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

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In a section entitled “The Law of Religion” Harari argues from a definition of religion which is as follows:

“…a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order”

In defense of this definition, it is claimed that religion sews dissension and discord and yet simultaneously has been a unifier of civilizations. Society is hierarchically organized it is claimed in accordance with the power of imagination and this has succeeded in providing religion with an absolute superhuman legitimacy which in turn has also attached to some of its laws.

The Kantian Philosophy of the Enlightenment situated religion squarely in the matrix of an ethical based humanism founded on the concept of freedom and this Kantian account, in contrast to Harari’s work, fully explains why religion has been a great unifier of humankind in spite of its factual errors and sometimes faulty assumptions about the nature of the physical world. “Religio” means binding together and the way in which this binding occurs has been the theme of philosophical Psychology since its inception in the metaphysical system of Aristotle, the first philosophical biologist, and the first systematic unifier of the areas of science, ethics, politics, religion, aesthetics, and philosophical psychology. Aristotle’s philosophical psychology discusses a range of psychological powers and in this discussion, the nature of the imagination is clearly distinguished from the powers of language and reasoning that are operating in the arena of norms and values. Aristotle firmly relates the rational activity of lawmaking to the stability of our social orders and he claims that the extent to which the laws do not create the desired stability is a failure of rationality that may be related to a failure to eliminate imagined equalities or inequalities.

The presence of the term “superhuman” used by Harari above is loaded with reactionary anti-religious assumptions. It is not a term we will find embedded in myths or religious documents which are our only access to early man’s beliefs and consciousness of fault. Paul Ricoeur in his work on “The Symbolism of evil” explores the latter dimension philosophically. Whatever one scientifically believes about myths it remains the case that they are the objectification in a discourse of the anguish associated with fault and the awe associated with beliefs that are embedded in man’s relation to what he once considered sacred. The language we find in myths is not a factual structure in which the meaning of the terms is related directly to physical states of affairs. It is rather a language of value in which a manifest meaning is related to a latent meaning of man’s relation to the sacred. We encounter here a structure of double meaning requiring acts of interpretation to clarify. Myths and religious documents are not merely records of what man believed but rather also expressions in the imperative mode of discourse relating to what we ought to believe or how we ought to act. This imperative mode is nevertheless universal, that is it relates to all men in a real relation to the sacred object whether it be a God, gods, or a desired state of understanding. Ricoeur’s work is of particular interest here because of the claim of the author of “Sapiens” that Humanism is a modern religion. If we use Ricoeur’s work as a guide in this matter we will clearly see that Philosophical Humanism follows Kant’s and Aristotle’s lead in retaining a place for the divine, the sacred, or holy in ethical and political reflections. This move acknowledges there is a rational core in religious discourse that cannot be attributed to the fragile acts of the imagination. Ricoeur’s work testifies to the fact that this rational core has survived the bureaucratization of religion, romanticism, and scientism’s attempts to reduce everything non-material to the “Subjective” and the more general post-modernist onslaught on practical rationality. The ideas of the sacred and Freedom are not figments of the imagination but real holistic ideas that bind communities together into holistic entities by pointing to what man ought to do in the realm of norms and values. This indicates that philosophical humanism has a very different conception of norms and values to the definition in this work which risks dehumanizing the human and subjectivizing the role of the rational in what Ricoeur refers to as the human beings desire to be and effort to exist. Reference to the superhuman order is the work of an imagination that has dismissed the value of practical rationality we find in the works of Aristotle, Kant, and Ricoeur.

An interesting historical analysis of religion begins with an account of animism as the dominant belief system of hunters/gatherers. In this section of his narrative entitled “Silencing the lambs,” it is claimed that rules anthropomorphized animals trees and even physical nature. Spirits were conjured up to explain strange taboos or the sacred status of “white-tailed foxes, for example. To an external critic, it would seem that these beliefs and practices were indeed powered by the imagination but the author is silent on its role in animistic religions.

