Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK
Madeleine Pennington and Nathan Mladin’s report examining emotional responses to death and dying in the UK. 27/11/2023
In his latest long–read on the most important books, ideas and thinkers of our age Nick Spencer looks at Sapiens and Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, exploring his sparkling and provocative prose but questioning the assumptions that lie behind his big ideas. 07/07/2020
Humans have always liked the big picture. For millennia, holy texts and epic poems have led listeners from horizon to temporal horizon, explaining who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going. Of late, however, this sacred mantle has been assumed by historians whose narratives like to begin with the origins of life, the formation of the earth or even the moment of the Big Bang. Their efforts sell well, if not quite in biblical proportions. Big history is big business.
There are any number of reasons for this turn in historical events, but two strike me as particularly relevant. First, history is no longer in the business of converging on London or Washington. A few enthusiastic prognostications aside (see my essay on Francis Fukuyama here), the rise of China, and the political convulsions and economic stagnation of the West over recent decades have seen history veer off the path that so many (20th century Westerners) believed it was stuck on. History is a bit more interesting, a bit more open, a bit more unpredictable. Now no longer as sure about where we’re heading, we want to look again, afresh, at where we have been, if only to provide us with some clues. When I was growing up, the technical superiority of China up until about 1500 was never mentioned, hardly even known. Now, it is common knowledge, one of those historical facts that casts long shadows over the future.
Second, history has taken a decidedly material tone, not in the sense that Marxist history was always material but in a still more basic sense. We are more aware than ever before of humanity’s material, biological and environmental context, of our simply-just-another-part-of-nature nature. It is far harder to tell the tale of human history as one of Great Men or Big Ideas or Economic Forces without paying due attention to the physical stage on which we strut.
This can be microcosmic, such as the way in which Kyle Harper has explained The Fate of Rome in the 5th century or Geoffrey Parker the Global Crisis of the 17th century in terms of climate change and disease. Or, alternatively, it can be macrocosmic as with Jared Diamond’s biogeographical history of the last 15,000 years, Guns, Germs and Steel, or Ian Morris’s framing a similar story in the human ability to generate energy in Why the West Rules – for Now. Either way, the reader is left in no doubt that the key to human history lies in the use (or abuse) of our physical environment.
Such fresh, unfamiliar, biologically- and environmentally-attuned ‘big history’ does not come bigger – in several sense of the word – than the works of Yuval Noah Harari. First in Sapiens, published in 2011 and in English in 2014, and then in Homo Deus (2015; 2016) Harari, an Israeli historian, takes the reader from the Big Bang to a fantastical, vaguely dystopian potential future for our species. (His follow up book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is perhaps less worth discussing.) The books are clever, readable, challenging, and discombobulating – and monumentally successful. By 2018, Sapiens had been translated into nearly 50 languages and sold over 10 million copies worldwide, whilst Deus has reached over 30 translations and several million copies.
They are worth reading not simply because they are such a phenomenon but on their merits alone. No-one who encounters them can fail to benefit from Harari’s innovative and provocative perspective. At their heart, however, they turn on what seems to me to be a fundamental and ultimately rather problematic error about human beings and the creation in which we live.
Sapiens tells the story of the human species from prehistory to today. Deus recapitulates much of this story in its first section, explores in greater detail how we “give meaning” to the world, and then takes the tale towards its post-historical future by looking at how our technological achievements will enhance, replace or destroy us.
This is a history that makes the familiar unfamiliar, such as when he talks about the agricultural revolution, usually treated as humanity’s first great leap forward, as one of the biggest disasters ever to have afflicted human beings. It may have resulted in more of them but on average each one lived a shorter, more constrained, more exhausting, more painful, disease-ridden life. Such a pattern – of adventures that turn out to be misadventures – is a familiar one in Harari’s history of humans. No one planned for the industrial revolution to destroy our shared environment. No one wants the digital revolution to wreck human relationships. This is perhaps Harari’s most striking and powerful point. Simply because we humans believe we exercise our (rational) agency at an individual level, we naturally think humanity does the same. But humanity does not ‘think’ in the way that humans do (assuming humans actually do), and unintended consequences abound at the macro level. Our future is as likely to be an accident as it is an intention.
That does not means Harari’s history is directionless, however, as if humans only stumble from one catastrophe to another. His history still progresses, just not as predictably or intentionally as we think. As he states in Sapiens, “it becomes crystal dear that history is moving relentlessly towards unity.” (185) Our telos is union, as technology obliterates distance and improves communication. His history is unfamiliar not because it eschews all narratives of progress but because it adopts new ones.
