“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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The Industrial revolution, Harari argues :

“..opened the way to a long line of experiments in social engineering and an even longer series of unpremeditated changes in everyday life and human mentality. One example among many is the replacement of the rhythms of traditional agriculture with the uniform and precise schedule of industry. Traditional agriculture depended on cycles of natural time and organic growth. Most societies were unable to make precise time measurements, nor were they terribly interested in doing so. The world went about its business without clocks and timetables, subject only to the movements of the sun and the growth cycles of plants.”)pp394)

These experiments in social engineering dominated by the 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. What exactly is meant by an experiment relating to human mentality, however, is not clear. 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 care was the family which was:

“also the welfare system, the health system,the education system, the construction industry, the trade union, the pension fund, the insurance company, the radio, the tv, the newspapers, the bank and even the police.”(pp399)

What the family could not deliver was left to local community. Did this produce a general mentality or was it the case that there was merely a generalised attitude toward the family which caused Aristotle, for example, to characterise 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 motivates 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 his 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 which truly examined the development of the emotions and personality in the context of the family but it also extended its theorising to examining “civilisation and its discontents” ending in a question as to whether all the work involved in building a civilisation 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 “forces” shape the battlefield of civilisation 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 characterised 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 the work Harari is going to speak of delusions. In the light of the hallucinatory wish fulfilment connotations of this term in psychoanalytical theory we will return to Psychoanalysis when considering this claim. We will also return to Psychoanalytical theory when we consider the role of art(compared with science) in the shaping of our civilisation.

The collapse of the institutions of the family and the local community was motivated by Harari in the following manner:

“”Life in the bosom of family and community was far from ideal. Families and communities could oppress their members no less brutally than do modern states and markets, and their internal dynamics were often fraught with tension and violence–yet people had little choice. A person who lost her family and community around 1750 was as good as dead. She had no job, no education and no support in times of sickness and distress. Nobody would loan her money or defend her if she got into trouble. There were no policemen, no social workers and no compulsory education…..All this changed dramatically over the last two centuries. The Industrial Revolution gave the market immense new powers, provided the state with new means of communication and transportation, and placed at the governments disposal an army of clerks, teachers, policemen and social workers. At first the market and state discovered their path blocked by traditional families and communities who had little love for outside intervention. Parents and community elders were reluctant to let the younger generation be indoctrinated by nationalist education systems, conscripted into armies or turned into a rootless urban proletariat.”(pp401-2)

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, in 1781 Immanuel Kant wrote his first major work, “The Critique of Pure Reason” which 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 individuals 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 industrialised 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 which 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:

“..the liberation of the individual comes at a cost. Many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wielded over our lives. States and markets composed of alienated individuals can intervene in the lives of their members much more easily than states and markets composed of strong families and communities…..The deal between states, markets and individuals is an uneasy one. The state and the markets disagree about their mutual rights and obligations, and individuals complain that both demand too much and provide too little. In many cases individuals are exploited by markets and states employ their armies, police forces and bureaucracies to persecute individuals instead of defending them.”(pp403)

Insofar as states an 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 citizens 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 clearly examples of the progress we are making. Feeling alienated in such a context may be a signal for one to contact ones 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 criticise 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 is an imagined community in which we imagine a common past, common interests and a common future:

“Like money, limited liability companies and human rights, nations and consumer tribes are inter-subjective realities. They exist only in our collective imaginations, yet their power is immense..”

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 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 terms that means many different things. Harari to some extent acknowledges this:

“most current ideologies and political programs are based on rather flimsy ideas concerning the real source of happiness. Nationalists believe that political self determination is essential for our happiness. Communists postulate that everyone would be blissful under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Capitalists maintain that only the free market can ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest number by creating economic growth and material abundance and by teaching people to be self reliant and enterprising.”(p422)

Harari asks whether scientific research could contradict these assumptions and 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:

“In one common view, human capabilities have increased throughout history. Since humans generally use their capabilities to alleviate miseries and fulfil aspirations, it follows that we must be happier than out medieval ancestors, and they must have been happier than Stone Age hunter-gatherers. But this progressive account is unconvincing. As we have seen, new aptitudes, behaviours and skills do not necessarily make for a better life. When humans learned to farm in the Agricultural Revolution, their collective power to shape their environment increased, but the lot of many individuals grew harsher. Peasants had to work harder than foragers to eke out less varied and nutritious food, and they were far more exposed to disease and exploitation. Similarly the spread of European empires greatly increased the collective power of human kind by circulating ideas, technologies and crops, and opening new avenues of commerce. yet this was hardly good news for millions of Africans, Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians…Power corrupts..and as humankind gained more and more power it created a cold mechanistic world ill-suited to our needs.”(pp423)

Counterarguments to this position are presented and we only arrive at the crux of the matter which is that humankind ought to use their powers and capabilities ethically in the following quote:

“Philosophers, priests and poets have brooded over the nature of happiness for millennia, and many have concluded that social ethical and spiritual factors have as great an impact on our happiness as material conditions. Perhaps people in modern affluent societies suffer greatly from alienation and meaninglessness despite their prosperity. And perhaps our less well to do ancestors found much contentment in community, religion and a bond with nature.”(pp425)

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, 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 persons 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:

“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 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 the questionnaires do not reveal causation but can only speak about the correlation of variables. The cause of happiness it is argued is chemical:

“determined by a complex system of nerves, neurones, synapses and various biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.”)pp432)

and then the following incredible statement is made:

“A person who has just won the lottery or found new love and jumps from joy is not really reacting to the money or the lover. She is reacting to various hormones coursing through her bloodstream, and to the storm of electric signals flashing between different parts of the brain.”

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 our consciousness of these states which is 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 :

“consists in seeing ones life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. There is an important cognitive and ethical component to happiness.”)pp438)

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

“So perhaps happiness is synchronising ones personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions.”(pp438)

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 which 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 like Freud manage to avoid.