Animism is, of course, a very old, not to say an ancient form of religion that was not sufficiently substantial to have universal ambitions. It is not clear either how this earlier form of religion relates in Harari’s account to the forms of organized religion containing universal ethical norms and values.

Harari dates the Cognitive Revolution to 70,000 years ago and claims that it was at this point that fictive language emerged. This is not in accordance with current prevailing linguistic and psychological/anthropological theories. Julian Jaynes in an article entitled “The evolution of language in the Late Pleistocene” published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science” offers an interpretation based on current evidence and brain research that suggests insofar as language is concerned fictive language comes relatively late in its evolution. First, come the stages of modifiers, then the stage of imperatives. The first sentence with a noun and predicate modifier probably occurred between 25000 and 15000 BC. Jaynes argues:

“this period corresponds, I suggest, to the invention of pottery, pendants, ornaments and barbed harpoons and spearheads, the last two tremendously important in spreading the human species into more difficult climates.”

There is another serious question as to whether the cognitive operation of following rules is possible before the later stages of the evolution of language: this may have only been possible at the so-called “age of names” sometime between 10000 and 8000 BC. It is this age of names during the Agricultural Revolution that is conditionally necessary for narratives to begin and this would seem to be necessary for an awareness of fictive language to be possible. What level of awareness is required for the establishment or following of rules? Rules in Wittgenstein are connected with the mastery of techniques and rational agreements. Could Hunters and gatherers before 10000 and 8000 BC be said to be “Masters” of any technique? One wonders here whether Harari is projecting relatively advanced mental states onto relatively primitive behavioural patterns. Prior to the systematic functioning of language, the medium of cultural transmission, according to Jaynes is the imitation of someone else’s behaviour. This cannot be construed as following a rule which requires a level of consciousness beyond that required to follow a command by someone or imitate their behaviour.
The use of the linguistic shifter “I” comes even later than the age of names and signifies an even higher level of consciousness in which first-person avowals become possible, a use of language that may be necessary for the operation of following a rule. The avowal “Now I understand” may be necessary if one is to be able to follow a rule and this cognitive level may also be necessary for the understanding of fictive language.

Animism began to weaken during the agricultural revolution, Harari argues and animated rocks, springs, ghosts, and demons gave way to a polytheistic collection of gods. We can see a difference in the conceptualization of life forms in the above example. Animals and natural phenomena are “mastered” during the agricultural revolution and the result is a consciousness of the difference between the kinds of existence of physical phenomena and animal forms of life. Polytheism then develops into a stage on the way to monotheism where there is an acknowledgment of a power superior to these gods(Fate, Moira, or Ananke?).
It would be pointless to ask such a power for a victory in a local war because it has no concern with the human desire to be or human efforts to maintain themselves in existence. Kingdoms and Empires may rise and fall in the purview of this power. Such events are ephemeral and whilst undoubtedly events of significance such significance might not be what we think it is because of the span of infinite time.

Local and regional gods waned in importance possibly because of the cognitive awareness of the inefficacy of “deals” with the god of war. The humanist will see this as a natural progression in an awareness of one’s own active responsibility. If one wishes to win a war, acquire knowledge of how wars are won and prepare accordingly. This is not Harari’s position who praises polytheism for its open-mindedness, refusal to persecute non-believers and refusal to participate in the missionary practice of “the conversion of the native”.

Harari rightly points out that monotheists saw other monotheists as heretical or as infidels and responded very often in violent terms but does not explore the possibility that there were a number of reasons for this states of affairs. He points out that polytheism also gave birth to dualistic religions that divide the empire of the world into two: the good and the evil but he does not explore how this dualism infected monotheism to the extent that this battleground of the good and evil was fought by “us vs them”. He points out how difficult it was for monotheists to accommodate the assumption of dualism. The God of monotheism was a god of order and order cannot be produced on a battleground that seeks to divide up the empire of the world into two camps. The monotheist Aristotle believed in was a God of order who was necessarily good and conceived of the fight between good and evil as an activity which was in some sense “aiming at the good”. There cannot be a battle therefore between what is good and what is evil, there can only be a battle between what is “good” and what is “evil”. This is the message of humanism but for Harari Religious humanism would be a kind of contradiction which it clearly is not.