Harari’s history also works within the recent ‘materialisation’ and ‘biologisation’ of history, but takes it to a new level. Indeed, this is the root of the problem that dogs the books. The first chapter of Sapiens opens with the clear statement that, despite humans’ long-favoured view of ourselves “as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and, most importantly, parents”, (5) we are simply one of the many twigs on the Homo branch, one of many species that could have inherited the earth. It might have been Homo rudolfensis or Homo erectus or Homo neanderthalensis. It happened to be us. We simply got lucky, for no good reason.
The contingency is essential to his argument. Humans are “an animal of no consequence”, as the title of his first chapter puts it. Up until very recently, in evolutionary terms, we were just another middle-of-the-road, middle-of-the-food-chain species. Others that, like us, now occupy top-spots in their own environments, like sharks, have done so for aeons, sculpted into dominance by evolution over millions of years. Humans can’t even claim that. Contingent in our position, our supremacy is likely to be a decidedly temporary affair. “It is doubtful whether Homo sapiens will still be around a thousand years now.” (7)
That being so, it is pointless to waste time searching for purpose or meaning in our role, either individually or corporately. Evolution shuffled and dealt our species a good hand or, rather, a good brain. We might as well make the most of it, without looking for a reason. “As far as we can tell,” he says in Sapiens, “from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning” (438) or, as he puts it in Deus, channelling his inner bard, “to the best of our scientific understanding”, the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. (234) How exactly a scientific “viewpoint” or “understanding” (whatever Harari actually means by that) could detect “meaning” and “purpose”, and what it would look like if it did, is far from clear.
Asserting that there is no Reason why humans found themselves where we are – no Big Historical, Divine or Teleological Reason explaining or predetermining our triumph – is not the same as saying there are no reasons. There certainly are, by Harari’s reckoning. Indeed, it is the historian’s job to root them out, and Harari roots out one big one.
Human success rests on our imagination. We use language to “create” – the word is significant – “meanings” and completely new “realities”. (Deus, 170-75) In this alone, we are unique. “As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.” (Sapiens, 27)
More than that, we are able to communicate on a large scale and thereby share the fruit of that imaginative fecundity. We are creatures who not only imagine and believe in myths but have “common myths”, the kind that enable us to work together in far larger numbers than mere kinship or contact would ever allow. Humans have developed an “intersubjective level” (Deus, 168) by means of which we can imagine, manipulate and share subjective realities such as (his examples) money, laws, gods, and empires. This marks us out clearly from even our nearest living relatives, such as chimpanzees who, unable to invent and spread similar fictions, are also therefore unable to cooperate in the large numbers that mark human society.
This talent developed – although why is far from clear – in what Harari calls the “Cognitive Revolution”, the point at which history achieved “independence” – again the word is salient – from biology. The line between biology and the intersubjective reality of the collective human imagination is hard, impermeable and absolute, as Harari repeatedly makes clear. (If it strikes you as odd that a historian should labour so hard to root our species absolutely in biology and environment only then to uproot us and our history completely as soon as we cross this ‘imaginative threshold’, you are on to something.)
Thus, none of the things that humans have imagined over the centuries “exists outside the stories that [we] invent and tell one another.” There are no gods, no money, no human rights, and no laws beyond the “common imagination of human beings.” (Sapiens, 31) Much the same can be said of “universal and immutable principles of justices” (122) such as “equality or hierarchy”, which only exist in “the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another.” They are “fictions”, “social constructs” or “imagined realities” (35) – vital, significant, world changing but ultimately not in any way real. They ‘exist’, so to speak, only because they are useful. “We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate and forge a better society.” (124) Which is a polite way of saying, they don’t exist.
An example of this is offered with admirable clarity in one of the better known bits of Sapiens, when Harari deconstructs of the famous second sentence of the American Declaration of Independence, in the process eviscerating not only the idea that human equality, rights and liberty are self-evident (a perfectly fair criticism) but that they exist at all. In reality, they are nothing more than myths; good and useful myths no doubt, but ultimately and fundamentally fictional ones.
“There are no such things as rights in biology”, he writes, which is, for Harari, longhand for “there are no such things as rights.” “Inalienable rights” should, by his reckoning, be translated into “mutable characteristics”, and so forth. By this process, he renders the Declaration to read:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.”
