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A Fatal Inconsistency in the Work of Yuval Noah Harari

Campus Week: The bestselling historian, philosopher, and darling of Silicon Valley is missing something about our scholarly search for truth

by
Shawn Vandor
September 14, 2020
Kristof Van Accomb/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images
Yuval HarariKristof Van Accomb/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images
Kristof Van Accomb/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images
Yuval HarariKristof Van Accomb/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images

In a November 2018 New York Times article, bestselling historian Yuval Noah Harari was asked why he thinks Silicon Valley is so enamored with his work when much of his writing seems critical of nearly everything they stand for. His answer? “One possibility is that my message is not threatening to them, and so they embrace it? For me, that’s more worrying. Maybe I’m missing something?”

The exchange has stuck with me. The unspoken supposition here is that if a world-renowned scholar such as Harari is not ruffling the feathers of the Bezos, Zuckerberg, Gates variety, then his ideas are probably not very good. After all, philosophy and capital aren’t supposed to so comfortably align, are they? Or is that just an obsolete notion, inherited from a now-obsolete world?

The answer to this question cuts directly to a key hypothesis animating Harari’s popular trilogy: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015), Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017), and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018)—that we are now living in a new epoch, the rules of which are unknown except for the fact that all of our traditional modes of truth-rendering are dead and gone and therefore of no relevance whatsoever. What we need now, Harari suggests, are new myths, better stories to tell ourselves in order to believe, once again, in a new metanarrative of our own choosing.

If you accept Harari’s thesis—that we live in a new paradigm, the quality and composition of which resembles nothing we’ve ever previously encountered—then one is tempted to accept the possibility that maybe we do live in an all-new moment in which Silicon Valley’s love of Harari is, in fact, a sign of Harari’s rightness and, by extension, their own.

When Harari wonders aloud, “Maybe I’m missing something?” I think he’s right.

He is missing something. And that something is just as interesting, if not more so, than anything he’s written.

About halfway through a 2016 Intelligence Squared event in London, Yuval Harari and his interlocutor, BBC Economics Editor Kamal Ahmed, took questions from the audience. The talk was part of a promotional tour Harari was doing for his then-new book Homo Deus. The two men had just concluded a conversation covering many of the heady themes Harari addresses in the book: the future of human nature, the threats and possibilities posed by information technology and biotechnology, and the coming integration of the two, among others. At the 52-minute mark of the YouTube clip “Yuval Noah Harari on the Rise of Homo Deus,” Ahmed says, “There’s a lady right down here.” The mic is passed to a 50-, possibly 60-ish-year-old woman with short, sandy colored hair and round pink earrings.

She asked the following question: “When you say computers will know us better than we know ourselves, I’ve just been reviewing your book, which is brilliant, but there is one fatal inconsistency, I think. What sort of knowing do you mean? It’s only a metaphorical knowing. You’ve said yourself in that book—you’ve been so much cleverer than Dennett in the way that you’ve said we can discard the soul but we can’t discard the mind. The mind isn’t a collection of things, like a traffic jam is a collection of cars. There’s something over and above, like in Godel’s theorem; there’s something over and above the neural bits and pieces. And you’ve also said the whole point of testing laboratory rats for antidepressants is not to see what they do, but surmising how they feel and extrapolating from that how human beings feel. So, in which case, that is discordant with the fact that you’re talking about computers knowing, Amazon knowing. It’s not knowing. You know yourself that it’s not knowing.”

Every time I watch this clip, I expect the crowd to erupt in a rousing standing ovation for this woman and her profound, and profoundly relevant, question. I feel like standing and cheering anyway. She comes at Harari full force, this unnamed woman, and you can see it on his face: He knows that she’s on to something. The whole audience knows it. You can feel the energy shift in the auditorium. Just as Harari’s about to get away with his sweeping, not-unlikable, seemingly authoritative declarations about the meaning of history, the meaning of meaning, and what exactly the future holds in store for us—this woman stands up and, in true democratic fashion, throws a monkey wrench into his whole quasi-prophecy.

To be clear: The only thing Harari is trying to get away with is three very readable, thought-provoking, often humorous books about the history (Sapiens), future (Homo Deus), and present of our species (21 Lessons). I don’t mean to suggest that Harari’s sneakily trying to get away with something illicit. But, in a way, he is. And this woman put her finger right on it: There’s more than one kind of knowledge.