Harari points to the phenomenon of the emergence of religions during the first millennium BC that was characterized by a disregard of gods: Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Stoicism, Cynicism, and Epicureanism. He also recalled that for some religions gods were “subject to” natural laws. For the humanist like Aristotle it is not the case that his idea of the divine was subject to the natural laws(the laws of physics?) It is, however, not out of the question that for Aristotle there is a conceptual identity between laws of change and the divine.

There is a very interesting discussion of Buddhism in which the central figure is as Harari says “not a god but a human being” who sought explanations behind the various forms of human suffering. Buddha pointed to the restless, suffering spirit of man: a spirit that apparently can never be satisfied with material things that all vanish “like smoke” at the point of death.

The restless mind seeks to escape suffering and can do so this work argues only be putting an end to one’s craving or by training the mind to stoically accept reality as it is, accept i.e. Fate, Moira, and Ananke. It is not clear what exactly is meant here in the above account of Buddhism. If it is the case that the desire for enlightenment is motivating all our activity and our restless activity then is this also a fire that must be put out? If so, this position entailing as it does rebirth whilst the fire continues to burn, as we know is the motivator of the reincarnation thesis and this Harari says nothing about in his evaluation of this “religion”.

The most startling claim in the book is contained in a section entitled “The Worship of Man”. Harari in this section argues that theist religions have lost their importance in this age of secularisation (during the last 300 years) but a number of other “religions(?)” such as liberalism, communism, capitalism, nationalism, and Nazism (which he calls “natural law religions”) have arisen during this “modern age” that has borne witness to the bloodiest wars in history.

Humanism is not on this list but it might be implied by liberalism. If so, we are being asked to regard Humanism, Capitalism, Communism, and Nazism as “religions”. This is the clearest consequence of the failure of this work to include a consideration of philosophical ethics in its reflections upon the history of mankind. It is clear that the idea of “the good” and the “Sacred” are being bracketed in the production of the above incredible members of the category of “religions”. The question is whether any restless activity craving change of any kind does not qualify for membership of the above very tenuously constructed class. The problem arises because of the separation of the idea of god and the good from so-called “laws of nature. The failure to recognize the conceptual connections between these notions which have been discussed by Philosophers for over 2000 years merely exacerbates the problem. Harari does not care much for the cognitive structure of language that stops one using just any term for any phenomenon one wishes to name and in that respect, his work falls clearly into the niche of postmodernist writings. In a section entitled “The Worship of Man,” it is argued that it makes no difference whether you wish to categorize communism as an ideology or a religion.

There are no clear boundaries between these concepts, he claims, but he does not motivate the abandonment of a number of long traditions of inquiry that would insist on the difference between a political system and a religion, between a system of monetary distribution(capitalism) and a religion. This conceptual ambivalence is puzzling: it is not as if Harari is advocating for the importance of religion.

Finally, Harari claims that humanists believe that humans are the most important thing in the world and the supreme good. This may or may not be an acceptable account depending upon whether the limitations of human rationality that all humanists share an awareness of is included in the account. More contentiously Harari divides humanism into liberal humanism, social humanism(Communism?) and evolutionary humanism(Nazism).
Totalitarianism was characterized by Hannah Arendt as an ideology which inverts the good into evil and vice versa. Hitler and Stalin were mass murderers and placing them in the same humanistic category as philosophical humanists such as Aristotle, Kant, and Ricoeur is an example of both postmodernist and totalitarian thinking. From a postmodernist viewpoint, this would be a fine revisionist view of history, philosophy, and language.