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

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On several occasions in this work, it has been suggested that the infrastructure
of history and biology has been unable to provide adequate accounts of the complex holistic phenomena that are being discussed. This chapter at the beginning of a section entitled the Scientific Revolution, “The Discovery of Ignorance” interestingly focuses its attention on a negative, namely ignorance, rather than the positive of knowledge. This is a tactic of many relativists and postmodernists. Knowledge for the Greeks was defined as “justified true belief” and the telos or the endgame of knowledge was “holistic”, an attempt, that is to say, to perceive the world in the realm of thought, “uno sola ochiata”, at one glance. The impression of this work “Sapiens” is of a series of fragments which one approaches linearly and consecutively and if the aim of the work is to present humankind uno sola ochiata then the work has singularly failed in this task.

The term “uno sola ochiata” comes from a work by Adrian Stokes entitled “Art and Science”. The term arises as part of a larger discussion of the relation of these two branches of our knowledge in the 1500’s(the date the author of “Sapiens” sets as the beginning of the Scientific Revolution). The historical time period is that of the Renaissance, the rebirth of man’s holistic consciousness of the project of understanding and knowledge. Interestingly the historians who named this period like those that named the period of the “Enlightenment” did not share the flair for the dramatic of those historians who see revolutions under every stone of history. The Renaissance, according to Adrian Stokes, a reputable art historian, involved an intensification of all forms of cultural and exploratory activity that had been discontinued under the auspicious bureaucratic eye of a church that had refused to explore the physical and human world with what we moderns would call an open mind. Religious dualistic justifications had been called into question in Aristotle’s work and religious authorities refused to translate Aristotle from the Greek until Aquinas could “domesticate” the Aristotelian ideas to the satisfaction of church authorities. This process of domestication, however, was not to the satisfaction of serious Aristotelian scholars for whom the definition of knowledge as “justified true belief” required an intensification of all forms of human activity if it was to be understood completely and holistically. The Renaissance, then, could be seen as the rebirth of an Aristotelian attitude toward the past, the present and the future: it was a Proto-Enlightenment period. Aristotle had no difficulty integrating Art and Science, Religion and Philosophy, Rhetoric and Politics, Physics and Metaphysics in his Philosophy. His thought processes surveyed the world, uno sola ochiata.

Let me illustrate this point with a dispute between the painter Giorgione and a group of sculptors who claimed that the art of sculpture was superior to the art of painting:

“The phrase(uno sola ochiata) occurs in a story Vasari tells about Giorgione and some sculptors on the subject of the Colleoni statue(at the time of its unveiling?). The sculptors claimed their art to be superior because a statue could show all aspects to anyone walking around it. Giorgione replied that painting was superior in just this respect because all the positions could be apparent in a painting for one glance, for una sola ochiata, instantaneously, without perambulation. And he proved it by a picture he then painted a nude in a turning position. Clear water before the nude, polished armor to one side and on the other a mirror, reflected more aspects.”(Volume 2 “the Critical Writings of Adrain Stokes”, p202)

Such an attitude toward revealing the aspectual multi-dimensionality of physical objects in a physical world was also presented in architecture, in the Tempio at Rimini, for example, and in another painting of the Three ages of man by Giorgione that represented the same man as a boy, a man and an old man on the same canvas. What Giorgione and the Quattro Cento artists were drawing attention to here was an attitude which in thought was promised and made possible by Aristotle’s Philosophy. It was this attitude that was being reborn in a world teeming with fragments and contradictions needing integration into understandable Humanistic wholes. Northrop Frye in his theorizing about the act of reading texts suggests a thought-equivalent of una soal ochiata when all the events of the narrative read are present in the mind of the reader completing his reading. Is this a kind of pre-conceptual understanding of what Art is about?

