“Homo Deus”(Yuval Noah Harari) Critique and Commentary from a Philosophical Perspective(Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein) Part Seven: The Humanist Revolution.

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It is not clear what the author means when he refers to a great cosmic plan. Does he mean to include the cosmic intentions of Aristotelian Philosophy, Kantian Philosophy, or Post-Wittgensteinian Philosophy? He certainly means to refer to the texts related to those major religions that believe in an all powerful, all knowing, all good, God who is popularly imagined to be a kind of scriptwriter for the human drama played out in his creation. In the beginning was the word and the word was God could symbolize such a state of affairs where God is the creator of the universe and all forms of life.

Much of the language of the Bible is metaphorical or symbolic. Biblical scholars have pointed out for example that the creation story, when it refers to the creation of the earth in a period of six days, is referring to a divine day which could be a billion years in our human scale of measurement of time. Similarly, the drama whose beginning we are witnessing in the human events reported in the holy book may be the beginning of a sequence of events that will in its turn last hundreds of thousands or billions of years. In such contexts, the ancient deluge and current nuclear threats will literally be nano-elements of the overall cosmic plan. When it is symbolically reported in the Bible that God saw his creation to be good he might have been seeing or “knowing” the beginning, middle, and end or endlessness of the drama in the same way someone knows what to expect when one knows that we are rational animals capable of discourse(the knowledge of future necessities). The claim during the course of this span of time that God is dead by a few modernist thinkers on the grounds of a temporary loss of meaning over thousands of years would not register as significant in the mind of a prophet who is seeing such events darkly through the divine lens of a meaning created by eons or ages of time.

The argument presented against believing is a cosmic plan is a claim that the so-called “death of God” has not led to any large-scale social collapse(depending upon whom one asks?)

For a philosopher like Kant, the announcement of the death of God would have carried no more meaning than the announcement that a particular way of thinking non-philosophically about God was becoming less and less relevant. Neither he nor any serious philosopher would think that the law and order of the world (which is partly a creation of philosophical thinking from the arenas of science, ethics and politics) was going to collapse because of a collapse of a way of thinking that was not philosophical. Further, even a scientist interested in collecting statistics relating to the number of people hurt or killed by terrorism or the violence of local wars( for example, in Syria) would regret this state of affairs. They would not perhaps dramatise it in the way Harari has done especially when it is seen against the background of other sources of violence and destruction in the world. The statistics do not suggest there is a global threat to world law and order from these sources.

It is further claimed that because there is no cosmic plan there are no laws determining what is happening on a global stage. Aristotle, Kant, and a number of other dwellers in the ivory tower of philosophy would disagree with this. The roots of humanism were planted by the ancient Greeks culminating in the work of Aristotle with the statement at the beginning of the Nichomachean Ethics in which it is said that:

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”

