“Homo Deus”(Yuval Noah Harari) Critique and Commentary from a Philosophical Perspective(Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein) Part Five: Science versus Religion

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“Stories serve as the foundations and pillars of human societies. As history unfolded, stories about gods, nations and corporations grew so powerful that they began to dominate objective reality.”

For Harari, the decisive contents in a narrative are the elements in it which may happen to be false or fictional as he puts it. It was suggested in the previous lecture that the belief in the fictional elements of biblical narratives are not actually the components which facilitate cooperation between men but rather that function is produced by the element of the following of the ethical rules which are suggested in these narratives. The reason why men follow these rules are teleological: they hope that their actions will lead to a flourishing life for themselves and the people they care for. Corporations and nations are not “fictional entities” as is maintained but rather entities which scientific theory cannot adequately describe given its ignorance of what consciousness is and its ignorance of how to characterise action in general and ethical action in particular. Nations and corporations are not objects of belief but objects of action brought about by the activities of men. Action is as real as the suffering that cause it or it causes. Philosophical theory has been concerned with action theory for over two thousand years not through the activity of story telling but through the activity of theorising and arguing about it. The kind of action that avoids the consequences of suffering is the kind of action which builds not upon a shaky belief about something fictional but about knowledge of what is real, e.g. suffering.

Science is defended on the grounds that it has in fact relieved suffering by overcoming famine plague and war via its substitution of intersubjective myths with objective scientific knowledge. A confident claim which is immediately mitigated by a skeptical self doubt which verges on science fiction:

“Modern science certainly changed the rules of the game, yet it did not simply replace myths with facts. Myths continue to dominate humankind, and science only makes these myths stronger. Instead of destroying the intersubjective reality, science will enable it to control the objective and subjective realities more completely than ever before. Thanks to computers and bioengineering, the difference between fiction and reality will blur, as people reshape their reality to match their pet fictions.”(p208)

The implication of the above is that people will be able to live out their virtual realities whatever they are, whether they lead ultimately to flourishing lives or not. Science will, for example, be able to provide an elite with eternal youth!

There then follows a bewildering discussion about the supernatural:

“Modern physicians blame disease on invisible germs and voodoo priests blame disease on invisible spirits. There’s nothing supernatural about it: if you make some spirit angry, the spirit enters your body and causes you pain. What could be more natural than that?”

The observation of the action of causality in the one case and not in the other are the obvious grounds for calling the physicians germs and diseases “natural” and the voodoo priests spirit “supernatural”, Post modernists often operate with a Humpty Dumpty theory of meaning where words mean what they want them to mean. Wittgenstein pointed out that it is open to a group of language users to change the meaning of a word or suggest a change in the meaning of the word, if there was a clear purpose to do so. The attempt to define what is “natural” by fixating upon the normal perceptual characteristic of visibility or observation as a criterion at the expense of the gold standard of science, namely causality, needs further clarification. Or perhaps it does not because one of the reasons the scientist is not happy about the concept of God is that God cannot be observed. The philosophical response to this is to claim that if gravity can be observed then so can the philosophers God operating in both the physical and the ethical realm of human activity. The philosopher does not of course agree with anthropomorphising this activity as the bible tends to do for the heuristic purpose of understanding the ethical messages, but he understands the purpose of so doing, and would therefore be reluctant to dismiss texts filled with wisdom about human suffering as “fictional”, “subjective” or “imaginative”. As was pointed out previously it is a difficult task to capture this God in the web of the meaning of a narrative. It is, as the history of the philosophy of religion has proven even difficult to capture God in the clouds of religious and philosophical arguments men have brought to bear on this topic throughout the ages.

Claiming as the author does that religion is created by humans rather than gods and that religion is defined by its social function rather than by the existence of deities might at least be partly true. Analysis of Kant’s arguments for the existence of God has led many commentators to insist that insofar as humans are concerned it is the idea of God we have in our minds that is decisive for the relation we have to this idea of reason. Here the idea of God is not essentially different from the idea we have of human freedom which some scientists also claim does not exist because their eyes are fixated upon the gold standard of causality. Freedom is another idea that would be difficult to capture in a narrative without the use of “symbolic language”(Paul Ricoeur “Freud: an essay in Interpretation). Interpreters need, that is, to understand the intention or the purpose of this language in these texts and that requires philosophical argumentation at a high level of abstraction. Branding “intention” as “psychological” or “subjective” as some philosophers of science are wont to do only places obstacles on the road of our understanding. Branding religion and god as supernatural or superhuman is equally problematic.

