I recently discovered Yuval Harari’s book, “Sapiens”, which was first published in 2014. It is an ambitious book, attempting as it does to summarise the whole history of the human race in a few hundred pages. It’s obvious in this kind of enterprise there are going to be some oversimplifications and sweeping generalisations, and that’s certainly what happens. I also thought, starting the book, that his aim was simply to describe the history of the human animal, but his ambitions are much larger than that. His book is also a history of human society and civilisation. Harari has stated that he is strongly inspired by Jared Diamond, and Diamond’s influence is visible at least to the extent that both authors agree that no question, no matter how large, is not amenable to rational enquiry.
Harari attempts to explain how Homo Sapiens has become so successful and now completely dominates planet Earth. He mentions the “Dunbar number” which is the number of people a person can know and trust: it is around a hundred. Beyond that, there has to be some other way in which people can bind together into groups. Trust is a fundamental part of our societies (a point also made in Bruce Schnieder’s books). For Harari, this trust comes from a series of shared beliefs. His point is that they are just that, beliefs, with for the most part no basis in reality. For him, almost all of the constructs at the foundations of our society are shared beliefs. For Harari, liberal humanism is just as much as a religion as, say Christianity. He goes further. What drives us as a species? One answer is that we are driven by the shared belief systems of our society or simply the pursuit of happiness. Our consensual illusion. He suggests that a future study of history should examine in detail how happy people were in past times, but at the same time reminds that this is of course, a completely arbitrary and subjective measurement. He leans heavily on Buddhist philosophy as way out of this dead-end, in particular the notion that, well, you must become aware of your feelings in order to surpass them. Well.
Rationally, it is hard to disagree with this. However, the discussion does show the hole you can dig yourself into if you decide that Humans are intrinsically not very different from other species on the planet (apart from a few important cognitive innovations which Hariri explains very well) or that the search for knowledge or belief in “progress” are also partially delusional. It seems to me that this line of thinking has led to one of the predominant problems of our time: a lack of belief in human agency and the idea that there is nothing much worth saving in our culture. Until we can change that, I don’t see how we can decide where we, as a species, want to go.
A few years ago I read John Raulston Saul’s excellent “Voltaire’s bastards”. The thesis of this book is that in the West we have fallen under the control of vast rational systems which have no underlying morality of their own. These systems allow our society to function but they function outside any moral system. The link between justice and reason has been cut, and governments use rationality as a means to justify their actions.
I couldn’t help thinking about this book after we went to see Ken Loach’s excellent new film, “I Daniel Blake”. The eponymous Daniel Blake is a honest tradesman who loses his job after a heart attack at work. Although he has a serious medical condition, his honestly leads him to falling onto the wrong side of the benefits system, and although his doctors strongly believe otherwise, he is declared “fit to work”. But he isn’t fit to work, not really. To get his benefits, he must look for work, but he is unable to accept anything he finds, because of his medical condition.
He patiently explains these contradictions to anyone who will listen in the benefits office, but to no avail. What struck me most is the constant refrain to him from various council employees (in a strong Geordie accent): “It’s not against you, like, it’s what we have to do”. It is not us, it is the system. The refrain of the last hundred years. It’s not a big leap to go from the there to consider the results of the British referendum and the American elections. The most striking aspect of these two events is the complete disregard of any opinion of “experts”. There are certainly a large number of reasons for that, but one that seems relevant here is how disconnected many people have become from the enormous systems that have become enormously important for our lives and well-being, and which just don’t care what we think.
Perhaps we could extend this thought a little further? Science has become even more incremental in the last few years. Part of the the problem is that any new theory of the Universe must also explain the last few hundred years of observations as well as any new ones. Each minuscule advance now requires an enormous amount of work. And these advances take place inside enormous systems which have been calibrated extremely finely to succeed. It is the old problem: you cannot build anything expensive and complicated unless you are certain it will work, but how in this case are you ever certain to discover something new? And behind that there is a system of thousands of people somehow trying to work together, in a system doesn’t care anything for the people inside it
The conclusion: I do want to suggest that rationality is a bad thing. Of course it is not ! But we must find a way reconnect rationality and reason to a sense of social justice. And as for science? That is for another post.