Only rational animals capable of discourse can think, plan and aim at this good.Animals lead their lives in accordance with the drivers of instinct, feeling and emotion and because of this, they cannot cooperate in the large numbers needed to found cities and communities in which such art,activities, and inquiries can be pursued for the purposes of the good. Reason, for Aristotle, enabled man to develop the virtues that then defined the good person and the good action. Here again, feelings were either an incidental irrelevant accompaniment or psychic obstacles which needed to be circumnavigated. This is similarly the case in Kant where the ideas of reason such as Freedom and God jointly motivate the moral law in which it is scripted that man ought to treat his fellow (and himself) as an end in himself and never merely as a means. Thus for Kant, the God respecting philosopher, there is a humanistic script to the human drama leading to the formation of the Cosmopolitan man which is part of the cosmic plan and there are laws both moral and physical which will explain the free, chosen pilgrimage of man on the road to a kingdom of ends. For both Aristotle and Kant, the pursuit of the good is the essence of humanism and Aristotle specifically says in the Nichomachean ethics that virtue is not a feeling because it would be absurd to praise or blame a man for the feelings he is experiencing. For him, the humanistic drama playing out is a process of actualization in which the political conditions are being created for man to acquire the virtues via politically created educational systems led by a politically educated middle class. Aristotle, the biologist, believes that man the rational animal capable of discourse is the most important proximate cause of this actualization process: he believes, that is, that this process is driven by human nature which somehow participates in the divine through its possession of reason and the use of this reason in moments of philosophical contemplation. It is probably this kind of explanation of mans nature which causes Harari to call philosophizing an activity that takes place in an ivory tower and it is important to point out that, apart from this name-calling, no argument is invoked to question this truly humanistic view of man that produces convincing arguments against the simplistic equation of humanism with the feelings man has. Kant too would agree with this counterargument and he would rest his case on a complex theory of the philosophical psychology involved in what he calls “Anthropology”. In his humanistic “Anthropology” Kant draws an Aristotelian distinction between what happens to man (feelings and sensations) and what he does( rational action). Both Philosophers would not get caught up in any premature populistic wave of declaring that there is no cosmic plan or that God is dead. Both would probably question the creation myths and narratives respectfully, (being aware as they are of the wisdom they contain), on the grounds of the philosophical possibility that the universe has existed forever and God was always present in its form and the changes it undergoes. Neither would question the physical age of the earth that has been proved by science or the approximate dating of the emergence of life or, lastly,the approximate dating of the emergence of our species. Both philosophers would have been fascinated by the writings of Julian Jaynes in which it is maintained that as consciousness emerged in man it did so originally in a bicameral form because of the biological probability that like all other major functions, language was present in both hemispheres of the brain. In the beginning, man, in stressful circumstances heard voices that were traces and perhaps combinations of the voices of other men(as is the case with schizophrenic patients today). These voices told men what to do. Jaynes points out that this phenomenon is recorded in the early texts of the Bible and that we see a gradual change in the mentality of man toward a higher level of consciousness in which man in such circumstances, with language now concentrated in the left hemisphere, begins to think for himself with the aid of his own thought( with perhaps more than a little help from the texts he finds important). This transition is also recorded in the early Greek literature of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Jaynes points out the important role of writing in this process of transformation from an oral culture to the culture of the text. Mountains of evidence are presented for the thesis of “Deus Absconditus”: the thesis of the retreat of the voices of the gods from consciousness. He also points to the major trauma of the eruption of Thera that forced millions of men to relocate after the devastation of a huge tsunami. The relocation could not have been a peaceful matter in a relativistic world where each community listened to its own voices and would have found confrontation with voices from other gods confusing. This tale of the confusion of tongues is also in the Bible. What Aristotle and Kant would have found to be alarming in our present culture is the power of our language games to detach themselves from the knowledge we have and generate relativistic theories about what a value is or what it is that makes a fact a fact. Postmodernism is a movement that seeks to destroy the meaning of everything in the past as if it had no connection with the present. It has no patience with the painstaking work of the scholar in his ivory tower trying to work out what Socrates was right about and what he was wrong about, what Aristotle was right about and wrong about. Aristotle was certainly not wrong about the 4 kinds of explanations presented in his Metaphysics and he is not wrong about the importance of teleological explanation in the spheres of action, ethics, and politics. One must read and understand the Philosophy of Kant if one wishes to understand what Aristotle was mistaken about and even then the scholar working in his ivory tower might even find that there may be things Aristotle was right about which have not found their way into Kant’s Philosophy. Aristotle and Kant were both respected scientists of their times and built a philosophical framework for science which has not yet been fully evaluated. We find for example “scientists” like Freud, Piaget, and Jaynes using that framework intuitively in the arena of Psychology and Anthropology but we also find their messages lost in the babble of the confusion of tongues about what science is or ought to be. These three thinkers follow in the footsteps of Aristotle and Kant and sometimes they are affected by the babble and leave the straight and narrow to meander in the swamps of Babel but even when they do so we find them correcting themselves and returning to the road that leads from the city of ivory towers to the cosmopolitan city where all tongues are understood. A humanist does not believe as Harari claims that God is dead or that there is no cosmic plan or that there are no laws and principles guiding every event that happens. A humanist will not claim that humanism is based on feelings. Bureaucrats who share with Harari the distaste for the inhabitants and products of the ivory towers throughout the ages have “colonised” the texts of our holy books and past thinkers and Harari is right to deprecate the bureaucratic practice of dispensations, the practice of “paying” for one’s sins. Bureaucracy has a long history and bureaucrats had by this time completely forgotten about the writings of the Greeks on the irrelevance of money for the life of virtue. Indeed they could not even see the relevance of what they were doing to the event of Jesus throwing the moneylenders off the steps of the church. Capitalism was beginning to make its presence felt under the cover of this collective “forgetfulness” of the very texts that stand for the foundation of our culture.

