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

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Harari claims that animals live in a dual reality because of the act that they :

“are familiar with objective entities outside them such as trees rocks and rivers. On the other hand, they are aware of subjective experiences within them, such as fear, joy and desire.”(p181)

From a third person perspective, it is obvious that animals have contact with an environment that obeys certain laws and that the nature of this contact is sometimes a consequence of a moving force or principle within them. Asserting on the other hand that animals are aware of their own experiences attributes to them a complexity they may not have and one in which we could not possibly be aware of from a third person point of view given the fact that there is no possible first-person point of view confirmation of such awareness. We humans are acutely aware of the difference there is between our species and the species of all other animals. Were they to possess this reflective form of awareness we would find them much more like us then we do. This is not a scientific question. No scientist could “discover” that an animal had this form of self reflective awareness. Our species is defined not just by a host of powers that animals do not possess such as the power of language, but we are defined by these powers being what P M S Hacker called two-way powers: powers to do things or refrain from doing at will. This is a philosophical position arrived at on the basis of a tradition of philosophising stretching back to Aristotle and forward to Kant and Wittgenstein. Harari then wishes to claim that we humans can be said to live in a triple layered reality because:

“in addition to trees, rivers, fears and desires, the Sapiens world also contains stories about money, gods , nations and corporations….Humans think they make history, but history actually revolves around this web of stories. The basic abilities of individual humans have not changed much since the Stone Age. But the web if stories has grown from strength to strength, thereby pushing history from the Stone age to the Silicon Age.”

Philosophy is conspicuous by its absence in many of Harari’s reflections on the progress of culture, except perhaps for a few passing references to philosophers living in isolation in ivory towers. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle certainly did not live in such isolation but Plato and Aristotle were at work on the creation of institutions of education which would in the future of the culture provide us with the setting(including the towers of learning at universities) to educate the citizens of our civilizations. In Ancient Greece pupils were educated in the hard-won knowledge gained through the elenctic method of Socrates, the dialogues of Plato and the more systematic written reflections of Aristotle on the nature of knowledge and metaphysics. If in our time one wishes to insist that philosophers live in ivory towers that might actually be the case now, and if this is the case, it is probably an attempt to escape the plague of postmodernist thinking that has infected our society. Postmodernist thinkers do not see the role that knowledge has played in the growth of our culture: they do not believe that justified true belief is the gold standard and they do not believe that imaginative stories are merely interesting cultural productions which in the past probably forced us to theorize more systematically in the way that Aristotle did. Even Science or more correctly some modern scientists have been infected by the postmodernist plague upon all our houses when they have insisted that there is no truth, or knowledge about reality only provisional theory and hypotheses that must be tested ad infinitum. Poppers scientific formula of the problem to which we find a trial solution and then eliminate the errors does not end in truth and knowledge but only another problem. Newtons work must be subject to error elimination by Einstein who was living in the modernist era and perhaps we could accept his work as an evolution of Science by the man who had read Kant at the age of 14 and believed in the philosophers God. But what do we do about those scientists that felt time travel was possible because of the imaginative thought experiment(story) of a man traveling on a beam of light away from a clock face. What do we do about quantum theorists who not only wish to deny the gold standard of science, namely causation but also wish to deny the gold standard of philosophy, namely, the philosophical principle of non-contradiction: insisting upon the intelligibility of a story about a cat that is neither dead nor alive.

The gold standard of culture for the Philosopher was already registered by Plato when he pointed to the necessary role of knowledge in the polis if it was not to fall into ruin and decay. Of course one then needs then to reflect upon the nature of this knowledge in the way that Aristotle and Kant did but that is not the same thing as dismantling its significance as has been done in the name of post-modernism. Insisting as Harari has done earlier upon a distinction of “new knowledge” and “old knowledge” is, of course, following consistently Popper’s downward spiral of his problem-trial solution-error elimination schema. The consequence of this is that both truth and knowledge and their associated cognitive attitudes are marginalized

