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

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Harari argues that The Industrial Revolution was an era in which large-scale experimentation and social engineering led to a radically different form of life to that we experienced during the Agricultural revolution. Precise timetables and schedules were substituted for a form of life determined by the natural movement of heavenly bodies, growth cycles and the weather conditions. As a consequence, there were few timepieces or scientific concern for the precise measurement of things in this ancient world.

The Industrialised society’s experiments in social engineering dominated by scientific methodology and scientific materialistic assumptions decoupled from both religious ethical theories and the ethical theories of philosophy that led to the concept of human rights eventually resulted in the bizarre totalitarian “experiments of Hitler and Stalin. Harari refers in this context to an experiment relating to human mentality but it is not clear, however, what he means. Is the suggestion being made that the Industrial Revolution changed our mentality? If so, Science, which was a precursor and one of the theoretical conditions of the industrial revolution must have been a contributor to this change. Does Harari mean that we shifted to a state of discontentment because of the new disenchanted world we were forced to live in?

In practical terms, prior to the Industrial Revolution, the institution of personal and social care was the family which was a multi-faceted institution.

What the family could not deliver was left to the local community. Did this produce a general mentality or was it the case that there was merely a generalized attitude toward the family that caused Aristotle, for example, to characterize the family as the fundamental political unit of the society? According to Aristotle the family is not sufficient insofar as the needs of the individual is concerned and for him, the meeting of these needs motivated the association of families into villages. Even villages cannot meet the complex needs of the human individual and this in its turn necessitates association into a city-state which can meet even man’s more luxurious needs. For Aristotle, it is the city that best provides the conditions necessary for Eudaimonia, the flourishing life.

Psychoanalysis was the psychological theory that truly examined the development of the emotions and personality in the context of the family but it also extended its theorizing to examining “civilization and its discontents” ending in a question as to whether all the work involved in building a civilization is worth the effort. Freud’s analysis reached back into ancient Greek philosophy for its overarching powers or capacities of Eros, Thanatos, and Ananke. These three mythical “figures” shape the battlefield of civilization and the mentality of the individuals who are subject to fate as a consequence of the psychological powers of the life instinct and the death instinct(manifested partly in aggression). Freud’s theory, as we know moved from resting uneasily on quantitative considerations relating to energy distribution and the experience of pleasure and pain to the realm of meaning which better characterized analytical discourse. He refused to acknowledge that the world should be purified of its myths, although of course, he led one of the battles against religion in the name of “scientific psychology”. Later on in this work, Harari is going to speak of delusions. In the light of the hallucinatory wish-fulfillment connotations of this term “delusion” in psychoanalytical theory, we will return to Psychoanalysis when considering Harari’s claim. We will also return to Psychoanalytical theory when we consider the role of art(compared with science) in the shaping of our civilization.

The collapse of the institutions of the family and the local community was motivated by Harari in terms of its inadequacies and the fact that there were no alternatives available. These inadequacies were addressed by the market and the nation-state which produced alternative forms of care and protection from the business world and the government. Families did not always and immediately appreciate this transformation of their traditional ways of living.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, in 1781 Immanuel Kant wrote his first major work, “The Critique of Pure Reason” that pointed to the displacement of the idea of God with the idea of Freedom. This is, of course, a more positive observation in relation to the change of “mentality” of individuals: mentality here probably refers less to states of consciousness or moods of the individual and more to the individual’s attitudes. On Kant’s theories, this social change was a positive phenomenon although he was already pointing out the inadequacies of the nation-state in relation to human rights and war. Just over one century, well into the era of the Industrial Revolution, Freud begins to address the issue of the mental health of citizens of nation-states just at the time when they were embracing an “expansion at any price” business and marketing policy. His work “Civilisation and its Discontents” was a kind of judgment on the mentality of modern man living in his relatively modern industrialized nation-states. Freud’s individual cases however very often exposed the shortcomings of the family and it was partly his work that contributed to the later movements that consequently thought in terms of the right a child has to a non-oppressive or brutal upbringing. Thanks to Freud’s work children too could free themselves from oppression and repression. But Harari claims that the project of social re-engineering did not proceed smoothly for many reasons. Perhaps one of the major reasons was the inevitable restriction upon an individual’s freedom which such a project appeared to demand.

Insofar as states and markets interfere with the human rights of the individual there should be no doubt that this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. The medium of the market is finance and those who have finances to invest are obviously favoured over those that do not but this is not a matter of human rights or justice as long as the state has provided everyone with equal opportunity in the form of education etc. States have signed the universal declaration of human rights and are subject to sanction if their citizen’s rights are systematically violated. Some people may feel alienated by not being able to be active investors or by being unjustly treated but in the former case where the middle class capable of active participation in the investment market is growing and where there are more and more opportunities for education, this is clearly an improving situation. These are clear examples of the progress we are making. Feeling alienated in such a context may be a signal for one to contact one’s therapist for a diagnosis. Harari argues that this alienation is the result of millions of years of living in families and communities: a result of evolution. We have become alienated individuals, he claims. He does not see what Kant already saw in the American and French revolutions that the individual is being freed from his chains. He further argues that the market is putting chains on our ideas of romance and sex and here again he underestimates the power of freedom and knowledge to recognize and criticize the kind of stereotyping that occurs in the advertising world. There are dangers for the youth of the day but educational systems are well aware of this problem and tailor their messages accordingly.