What this little vignette drives home is that for Harari only biology is ‘real’. Livings things are real. Human organisms are real. But the stuff that comes out of their heads – like rights, liberty and dignity – isn’t.
How exactly do you know if an entity is real? The question is important if you are going to draw such a hard and fast line between the real and imaginary.
Fortunately, Harari asks the question head on in Deus and gives a typically direct, clear, swashbuckling answer: “Very simple – just ask yourself, ‘Can it suffer?’” (206) If something can suffer, then it is real. Thus, obviously, humans can suffer. Tigers can suffer. Bunny rabbits can suffer. But when a bank goes bankrupt, the bank itself doesn’t suffer; rather, only the people – the savers, shareholders, staff, and customers, etc. – suffer. When a country suffers a defeat in a war, the country doesn’t itself suffer; only its citizens or subjects. Thus neither a bank nor a country are real.
This may strike the reader as a rather puerile sleight of hand, a linguistic tergiversation intended to win an argument in a debating competition. Most of us simply use ‘bank’ or ‘country’ in this context as a shorthand for the people and relationships in it. By the same token, the planet can’t suffer through environmental abuse, a couple doesn’t suffer in a divorce, and a family can’t suffer from a bereavement because planets, couples and families don’t exist, only the people that comprise them. As a fair and accurate representation of reality, it’s not entirely convincing.
It is, however, consistent with the argument of the book, however alien it may feel. If only material stuff – like organisms, like Sapiens – is real, then the kind of things that emerge from their over-fertile imagination are not; they are possessed, at best, with some vaguely utilitarian but ultimately temporary value. In essence, if you adopt a thoroughgoing materialistic and positivistic approach to reality, insisting that only the material and measurable is real, then – amazingly – you will discover that reality is ultimately material and measurable.
All this naturally breeds a determined reductionist attitude to humans themselves. If only material stuff is real – and, importantly, if only physical sciences are able to detect what is real – it follows, as he says in Deus that “according to the life sciences, happiness and suffering are nothing but different balances of bodily sensations.” (41) Notice the opening parenthesis, “according to the life sciences”. Similarly a few pages, later, “If science is right and our happiness is determined by our bio chemical system, then the only way to ensure lasting contentment is by rigging this system.” (45) Or, once again, according to neuroscience, the “deeper parts of your mind know nothing about football or about jobs. They know only sensations.” (42)
There are no such things as rights in biology… from a purely scientific viewpoint… to the best of our scientific understanding… according to the life sciences… if science is right… according to neuroscience: Harari waves the word ‘scientific’ around like a trigger-happy guerrilla, brandishing the barrel at any moral or metaphysical truth claims that peak out from the undergrowth. Happiness? Goodness? Freedom? Beauty? Holiness? Science cannot find them.
After a while of this, the reader is naturally tempted to ask why is life/ physical/ neuroscience the only legitimate tool for understanding reality or human life. After all, if you’ve only got a hammer in your toolbox, everything will be a nail. Harari’s answer lies in the material/ imaginative divide on which he bases everything. The imaginative – the category into which he conveniently put most of what makes human life meaningful – doesn’t exist. It isn’t real. It is merely parasitic on what it real, which is our bodies, or our biology, or neurochemistry, or bodily sensations, or whatever. That being so, only those things that can detect, measure and alter biology/ neurochemistry etc. need to be considered. Human life is biology. Biology comprises knowable facts. Debates can be resolved and futures decided by recognition of said facts and manipulation of said biology.
In everyday terms, this breeds the kind of impatient dismissal of tortured ethical debates that you commonly find among those of a positivistic or scientistic bent. Thus, when writing about abortion in Homo Deus, Harari reasons that although devout Christians oppose abortion and many liberals support it, “the main bone of contention is factual rather than ethical.” (221) Christians and liberals “believe that human life is sacred”, and that murder is a crime. They simply disagree “about certain biological facts”, such as whether human life begins at the moment of conception, at the moment of birth or at some intermediate point?” No matter. Biologists are here to help, “more qualified than priests to answer factual questions such as ‘Do human foetuses have a nervous system one week after conception? Can they feel pain?”