Harari opens with a story of the life of a Spanish peasant who falls asleep in 1000 AD and awakes again 500 years later and he claims that the world would be totally unfamiliar to such a man. This might be true but only if we assume that he was unaffected by the desire to understand his world. Had, instead Aristotle fallen asleep in the Lyceum and awoke in a modern school building where the pupils were surfing on their computers and mobile phones while the teacher was talking about a biological problem related to evolutionary theory, the outcome of this fantasy would have been clear. The former Spanish peasant may have felt forever estranged in his relatively similar situation whereas I would wish to maintain that it would not be very long before Aristotle understood pretty much everything that was going on around him. It would not take him very long to take in the whole of the Modern Greek culture uno sola ochiata(once he had mastered modern Greek), exactly because he knows what knowledge is and what ignorance is and because there is an Aristotelian core operating in the continuity of History. He would look at the laws, talk to the politicians and University Professors, spend all his days at the library catching up with Science, History, Philosophy, and Literature.
The Literary landmark of the so called Scientific Revolution was according to Harari, Newton’s “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” which claimed that the book of nature was written in the language of mathematics. The events of physical nature were quantified in accordance with what Kant, a follower of Newton, would call metaphysical and transcendental principles, thus justifying the term “philosophy” in what otherwise was essentially a scientific Tractatus that inspired many attempts to apply these essentially physical principles to areas of investigation requiring more Aristotelian formal and teleological kinds of explanation. There was a universalism expressed in this work but it was not necessarily a scientific or mathematical universalism. Newton’s “Principles” focussed on only two out of the four kinds of Aristotelian explanation(material and efficient “causation”)

Two other technological landmarks are discussed. The landing of a space vessel on the surface of the moon might have sent an anticipatory subjective shiver down the spine of the capitalist Cecil Rhodes who wished that man could colonize the planets in the spirit of capitalism and colonization, but it certainly, objectively, was a clear signal that almost anything was possible to achieve in the sphere of technological innovation. If this was not sufficiently self-evident we are taken to the concluding moments of the Manhattan Project and the testing of the atomic bomb that provoked Robert Oppenheimer to utter the words from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. Words which were to haunt the scientific community long after the dropping of two atomic bombs on the civilian population of two Japanese cities soon after. The universal message of science driven technological innovation was that man had entered the gates of the sub atomic world within the world and there was nothing which he could not master. The power of life was dwarfed by the power of the splitting of an atom and the political decision to drop the bomb on civilian populations. The share price of life fell on stock-market of knowledge. In a sense Harari is right to claim as he does that capitalism is a contributory factor in the unholy alliance of science with technology against more humanistic forces and simultaneously an expression for globalization processes. These scientific-economic instrumental anti-humanistic sentiments were used very skillfully by totalitarian leaders and President Truman, and Harari’s description of viruses aptly characterizes these utilitarian sentiments. Heidegger pointed to the essentially instrumental nature of technological activity and the relation of this instrumentalism to a scientific materialist linear principle of causality. This is a complex attitude that uses the scientific strategy of resolution-composition that divides up wholes into parts and an experimental method that mirrors this structure mathematically by isolating variables and dividing them up into dependent and independent variables in the search for the magic relation of causality. In the humanistic field of education it is not unusual to hear the complaint that the results of the experimentation in this area seldom proves causation and one has to instead settle for basing ones judgments on correlation. In a field demanding holistic solutions to holistic problems, this is obviously less than satisfactory. This, of course, fits in with the claim that the scientific community is collectively aware of its ignorance and is, therefore, a much more credible alternative in epistemological pursuits to, for example, dogmatic religion. A distinction between old and new knowledge is made which disregards the philosophical definition of knowledge as justified true belief. The defense of this position claims that the hoi polloi believed it to be true that the world was flat and thought that they could justify this fact with their observations: because of this incongruence with reality what they thought to be knowledge was not knowledge at all. According to the philosophers, the conflict being referred to here is one between the false belief relating to the flatness of the world and the knowledge that the world has the shape revealed by the observations of astronauts orbiting the earth. Science is not dogmatic it is claimed by Harari but dogmatically ignores the philosophical definition of knowledge on the grounds that it is searching for “new knowledge” much as man was searching for “new experiences” by flying to the moon.
So much is almost admitted when Harari claims on p283 that:

“Mere observations, however, are not knowledge. In order to understand the universe, we need to connect observations onto comprehensive theories.”

The difference, Harari claims, between the old religious theories and modern scientific theories is that the former use stories to formulate their theories and the latter (Newton) used mathematics. The philosophical character of Newtons theories seems to have escaped the attention of the author. He is not immune, however to the subsequent philosophical debates that limited these theories to certain kinds of motion and change in the physical world. Acknowledging this with reference to more complex aspects of reality (the human sciences) he points to the use of statistics which as we claimed above might work in the instrumental world of economics where measuring the quantities and movement of money are important(in the world of the calculation of widows pensions for example) but clearly does not work in the categorical holistic field of education where the variable of homework is so intimately intertwined with a great number of other variables that it is impossible to make categorical causal judgments regarding its role in relation to the academic results of pupils. There seems, that is, no way to divide the continuum of education up into logically quantitative yet discontinuous events.

