Sapiens: Unveiling Humanity’s History and Imagination
Yuval Noah Harari, a renowned public thinker and highly successful writer known for his works such as Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, has achieved extensive acknowledgment. He actively participates in various media platforms, including shows, podcasts, and panels, where he serves as a keynote speaker. Harari co-founded a multidisciplinary organization called Sapienship that advocates for global responsibility, fosters meaningful global conversations, and addresses significant global challenges.
Sapiens, having sold over twenty million copies and translated into numerous languages, delves into the history of humanity. Harari proposes that Homo sapiens’ survival was attributed to their advanced cognitive abilities and unique capacity for imagination. He contends that this imaginative capability allowed humans to create and spread myths, facilitating large-scale cooperation. These common myths, such as religions, political institutions, economic systems, and ethical codes, have enabled the development and dominance of civilizations and continue to influence society today. Harari emphasizes that these constructs exist solely in the collective imagination of human beings and have no objective existence outside of it. He posits that human cooperation is rooted in shared myths and stories, shaping various aspects of society.
Right from the beginning, Harari aims to explore the various factors that transformed Homo or man into Homo sapiens or wise man. He delves into the significance of a large brain, tool usage, complex social structures, and other elements. To provide a contemporary perspective, Harari draws insights from mapping the Neanderthal genome, suggesting that instead of merging with Neanderthals, Sapiens likely played a role in their extinction. Harari contends that tolerance is not a characteristic trait of Sapiens, indicating the kind of depiction he will portray of humanity.
Challenging Constructs of Advanced Social Institutions
On his website, Harari asserts that advanced social institutions, such as gods, states, money, and human rights, are products of human imagination and do not have objective existence. However, he fails to provide sufficient arguments to support these extreme philosophical claims. This deficiency undermines his ability to respond effectively to anti-democratic attacks.
While Harari acknowledges the significance of philosophy and even identifies himself as a historian and philosopher, his philosophical stance in works like Sapiens and Homo Deus challenges the coherence of his overall ideas. His perspective, which regards ethical codes, political systems, and legal frameworks as mere myths and stories, must acknowledge crucial conceptual differences, resulting in a diminished strength of his societal and political structuring recommendations.
Harari’s Stance on Technology and Societal Issues
As a prominent public intellectual, Harari has been outspoken about potential dangers related to technology and societal issues such as political corruption, wealth inequality, data ownership, immigration, freedom, and nationalism. While these topics are crucial in countering anti-democratic sentiments, Harari needs a solid philosophical foundation to support his claims. Unfortunately, his previous work undermines the philosophical basis for his current endeavors.
Harari presents captivating portrayals of early humans, foragers, and agrarians. However, he swiftly moves through significant historical milestones such as the agricultural revolution, the emergence of religion, the scientific revolution, industrialization, the rise of artificial intelligence, and the potential end of humanity. He argues that Homo sapiens, once a small and insignificant African animal, has become a formidable force in the ecosystem, wreaking havoc on the environment. While there is truth in his claims, his perspective is quite specific. His analysis of the modern world and our self-inflicted challenges resonated.
However, the book is flawed in certain aspects, and Harari’s strength lies more in being a social scientist than a philosopher, logician, or historian. His examination of contemporary societal issues is refreshingly objective, and his imaginative reconstruction of pre-history is compelling, even for those without expertise in the field. However, his grasp of specific historical periods and documents leaves much to be desired and can be demonstrably questionable.
Relativism: Ethical and Political Claims
In Sapiens, Harari argues that all ethical and social or moral codes, including the contemporary concept of human rights, are merely imaginative constructs. He extends this claim to encompass all social and political principles throughout history, asserting that they are myths shaped by communal acceptance. According to Harari, these principles have no objective validity, leading to a relativistic view where ethical and political judgments depend on the context and framework used to evaluate them.
This ethical and political position is known as relativism, which posits that ethical and political principles are conventions relative to the context in which they emerge. Cultural relativism involves evaluating claims based on cultural norms and beliefs, while individual relativism involves assessing them based on an individual’s standards and beliefs. In this view, determining right and wrong or how a society should be organized relies entirely on the chosen framework for assessment.
Harari’s portrayal of the medieval world, particularly the medieval church, is inaccurate. He suggests that ‘premodern’ religion asserted that all essential knowledge about the world was already known, leading to a lack of curiosity and expansion of learning. However, his claim regarding when this view ceased needs to be corrected, as he places it much later than it ended. For instance, he gives an imagined example of a thirteenth-century peasant being rebuffed by a priest for asking about spiders because such knowledge was not in the Bible, but this concept is fundamentally flawed.