Reaching back into the mists of history as Harari does is nevertheless an interesting adventure. He suggests that a Cognitive revolution occurred 70,000 years ago that allowed Homo Sapiens an evolutionary advantage over the Neanderthals. The former, it is claimed began talking about the things in their imagination. There is no direct or indirect evidence for this claim as was pointed out earlier but there is certainly an interesting hypothesis to be formed relating to the ability to tell and understand stories and its relation to later supervening cultural activities of telling the truth and reasoning about the foundations of knowledge. The activity of storytelling where one imagines things that did not exist may have occurred later than Harari suggests but the hypothesis that our storytelling power pre-dated our more developed cognitive powers is very interesting. Kant certainly thought that our imagination was involved in the schematization of our concepts but this was an imagination that was working with the materials of perception and intuition in the service of the conceptualization of our experiences and the cognitive attitude of truth. That is, consciousness when it is operating at the conceptual level is asserting that something is the case: e.g. the lightning struck the tree. Now the imagination may well be brought into play when the mind seeks an answer to the Aristotelian question “Why did this change occur?” and a god is thought to be the cause of the lightning but we know that Aristotle himself postulated physical processes to be the cause of physical events such as this,i.e. he was postulating the pre-eminence of material and efficient causes for the explanation of events in the inorganic world. Aristotle would have dismissed any suggestion that a living organic being with its constitution could have secreted electrical power of this magnitude on the basis of his examination of the organs of such beings. The world may have been an infinite continuum of change but for him, there were kinds of being and kinds of change which required inductive investigation if one was to ascertain the essences of such beings and kinds of change. For him, God was a pure form that was in some sense active in the way that principles and thought are active. It would not be easy therefore to exactly specify the Aristotelian way in which God may have been involved in the lightning strike on the tree. Being had many meanings for Aristotle and it is not out of the question that he would have been sympathetic to Thales and his enigmatic utterance “All things are full of gods” but these gods(or God for Aristotle) would have been thought-like(a Gods thought would be very different to ours and have a connection to the physical world that is different to our thought) and resemble principles or a principle more than they would spiritual “ghost-like things”. It should also be pointed out in this discussion that the talk of God or gods of most of the Greek philosophers were not items of the imagination gleaned from stories, but rather condensations from clouds of argumentation. Even Kant would have objected to the claim that his philosophical idea of God originated in the imagination. For Kant God was an idea of reason that interestingly enough was only one of three ideas. The idea of God for Kant, in contrast, was not to be explained in the theoretical terms of Aristotle but more in terms of the moral law.

We should also remember that Einstein believed in Spinoza’s “philosophical” view of God and his reasoning may well have been Aristotelian and Kantian. Newton too believed in God but it is difficult to believe that his theological training at Trinity College Cambridge did not relate to the arguments of the philosophers. Wittgenstein’s belief in God was also based on argumentation not of the demonstrative theoretical kind but rather of the practical ethical kind. All of these figures, Newton, Kant, Einstein, and Wittgenstein of course probably read the bible closely but this reading process would more resemble a critical interpretative activity than a receptive emotional process of identification and introjection. These latter two processes may well involve the imagination whereas the former would require reasoned argumentation.

Harari’s cultural portrait, however, may be appropriate for the historical period prior to the advent of philosophical reasoning about our experience:

“Farmers believed in stories about great gods..In the first cities of ancient Sumer about 6000 years ago, the temples were not just centres of worship, but also the most important political and economic hubs. The Sumerian gods fulfilled a function analogous to modern brands and corporations. Today corporations are fictional legal entities that own property, lend money, hire employees and initiate economic enterprises. In the ancient cities of Uruk, Lagash, and Shurupak the gods functioned as legal entities that could own fields and slaves and build dams and canals.”

