantine and that the outcome of his action was already determined before it happened? Constantine is not available to answer any questions that might arise concerning his intentions as recorded in the documentation relating to this choice so it is conceivable that there was something in this situation that would speak against the judgment that Constantine had the intention to convert Christianity into a so-called “universal” religion. In the end, the evidence may be incomplete and the status of the judgment has to be regarded as “hypothetical”: i.e. it is “possible” that his intention was to create a “Holy Roman Empire” but we do not know. To the extent that determinism decrees that only material and efficient causes are the ” real” causes of change is the extent to which Aristotle would disagree with such forms of determinism. The bones and muscles pushing the quill belonging to Constantine that signs decrees relating to the institutionalization of Christianity are material causes of such an action but they are of no particular interest for the historian. In this form of material reductionism, the cause-effect relation requires two separately perceptually identifiable events that can be related. Intentions as reasons for doing x are not known observationally. Such intentions are as Anscombe pointed out known non-observationally. Aristotle Kant and many modern followers would, therefore, argue that for every fact there is a justification or explanation that is in a sense a “cause”. Future contingents such as whether or not there will be a nuclear war are literally situated in a field of thousands of variables all of which may not be known or knowable at a particular time. Categorically saying either there will be a war or there will not( cf Aristotle’s example there either will or will not be a sea battle tomorrow) is assuming first that we can have complete knowledge of all the variables and also that we can have knowledge of the very large set of consequences that follow from such extensive knowledge. There is moreover more than a reasonable doubt about whether this is the way our minds naturally work (computer programs begin by defining the field of variables that will define the scope and limits of the program).
There is a strange passage in the book which claims that the more knowledge one has the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way rather than another because, it is argued, the future is a fog. Insofar as future contingents are concerned the future is a fog but this does not suffice to destroy the deterministic position that one can in principle explain why there was not a nuclear war when it has become a fact that a war was avoided (The Cuban Missile Crisis). The people at the time might not understand the reasons why there was not a war but it does seem somewhat paradoxical to insist that after the work of historians has been done we will still find ourselves in the middle of a fog. And yet this is the position of the author:

“History cannot be explained deterministically and it cannot be predicted because it is chaotic. So many forces are at work and their interactions so complex that extremely small variations in the strength of the forces and the way they interact produce huge differences in outcomes. (p267)

This is classic post-modernistic thinking. Aristotle in our position today would gesticulate towards the tens of thousands of history books we possess and challenge us to find the four kinds of explanations if we wish to cease to live in a fog about our past. There are satisfactory descriptions of the facts in these books and satisfactory explanations and justifications of these facts. We should bear in mind that Hobbes and Descartes were the originators of the modernist rejection of Aristotle. Post Modernism needs to reject not only Aristotle but Kant and his Enlightenment position as well. Rejecting Aristotle for scientific reasons is just about understandable if not justifiable but rejecting both Aristotle and Kant for “chaos theory” is not coherent:

“Not only that, but History is what is called a “level two” chaotic system. Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. The weather, for example, is a level one chaotic system. Though it is influenced by myriad factors, we can build computer models that take more and more of them into consideration and produce better and better weather forecasts. Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it and therefore cannot be predicted accurately. Markets, for example, are a level two chaotic system. What will happen if we develop a computer program that forecasts with 100 percent accuracy the price of oil tomorrow? The price of oil will immediately react to the forecast, which would consequently fail to materialize.”(p268)

Because everyone, it is argued will rush to buy oil and the price will rise. Buying oil is a future contingent and not a past fact so it is difficult to immediately see the relevance of this example of history being a level two chaotic system. It is not even certain that there is in principle any difference between a computer program that predicts weather patterns and a program that predicts prices. All a programmer would need to do in this situation is define a future buying pattern variable (based on empirical data) that calculates the likely buying response and the likely responses to that. The field of variables would, of course, be much larger than those defined in a weather system program but in principle, there is no significant difference since we here are dealing with quantitatively definable variables in both cases. An exact cost prediction might be impossible but a range prediction might be.

Harari, to support his chaotic suggestion of levels of chaos points to what “people” living in Constantine’s time(the hoi polloi?) would do in the face of the suggestion that an esoteric Eastern sect religion was about to become the official Roman Religion. They would, he claims laugh such an oracle out of the room. The Greeks which are conspicuously absent in this entire account of the history of mankind let the oracles operate in temples and the hoi polloi would laugh at them at their peril(35,000 visitors a day journeyed to Delphi from all parts of the Mediterranean). Postmodernists are modern populists and anyone (the people) saying just anything seems sufficient to count as an argument against the best-argued positions exactly because the people referred to above do not understand what a good argument or good history is and their opinion is as good as anyone else’s.

This ethical relativism is confirmed in the quote which follows shortly after a claim stating that we do not study History to make predictions but rather to understand that something other than what happened could have happened:

“Different cultures define the good differently and we have no objective yardstick by which to judge between them.”(p269)

The assumption is that the yardsticks provided by Aristotle and Kant and the generations of Aristotelians and Kantians over thousands, or hundreds of years have obviously been proven to be inadequate by theorists who believe for no good reason that both the future and the past are foggy.

Relativism is often accompanied by anti Humanistic theories and we see this unholy alliance in this work too:

“There is no proof that history is working for the benefit of humans because we lack an objective scale on which to measure such benefit.”(p269)

Anti-humanistic theories take many forms but this one uniquely compares our cultures to viruses living parasitically upon host bodies, caring nothing for them and sometimes even killing them. Relativism allows anyone to say anything so one cannot say anything about this except perhaps to agree with Aristotle that such descriptions and claims become like the meaningless noise of grasshoppers in the trees.

This chapter concludes with a discussion of memetic theory, postmodernist theories of discourse and game theory and these are called upon to prove that

“the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well being.”

Auspiciously, the author then illustrates this argument by referring to the Scientific Revolution that began around 1500. History and the scientific revolution, it is argued cares not for human happiness and well being, both proceed blindly on an uncaring path, indifferent to the fate of the human species. They are viruses. Aristotle would have agreed with this verdict insofar as modern science and chaos theory is concerned but would have contested this point of view insofar as history was concerned. He would have claimed that the essential function of history was to understand the past and use this understanding to philosophically attempt to understand the future.