This is so muddle-headed it’s hard to know where to start. “Devout Christians” and “liberals” (at least the thoughtful ones; we can leave the head-bangers of both sides out of any serious debate) agree about the “biological facts”. They both accept, broadly speaking, when foetuses develop a brain, a central nervous system, a beating heart etc. They both agree, broadly speaking, when a foetus may start to experience sensations or feel pain. They disagree on the existential and ethical significance of all of the above. The “biological facts” are not in dispute. It is what they mean in terms of ultimately contested concepts such as ‘life’, ‘rights’ or ‘dignity’ that is hotly disputed. But if you have systematically dismantled any sense of objective ‘meaning’, this avenue is necessarily closed to you. Hence, biology must be able to cut the Gordian knot.
The fact that Harari apparently honestly believes that “biological facts” will resolve such disagreement over abortion points to nothing more than the inadequacy of the positivist approach that he adopts when discussing our species. More cynically, it is an example of what happens when you banish concepts like ‘meaning’ from a debate – because science can’t find it in your neurochemistry – and then smuggle it back in under the biologist’s lab coat.
It is not for his musings on abortion that Harari has become popular, however. The success of his books, particularly Homo Deus, is based primarily on his sweeping (if quietly hedged and qualified) prognostications for our human future. These, inevitably, are infected by his strict separation of biology and imagination, and his positivistic focus on the former. The result leads him to visions of human destiny and transcendence that are rather different from those, whether religious or secular, with which we are familiar.
The religious ones are most easily dispensed with, Harari having a predictable contempt for religion, one that is not obviously burdened by any real understanding of what he is burying. Thus, we hear that the first chapters of the book of Genesis are a prime example of the common ancient mythology of “a legal contract in which humans promise everlasting devotion to the gods in exchange for mastery over plants and animals”. (236) This does not suggest a close – or indeed any – reading of the actual text in Genesis which is completely devoid of the kind of legalism that he finds in other Ancient Near Eastern myths. Indeed, as J. Richard Middleton outlines in considerable detail in his study on Genesis 1, The Liberating Image, there is good reason to believe that the Genesis creation story, and indeed most of Genesis 1-11, is a deliberate subversion of the creation myths of the time.
Along similar lines, we hear that the gods of polytheism are “devoid of interests and biases” (238) which is hardly the impression we get from Greek mythology. We get the old chestnut about how polytheism was open-minded, and rarely persecuted ‘heretics and ‘infidels’ (try telling that to those sects in the ancient world that denied Caesar’s divinity). (239) We are told that the theory of evolution inspires “unbridled hatred” among devout monotheists’. (Deus 119) We are told that murder is wrong not because some god once said ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but because it causes terrible suffering to the victim and to his family members – as if the two explanations were mutually incompatible. (Deus 264) We are even informed that “God-fearing Syria is a far more violent place than the secular Netherlands” (Deus 259), a comparison so far-fetched that not even Richard Dawkins has yet made it.
The closest thing Harari comes to an actual argument about religion is his discussion of (what religions apparently believe about) the soul. Belief in the soul and its eternal destiny is, we are told, central to religion (this essentialising of ‘religion’, although a necessity in popular writing, sounds an alarm bell). However, it is a belief that is transparently false and not simply because science cannot detect a soul in humans or any other creatures. Rather, for a soul to exist it must, we are told, be indivisible: “at least, if by soul we mean something indivisible” (122). (Do we?) This being so, it cannot have evolved, and since everything that exists evolved… QED.
Harari is not clear on where he gets his understanding of the soul; perhaps from early modern discussions, in the wake of Descartes, on how the soul interacted with the body? He says in Homo Deus that the literal meaning of the word ‘individual’ is something that cannot be divided (120) – although why this particular etymology should have any bearing on whatever a soul might be is again far from clear. Nevertheless, it is worth comparing what Rowan Williams, hardly a peripheral Christian thinker, says about the soul and its secular counterpart, the ‘self’, if only to underline how simplistic and misleading Harari’s explanation is. Human essence, according to Williams, is not captured by talking of the ‘soul’, in the sense of early modern philosophy, as “an immaterial individual substance”. (Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement, p. 160.) Modern ethics and theology, he writes, have been haunted by the idea of the soul or “the authentic self”. (On Christian Theology, p. 239) This, however, he insists, is an “intellectually shaky and… morally problematic” fiction. Neither soul nor self is a kind of pure core of authenticity that we can reveal “by peeling away layers”; rather it is “an integrity one struggles to bring into existence.” (On Christian Theology, p. 240; emphasis added.) Selves are not timeless any more than they are abstract. Rather, as he says in his book Lost Icons, “the self lives and moves in, only in, acts of telling.” (Lost Icons, p. 144)
Such a clear and unambiguous range of statements about the Christian ‘religious’ understanding of the ‘soul’ or ‘self’ simply underlines how wide of the mark Harari’s analysis is here. No doubt he could quote popular discourse on the ‘soul’ that would support his case, but that is hardly the point. Picking your opponents’ arguments to support your own analysis is a rhetorically-smart but ultimately dishonest tactic. Harari’s is less an analysis than an exercise in assuming (or even creating) a religious idea and then showing its inadequacy and incomprehensibility.