The problem with the idea that because something is a legal entity it is somehow a fictional being has been discussed earlier. Wittgenstein in response to the tiresome postmodernist philosophical tendency to wish for a theoretical logico-mathematical demonstration of the truth of statements on pain of being labelled “subjective” or “fictional”, claimed that the final justification for a large number of our claims is what groups of people do when they are speaking or what a person does, for example, when he is grieving. This for him was a real objective justification. Actions spoke louder than words. The problem with regarding gods or corporations as fictional entities is that it fails to understand the philosophical and ontological character of action which has a beginning, intermediate stages, and an end and is related to other actions and objects which themselves are embedded in larger environments. Stanley Cavell, in the spirit of Wittgenstein, once said that naming actions was a difficult and sensitive business because they are related to the agents thought about both the ends to be pursued and the means to achieve these ends. Actions, in other words, are intentional and just as it is almost impossible to capture the philosophical idea of God or gods in a story so it is difficult to capture the world-creating intention of action in an ancient narrative. If this is true then it is possible that biblical narratives were not very good attempts to express the knowledge of “knowers” who had thought deeply about the principles of existence and the intentions of men. Receivers of these narratives at the time of their creation might then, not have been as ignorant as we might like to believe. If men 6000 years ago could be working for a God in the way we work for corporations they might have had more “knowledge” than our modern reconstructions give them credit for. We should remember here that it takes a considerable amount of organization and cooperation to build a city and create laws which will govern the intentions of men. Laws are actions of government but no less real for that. Looking at the Bible with a pair of post-modernistic theoretical sunglasses may not be the best means of retrieving the wisdom in these ancient writings. Of course the assumption “God exists” is a key assumption of the bible but it is the nature of that existence which is the most important hermeneutical question here and not whether one can theoretically demonstrate the existence of something which may have an essentially practical kind of existence. “Figments of the imagination”, “subjective” “inter-subjective”, “fictional” are all theoretical terms and may not be categorically relevant to the kind of analysis required to analyze important ancient phenomena. The activity of living in a city obviously raised the levels of awareness of its inhabitants. Money and writing of a rudimentary kind appeared to assist in the task of organizing everyone’s actions more efficiently. The collection of taxes became possible over large territories. The appearance of pharaohs who “embodied” the principle that organized one’s activity previously transformed something that was previously abstractly real into something that was concretely real. It is not absolutely certain that this principle of kingship was not a “modern” “invention” of the times which we in our times no longer see the meaning of. An impersonal process was being made personal. What we ought to do ethically to maintain the status quo of the city was being transformed into the “personal brand” of a fallible man whose imagination was being overloaded by the trappings of power.The formal task of the pharaoh was to enable the continuity of a network of practices which had served the community well but as we have so often seen in history the focus of such figures rapidly shifts to themselves and their emotional needs. Perhaps this was the first “modern” mistake which was corrected when the Greeks attempted to restore the idea of an abstract principle in both theoretical and practical contexts. Was “the law” made more “realistic” by the presence of a fallible judge who had been untimely ripped from the womb of everyday human activity? The Greeks, especially Socrates and Aristotle sidestepped this “invention” and urged a belief in the model of the knowledge bearing man as the source of justice and truth. The virus of modernism may be ancient as may be the treatment. It is also important to note that Harari’s idea of the personal brands which he uses the figures of business and entertainment to illustrate would not have found a place in the Socratic “healthy city”: the life of wealth and pleasure was only ranked third out of three alternatives spoken about in the Platonic dialogues. The life of the politician leading his noble life in accordance with the principle of areté and the philosopher leading his examined life was superior forms of life for the ancient Greeks. The fact that our modern lives are so dominated by figures from the business and entertainment worlds would have led the Greeks to believe that though we might be leading very busy distracted lives in a world free of abstract ideas, respect for politics and Philosophy, this form of existence was a regression from that flourishing life they once talked about. Here we find no “scientific” talk of “fictional” or “imaginative” or “subjective”, only talk of abstract principles and concrete “misapprehensions” or “imitations of the real”.

Harari makes some interesting observations concerning the authority of writing which originally was confined to the educated elite. If as is being proposed here that the legal process of regulating men’s intentions is not to be equated with either the practical imagination of human-like being or beings(God or gods) but rather to the meaning of the activity which indeed is connected with the meaning of the word legal: that is, to tie people together, then we can draw the conclusion that the meaningful activity of a collective of men has a natural authority. Writing grows out of the meaningful activity and also acquires a natural authority because it is considered, or reflective, speech: words are written with the intention of being considered carefully and with the intention of being responded to carefully, as is the case when the laws are written down. It is with this kind of cognitive attitude that we should approach the Bible–not with the kind of white wax tablet mentality of the skeptical scientist who believes that meanings are “subjective” or have to be concretized or proved before he can understand them. We need to approach the Bible with the cognitive attitude of the philosopher armed with hermeneutical theory, who like Paul Ricoeur or any serious philosopher that reads the Bible, understands that meanings are the dwelling place of laws and principles and who also understands that the language of the bible is symbolic or enigmatic and needs to be interpreted in accordance with a battery of philosophical concepts. “In the beginning was the word and the word was God” may not, that is referred to a fictional being but to the power of language to “reveal” the principles or laws embedded in our activity and speech. The authors of such a complex text were concerned with much more than telling a story about a fictional or imagined being. Only a scientist(not Newton or Einstein) could come up with such a tale. In this context, it should also be remembered that Socrates did not write anything because he supposedly believed that writing would lead eventually to a general forgetfulness of the more important things of life. Plato disagreed and when we get to Aristotle it is clear that he thought that not writing the difficult abstract ideas of philosophy down might also lead to a general forgetfulness of them. Harari then discusses education and the writing down of precise scores in tests which in our bureaucratic schools then supplanted the original philosophical intentions of education. This might be regarded as evidence for the Socratic position. As Harari says :

“We use writing to describe the reality of fields, canals, and granaries. If the description is accurate, we make realistic decisions. If the description is inaccurate, it causes famines and even rebellions. Then we, or the administrators of some future regime, learn from that mistake and strive to produce more truthful descriptions. So, over time, our documents are bound to become more precise”(p195)

