The following essay is an attempt to assist the reader in the understanding of Harari’s claims in his work “Homo Sapiens: a brief history of mankind”. We summarize here the major discussion and criticisms of the work provided in the first ten chapters.
In Part one Harari maintains starkly, without any critical discussion, that matter and energy came into existence 13.5 billion years ago with the singular event of the big bang. Without the philosophical discussion which is needed to correctly “interpret” the meaning of Harari’s opening statement we may be forgiven for suspecting that this is an unfortunate dogmatic opening to a book with the subtitle: ” a brief history of mankind”. Kant would have specifically objected to the big bang theory on the grounds that it is using an illegitimate realist assumption that the world exists as a finite whole which began with a first cause, the so called big bang. The world, he would have argued is , in terms of the appearances that happen, transcendentally ideal, because appearances leave our relation to things in themselves, the world in itself, undetermined. An explosion, even if it is massive is something that necessarily could only happen in a world, situated in a space and over a period of time that must have preceded the explosion. The dogmatic insistence of the scientist that space and time sprang into existence with the explosion merely suspends the principle of causation that by definition cannot have a first cause: because if causality is to have a universal application literally everything has to have a cause even the so called postulated first cause. If one was to bring the early Wittgenstein into this discussion he might have said that this is something that cannot be spoken about and must be passed over in silence, being beyond the limits of our language.
Problems of a different kind emerge when in this first critique Harari insists that the Cognitive Revolution which appeared 70,000 years ago occurred because this is the period when fictional language emerged. This, a current theory argues, by marshalling a mountain of evidence in its support, is far too early for such a complex linguistic phenomenon. No attempt is made to dismantle the extensive archeological and literary evidence presented by researchers such as Julian Jaynes who claimed that the fictional use of language must have occurred much earlier than 70,000 years ago. Indeed, according to Jaynes, it probably occurred well after the beginning of the agricultural revolution that according to Harari began in 12,000 BC.
In essay number two we are not subjected so much to dogmatic statements as a kind of bi-polar dialectical argumentation that contrasts myths with facts. This form of argument basically insists that if a myth is not factual it cannot have any cognitive relation to reality. Myths are products of the imagination it is argued which can disappear tomorrow if suddenly no one believes in them any longer. Our ideas of freedom and equality are also dubbed “figments of the imagination” but they separate themselves from myths because so many people continue to believe in their importance. This belief in, for example, the value of freedom continues in spite of the contradiction that is involved when governments use imagined authority for example to remove peoples imagined freedom. Harari, it is argued, is confusing the conceptual systems we use to describe states of affairs with these states of affairs. Political and ethical freedom are not defined in terms of what the individual wishes, however unreasonable the wish: it is rather defined in terms of equality, namely in terms of the permissible use of ones freedom in the light of the condition that this use does not encroach upon anyone else’s freedom. The power of reason whose scope and limitation has been charted by philosophy and the conceptual systems of philosophers are completely ignored in Harari’s account.
Essay number three points to an interesting probably correct observation by Harari, that nationalism is losing ground to the globalisation forces of the world, in particular the businessman’s desire to colonise the world with trade and transform everyone into customers, and the conqueror’s wish to conquer the world and turn everyone into his subjects. Religion attempted to install universal beliefs about the “truths” of religion but this attempt has failed Harari claims. Philosophical globalisation via the media of knowledge and ethical and political principles are not mentioned or evaluated.
The universal character of norms and values and their relation to the universal principles of logic, metaphysics, and morality are themes of essay number four. Ancient religions are used to demonstrate the absence of universality. Two norms/values, namely freedom and the sacred are degraded from positions of claimed universality to figments of the imagination which at best have what is referred to as “intersubjective validity”, whatever that means. Ricoeur and other philosophers have defended the universality of these ideas of the sacred and freedom and pointed out their efficacy in the binding of communities into holistic entities. Two extraordinary claims are made in the name of liberalism and humanism. Firstly it is claimed that liberalism is a religion. Given liberalisms intimate relation to science and the anti-religious and anti-metaphysical inclinations of science this is a difficult position to understand as is the declaration that there are three kinds of humanism amongst which are included social humanism(communism) and so called evolutionary humanism(the dogma of the Nazis). These claims in relation to humanism, would have been substantially criticised by Hannah Arendt in terms of what she called “the inversion of values”, the confusing of a virtue which generally attracts universal praise with a political totalitarian position that attracts the opposite attitude of blame. One can but recall in this context that Thrasymachus in his debate with Socrates over justice in Plato’s Republic was the first Sophist to use this technique of inverting the good into its opposite and wishing in this process to redefine justice.
