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

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This is an enthralling and interesting book taking us on a journey across enormous spans of time with a minimum of infrastructure of History and Biology. The timeline given at the beginning of the work sketches both the enormous scope of this work as well as indicating its enormous limitations.
13.5 billion years ago Dr Yuval Noah Harari claims matter and energy “appeared” together with atoms and molecules. Earth it is claimed formed 4.5 billion years ago with the first organisms appearing 3.8 billion years ago. 2.5 million years ago saw the emergence of the genus “Homo” with “Homo Sapiens developing around 200,000 years ago in East Africa. All of these are scientific claims and one presumes that these are facts in spite of philosophical concerns about the grounds for saying that matter and energy appeared at these dates. Is this a description of what the scientist imagines must be the case because of a host of facts or is there some calculation which would tell us the time of the emergence of matter and energy from some primeval source? If there is a “proof” that the universe began to exist at some point in time and everything “exploded into existence then Philosophers would be able to free themselves of the antonymy of the claims that the universe has always existed versus its coming into existence ex nihilo without a cause that itself must have had a cause. It is not as if it is possible to believe the one or the other because even if there is a scientific proof or calculation it is made on the assumption of a kind of causality that appears to be contradictory. Imagining this ex nihilo form of causality is indeed a feat of scientific imagination which the philosopher believes may not be cognitively possible. Indeed it may be the case that the Philosopher is more inclined to believe that nothing significant can be said about the beginning of the universe exactly because it is logically possible that the universe has always existed in some form or another and the dramatic forms imagined by the scientist are merely changes for which there are causes. Aristotle would of course probably have insisted that some kind of unknowable cause or telos could well be operating along with other kinds of cause(material, efficient, formal) With events as vast as the size of the infinite universe it is of course almost impossible to estimate or guess what such a telos might be. It becomes easier with the emergence of life where one can survey the possible telos of the end of all life because of the ability of the logical imagination to conceive of a world without life and a world where life forms begin to exist. Life, this great biological concept, according to Aristotle must be conceived partly teleologically because its essence or formal cause must include the end of the condition that allowed it to come into being. There are of course also the material and efficient causes of life which is the concern of the scientist to chart (without the use of any ex nihilo concept of “cause”)
Dr Harari places several “revolutions” on his timeline, the first of which is “The Cognitive Revolution”( 70,000 years ago) which he associates mysteriously with the emergence of the language of fiction and which he claims “kick-started” history. Two of the characteristics of the use of language are its abilities to claim what is true as well as the ability to claim things which are false or fictional. Harari puts a premium for some reason on the latter rather than the former power in spite of the fact that the former might have been the “original intention”, namely to say something or proclaim something that is the case. Both powers are dependent upon one another but it does seem somewhat perverse to emphasize a secondary power at the expense of the primary power. If Julian Jaynes is right and the original source of language is exclamational, a shout of warning, there has to be something which the shout is about(a present danger) if we are to make sense of this otherwise instrumental form of communication. Jaynes claims in his work”The Origins of Consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind” that “narratisation arose as a codification of reports of past events but that it required a number of previous stages of language. Julian Jaynes speaks of exclamational shouts and possible modifier functions of language(40,000 bc) to indicate the nearness or distance of the tiger and the development of this to nouns(25,000-15000 bc)and the commanding of actions. Names for people, argues Jaynes came late around 10,000-8000 bc. This is probably the key to narratization because it does seem to be a logical requirement that one has a name for a thing before the thing can be imagined in its absence. Jaynes points to the Natufians at Eynan and the burial practices dating from 9000 bc in towns (of about 200 people) in contrast with their ancestors who were hunters living in caves. This is around the time of the second revolution, the so called Agricultural revolution in which wild species of wheat were domesticated and cultivated. But Jaynes insists that no narratization was as yet possible because that required a more complex cognitive skill of forming in ones mind an analogue self in which they could “see” themselves in relation to others. This required in Jaynes’s view an advanced form of mental development in which individuals could begin to plan their futures, a skill involving an analogue I that could do x or y. Jaynes thinks that this is the moment of the advent of consciousness which