Harari then points out how excessively bureaucratic regimes can even willfully falsify the truth of written descriptions. This is obviously not what is meant by the “original authority of writing” which the bureaucrats rely upon in their deceptions in the same way that people who lie rely on their hearers to make the very natural assumption that they are telling the truth. To question the natural authority of writing because of the behaviour of those postmodernists who abuse that authority is itself a form of bureaucracy. A form of bureaucracy that undermines the meaning of meaning and the respect we have for the authority of abstract principles.
The argument continues by a strange bureaucratic argument:

“Holy Scriptures work the same way. The religious establishment proclaims that the holy book contains the answers to all our questions. It simultaneously presses courts, governments, and businesses to behave according to what the holy book says.”(p200)

As a Historian, Harari should know that what is written in the Bible has many sources and that many thinkers in history, philosophical(Spinoza)and non-philosophical(e.g. Tolstoy) have pointed out that some of the things written in the Bible have had bureaucratic intentions and are clearly ill-considered, even by the standards of clear thinkers of those days. Some of the things written are clearly metaphorical because of the difficulty in representing an abstract principle in concreto. Taking metaphorical language literally obviously leads to absurdities. Some things ought also to be taken with a pinch of salt considering that we are dealing with documents which originate from the childhood of our culture. Harari rightly points this out:

“Thus the ancient Jews believed that if they suffered from drought, or if King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia invaded Judea and exiled its people, surely these were divine punishments for their own sins….The Bible does not recognize the possibility that perhaps the drought resulted from a volcanic eruption in the Philippines.”(p201)

It is rightly pointed out that this is self-centered thinking typical of early childhood but Harari does not, as we do, wish to apply a principle of tolerance to such very early reflections. In spite of this observation, it has been argued by some scholars that the New Testament transcends some of the writings of the OT, e.g. in its insistence that “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. So there are signs of a growing self-awareness in the Holy Book. Julian Jaynes also points to this growing complexity of consciousness even in the OT where there is a distinctive shift from men hearing and responding to the voice of God to men reflectively considering what would be in accordance with the wishes of God. This same author would of course hotly contest Harari’s account of the origins and evolution of consciousness with mountains of evidence as he would have contested the optimistic account of the kind of language we spoke 70,000 years ago based on the minimum of “evidence” presented.

Harari maintains that:

“The Bible accordingly shows no interest whatsoever in understanding the global ecology, the Babylonian economy or the Persian political system.”

But it does show considerable interest in the ethical and psychological well being of the reader when it speaks of loving other things outside of oneself such as God and one’s neighbour. Admittedly the New Testament is less occupied with historical and political matters and more concerned with telling the story of the life of Jesus in the spirit of exemplary necessity, the spirit of how one ought to live. It is important to point out in this context that this was a new beginning for man, the Biblical equivalent of the Greek focus upon the importance of the knowledge of the workings of the mind and its importance for the flourishing life. Of course, this narrative was to have a greater appeal to the masses than the hylomorphic theory of Aristotle which required the presence of an educational system before it could be fully appreciated.

Harari concludes this section by claiming that fictions enable us to cooperate better. One wonders whether he is questioning the veracity of the life of Jesus. Of course, it is maintained that he was the son of God, born of a virgin mother, walked on water etc, but should not this be taken with a grain of salt in a spirit of tolerance for the immature thinking of the time? It could even be the case, if we assume a knowledge of the Greeks and their adherence to a philosophical God, that the author used the above “falsity’s” to attach a kind of holy significance to the life of Jesus. The above “false” elements of the narrative could be an intended fiction, not intended to deceive but intended heuristically for self-education. This in its turn, of course, inevitably leads to better cooperation with neighbours and strangers(if someone steals your coat offer him your cloak, if someone strikes you turn the other cheek). One can, however, ask this question: would the truth of the above collection of ethical prescriptions be more important to the cooperation referred to than the falsity of those parts of the elements of the narrative designed to rhetorically “persuade” the readers of the importance of this mans life? (or even the lives of the prophets and kings of the old testament).

The touchstone, however, of the real for Harari is not the truth of the ethical statements and their capacity for the facilitation of cooperation but rather suffering. The reason for suffering might be the “fiction” of “Deus Absconditus”(Julian Jaynes) but the suffering itself is real, Harari proclaims. Dying for one’s country or for the money of corporations or for ones religion is dying for inventions of the imagination. The section ends with an ominous prediction:

“In the twenty-first century, we will create more powerful fictions and more totalitarian religions than in any other previous era. With the help of biotechnology and computer algorithms, these religions will not only control our minute by minute existence, but will be able to shape our bodies, brains, and minds, and to create entire virtual worlds complete with hells and heavens. Being able to distinguish fiction from reality and religion from science will, therefore, become more difficult but more vital than before.”

This from the same author that claims that Humanism and Nazism are “religions”.