When a religious person claims that the ethical principles we find in religious texts are not created by humans but by God, this statement requires interpretation. There is a story in the OT of Moses coming down mount Sinai with the ten commandments fresh from God. Mountains stretch up into the sky and sometimes even into the clouds. They are natural features which inspire awe and admiration from afar and feelings of freedom when we are walking amongst their peaks or climbing them. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help” is a psalm which places God in some relation to the mountains perhaps via the cognitive attitude of awe which so inspired the Greeks and Kant’s Philosophy. Now the mountains could certainly exist without any human presence on the earth as could all the forces that created them. Is not knowledge of this “fact” a part of my state of awe at something and the processes of its creation. Something that could well be older than the consciousness of man. Is my awe and the mountains and the processes that created them defined by social function? The content of the tablets containing the commandments that Moses brought down to his people certainly will be related to social function because social attitudes and ethical attitudes are intimately connected in the way that Aristotle laid out. A man alone and isolated is not a man. he will either be a god or an animal, Aristotle argued.There is no great difficulty in referring to these commandments in a narrative although some of the assumptions behind these commandments regarding the origin and end of evil will not easily be characterisable. Popular images of devils and demons merely confuses the issue and turns the human landscape into a dualistic war zone between the good and evil. Symbolic language and hermeneutical interpretation of this language will hopefully restore some order and wisdom to our ancient texts. The ten commandments were obviously written by Moses in an awe inspiring environment and in a state of mind seeking help after a long period of homelessness and hunting and gathering in the wilderness. The commandments were what was needed to form a permanent settlement. Men cannot live together without principles or laws. The narrative of Moses is written in symbolic language by inspired scribes.Where is the science here? Well, it is in the facts that the life of hunting and gathering created a problem for which a trial solution was needed which in turn would require further error elimination until a state was achieved which in turn could be conceptualised as problematic. We are talking here about the transition from the hunter gathering phase of human existence to the agricultural phase. Harari is critical of the Agricultural revolution because he argues that for many people it did not symbolise a better life. On the contrary, Harari argues that there was a deterioration of our form of life(longer hours at work, disease etc). The question is whether, although problematic, this was not the necessary step needed to raise the level of mans awareness or consciousness of himself and his life. The dating of the so called “Cognitive Revolution” prior to the Agricultural Revolution suggests that man was sufficiently conscious to speak of imagined entities 70,000 years ago: this is highly controversial. Many commentators including the Psychologist/Anthropologist Julian Jaynes produces mountains of evidence which indicates that the kind of self awareness Harari is talking about probably only occurred ca 3-4000 years ago. He concedes that certain individuals may have reached the levels of consciousness being talked about earlier than this and they may have been regarded as “gods”. Like Moses they may have been the law makers of the communities they were part of. The Agricultural Revolution produced the conditions necessary for this heightened level of awareness and in accordance with scientific method we may , with Harari, see many things to be problematic and seek for new trial solutions to our problems. The industrial Revolution could have been such a trial solution seeking to eliminate the errors of the agricultural revolution which bound us to the soil. Greek Culture taught us that we needed freedom if we are to lead the kind of contemplative life necessary to solve the problems of existence. The Industrial Revolution seems to have given many of us this freedom in spite of some of its more problematic characteristics which almost destroyed civilisation with its invention of weapons of mass destruction.There seems to be here a thread of progress which means that in spite of the process of error elimination leading to a new problem, this problem bore with it a slightly better life than was the case previously. Harari claims that science must be assisted by religion because of its ethical concerns. Ethics as a search for the principles of a flourishing life and the good character who does the right thing in the right way at the right time has been a focus of Philosophical thinking for over 2000 years but Harari ignores this presumably because he believes logical argumentation is something that only the dwellers in ivory towers are concerned with. Logic was invented by Aristotle in accordance with the principles of non contradiction and sufficient reason and many Greeks saw this as a means to clarify the dialectical structure of Philosophical dialogues which in their turn were intended by Plato and other poets to use writing to dispel the limitations of stories and narratives. We see even here a thread of progression which Harari ignores. Religion is neither generally philosophical nor logical in its approach to ethical problems and exactly because of that fact will always remain perspectival in the face of other religions. There is one principle of non contradiction and one principle of sufficient reason and both are universal. You can question both if you wish but only at the expense of contradicting yourself or denying the role of reason in mans life. You can replace reason with imagination but only at the expense of taking a step back in our cultural evolution and helping the modernists and post modernists to turn our world upside down. Popular religion is dualistic and dialectical and perhaps those bureaucrats who have found themselves taking responsibility for the rewritings of words of ancient wisdom for heuristic purposes may in the long run have done a disservice to the tradition.

