Critique and Commentary of “Sapiens, A brief history of humankind”(Yuval Noah Harari) 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 if religion which is as follows:

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

In defence of this definition it is claimed that:

“today religion is often considered a source of discrimination disagreement and disunion. Yet, in fact, religion has been the third great unifier of humankind, alongside money and empires.Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile and the larger the society the more fragile it is. The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures. Religions assert that our laws are not the result of human caprice, but are ordained by an absolute and supreme authority. This helps place at least some fundamental laws beyond challenge, thereby ensuring social stability.”

The Kantian Philosophy of the Enlightenment situated religion squarely in the matrix of an ethical based humanism based on the concept of freedom and this 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 ethics, politics, religion 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 law making 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 which may be related to a failure to eliminate imagined equalities or inequalities.

The presence of the term “superhuman” is loaded with reactionary anti-religious assumptions. It is not a term we will find embedded in myths or religious documents which are only access to early mans 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 discourse of the anguish associated with fault and the awe associated with beliefs that are embedded in mans 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 are 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 mans 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 or the sacred or holy in ethical and political reflections. This move acknowledges that there is a rational core in religious discourse which cannot be attributed to the fragile acts of imagination. Ricouer’s work testifies to the fact that this rational core has survived the bureaucratisation of religion, romanticism, scientism’s attempts to reduce everything non material to the “Subjective” and the more general post-modernist onslaught on practical rationality: a period of over 2000 years. 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 dehumanising the human and subjectivising 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 which 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:

“When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts. For example, a forager band in the Ganges valley may have established a rule forbidding people to cut down a particularly large fig tree, lest the fig tree become angry and take revenge. Another forager band living in the Indus valley may have forbidden people from hunting white-tailed foxes, because a white tailed fox once revealed to a wise old woman where the band might find precious obsidian. Such religions tended to be very local in outlook and to emphasise the unique features of specific locations, climates and phenomena.”It was pointless to try to convince inhabitants of some distant valley to follow the same rules”(p 235-236)

Harari dates the Cognitive Revolution to 70,000 years ago and what is claimed to be the emergence of fictive language. This is not in accordance with 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 which suggests that 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. he 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: possibly at the so called “age of names” sometime between 10000 and 8000 BC. It is this age, well into the next revolution(the Agricultural Revolution) which 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 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 which 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:

“While the king in his capital city sacrificed dozens of fat rams to the great war god, praying for victory over the barbarians, the peasant in his hut lit a candle to the fig tree fairy, praying that she help to cure his sick son.”(p237)

We can see a difference in the conceptualisation 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 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 such a power has no concern with human desire to be or effort to exist. 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 ones 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 in the following terms:

“Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes “heretics” and “infidels”. Even when polytheists conquered huge empires, they did not try to convert their subjects.”

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. Harari points out that polytheism also gave birth to dualistic religions which divide the empire of the world into two:the good and the bad but he does not explore the extent to which this dualism infected monotheism to the extent that this battleground of the good and bad 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 a God of order who was necessarily good and conceived of the fight between good and evil as an activity 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 if contradiction which it is clearly not.

Harari points to the phenomenon of the emergence of religions during the first millennium BC which were characterised by a disregard of gods: Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Stoicism, Cynicism and Epicureanism:

“These creeds maintained that the superhuman order governing the world is the product of natural laws rather than of divine wills and whims. Some of these natural law religions continued to espouse the existence of gods, but their gods were subject to the laws of nature no less than humans, animals and plants were…Gods could no more change the laws of nature than elephants can.”(249)

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 indeed 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 is “not a god but a human being” who sought for explanations behind the various forms of human suffering:

“He saw that men and women, children and old people, all suffer not just from occasional calamities such as war and plague, but also from anxiety, frustration, and discontent, all of which seem to be an an inseparable part of the human condition. People pursue wealth and power, acquire knowledge and possessions, beget sons and daughters, and build houses and palaces. Yet no matter what they achieve, they are never content. Those who live in poverty dream of riches. .. Even the rich and famous are rarely satisfied. They too are haunted by ceaseless cares and worries, until sickness old age and death put an end to them. Everything that one has accumulated vanishes like smoke.”(p249-50)

The restless mind seeks to escape suffering and can do so this work argues only be putting an end to ones craving by training the mind to stoically accept reality as it is, accept Fate, Moira, and Ananke. It is not clear what exactly is meant here. If it is the case that the desire for enlightenment is motivating all our activity and our restless activity then is this too a fire that must be put out? If so this 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”:

The last 300 years are often depicted as an age of growing secularisation in which religions have increasingly lost their importance. If we are talking about theist religions, this is largely correct. But if we take into consideration natural law religions, then modernity turns out to be an age of intense religious fervour, unparalleled missionary effort, and the bloodiest wars of religion in history. The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural law religions such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism.”(p254)

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 and not recognising the conceptual connections between these notions which have been discussed by Philosophers for over 2000 years. Harari does not care much for the cognitive structure of language which 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 post modernist writings. here is an example of this same kind of carelessness:

“If it makes you feel better, you are free to go on calling Communism an ideology rather than a religion. It makes no difference.”(p255)

There are no clear boundaries between these concepts he claims but he does not motivate an abandonment of a number of long traditions of inquiry which would insist on the difference between a political system and a religion between a system of monetary distribution(capitalism) and a religion. It is not as if Harari is advocating for the importance of religion.

Finally Harari, ignoring the counterexamples of Humanism of Aristotle Kant, Ricoeur and Wittgenstein 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 which all the above humanists share an opinion on is included in the account. More contentiously Harari divides humanism into liberal humanism, social humanism(Communism?) and evolutionary humanism(Nazism).
Totalitarianism was characterised 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 the above philosophers is an example of both post modernist and totalitarian thinking: a fine revisionist view of history, philosophy and language.

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