Complex Continuity Between Medieval and Modern Eras
Contrary to Harari’s depiction, the medieval period was marked by significant developments in learning and scholarship. The friars, often misconceived as lazy and corrupt, played a central role in university education during the thirteenth century. They were instrumental in fostering an exchange of scholarship between different regions and setting high academic standards. Additionally, the church established schools across Europe, promoting literacy and sparking debates among laypeople and clerics. Monks amassed vast library collections and studied religious and classical texts, effectively functioning as research institutes of their time. The creation of public libraries, like the one in Florence in 1437, represented a breakthrough in knowledge dissemination, granting ordinary citizens access to profound ideas from classical times onward.
Harari neglects to mention influential figures like Thomas Aquinas, who was considered the most brilliant mind of the thirteenth century and made significant contributions to various fields, including ethics, natural law, and political theory. Harari’s assertion that a single authority for establishing knowledge was challenged by the church in the twelfth century, emphasizing disputation for training the mind, is also overlooked.
Moreover, there were notable medieval thinkers like John of Salisbury, a twelfth-century bishop, who significantly shaped social thought and introduced the idea of the rule of law, asserting that even the monarch is subject to it and can be removed by the people if he violates it. John of Salisbury also emphasized the concept of ‘probable truth’ based on Cicero’s ideas, emphasizing the need for constant reevaluation and revision. Thus, Harari is mistaken in attributing the first expression of ‘we do not know’ to Vespucci in 1504, as this idea was already present in medieval thinkers.
Harari draws overly rigid boundaries between the medieval and modern eras in his historical analysis. While he provides valuable insights into the more modern period, he exaggerates the divide between the two epochs, as evidence suggests a more complex and continuous historical development.
Relativism’s Implications and Limitations
Initially, the ideas of relativism might seem enlightened and open-minded, promoting a nonjudgmental approach to diverse cultural norms. However, upon closer examination, one realizes that accepting this view would lead to an inability to criticize or defend any policies and subsequent actions, implying that no ethical system is superior to another.
People often behave in ways that align with relativism’s suggestions. If they believe something is acceptable, they feel free to engage in it; if people believe it is unacceptable, they refrain from it. However, the relativist goes beyond describing human decision-making and makes a stronger claim that this is how we should make decisions. This view hampers our ability to decide between competing ethical claims, such as those related to the treatment of immigrants, or issues like female genital mutilation.
The Dangers of Radical Relativism
In ethics and political philosophy, a distinction is made between descriptive and normative claims—statements about how things are versus how they should be. Harari seems to overlook this distinction. While he may believe he is solely making descriptive claims about things, a closer analysis reveals that he frequently expresses normative claims about how things should be. For instance, when he opposes radical nationalism or challenges the absolute power of tech companies and governments over data control, he makes ethical claims about what we should do and believe and how political and legal policies should align with certain principles.
However, Harari’s argument in Sapiens that ethical and political principles are mere myths and stories raises concerns. It leads to radical relativism, where no ethical, political, legal, or economic position can be substantively criticized, as they are all viewed as subjective beliefs and products of human imagination. This kind of relativism is dangerous, as it prevents the differentiation of morally repugnant positions from better ones.
Relief Efforts and Philosophical Underpinning
Harari asserts that worldwide relief efforts are usually successful in preventing the worst when calamity strikes a region. However, this statement seems unsatisfactory when considering the ongoing suffering and humanitarian crises in places like Haiti and South Sudan, where people still need aid, facing starvation and distress.
Furthermore, the entire book is marred by a significant philosophical flaw that threatens to undermine its conclusions. Harari’s contention is based on the idea that humankind is merely the result of accidental evolutionary forces, leading him to overlook any real intentionality in history. Despite acknowledging that history has a direction, he likens it to an iceberg devoid of deliberate design.
Divinity and Humanity’s History
It would be more acceptable if Harari were straightforward in stating that all his arguments rest on the assumption that humanity is without divine direction. However, he fails to do so and instead engages in what philosophers call ‘begging the question,’ assuming from the outset what he needs to prove—that humanity is entirely self-directed and lacking any connection to a divine source. As a result, many of his initial assumptions are unwarranted, relying on the grand assumption that humanity is a mere biological entity without any more profound significance or connection to a divine mind.
Harari’s emphasis on Sapiens‘ long history, violent past, and conquest of the Neanderthals does not logically negate the possibility of a divine influence that has endowed humans with the capacity to perceive right from wrong, recognize the divine in the world, and achieve greatness in art, music, and altruism, as well as perpetrate evil. The slight differences in our genetic makeup compared to our nearest relatives may reasonably suggest a form of divine intervention, as the outcomes are strikingly disproportionate, setting us apart from other beings. Observing chimpanzees and other great apes may be fascinating, but our vast differences cannot be ignored.
Strengthening Harari’s Philosophical Foundation
The criticism of Harari is not that he is making normative claims, which are essential when discussing human history. The problem lies in his apparent failure to recognize that he is making such claims in a non-relativistic manner. As a self-proclaimed philosopher, he should address this issue and present his ideas more coherently. Democratic and humanitarian normative claims are crucial in the battle against radical nationalism and authoritarianism, and to achieve this, Harari needs to improve his philosophical foundation.
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