Harari believes a chasm separates the activities of the therapist from the priest because the former do not possess a holy book to define good and evil. Firstly we have to refer to the way in which language is used in the Bible. It does not work with definitions(for definitions one needs to consult Aristotle) but rather uses language symbolically in the realm of meaning where a latent meaning of the concept of sin, for example, can be “schematised” by various manifest images such as a stain, missing the target or inner accusations of guilt, each of which may refer to an advancing state of awareness of the meaning of evil. It is this realm that Harari believes is part of the modern covenant whereby man willingly trades this realm of meaning for power. Therapy has its roots in Freudian therapy and theory and whilst there may not be a definition of the good in Freud there is certainly an Aristotelian understanding of the concept of the good operating in the idea of the superego regulating the value system of the ego. There is also a humanistic attitude toward psychic phenomena which respects the complexity of what one appears to observe and sees in the example of dreams that manifest themselves in our sleep the operations of latent structures of wishfulness and anxiety. Dreams are symbols and have both an archeological significance and are teleologically oriented: dreams are psychic storms seeking a state of equilibrium. The therapist is thus an interpreter in much the same way in which the priest is and if one peruses the pages of Freud, products of the ivory tower, one understands that how the patient feels about his dreams is just another symptom to be interpreted and there is much work to be done on the road to achieving a state of equilibrium in any patients life. If the patient happens to have marital problems according to Harari their personal feelings are what it is that gives value to this bond and he claims that the same feelings that were the ground of a commitment to one person could then be the foundation of a “new” commitment to another person. Modern man, argues Harari, justifies marriage in terms of feelings rather than holy scriptures or divine commandments.Why? Because it is argued paradoxically that the lesson we have learned from Humanism is that something is judged as bad only if it causes someone to feel bad.

As we have pointed out this is not the Aristotelian humanism that lies at the foundation of the normative meaning of the concept we acknowledge today. Kantian humanism speaks specifically to the problem of marriage and sees in this institution, which he never embraced personally, an ethical core far removed from the sensibility of feeling and more related to the understanding of and the reasoning about the ethical action of making a promise. “Promises ought to be kept”, Kant argues, and the reasoning does not relate back to the individual and their private world of psychical storms but rather to the important role that the institution of promising plays in the life of man. Breaking a promise, Kant argues also brings up the issue of truthfulness and compromises the institution of truth-telling. Promises are made before one is married and only the virtuous man should venture into such a commitment where timeless human institutions are the latent content of the manifest ceremony.

Voting is also an action related to promising, in particular, the promises of politicians. Harari’s description of how one needs to “filter” away propaganda lies, spin, and experts, and listen to one’s inner voice is literally bi-cameral. The voter Harari describes is barely conscious: he is more like an automated robot following a program. It seems that this is how he imagines governments are selected and how referendums occur. Governments make promises at the end of chains of descriptions of problems and arguments about the rights and wrongs of alternative solutions. The “filter” being talked about is that of rationality and meaningfulness that are core elements of humanism but conspicuously absent in the conception of humanism we are encountering in this work.