he dates very late , certainly after the 1470 bc earthquake and eruption of Santorini. The guiding influence of this period Jaynes argues, are the hallucinated “voices” of God operating in the context of a rigid hierarchical structure which often collapsed when unusual events demanded unusual actions requiring perhaps a more methodical and reasoned form of consciousness.It is only at this point a long time after 70,000 years ago that we can indeed begin to think of a cognitive revolution involving narratization and intentional historical record. Dating the Cognitive revolution from 70,000 years ago when it probably occurred well after the start of the Agricultural revolution is therefore probably misleading. A command and control form of language with a putative source in the procession or pantheon of Gods was probably occurring for most of this period when there was no linguistic condition for the truth or falsity of these utterances. The procession of dead kings or Gods(the memory of a dead king, according to Jaynes) begins to become a more historically structured phenomenon after writing was invented but this was an event a long time after 70,000 years ago, the so called beginning of the revolution. The word “revolution” is an interesting one in this context. One can wonder whether it is a purely cognitive matter as T S Eliot suggested when he claimed that at the end of all our explorations we will return back to the beginning and know the place for the first time. Or we can move back in time to that age of intellectual exploration par excellence and reason with Kant that revolution has to do with the kind of change that is “progressive”. History, for Kant, in other words is “teleological” and aiming for a better future. It is not as Harari appears to suggest a bare record of the facts moving toward a totality of facts. History is a value-laden cognitive adventure which has its roots in many of the ancient Greek ideas of what is good and what is Just: the formal and final causes of Aristotle. This brings us to a major limitation of this work. There is on this timeline nothing from the ancient Greek world which launched our investigations into reasoning and consciousness, the basic elements of any so-called “Cognitive revolution”: basic elements of the so called “intelligent design” of our societies and world order. The date 70,000 probably refers to the migration of Sapiens from Africa due to what Harari refers to as new ways of thinking and communicating(caused by genetic mutations affecting the functions of the brain) which enabled them to 1. displace the Neanderthals from their place of supremacy in the Middle East and Europe and 2.cross the sea to Australia and 3 the invent boats lamps bows and arrows and needles and 4 speak a new type of language . There is a strange discussion of Peugot and the Stadel lion found in the Stadel cave in Germany dating from 32000 years ago. The figure is of a lion-man and this is evidence as far as Harari is concerned of the ability of the human mind to imagine things that really do not exist. This object seems to indicate what Harari refers to as the “fictional” narrative language referred to earlier. These new linguistic skills, it is claimed, enabled Sapiens to gossip for hours on end(the “gossip theory”)and enabled the organisational group to increase in size to ca 150 individuals. This theory plus the exclamation theory are valid accounts, Harari concludes from a discussion that makes absolutely no reference to Philosophy of language or linguistics. Fiction, Harari argues enables man to imagine things that do not exist collectively. It enables us to transcend the limitations of the gossip theory. The traditional philosophical view that the sizes of the group increased due to the teleological needs of the individual and group and paradoxically, the rule of just laws is not even mentioned. Somehow Harari, the scientist and historian who should be guided by facts and objective values and needs resorts for his explanations instead to Mythology and Religion. These two ares of human activity are in contradistinction to philosophers who believe that religious thought transcends mythology with its proclamatory functions of language embodying judgments of what the community values.Paradoxically Peugot enters this discussion because as Harari claims: “Modern businesspeople and lawyers are in fact powerful sorcerers”. The fact that the average life span of a company is 30 years may support the sorcerer theory but the inclusion of lawyers in this category is an astounding view of the nature of the validity of law in the process of holding communities together since the time of the Code of Hammurabi. Apparently some lawyers have taken to calling joint stock companies “legal fictions” on the grounds that they are not physical objects but have legal rights. This is not the controlled use of language that we expect from legal thinkers and we are not far from asserting that because we cannot “see, hear touch, measure a human right” it too must be a fiction. If one is working with a primitive non philosophical theory of language one should not be surprised at such absurd conclusions. If something is not a fact, it must be a fiction is the “logic” of this discourse. What other logical alternatives are there? Well, there are literally thousands and it is extremely puzzling to be confronted by an either /or theory of bipolar extremes for such a complex area of discourse. Aristotle would not have made such a logical mess of describing non physical states of affairs.He would not have thought of Athens as an imagined entity without reality.