Essay number five claims that Commerce, Empires and Universal religion have brought us into the global world. The author rejects the philosopher’s claim that a commitment to a system of universal virtue is a necessary and perhaps a sufficient condition of creating the cosmopolitan citizen living in a cosmopolitan world. In a discussion of the difference between description and explanation it is maintained that the narrative of description is the best we can do in a situation where explanations cannot disperse the fog surrounding our past and the future. Julian Jaynes as will see in our later essay will agree that consciousness is defined partly by the power of narratising events but of course insists that this power emerged much later than Harari predicted. If narratives are our main means of clarifying the meaning of the events of our world then this has the consequence that there are no future necessities but only future contingents which might or might not be realised.In such circumstances the power of the imagination supplants the power of reason and we are left to wander in the fog created by this power which cannot explain the functioning of the system of concepts we use to explain our value system. Harari insists that cultures are viruses which might kill their hosts, thus inverting the inherent value status of this word from something positive to something negative.
Essay number six deals with a pseudo-distinction between so called “new knowledge” which is discovered and “old knowledge” which is supposedly fictional. It is not denied, of course that there can be new discoveries of new states of affairs which might question hypotheses held to be the best available until the context of discovery can complete its work but to call such hypotheses “knowledge” is to misunderstand the function of this human power that was defined by the Greek philosophers and Enlightenment followers of those Greek philosophers. The power of reason is a power that attempts to see the world “una sola ochiata”: holistically. The abandonment of belief in this power results in attempting to see everything through a glass darkly of a science committed to a method of resolution-composition producing variables to be manipulated and measured that in certain regions of discourse such as education can only produce correlations between states of affairs instead of the once valued gold standard of causation. Of course humans search for new experiences such as flying to the moon and they may do so in demonstration of their power but knowledge is not to be conflated with power as Harari insists. Habermas points out that both knowledge and power are steering mechanisms of different systems: politics and culture and should not be conflated but the “theory of communicative action” which he proposes also fails to acknowledge the categorical universal-logical character of knowledge. Habermas conflates instrumental reason and categorical reason and leaves us at the mercy of “persuasive ideologies.” The chapter ends with two so called humanistic projects, the elimination of poverty and the possibility of living an immortal life barring the occurrence of accidents. The biblical words “full of years” are invoked in counterargument to suggest that we might not wish to live forever.
Essay number seven continues the theme of the relation between the economic striving for Empires and the universal intent of Science. The discussion of the misnomers of “New knowledge” and “Old knowledge” also continues and it is pointed out that knowledge is not merely a state but rather a state and the products of states which actualise a disposition that is not actual. Our value predicates might originally attach to the disposition and only subsequently to actualising states. Harari asks why Europe became the central power in the world. One of his answers is that both technological innovators and conquerors acknowledged their ignorance and the use of knowledge instrumentally which of course was the prevailing attitude of the colonisers. Counter arguments are presented to the effect that knowledge has a categorical value in itself and that historical knowledge, for example requires the understanding of a metaphysical spirit in a context of justification. Scientific attempts to generate an ethical theory from its method of resolution-composition and assumption that the world is merely the totality of facts produces a theory that ethical action is defined in terms of its consequences. This position is incoherent it is argued.
Essay number eight indicates the ease with which scientists can be hypnotised by ideologies and Habermas’ “Theory of Communicative action” is evoked again to suggest a better description of the mechanism of persuasion than is given by Harari. It is insisted that “Communicative action is a technical disguise for the rhetoric used in ideological exchanges where the aim is “systematic persuasion”. Arendt’s work on the “Origins of Totalitarianism” is again called to testify to the consequences of allowing powerful ideologists the space to persuade us of their dogmatic and skeptical doctrines. As a counterweight to this rhetoric the ideal of the doctor as an ethical scientist is suggested. Harari attempts to use economic images from the bakery, a slice of a bigger pie, to persuade us to abandon our view that Greed is unethical.
Essay number nine points to the various projects of social engineering that have taken place throughout the ages: for example the replacement of the natural rhythms of agriculture(which earlier was accused of being a gigantic fraud) with the precise timetables and schedules of the industrial revolution. It is pointed out that prior to the Industrial Revolution the family was the institution of care for the community. The shift of this role to the state and the market produced an uneasy relation of these “institutions” to individuals in which there is fundamental disagreement over what is owed in the form of duties and what is promised in the form of responsibilities. Again appeal is made to the imagination and it is claimed that nations are merely imagined communities in which we imagine ” a common past, common interests, and a common future”. It is claimed falsely that scholars(like Aristotle and Kant) have only a vague idea of the answer to the question “Are we happy?”. Happiness according to both Aristotle and Kant is the result of the virtuous activity of man–the result that is, not of the activity of his imagination, but rather the result of his rational/ethical activities.
The final essay number ten is filled with experiments producing green rabbits and a mouse with an ear on its back and there is a distinctive schizophrenic atmosphere over this whole chapter discussing what is euphemistically called “intelligent design”. Again we experience the inversion of values in relation to the concept of “intelligence”. Object relations theory is invoked to argue that an object can be both good and bad in different respects without compromising the logical principle of non contradiction.
Michael R D James