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

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The section entitled “the Marriage of Science and Empire” raises immediate normative issues for the philosopher searching for an analysis of the anomalies of the modernism and post-modernism eras of our History. This work certainly falls into one of these two categories. Having said this it must be added that this is one of the most interesting chapters of the book and it provides a great deal of empirical explanation relating to the material and efficient causes of the phenomena of these periods.

The author begins by pointing out that British exploratory expeditions beginning with Captain Cook’s in 1768, were in the habit of transporting scientists of various kinds to conduct both inductive scientific investigations in new and strange environments and to verify more deductively structured theories which predict the existence of events, objects etc that have not yet been observed. Harari does not in this discussion make the traditional philosophical distinction between Science in the context of Discovery and Science in the context of Explanation. Indeed his talk in the last chapter of “new knowledge” appears to highlight the observational activity of the scientist at the expense of the theoretical activities of thought and reason.

Harari reports how the causes of diseases like scurvy that had been responsible for the deaths of large numbers of sailors were discovered on the voyages of exploration. Experiments on different groups of sailors were conducted by Lind in 1747 and these proved the efficacy of citrus fruits, an old folk remedy. Cook apparently saw some kind of relation of citrus fruits to sauerkraut and took both these foodstuffs on his voyage and did not lose a single sailor to the disease. According to Harari, this event was of historical significance for the British control of the oceans of the world and the transportation of armies that would help build the Empire. This expedition laid the foundation for the conquest of Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand, events that had devastating consequences for the indigenous peoples of these areas. Harari refers to the comfortable alliance of Science and empire building with more than just a hint of normative criticism.

The justification of Normative criticism, of course, requires the kind ethical theory that science cannot provide. It is clear from the above that the scientists of the time were on a blind search for the facts even if observationalism was the guiding “philosophy”. There are historians(Hannah Arendt) who seek to minimize the normative criticism of this period of History by claiming that the British Empire was acquired in a state of absent-mindedness in which the intentions were good. Harari partially acknowledges this in his remark that whilst the evil deeds could fill an encyclopedia, the achievements of the era could fill another encyclopedia. So in the end, even he agrees that using his infrastructure of Science and his normative free view of history we can justify neither the blame nor the praise that has been leveled at the British of this period. The words from the work of the earlier Wittgenstein that “The world is the totality of facts” naturally emerge here in spite of the fact that they were written in 1922. Wittgenstein finally abandoned this position and one of the reasons for his change of mind, was the consequence that the philosophical importance of value judgments was significantly diminished. His earlier work was a part of the “scientific revolution” against the work of Aristotle which he then needed to retract in his later work in order to justify normative discourse. By this time(1951) the global centre of power had shifted towards Europe and was already shifting westwards towards the “New World”, the USA. Harari asks the salient question “Why Europe?”, and in partial answer to this question, the author cites military-industrial-scientific factors that matured faster in Europe.

Science for the philosopher is more than technological innovation in the context of discovery of observation and experiment, but we should reiterate this is not the position of the author of this work who believes that the link between science and technology is a defining feature(In contrast to a more classical view which would view the link as incidental). Industrialization obviously occurred much faster in Europe than elsewhere and the economic and political consequences were significant. The author talks of the development of railroads, the steam engine, and machine guns as examples of the first wave of the revolution and refers to the lack of culturally and politically developed institutions of non-Western countries as the reason for their lack of progress in this area.

Values finally appear as an important factor in the attempt to answer this question. Ethical values are implied in the working of the judicial apparatus. Observation-experiment and the manipulation of variables are largely irrelevant to the context of justification in the realm of law. It would be absurd to claim that the system is searching for “new knowledge”, new laws and new experiences. Values emerge but immediately subside into obscurity and Harari points to European capitalist and scientific behaviour underlying key technological innovation, regarding this as the legacy of European Imperialism. It is noted that between 1500 and 1950 the Far East and the Muslim world did not produce “minds as intelligent and curious as those of Europe”, “did not produce anything that comes even close to Newtonian physics or Darwinian biology.”

