This article is only meant to bring together briefly the most powerful ideas of the work of Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian who emerged with strength in 2011 in Israel and definitely in 2014 for the rest of the world with the publication in English of his book “Sapiens, a Brief History of Mankind”. In this book, as in the following ones, it provides some ideas that, not by known ones, have some interest in the way in which he presents them. These ideas are:
- Homo sapiens, which did not start from a position prevalent in the biological order, managed to reach the top of the animal pyramid.
- This prevalence was achieved by a mutation that gave him cognitive abilities that provided him an advantage over the rest of the biological chain.
- The fundamental cognitive advantage is that of being able to think and speak, not only of the present, but of the past and the future. That is, the ability to create fictions.
- This ability allowed him to plan ahead based on experience and, thus, win the battles for survival.
- This capacity also allowed him to overcome the ability of the insects to cooperate in large numbers, but in a rigid and immovable way and overcome the capacity of the rest of the animals, which could be grouped in a flexible way (changing cooperators), but in a small number and with direct knowledge of its congeners excluding strangers.
- Sapiens managed with their fictions to group thousands of congeners around a single idea, being able to change the individuals and keep the argument immutable, generation after generation, as happens with the idea of nation or religion.
- Fictions are embraced by numerous groups, but not by the whole of humanity, with the exception of money: a fiction based on trust in which goods are exchanged for coins (which may be false) or colored papers that have no material value equivalent.
- The differences between fictions and the struggles they lead have reached our days in the form of disputes over economic, political or religious systems. In fact, the human being is rare that can be functional without a fiction of reference.
As you can see, the idea of fiction is equivalent to theory and, if you want to give a pejorative sense, to that of ideology. It has always been said that the superiority of the human being over the rest of nature came from his ability to theorize. When the theories are subjected to experimental testing and come out unscathed we talk about scientific theories, and when they can not be subjected to experimental proof we speak of dogmas, fundamentally religious.
Harari goes further and thinks that humanism is a stage of humanity in which so powerful an idea of the capabilities of the individual has been projected that the whole period of modernity, which begins in the Renaissance to this day, has been a phase in which the fictions and their practical sequels have been built exclusively on the basis of the individual. So:
- The Lutheran religion, which arose at the same time (16th century), is based on the fact that only the individual can interpret the sacred texts and seek their salvation without any ecclesiastical hierarchy.
- Modern democracy is based on the knowledge of the individual when voting. There is no power of wise or prudent to supplant the popular will.
- The capitalist economic system is based on the idea that “the client is right”. That is why the market price is considered the best indicator of the individual preferences of consumers.
- Modern art has surrendered to the evidence that there is no pattern of beauty and has almost given up on it so that it is personal taste that is behind the aesthetic judgment.
- The modern University pursues the objective that the student “think for himself” and not follow slogans of supposed esoteric centers of wisdom.
However, according to the most modern theories about the will, when we believe we are taking a decision freely and consciously, we are actually being led by a calculation of probabilities performed by “our body” at such a speed that we do not perceive anything more than as a “feeling”. The feeling of exercising the free will would be the phenomenological face of our internal calculations based on algorithms constructed with the previous recorded experiences of the behavior of the external world and the capabilities of our inner world (body and mind). These internal calculations, and not perceived, would be equivalent to the role played by light waves. In one case the activity of our brain translates into feelings of exercise of the will and, in the other, the waves appear to the consciousness sounds and colors.
Here Descartes resonates with his radical confidence in the Cogito, which doubts all external authority to found knowledge in the individual and his mental processes. Harari says, that the powerful algorithms created by Artificial Intelligence combined with the accumulation of data on all types of human events and individual behaviors, through social networks and smart devices to which we expose ourselves, will end up replacing the be human in important political and economic decisions. Algorithms that are fed back continuously, so that people would not be needed to make political decisions in elections, nor to decide which products would be successful in the market. The consequence would be regimes like the current China, which has decided to go directly to a tyranny; a regime that rather than enlightened, hyper-informed, without going through democracy grounded on the decisions of individuals. In this way, Descartes’ vision of animals as automatons would be transferred to human beings, since we could be directed from without, without our mental processes having relevance; a kind of behaviorism in reverse. This is the reason why Hariri proposes to create a new religion (another fiction), given that the traditionals, animist or based on The Bible, has no answer for this situation. Proposal that I do not know if with humorous intention moves to Silicon Valley.
The moment we live is especially critical because, as we have seen in the last referendums held in the world, people have a tendency to nihilism, to fall fool, when they are asked in an environment intoxicated with the worst of fears: “the others”. Situation that is aggravated by the abrupt use of lying as an instrument to achieve power, which is worst by social networks and our tendency to accept everything that fits in with our previous patterns. Be that as it may, there is always hope that the human being, as happened before, will rebel when the distortion of life and truth is so gross that even the most distracted can’t evade their responsibility.
In his book Hariri makes an original interpretation of the Constitution of the United States that says:
“We declare as evident the following truths: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, which among them are life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.”