Few of Harari’s criticisms of religion will be new to readers. Indeed, in wider public discourse, most of them are familiar simply as heralds for the charge of the rationalist cavalry, galloping over the horizon to rescue human dignity from the clutches of daft, decaying religion. There are moments when Harari sounds like this. The last time people managed to come up with completely new values, he tells readers towards the end of Deus, was in the eighteenth century when a few enlightened people “began preaching the stirring ideals of human liberty, human equality and human fraternity”. (Deus, 445) I wonder if Harari really believes that no one had “preached” liberty, equality and fraternity before the Enlightenment.
Nevertheless, this is not the direction Harari chooses to (or indeed can) travel. His worldview does not admit any redemption through such traditional secular ideologies because they, no less than religions, are ultimately fictions. The tried and tested secular paths to salvation fare no better, under Harari’s withering positivist gaze, than the religious ones.
Thus, for example, liberalism, like every other religion, is based on ideas that it believes to be factual but that simply don’t stand up to rigorous ‘scientific’ scrutiny. (Deus, 327 ff.) Just as scientists found no soul when they opened Sapiens’ black box, they also failed to find any sign of the ‘will’ or the ‘self’. Hormones and neurons leave no space for freedom. “The electrochemical brain processes that result in murder are either deterministic or random or a combination of both.” (Deus, 327-29) Either way, there is no space for free will as a serious or relevant option. Neuroscience cannot detect free will; ergo, free will does not exist.
As with liberalism, so with humanism – although Harari’s use of terminology when it comes to humanism is so idiosyncratic as to be unusable: phrases like “evolutionary humanists such as Hitler” are as silly as they are provocative. (300) Indeed, liberal humanism combines the errors of liberalism (human freedom and will) with the errors of Christian humanism (human dignity, equality and uniqueness), and is really little more than the discarded husk of Christianity. “The liberal belief in the free and sacred nature of each individual a direct legacy of the traditional Christian belief in free and eternal individual souls.” (Sapiens, 257)
With such underlying secular ideologies lying in tatters (because “the life sciences” have thoroughly undermined them (263)), it is obvious that any systems or programmes of reform, whether political, judicial or economic, that are founded on them are equally redundant. “Forget economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions”. (Deus, 45). Forget democratic elections too; Google will know your political preferences better than you do. The writing is on the wall for such old-school approaches which have, until now, largely tried “to sweep such inconvenient discoveries under the carpet”. They cannot do so forever. “In all frankness, how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science?” (Sapiens, 263) Indeed why stop at the wall? Why not demolish the departments of law and political science all together? Everything, after all, is basically biology and computing.
In place of all these failed attempts, there is only one path to salvation and transcendence. ‘Science’ has discovered that human behaviour “is determined by hormones, genes and synapses, rather than by free will, let alone a soul.” (Sapiens, 263) That being so, we are endlessly and completely manipulable, by means of “drugs, genetic engineering or direct brain stimulation.” (Deus, 332) It follows that “in order to raise global happiness levels we need to manipulate human biochemistry.” (Deus, 45)
More ambitiously, the endlessly manipulable biological nature of humanity opens up boundless possibilities for human modification and perfectibility about which Harari is admirably blunt. The second great project of the 21st century, he writes in Deus (49), to ensure global happiness “will involve re-engineering Homo sapiens so that it can enjoy everlasting pleasure.” (Does anything sound less appealing?) Once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, “Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end and a completely new kind of process will begin.” (Deus, 53) It’s a predication that makes Fukuyama’s famous one about the end of history look positively sober.