In a discussion of the relation between facts and values the interesting case of abortion is selected after the point is made that science deals only with the facts and religion deals with ethical judgments and values but also seeks to venture into the world of facts with claims that contradict scientific truths. It should be pointed out, especially in relation to the case of abortion that scientists too venture into the realm of value and on the basis of “facts” that are only probable make recommendations concerning the period of time when abortions are permissible. Harari claims that the contentious issue here is a factual one: when does human life begin. This may not be the correct question to begin this discussion insofar as the philosophical position on this issue is concerned. Elisabeth Anscombe is the most famous Philosopher to have debated this question and according to her any abortion after the zygote is formed is murder because of the so called “knowledge argument”: we know that the zygote is a human one and therefore we know the being which will actualise in the developmental process will be human, we also know that human life is sacred or absolutely valuable, therefore terminating that human life is murder. The medical argument which allows an abortion up until that time when a foetus can be kept alive without undue suffering outside of the womb is a dual argument and rests on the judgment that the foetus before that point may be alive but does not suffer. Whatever the merits of that argument it still remains the case that we know we are taking the life of a human being and we have in my view an unassailable argument for that position. An abortion is an action and cannot occur without a decision to that effect. Let us ask what the reason the decision maker could have for having an abortion. The principle often quoted is that if the decision is made by the mother the reason behind the decision is that the mother has the right to decide over what happens to her body. She is, in other words, free to exercise this kind of control over her body. This principle as has rightly been pointed out allows abortions to occur because having a child at a particular point in time might be “inconvenient”. There are many variations of these positions and the status quo “ethical” position is the one recommended by science. It is important to note however that there is an important philosophical counterargument based not on suffering but on the conceptual knowledge we have of something being human and the conceptual knowledge we have of the value of human life and perhaps all life.

Harari ignores this philosophical argument which may be implied by many ancient religious texts when he maintains that religious stories conflate ethical judgements and factual statements upon arriving at the position that abortion a single day after conception is not permissible or an unholy act. His argument for “conflation” appears to be that the issue can be resolved by biologists on the grounds of whether human foetuses have nervous systems immediately after conception or whether they can feel pain immediately after conception. When I lift my eyes to the hills and feel awe and admiration shall I turn to the physicist or geologist to explain the nature of my feeling of value or the meaning of my judgment “Those mountains are awesome!”? Similarly why should I turn to the scientist when I feel the same sort of awe and admiration at the creation of a human life? What is being conflated with what here? If the conclusion that abortion is an unholy act follows from the premises, and the premises are true then it is a fact and knowledge of the most certain kind. This is what is done in the ivory towers by the occupants trained by Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein. This is the knowledge that hermeneutical interpreters use in their interpretations of ancient texts.

There is a problem with construing science as the search for the totality of facts and this comes out in the discussion relating to ethical judgments and facts:

“Conversely ethical judgements often hide within them factual statements that proponents dont bother to mention because they think that they have been proven beyond doubt, Thus the ethical judgement “human life is sacred”(which science cannot test) may shroud the factual statement “every human has an eternal soul”(which is open to scientific debate)”(p228)

Unfortunately in order to decode this problematic paragraph we will need the aid of the occupants of the ivory tower(the philosophers) because what the above means is only seen through a scientific lens very darkly. Firstly a proof requires a conceptual argument and not an invitation to view an object because a concept is something that is thought and not something to be perceived. Secondly, if the statement “human life is sacred” is a conceptual statement and is not able to be tested because of that fact then exactly the same reasoning must be applicable to the statement “every human has an eternal soul”. What is meant by conceptual here? We have suggested in a previous essay that one ought not to look for an object with ones microscope when looking for a principle because for the philosopher and possibly also for serious theologians the soul might be a principle. Concepts are regulated by principles. The word “eternal” also needs parsing philosophically. We are not certain of the origins of this thought but for Aristotle knowledge was certainly connected to principles which are “timelessly true”. The principles of non contradiction and sufficient reason are examples. They are the very conditions of our discourse and experience and are unconditioned by any other principles. Unlike the principle of causality which is situated in a time stretching forever backward (on pain of contradiction–a first cause is a contradiction) these principles do not stretch forever back in time but create the framework of our experience and discourse: they create the framework of our knowledge.

In a final discussion on the relation between Science and Religion Harari has the following closing remarks:

“It is customary to portray the history of modernity as a struggle between science and religion. In theory both science and religion are interested above all in the truth, and because each upholds a different truth, they are doomed to clash. In fact neither science nor religion cares that much about the truth, hence they can easily compromise, coexist and even cooperate. Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power…as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth. They therefore make good bedfellows.”

An amazing closing statement. We see again the post modernist dismissal of the importance of truth and knowledge and refusal to recognize the conceptual truth that the cognitive attitude of understanding is inextricably bound up with the truth. Imagine Moses upon presenting the ten commandments to the learned men of his tribe saying “here they are but I am not sure whether they are true!”. The tribe would have returned to their worship of animal idols and the Israelites would probably have remained nomads with all the consequences that this kind of life entails. It is because these commandments were understood to be true that they were able to create the order that they did. Imagine if the learned men of the tribe said “yes they may be true but you have your truth and we have ours” and you will be imagining the consequences of the post modernist position on knowledge and truth. In a way this might be consistent with Harari’s overall position when he claims that the hunter gatherer life was in many respects better than the life of suffering during the agricultural revolution. It is a strange position. There are those who long to go back to the Garden of Eden. But to the wilderness?