The founding fathers thought seriously that if all accept these principles, cooperation, a safe and peaceful life in a prosperous society will be possible. In Babylon, more than two thousand years before, the Code of Hammurabi declared:
“We know that superiors, commons and slaves are not inherently different kinds of people, but if we believe they are, we will be able to create a stable and prosperous society”
There is a difference between the two texts: the old one pragmatically believes that it is better to impose inequality, while the modern one fixes, through rights, restoring equality. One institutes inequality by proposing to pretend that there is no equality and the other pursues equality formally. Harari believes that, from this point of view, the two codes are wrong because their approach to equality only exist in the imagination of legislators. He believes that equality is a myth, because it does not exist outside the imagination of the human being. A myth from the Christian religion, whose foundation is the creation of the soul by God. That is to say, equality has no place in the biological plane, where each one is endowed with a differential genetic package and is subject to different environmental influences and mutations that change their characteristics. Differences that enable the struggle for survival in a process lacking design and purpose. Consequently, there is nothing like rights in biology and, in addition, mutations modify it and, therefore, it is not possible for rights to be “inalienable”, ie to be transferred to another owner. Nor is there anything like what we call freedom, because it is another creation of the human imagination. Harari goes on to say that there is no point in saying that a human being is free in a democracy and not in a dictatorship. Finally consider that another product of the imagination is the happiness, because only pleasure can be objectively measured. In summary: equality, rights, freedom and happiness are human myths without foundation in biology. That is, we should say provocatively that human beings have to do without biology to build their specific way of life, because equality, freedom, rights and as an epitome, happiness are the heart of that life. Or, which is the same, let’s stop pretending that we believe that these things have a natural foundation and assume their condition as artifices that can collapse as soon as people stop believing in them. This conventional traits would explain, according to Hariri, the existence of the armed forces that have no other objective than to maintain fiction against the marginal people who violate them. Obviously, if the lack of faith in them is widespread, change is inevitable. Harari does not believe in the cynicism of the elites or the bayonets; On the contrary, he believes that, without prejudice to extreme cases, a society can only be maintained if both the elites and their servants and people believe in the foundations of the system that governs them. He also acknowledges that changing your mind is not as difficult as you might think and that a better fiction can supplant the one that governed until a certain time.
It is clear that the basic idea of Harari is that the concepts that he classifies as fictions are conventional and, therefore, substitutable. This being true for historically concrete social systems, it is not true that the concepts of equality, freedom, rights and happiness have that same character. On the contrary, I believe that these concepts and the “realities” to which they point are the key to all the efforts of imagination and, therefore, of all the fictions that the human being carries out. Political and social fictions come and go, but they all orbit around these concepts, both for their achievement and for their repression. I say repression and not suppression, because they can not be abolished since they constitute the phenomenological face of biological phenomena, if not physical, that underlies. The wave-color duality serves as simile. The wave underlies as an objective and measurable phenomenon, but the human being can not avoid seeing colors or listening to sounds. He neither sees nor hears waves. And I do not belive that Hariri thinks that a wave is real and the colors is a fiction. Equality, freedom, rights and, of course, happiness are the colors of specifically human life and the great job is how to harmonize them without they damage each other.
Regarding equality, I think those who fight againts it forget that the differences that the evolutionary process exhibits in the features of human beings are part of a population around it statistic average most sapiens are grouped. That is, the differences for a given species are variations around a strong core of substantial biological equality based on DNA. Another thing will be when sapiens evolutions to other stable species in its characteristics, what remains to be seen, once, it seems that it has taken control of its own evolution (with all the risks that this entails). Equality, which can not be uniformity, is the foundation of social and political rights and differences are the foundation of merit based on the contribution to society, merits whose liberal and socialist rewards are continually discussed, as it is a crucial issue. An equilibrium solution is that the benefits of social effort, once the merits are paid, go to services and projects of general interest, instead of sumptuous expenses that are completely useless.
Regarding freedom, I think it also emerges in human consciousness supported by the very biological capacity of beings in the evolutionary chain to increase the chances of survival as their brain was able to perceive more options and competently choose between them . Freedom comes in the biological package, although it appears to us as a mental phenomenon, which may lead us to believe that it is a convention induced by the predominant myth. And yes, man feels freer in a democracy than in a dictatorship, although he is aware of the limitations imposed by any system.
Regarding happiness, I believe that it has support in biology and is the phenomenon that summarizes the general state of body and mind when aspirations, also with a biological basis, of pleasure, physical and psychological security, reputation and mastery over material reality next are satisfied. Happiness is not a construction of the human imagination, it is a reaction of the body that involves hormones that generate states of calm or excitement and the entire nervous system that reports the state of health of the organs.
Regarding rights, I believe, they are the symbolic expression of the three previous natural concepts. That is why it is situated halfway between the natural and the fictional. Therefore, if man is substantially the same and receives natural impulses to be free, it is perfectly natural for the sapiens species to objectify it in a symbolic way to point out to social and political fictions the way forward.
That is to say, I believe that we must extract from the package of fictions these four concepts, because they respond to a reality that we will call more than biological, natural. And so leave the concept of myth or fiction for the socio-political constructions of greater complexity that man creates to, precisely, achieve a harmonious relationship between these three objectives and their articulation for their achievement. Fictions that are subject to the erosion of their capacity to achieve the satisfaction of the triad of vital objectives that nature demands. Of course, if sapiens evolves to another species or is replaced, this core of essential features will disappear with it, although I suspect a certain stubbornness in its nature that would take its foundation further back in evolution, but that would be a category abuse.
These four concepts that Harari includes in the package of fictions can not end up dying on the beach of physical or biological phenomena, but to have the status of realities of our brain that endow our mind with its true power. In short, equality, freedom and happiness are the phenomenological face of natural mandates of cooperation, life and pleasure, which are as real as their life dance partners.
Copyright © Antonio Garrido Hernández. 2018.