This is the Deus of his book’s title. Humans, as we have known them through history, will disappear. Our species will be upgraded “into gods” through the efforts of “biological engineering, cyborg engineering [or] the engineering of non-organic beings.” As with his rather eccentric understanding of words like ‘soul’ and ‘humanism’, Harari’s energetic prophecy about human divinisation is dependent on a particular understanding of divinity – he tellingly caveats his discussion of this deification with the weasel phrase “people often misunderstand the meaning of divinity”. His own definition, sort of superhuman bodily and mental faculties, is one that not all readers will share. (Deus, 54-56)
It is only fair to recognise that, for all his outlandish forecasting and gung-ho prose, Harari slips in enough qualifiers to get himself off the hook.
Near the start of Homo Deus (65) he says that his predictions are focused “on what humankind will try to achieve in the twenty-first century – not what it will succeed in achieving”. His is “less of a prophecy and more a way of discussing our present choices.” (Deus, 74) Similarly, at the end of Sapiens he concludes, in a Fukuyama-ish way, that humankind has broken the law of the jungle and there is now, at last “real peace, rather than just absence of war.” (Sapiens, 416) For most polities, “there is no plausible scenario leading to full-scale conflict within one year”. (Didn’t someone say that in 1913?) But he then goes on to say that “this situation might of course change in the future and, with the world of today might seem incredibly naïve.” A few pages later, he concludes that “we are on the threshold of both heaven and hell… History has still not decided where we will end up, and a set of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.” (420) I guess that pretty much covers all the bases.
Such a good hand of get-out-of-historical-jail-free cards should encourage us to see Harari as a provocateur rather than a prophet, but it should not preclude criticism of his provocations. There are many loose threads one might choose to pick at. When he writes that to ensure global happiness we must re-engineer Homo sapiens so that it can enjoy everlasting pleasure, he is eliding two different things – happiness and pleasure – in a way that would make a first year philosophy student wince. He is doing a similar thing when he says that scientists, when plumbing the inner workings of the human organism, have found no sign of a soul or free will there, or that science has provided no evidence of human equality or dignity.
Such confusions are, however, borne of his deeper conviction that only the material or biological is real; that everything else is merely imaginary, ephemeral and (inter)subjective; and that there is no organic connection between the two. By its own lights, this is a consistent point of view but it is not a very persuasive picture of reality, either as we live it or it is constructed. On closer inspection, Harari’s hard and absolute divide between the physical/ biological and ideological/ imagined is hard to sustain.
Take mathematics. On the surface, maths is a classic example of Harari’s inter-subjective reality. Mathematics is non-material. It is non-biological. It is widely shared. The numbers 17, π and i will not be found anywhere in our physical world, in the way an aardvark, a liver, and chromosome can be. They are presumably, therefore, by Harari’s reckoning, imagined (indeed, imaginary) and not real. And yet in some ways mathematics has a greater claim on being ‘real’ than much that is simply material. It is universal, pervasive, permanent, existing irrespective of human cognition, and in the famous words of the physicist Eugene Wigner, “unreasonably effective”. Two plus two equalled four and πr2 the area of a circle long before humans discovered they were so. Aardvarks, livers and chromosomes will cease to exist. 17, π and i will not. Which has a greater claim to being real?
Ethics invites a similar approach. Most people when talking about right and wrong have the same sense that mathematicians do when discussing their discipline, namely that they are saying something real, rather than simply voicing preferences and opinions. In the jargon, people tend to be moral realists at heart. Simply saying that our ethical intuitions and reasoning are no more than the arbitrary illusion thrown up by patterns of firing neurons is not only unsatisfying as an explanation but threatens to detune the very content of all human thought, which comprises, after all, of patterns of firing neurons. Like mathematicians when they think about their subject, most people when talking about morality have an unerring sense that they are stumbling over a real ‘landscape’ rather than imagining one into existence as they go along.
Aesthetics is a third area. People’s ideas of beauty vary enormously within and between cultures, more so than their ideas of goodness, and this naturally invites a Harari-like assessment that aesthetics is really only an excrescence or epiphenomenon, the kind of intersubjective reality that isn’t real. But, as with ethics, we instinctively find it hard to credit the idea that when we say something is beautiful or harmonious, we mean nothing more than ‘I like it’. We like to think we are making a statement about the thing in itself, rather than our own opinions. Moreover, as Iain McGilchrist notes (citing the relevant academic studies) in The Master and his Emissary, Western and Eastern concepts of beauty, despite having evolved largely independently, are remarkably consonant… there is developing acceptance by psychology and the social science that human universals do exist.” (421) The beautiful may be as real as the good.