Harari then makes fun of the account of artists being guided by the holy spirit in their great creations. Now a considerable amount of reasoning goes into the creation of a work of art and much of it is instrumental reasoning as Wittgenstein noted when speaking about a tailor creating a suit of clothes..” a little longer in the leg”, “more room for the waist”, “a little less grey”. Here there is a physical body operating as a standard for the tailor’s measurements and subsequent sewing activity. In many works of art the standard is the psychological feeling of appropriateness of the artists choice of motif, his choice of colours, his way of painting the scene we are presented with, that gives rise to not just the feeling we get but also to the disposition we have to speak with a universal voice about the work, should we find it to be beautiful. In a work of beauty such as Michelangelo’s Delphic Sybil, or his sculpture “Times of the Day” standing at the front of the Medici’s tomb, why should we not say that some spirit rare and sacred guided the work? If all the laws of physics, evolution, and psychology were involved in the bringing into being of these works, why should we not see Michelangelo as merely a medium for these processes that transcend any and every individual? Characterizing all this as merely a “feeling” is dogmatizing away a complexity that requires much philosophy to unravel. Characterizing these processes as being caused by some “imaginary” anthropomorphic agent working in the heavens is a populistic picture of what the serious theologian or philosopher means by the term “God”.

The author suggests that during the medieval period God was the source of everything valuable in the spheres of politics, ethics and aesthetics.

Has the author forgotten about the fact that works of Plato were translated into Latin? Plato supplies us with a theory of the good, the true and the beautiful that, though appropriated by the Church does not rely on reference to God as an authority. The works of Aristotle were not translated into Latin until the 1200’s but then there were still 200 years left of the Middle Ages. Aristotle’s hylomorphic works, it can be argued, even though appropriated by Aquinas and the church so undermined the dualist view of the universe that the Renaissance was an inevitability: a Renaissance in which Michelangelo could quarrel with the Pope about his aesthetic characterization of God and biblical figures painted on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. The Platonic and Aristotelian formula for knowledge was not “knowledge =Scripture X logic but rather “justified true belief” where the justification was not by faith but rather by the works of theories.
Thanks to the publication of Aristotle two centuries earlier the activities of science like all other cultural activities independent of the church intensified but again the author ignores the role of theory in his formula for scientific knowledge which is: Empirical data X Mathematics. Aristotelian science had no difficulty incorporating the idea of the good: all activity, including scientific inquiry we recall from the Nichomachean Ethics, aims at the good. The definition of humanist knowledge as “Experience X Sensitivity also ignores the role of theoretical explanation in the activity of inquiry and the accompanying idea that we should “observe” our inner experiences is a very modern formula for Solipsism or what Harari very liberally calls “liberal humanism”: one of the “sects” of humanism, as the author puts the matter. The other sects are even more controversial: communism and Nazism are also forms of humanism on this postmodernist account of humanism. Both forms of totalitarianism disregard absolutely the principles of ethics and the belief in the philosopher’s Gods, not to mention their unified total disregard for the individual’s feelings about what they were witnessing. Calling the two world wars, wars of religion between three sects of humanists surely must strain even the postmodernists imagination!

The picture of liberal democracy or the solipsist crawling out of the dustbin after the two world wars to clean itself up and conquer the world is good comedy and farce but hardly serious history or Philosophy.

Harari asks where we are to find the answer to the questions that technology is posing for the human race and claims that the answer is not to be found in the Bible or sacred writings of any culture. The virtue principle of Aristotle or, even if you wish to go further back in Greek History to the myth of Apollo who issues the proclamations of “nothing too much” and “know thyself” should suffice as guidance if one has not abandoned rationality or meaning as standards by which to measure our discourse and actions. The author then asks what we are going to do when artificial intelligence surpasses or equals human intelligence. Will human experience be just another designable product in the supermarket of products, he wonders? This is of course in a sense quite “logical” once one falsely equates humanism with deaf formulae, dumb feelings, and blind experience. But it is not logical from the viewpoint of the philosophers who are the guardians of logic.