Imagined communities, Harari argues are communities of people who do not know each other but imagine they do. He gives as examples kingdoms, empires and churches. But he also claims that the nation and limited liability companies are imagined communities in which we imagine a common past, common interests, and a common future. He gives them the ontological status of intersubjective realities.

These realities have been brought about partly by historical processes and physical factors that have nothing to do with the power of my imagination, for example, living in the same geographical territory for a long period of time under a government that both in one sense stays the same and in another sense changes. It is not even clear that we imagine in any sense the people we do not know. Is that even possible?

Many examples of the progress of our existence are discussed including the reduction in human violence both in a state context and in a community context. States no longer invade each other after the second world war(with a few exceptions) partly because of what the author calls Pax Atomica: the guarantee of mutually assured destruction if the countries in question possess atomic weapons of mass destruction. This is, it is argued, “real peace and not just the absence of war”

The question that naturally emerges next is “Are we happy?” The author admits that this is not a question historians discuss. Perhaps not. But insofar as there are ethical assumptions operating in history is there not therefore indirectly a concern with happiness? The difficulty of answering this question is related to its ambiguity, i.e. related to the fact that happiness is a term that means many different things. Harari to some extent acknowledges this and asks whether scientific research could contradict these different interpretations. He admits that there are few studies looking at the long-term history of happiness and also that both scholars and laypersons only have a vague idea of what happiness is. It is not the case, he insists, in contradiction to the philosophical view of Kant that we are happier than our medieval ancestors. he even at one point claims that as man’s power has increased his world has grown more mechanical and colder.

Counterarguments to this position are presented and we finally arrive at the crux of the matter which is that humankind ought to use their powers and capabilities ethically.

The ethical factor will contest the primacy of happiness related as it is to desire rather than reason which determines how we use our capacities and powers. The discussion of happiness as the product of material factors such as health, diet, and wealth is rightly seeing that happiness is the consequence of a kind of activity of man but is wrongly identifying that activity in materialistic terms. It is as, the Greeks and their followers and Kant and his followers claim, a product of rational/ethical activity. What it is that determines whether or not one is going to lead a flourishing life is the worthiness of the agent experiencing the happiness or flourishing life.

The worth of the agent will not be determined by the power of his imagination but rather the power of his practical reasoning in the sphere of ethical action.

The idea of a person’s worth is not a subjective inner state but rather an objective universal matter to be determined by either virtue theory or Kantian deontological ethics. The definition provided that “happiness is “subjective well-being.” is subjectivizing an entire area of philosophy, namely, practical reasoning.
Having defined the flourishing life as something subjective we are then asked to attempt to “measure” this subjective well being by questionnaires which reveal that money brings happiness but only to a point: that family and community have more impact on our happiness than money or even our health. Apparently, the freedom which we value, according to these studies, is working against us because we may freely choose our spouses but they, in turn, may use their freedom to leave us. The outcome of this long and meandering discussion is that questionnaires do not reveal causation but can only speak about the correlation of variables. The cause of happiness it is argued is chemical and the consequence of this theorizing is that the physical objects or events in the world causing our emotional and cognitive responses become irrelevant to the characterization of mental states which are about these objects or events.

This is, to cut a long story short according to Wittgensteinian analytical philosophy, a confusion of the object of our state with its cause. It is true that, in a sense, the brain structures and chemistry are, to switch to an Aristotelian objection, material causes of our states but these do not enter into the consciousness of these states that is rather directed towards its teleological objects such as the money it has won or the person one loves. So, for Aristotle, the confusion is between the different types of explanation or “causes” that can be used in relation to the phenomenon to be explained.

The author returns to a more philosophical account when he cites some research which seems to suggest that happiness is not related to desire or pleasure but rather that there may be cognitive and ethical components to happiness which of course will relate to external objects and events:

In the ensuing discussion, however, it is suggested that any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is delusional!

Psychoanalysis is the “science”(in the Kantian sense) of the states and processes of our mind and provides us with our best account of delusional states and processes. In this account, it is very clear that the delusional states of mind which schizophrenics, for example, experience, are primitive dysfunctional affairs in which there is an inadequate relation to reality. Suggesting that all ideas of a flourishing life or the meaning of life are delusional is a popular use of the term that undermines its more objective meaning. Of course one of the “mechanisms” of the schizophrenic’s delusional state of mind is the “imagination” that other people, for example, are listening to their thoughts. Given that for this author human rights, money, the nation-state etc are figments of the imagination the whole account risks falling into a kind of psychological reductionism that serious psychologists such as Freud manage to avoid.