The point of these examples is not to invite vexing discussion of mathematical Platonism, moral realism or aesthetics but merely to underline how that which is real cannot simply be reduced to that which biologists (or even Harari’s frequent, catch-all ‘scientists’) can measure.
The positivistic worldview, on which Harari’s whole argument balances, feels least convincing when it comes his prophecies – or provocations – about humans.
Organisms are made up of genes, hormones, neurones and the like. Scientists can manipulate genes, hormones and neurones. And therefore scientists can recreate humans by manipulating their genes, hormones and neurones. The consequence of this is that what have been existential conundrums for the entirety of human history have now become mere glitches. “For men of science,” he says in Sapiens, sounding rather like a Victorian gentleman, “death is not an inevitable destiny, but merely a technical problem”. (298) And, indeed, not just human history. After 4 billion years “of milling around inside the small of organic compounds, life will suddenly break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, ready to take up shapes beyond our dreams.” (458) Perhaps so, but this argument – and indeed the whole reductionist, positivist basis on which Harari rest – rather underestimates the extent to which humans are quite attached to the more holistic, humanistic, emergent understanding of themselves, the one that Harari seeks to ignore/ dismantle.
In his 1974 book Anarchy, State and Utopia, the atheist philosopher Robert Nozick put forward a now-famous argument against the reductionist, hedonist understanding of human nature that is implicit in Harari’s books. He invited readers to imagine an ‘experience machine’ that could detect and then induce maximally pleasurable experiences for anyone plugged into it. Would people value the kind of life that the experience machine offered?
By Harari’s understanding of the human they would – indeed they must. If life is reducible to firing neurons and you could guarantee the neurons fired in such a way as generated maximum pleasure for the organism in question, there is no conceivable reason why we would not take that option. Yet, Nozick contended that nearly everybody would decline the option, either because people want to do the actions themselves rather than just experience them, or because they want to be a certain person rather than someone just “floating in a tank… an indeterminate blob”, or because they value “deeper reality”. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that his contention is right.
In other words, Harari’s vision of human beings – simply and solely biological organisms that are now, through arbitrarily-acquired cognitive capacities, in a position to transform ourselves by revising, rewriting or even erasing our material existence – does not come close to reflecting our deepest understanding of ourselves.
In its own limited way, his vision is true, in the same way that it is true the meaning of his books can be reduced to the letters, spaces and punctuation on each page. It is the kind of truth that, in Iain McGilchrist’s framing of the issue (see a forthcoming essay in this series!) demonstrates an unrepentant (and wholly inadequate) left-hemispheric approach to the issue of meaning. Yet surely even Harari would recognise that Harari’s books have a meaning that emerges from and is greater than the constituent elements of letters, spaces and punctuation that make up each page. In the same way, human beings have an emergent existence – in which truths of morality, aesthetics, ideology, religion reside – which is similarly not reducible to the neurones in our head and the genes in our cells.
“Perhaps 65 million years from now, intelligent rats will look back gratefully on the decimation [an odd word to choose] wrought by humankind, just as we today can thank that dinosaur-busting asteroid.” (393) So Harari seeks to dismiss human pretensions to unique and matchless supremacy. He may well be right. His strongest suit, as mentioned at the outset, is humanity’s inclination to stumble into consequences that were unseen or ignored, such as agricultural-derived disease, industrial-derived climate destruction, or electronically-derived de-humanisation. It would be a bravely optimistic person that bets their house against the human potential to leap backwards as well as forwards.
However, if Harari’s intelligent rats do dominate the global landscape, I am willing to bet that they will be using the same principles of mathematics and logic that we do. I bet that they would have a recognisably similar capacity for communication and imagination to ourselves. I bet that they would have an awareness of, an interest in and possibly a framework for ethics, derived from kin selection and reciprocal altruism, which is familiar to our own. I bet they would have generated “intersubjective realities” that bear more than a passing resemblance to some of our own. And I bet they would have similar inchoate beliefs about the mind, morality, beauty and divinity that lies behind their ratty universe.
Or put another way, Harari is right to shake the throne on which humans seem to think we naturally belong. At their best, Sapiens and Deus offer a crisp and stimulating provocation of such received wisdom. But they do so on the basis of a crudely reductionist and positivistic approach which fails to do justice to the complex, multi-layered human organisms about which he is writing.
Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos
Image: Daian Gan/shutterstock.com
Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.
Posted 7 July 2020
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.