Saturday, January 02, 2016

Sapiens, A Brief History of Humanity

"Sapiens" by Yuval Harari, is a bit more thoughtful than standard atheist rendering of the ascent of man, with even some small refreshing hints of humility. It is broad in scope, proposing to cover the story of man from pre-history up through the Cognitive Explosion, agriculture, civilizations, religion, the "Enlightenment" and on through modern times to conjectures of the possibility that our species will pass through a "Singularity" driven by genetic engineering, nanotech, cybernetics or AI that creates a "new species" more "god" than man.

Why? Well, he summarizes the tragedy of that quite well at one point (p 391):
Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan, and if the planet Earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would probably keep going about it's business as usual. As far as we can tell at this point, human subjectivity would not be missed. Hence, any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion. The other-worldly meaning medieval people found in their lives was no more deluded than the modern humanist, nationalist, and capitalist meanings of modern people's beliefs. 
The last line of the book,  ending with some trepidation of the potential amoral terror of meaningless power unleashed  is:
Is there anything more dangerous than irresponsible and dissatisfied gods who don't know what they want?
A fitting ending, but my opinion is that he does perform a useful function in pointing out that from the atheist scientific viewpoint, ALL of the religions and ideologies in world history are "imaginary" -- they have to be. This is the lament of Nietzsche as he said "God is dead" -- so Nietzsche suggested that SOMEBODY had better get down to business and form some "new myths", because the old "god myth" in his mind was dead. Fortunately, Nietzsche (and his soulmate, Hitler)  is definitely dead, so his pronouncements are at best "hollow".

I've been over this ground a few times, but it is fairly complex ground, so the fact that humans CAN'T OPERATE beyond "family, clan, tribe" exceeding orders of say 250 people tops UNLESS they have some shared believed order (he calls it "imagined order"). Religion, money, capitalism, democracy, liberalism, communism, human rights, corporations, animal rights (he likes that one, you can tell), nationalism -- they are ALL imagined (at least if you are an atheist, they HAVE to be!). This whole issue is covered well in "Dawin's Cathedral".

He asks a wonderful question on p176:
Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 10K years ago left her handprint on the wall in Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry? 
To which I'd put my tongue in cheek and add Scotch and ZZ Top. He does take the time to stumble around through the problems with "happiness" or "pleasure" as the meaning of life.
If happiness is based on feeling pleasant sensations, then in order to be happier we need to re-engineer our biochemical system. If happiness is based on feeling life is meaningful, then we need to delude ourselves more effectively. Is there a third alternative?
Both the above views share the assumption that happiness is some sort of subjective feeling (of either pleasure or meaning) and that in order to judge people's happiness, all we have to do is ask them how they feel. To many of us that seems logical because the dominant religion of our age is liberalism. Liberalism sanctifies the subjective feelings of individuals. It views these feelings as the supreme source of authority. 
He realizes the fact that "Liberalism" is the dominant religion, and he then points out the fallacy of liberalism. It will be interesting to see if he is spared from some sort of punishment from the liberal hierarchy, or if the fact that he espouses no specific alternative to the state religion gains him clemency. In one specific line he observes,  "Like Satan (who he does NOT believe in), DNA (which he does, and believes to be meaningless) uses fleeting pleasures to tempt people to place them in it's power."  For a non-sentient non-entity DNA, "uses" seems wrong ... "employs"? "infuses"? killing teleology (purpose) is much harder than killing "god", but without God, humans are the only teleological source available ... and so far, we haven't modified our DNA.

He recognizes that there is NO CHOICE but to throw the REQUIRED baby of the ability of humans to cooperate on scales much larger than 250 people out with the "bathwater" of god when you decide that "god is a myth" because certainly that means that EVERYTHING other than hard science is a "myth" (and that is at best an "inductive myth about mechanism ONLY"). It is this intellectual honesty that I find the best feature of the book. He realizes we have to have "myths" that nobody questions -- but he doesn't have any idea how that would be maintained in a truly "advanced" society that in his definition would be "pure science".

I don't completely agree with him that science is exempt from being pitched as well -- it requires a belief in universal order that is only falsifiable according to Popper, so it's "basic truth" is as fragile as the next experiment. Let's not even go into it being "imagined" just like everything else from a human consciousness that is a total mystery, and human perceptions which we are completely unable to check against some "other perception" (whatever that might be!).

He also realizes that science is completely value free -- it has no "right or wrong", it only has "correct / incorrect", "works / doesn't work".  Nuclear bombs or nuclear power are "just technology that works" -- science can say naught about which is "the good / better". It's methods explicitly deny such questions.

He does a good job in "The Prison Walls" (p112) of discussing how "The Imagined Order" is currently maintained ...  it's embedded in the material world (statues, buildings, etc), it shapes our desires (we buy into fabrications like "individualism" and they are so real we can't imagine an alternative, but most of all, it's "intersubjective") ... which he defines as follows:

Objective --  a truth that is OUT THERE" -- like gravity or radiation. Not ignorable by man. It would be there just the same if man ceased to exist.

Subjective -- meaning a truth that exists in the beliefs of one person (a child's imaginary friend)

Intersubjective -- a subjective truth shared by a group of people (money, christianity, human rights, progressivism,  communism,  global warming, ...)

So there you have it -- we are a species possibly on the brink of making ourselves into "superhuman gods", and we have no ideas of meaning, purpose, good/evil, etc beyond "myths" -- none of which the author finds to be apparently worthy of allegiance or even compelling.

He DOES come VERY close to one of my conjectures at one point, but he misses it by a smidgen (p 221), and there is a bit of irony in his pronouncement here considering his last line. Does he realize that he postulates the unleashing on the universe of something much akin to the belief that he finds "logical" about god (evil), but that nobody up to now has had the stomach for?
So monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism (Devil) explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: there is a single omnipotent god who has created the universe, and he is evil! But nobody in history has had a stomach for such a belief. 
No, there is at least another (and probably many) logical answers -- there are MANY universes and free will is at least one of the engines that causes them to "fork". God created a perfect universe with free will. If we would have followed Gods will, there would be no evil. Evil is simply using free will to do other than what God intended  -- his perfect universe still exists, and he has even sent his Son to allow our now mostly evil one to be saved, which I believe it will be, but unfortunately at the cost of those who reject that option, again using their free will. They will exist for eternity with the result of their own choice (a choice they freely made against God's will).

It's a good read -- it is ultimately depressing if you accept his view that there is no meaning and we are eventually going to be transformed into some new species of angry, confused, capricious "gods", but it does do a better job of covering the challenge of "what is the good" than many books of this type, even though it ultimately gives no answer.

Perhaps it is meant to be the story of unleashing an evil god on the universe -- the one nobody has been willing to stomach.

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