The best argument provided for the usefulness of statistics is that it is part of basic university requirements in a number of subjects, including psychology. At the same time, the argument is made that most people find modern science “difficult to digest” because of its mathematical language. This language often, it is argued, contradicts common sense. We should not worry too much about this because the author claims “knowledge is power” and even if:

“Presidents and generals do not understand nuclear physics..they have a good grasp of what nuclear bombs can do.” (p288)

So we can disregard the categorical philosophical definition of knowledge in favour of the thesis that “knowledge is power”. This “tool” theory of knowledge stemmed from Francis Bacon’s “revolutionary” idea of linking science and technology. Wars use science: QED. The author claims that so called “old knowledge” cannot prove its positions and that is correct on his terms if instrumentalism is the standard of proof of “new knowledge”. A more nuanced philosophical discussion such as that conducted by Jurgen Habermas in his work “The theory of Communicative action” would, however, point to a confusion in the identification of knowledge with power. Both, he would claim are steering mechanisms of human activity and judgments but power is an instrumental tool used by the political system whereas knowledge is not just a tool but also a telos or aim of the cultural system of society.

The author, Harari, quotes Jesus as saying that “the poor will always be with us” and points to the latest findings from the sciences of agronomy, economics, medicine, and psychology to confirm the claim that poverty can be eliminated. It may be that Jesus did not intend the above remark as a prediction but rather a rhetorical strategy to reorient a disciple’s critical attitude toward a woman who was intending to do a good deed in giving alms to a poor man. The philosophical “science” of hermeneutics would be better able to resolve the exact meaning intended by the above biblical words that would seem to me require a less dogmatic interpretation. Even if the authors interpretation can be sustained which I believe it cannot be, erecting a straw man to represent “old knowledge” rather than engaging with the theories of the iron men of philosophy(Aristotle, Kant etc) is a puzzling strategy for a work that is attempting to give us an account of the world-building activities of humankind. There is, however,an Oz-like atmosphere over much of what is said in this chapter.

The chapter concludes with the problem of death and the so-called “Gilgamesh Project”. An ancient Sumerian myth claims that Gilgamesh suffered from hubris and was determined not to die but was eventually forced to recognize the truth that when the gods created man they created a being that must necessarily die. Upon learning this Gilgamesh is forced to accept his mortality. The “new knowledge” we have of the success of science in the treatment of disease and investigation of genetics, the author argues, does not entail this acceptance:

“How long will the Gilgamesh Project–the quest for immortality– take to complete? A hundred years? Five hundred years? A thousand years? When we recall how much we knew about the human body in 1900, and how much knowledge we have gained in a single century, there is cause for optimism. Genetic engineers have recently managed to double the life expectancy of Caenorhabditis elegans. Could they do the same for Homo Sapiens? Nanotechnology experts are developing a bionic immunity system composed of millions of nano-robots, who would inhabit our bodies, open blocked blood vessels, fight viruses and bacteria, eliminate cancerous cells and even reverse aging processes. A few serious scholars suggest that by 2050, some humans will become a-mortal (not immortal, because they could still die of some accident), but a-mortal, meaning that in the absence of fatal trauma that their lives could be extended indefinitely.”

It is difficult to know exactly what to say about this kind of speculation filled with hypotheticals. No one would question the usefulness of not dying prematurely. We all understand the wisdom of the Biblical words which suggests that one should be “full of years” before we die, and the extent to which science can help to prevent a premature death would to most people be a valuable contribution to their lives. A question that arises for those who are full of years is whether these individuals would wish to have their lives extended indefinitely. The universal generalization “All men are mortal” that is being discussed here may refer to the fact that those individuals who are full of years and do not wish for life to be unnaturally extended are obeying a normative universal that men who are full of years know that they ought to die. The life instinct is, of course, a biological instinct but even an instincts power may fade over long periods of time and transform a wish to live. into a wish to die. If this is the case then the wish for immortality is merely a young man’s dream powered by a life instinct that will after a long period of time lose its motive force.
Perhaps as there is more and more to experience in the world the term “full of years” may change its meaning from four score years and ten to 8 score years and ten but this would still be in accord with the universal generalisation “All men are mortal”, which is knowledge of the most ancient kind.