What is not mentioned, is the context of these scientific works, a context, namely, of the agenda of justification of theories that we inherited from the Greek philosophers. These theories emerged as a consequence of a critical spirit just as important as the spirit of curiosity and exploration seeking new experiences. It has been claimed by philosophers, for example, that Oxford University has never ceased to teach Aristotle since its inception when Aristotle was the major thinker dominating the university syllabus. The work of Darwin obviously surfed on the wave of Hobbesian anti-Aristotelianism in spite of the respect that Darwin had for the biological works of Aristotle. Darwin was probably aware of Aristotle’s ethical and political works and famously manifested his modern ambivalence to some of these ideas by refusing to defend his work from ecclesiastical attack, leaving that task to Thomas Huxley. The same ambivalence was probably behind his initial reluctance to publish his work during his lifetime. Darwin was not an Imperialist, he did not want to conquer the world with his ideas. The mentality of conquerors shared the mindset of the technological innovators. Both conquerors and innovators, argues the author, admit their ignorance but not in a Socratic manner where one knows what one does not know, but nevertheless knows for example that the kind of instrumental reasoning manifested by conquerors and tyrannical rulers is not the kind of reasoning that will reveal the essence of justice or the good. Rulers who rule instrumentally in their own interest do not possess the kind of normative knowledge needed to justify just actions. Instrumental reasoning is not only used by imperialists, but it is also the mindset of technological innovators, Heidegger, for example, has argued. Instrumental reasoning for Heidegger will never reveal the real concern of our curiosity which seeks a metaphysical understanding of the nature of being in general and our own being in particular: a variation on an old Aristotelian theme. It is possible that the continuity of this kind of metaphysical curiosity is that which accounts for the power of scientific and Historical Explanation. Given the ethical orientation of the metaphysics of action this historical continuity of variations on a theme is also responsible for the stability of our political and legal systems that the author claims lie behind the way in which our societies function. Historical knowledge is also informed by this metaphysical spirit in which categorical assumptions and explanations provide the framework for the having of new experiences and discovery of new events and knowledge that has always been a part of the British and European mentality. It is this spirit which it is necessary to understand if one is to correctly interpret the following observations:

“When the Muslims conquered India, they did not bring along archeologists to systematically study Indian history, anthropologists to study Indian cultures, geologists to study Indian soils, or zoologists to study Indian fauna. When the British conquered India, they did all of these things. On 10th April 1802, the Great Survey of India was launched. It lasted 60 years. With the help of tens of thousands of native labourers, scholars, and guides, the British carefully mapped the whole of India, marking borders, measuring distances, and even calculating for the first time the height of Mount Everest and the other Himalayan peaks. The British explored the military resources of Indian provinces and the location of their gold mines, but they also took the trouble to collect information about rare Indian spiders, to catalogue colourful butterflies, to trace the ancient origins of extinct Indian languages, and to dig up forgotten ruins.”(p332)

It was, for example, a British officer named Rawlinson that eventually managed to decipher the Sumerian cuneiform script by using a knowledge of Modern Persian to understand the ancient Persian the script was using. Rawlinson is described as a modern European Imperialist and one wonders whether this is a fair description of this feat of interpretation that enabled us to understand “the bustle of Sumerian bazaars, the proclamations of Assyrian kings, the arguments of Babylonian bureaucrats”. In education one, as a result of the influence of Ancient Greek philosophy, is accustomed to acknowledging a distinction between understanding something in order to do something else, i.e. understanding the structure of the atom in order to construct a bomb. This is a very different attitude to seeking understanding just for the sake of understanding itself in the way Pythagoras did in relation to his mathematical investigations. The Imperialist and the technologist uses knowledge instrumentally, the educated man like Rawlinson seeks knowledge as a value in itself. Harari also in the same spirit, tells the story of William Jones the linguist who discovered the relation of Sanskrit to many other languages instrumentally(imperialistically?) using a comparative methodology imitated by many other linguists later

William Jones was undoubtedly an educated man and one wonders why one would wish to focus on the obvious fact that “Knowledge of Linguistics was necessary to understand ancient languages” and interpret this in terms of instrumental necessity rather than logical necessity. Of course, the Europeans knew their empires very well, in the same way as they understood their own countries very well as educated people are wont to do. So what makes this an act of Imperialism? This superior knowledge, according to the author brought obvious practical advantages. Normative judgments of blame involving the term “imperialism” require an attribution of evil intentions. The educated man concerns himself with knowledge of principles that have a value in themselves. What is the evidence for assuming that such neutral or good intentions were not in play in the desire to understand the origins of Sanskrit? Of course one can observe the misuse of this research which came afterward (in the Nazi misappropriation of this research in their “biological” thesis of the superiority of the Aryans). Does just this fact of the observation that one thing came after the other mean that the original intentions of the research were evil? There is some kind of causation linking these two events but it is not an ethical link in which evil intentions generate evil consequences and good intentions generate good consequences. One cannot reason back from an evil consequence to an evil intention without asking oneself exactly how the intention should be correctly described and whether the relation to the consequence is an ethical relation. One thing following another in time in accordance with one’s observations is not sufficient to logically and ethically unite these two events into one ethical activity. What is at issue here is a scientific view of ethics which claims that what makes an action ethical is its consequences. This challenges the traditional “old” view, a more philosophical Aristotelian and Kantian account in which the reason given by the agent of the action in the form of his/her intention is what ontologically defines the action, is what gives the action its ontological identity. Both of these philosophers have produced decisive arguments against consequentialism. Even Aquinas in the spirit of Aristotle acknowledges the complexity of human reality when he claims that if consequences are linked in terms of the one coming after the other then it is conceivable that one consequence of an action could be good and the one following it could be bad which is exactly the case with the Sanskrit example. The scientist will, of course, (indoctrinated by a materialistic theory of mind), dogmatically claim that intentions cannot be observed because they are “in”someone’s mind. The mind, however, is not a spatial container although it is often analogically characterized as such. It is, according to Aristotle, the form of the mind that is embodied in actions and speech and observers can certainly observe actions. In simple actions like the hailing of a taxi across the road by the raising of my arm, it is clear that this is intentional and this might be occurring whilst the person hailing the taxi is thinking anxiously about a speech he/she is about to give.