Harari uses History as a part of the infrastructure he needs in order to move beyond the limiting confines of Biology when it comes to talk of the forces and powers that enable large communities to exist as unities. Again, paradoxically, given the total absence of Philosophy in this discussion it is argued that it is the ability of Homo Sapiens to play games which enables them to transcend their biological limitations. Aristotle has a hylomorphic theory which enables the species to integrate the biological life of the body firstly with the imagination of the emotional spirit and secondly the truth functional and rational nature of our cognitive nature. This is a more panoramic view of the arena of mans existence which does not constrain us to speak either in terms of facts or in terms of fictions/games.

Our actions historically evolve in terms of our cognitive powers which for Aristotle include perception, memory, language, emotion, imagination, and reason. Imagining on its own as a mental function can certainly weave a fabric of fantasy around a carved man-lion and tempt us into believing that the people who made this object are much like us. According to Jaynes’ more philosophically based theory, the people who carved this object were not conscious and were not aware of the difference between reality and fiction. If they could speak to us we probably would not be able to understand them.

Harari also mentions evolutionary psychology in his attempts to “get inside the heads” of our ancestors in order to understand our present day social and psychological characteristics.

Wittgenstein is a philosopher one can use to try to understand why we should not try to get into someone else’s head if one wishes to understand them. The final justification for him is what we(groups of humans) do. Writing was invented around 3000 bc and at the same time we see the emergence of the first Egyptian kingdom and the Great Akkadian empire comprising more than one million subjects. Are these two facts merely accidentally related or is there some kind of causal relation between them? Could it be that proclamations of laws in writing (and not something going on in individuals heads like imagining entities that do not exist) are necessary conditions for the existence of real kingdoms and empires? Is it really tenable to argue that the myths people believed in played a larger role in the maintenance of kingdoms and empires than the laws that regulated peoples judgments of each other? If Jaynes is correct in his assumption that gods are just dead past kings then are not their judgments just as real as the present day kings who apply their judgments in their legal systems?

Harari uses the example of the Code of Hammurabi in order to illustrate human cooperation in groups. The code was dated from around 1776 bc and used as a model for all legal codes in coming generations. It was used to regulate the largest city on earth at the time, Babylon.. Reference was made to previous gods who laid down the framework for the code:

“to make justice prevail in the land, to abolish the wicked and the evil, to prevent from oppressing the weak”

There is no need to describe these beings as imagined entities that do not exist, just because they are previous dead kings. This code is very hierarchical and places monetary values on the lives of women and slaves. Jaynes referred to the instability of hierarchical theocracies that often collapsed when reality became too difficult to deal with. According to Harari, these proclamations are associated with imagined entities and cannot therefore possess any different status to the Proclamations we find in a document created during 1776 AD in which it is claimed that all men are created equal in the eyes of God. Men have evolved argues Harari, therefore they cannot have been created. The document is therefore fictional. The problem with Harari’s bi-polar one dimensional theory of human cooperation is that one cannot see the law of progress operating between the two codes, especially in terms of the idea of the good and justice. The American Declaration of Independence sufficed to hold millions of citizens together for hundreds of years. Harari basically objects to the Constitution on biological and scientific grounds. One cannot measure happiness, he argues, only pleasure, and we therefore cannot regard this as anything more than something inside someones head. Aristotle had no difficulty in characterising conceptually what happiness was and laid down the axiom that in order to be happy a rational language using animal must use his power of rationality. Man, according to philosophical thinking, is not yet collectively happy, but that is because rationality is in the process of installing itself in the species. It is in thoughts such as these that we see the integration of Philosophy, Biology, History, Psychology, Epistemology, Physics and Metaphysics: something we cannot see in the very limited infrastructure of Biology, evolutionary psychology and History that Harari attempts to use in his attempts to characterise Aristotle’s “rational animal”