The question to ask here is whether the Imperialists actually had Imperialist intentions, whether they actually intended the exploitation and oppression of conquered populations. Inhabiting a sparsely inhabited continent like Australia that had no organized government to defend its borders is not clearly an ethical matter. Kant has claimed in his moral writings that the earth belongs to no one. Marking the boundary of one’s territory clearly signals one’s intentions to inhabit and work the area and to the extent that indigenous peoples who did this were removed from the area they inhabited this is clearly only illegal if there is a government to pass laws to that effect. We are dealing here with what Thomas Hobbes called a “state of nature” in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short up until that point when men form governments to regulate their lives together. For some political philosophers, it is at this point that human rights are established. This has been the verdict of history too. There were large numbers of stateless people in the world prior to the second world war and there were no governments or a united nations organization prepared to defend their rights. All the countries that are members of the UN have signed documents which state the conditions under which they have responsibility for the human rights of people in their territory and in external territories(asylum rights). They have made promises in their applications to be a member of this organization and whilst they are members they have a duty to honour their commitments. This line of reasoning is behind the position in Political Philosophy which reasons that a right only exists if someone(a government, the United Nations) has a duty to protect it. This political position assumes a Kantian ethical position in which intentions play a decisive role in contradistinction to consequences.

The author produces a number of examples of new rulers in India who it is claimed were concerned only with enriching themselves. It is not clear from the text whether the author believed that this was encouraged or sanctioned by the British government and it is in this context that he claims that whether we believe imperialism was good or evil it actually created the powerful world we live in including the scientific theories or ideologies we use to assess it.

It is not clear what the author means by ideologies but one suspects that they are not connected to what he would regard as the “old” knowledge of the good which comes from the Philosophies of Aristotle and Kant that eventually gave rise to the objective idea of human rights so important in the world today.

It is, however, admitted that science can be used for “sinister ends” the right to rule over non-Europeans on the grounds of
a “proof” of their superiority as a race.

What did this so-called “proof” look like, one wonders? Philosophically, it is quite clear that the relative concepts of “superior and inferior” are constructs of what Philosophers call the “naturalistic fallacy”. The so-called “proof” moves from the acknowledgment of a number of facts(so-called is-statements) to an ought statement, namely that a particular group of people “ought to rule”. This realm of value judgments is a realm that science and its concern with observation and collecting the totality of facts is something that as Wittgenstein claimed “must be passed over in silence” because the assumptions do not allow anything to be said. The problem is that scientists want to use their assumptions in an area they cannot be used in, and consequently end up producing “proofs” of the above kind that incidentally proved very useful for Hitler and Stalin. Wittgenstein in his early work at least had the academic honesty to stay silent on the issue of values and he realized in his later work that he needed to abandon his “scientific” assumptions if he was to say anything meaningful in this area of Philosophy. Hitler and Wittgenstein apparently attended the same Gymnasium school. The Postmodernist form of this “scientism” is the contention that human rights are a figment of our imagination and science and culture are viruses that care nothing for their hosts.

“Culture” or the created word “culturism” is also discussed in the above context and it is claimed that perhaps superiority should be characterized in terms of cultural history rather than races.

So according to this, we should pass over in silence all comparative judgments based on our knowledge of what is good and what is not. We shall not, for example, think it is meritorious to have learned to build railroads before the Indians and then use this meritorious skill to improve the infrastructure of India (exactly because their culture did not possess this instrumental and scientific knowledge). We should not have used the skills we historically acquired in order to map out the area of India for the purposes of government, law, and defense.

This, of course, does not necessitate historicism as Marx’s theory did but “culturism” does remind one of the Marxist view of the historically determined fate of the proletariat that only historical laws could rectify. The cultural difference between classes is blamed for many of the ills of society. This is a position which is at least as divisive for a society as racism. What this brought to our attention is the fact that looking blindly for differences rather than for what humans have in common leads to divisions that cannot be reconciled without conflict. Elevating this thinking to the cultural/national level results in the same deterministic difficulties that can only be escaped by reference to the importance of the Kantian idea of Freedom. More controversially, such an idea perhaps presages a globalist community that has a duty to validate the idea of the equality among nations, thus actualizing the idea of the universality of human rights which may be part of the globalization project. Hannah Arendt claimed that Imperialism and its ambiguous spirit of “Expansion” was not sufficiently controlled and formed by the nation-state and that one of the results was the totalitarianism we saw in the 20th century. If this is true then the will to extend one’s activities beyond national borders may have positive as well as negative consequences.