I didn’t start paying attention to Harari’s work until the fall of 2018. I began by watching a dozen or so YouTube conversations, including the above-mentioned Intelligence Squared event. In my initial viewings, I found Harari both compelling and annoying: compelling because he brings serious attention to often overlooked topics such as the ethics of biotechnology, which I also find to be critically important; annoying because he seems to peddle in the same postmodern games we’ve been fooling ourselves with for a generation or more now, claiming, on the one hand, nothing really matters, humans are just apes, traditional stories are nothing but “myths,” and myths are just an ancient form of “fake news”—all the while asserting his own authority in narrating his own all-new anti-metanarrative metanarratives. He’s like a car salesman who’s convinced you that cars don’t really matter, they’re just figments of our imagination. And by the way, he’d like to sell you a new car.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Harari offers a grand metanarrative for people who A) have an aversion to metanarratives, and who B) don’t know enough to know how or why some metanarratives are more meaningful than others. The sleight-of-hand is disingenuous: Harari asserts himself as a timeless, placeless objective observer without bias, while at the same time asserting a fairly unexamined, particularistic, subjective perspective regarding truth, the world, and the truth of the world, in which expertise, objectivity, and data are given a priori privilege over imagination, subjectivity, and creativity.

Socrates famously had a similar notion of the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, between the real and the imagined, from which he constructed his, Socrates’, view of the world, never quite realizing that in articulating truth in the particular way that he did, he utilized his very own imaginative, creative, fiction-making abilities. He simply thought he was speaking the truth. How quaint! How darling! How illusory and self-defeating!

The knowledge that Harari so aggressively asserts throughout his work—such as the oft-repeated claim that artificial intelligence will soon “know us better than we know ourselves”—is the knowledge-as-power variety derived from the ancient Greek philosophical tradition. This tradition is an invaluable, co-seed of Western civilization and all of its (and our) ever-emanating values and achievements. But it’s not the only tradition. There is another kind of knowledge, another way of perceiving and articulating truth. I’m talking about the intersubjective morality of suffering as derived from Hebrew monotheism. There is no amount of scientific data, for example, that can prove the absolute, undeniable necessity of, for example, sympathy, empathy, and love. Yet we know the importance of these things, simply by living in relationship with one another and with ourselves. And we are inheritors of a tradition as old, if not older, than Greek philosophy, that has safeguarded these truths for us, whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not.

Despite the persistence of these and other nonfactual truths, we seem bent on convincing ourselves and one another (and not for the first time) that we have, finally, at long last, progressed beyond the need for faith and all nonobjectively derived facts. We’ve convinced ourselves that we are now living in an all-new, never-seen-before paradigm, as Harari breathlessly repeats throughout his writings, in which the objective knowledge derived from big data is the only truth there is and nothing else matters. So, don’t even bother glimpsing at your Torah or your Sophocles or your Kierkegaard, because they have precisely nothing to teach us.

Is it any wonder Silicon Valley loves Harari so? Harari’s narrative that we are now living at ground zero of a new reality in which our recorded past is no longer meaningfully relevant must be music to their ears. Big tech is not enamored of the Western humanist tradition. If it was, its creators would actually have to slow down, or maybe even stop, and think about the moral-ethical—i.e., human—repercussions of what they’re doing.

Silicon Valley may occasionally pay lip service to our shared, traditional values—but slowing down or stopping to reflect historically, philosophically, or theologically is antithetical to their core values of speed, disruption, innovation, and profit. So, when Harari, a clearly very intelligent, Oxford-trained intellectual comes along (it doesn’t hurt that he’s Jewish) and articulates a narrative of the world that supports and underwrites their almost-Heideggerian self-understanding and absolute assertion to truth, it’s one of the best things that could happen to them. He provides tech with “traditional” humanistic cover, acting as intellectual imprimatur, legitimizing what is essentially the biggest, fastest, most well-funded experiment on human culture and its values in the history of the world.

Human beings like to think we’re in control. We like to think that radical uncertainty is not so radical. After all, if we acknowledge our fundamental doubt and uncertainty then we’re not far off from having to acknowledge the role that faith plays even now in our formation of scientifically derived truths.

I know what you’re thinking: What does Nietzsche have to say about all this? In section 344 from The Gay Science (1882), titled, “How we, too, are still pious,” Nietzsche writes: “it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests—that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is truth, that truth is divine.” I’m not sure you could articulate it any better today, which means that we’ve been circling ourselves, and our relationship with truth, and the meaning of truth, for quite some time now. Maybe we always will. Maybe it’s not a solvable problem. Maybe it’s not even a problem.

But to assert, as Harari does, that we Homo sapiens (who are really just animals anyway) have entered an all-new world, transmitting all-new truths, with all-new values and meanings, is to keep the veil lifted a little longer, so that we see only what is powerful and triumphant about us, and all that is vulnerable and uncertain is shielded from view.

Returning to the unnamed audience member who asked Harari: “What sort of knowing do you mean?” She’s right when she says his books are brilliant. They are. And I’m glad they exist. The fact that he’s reasserting the humanities back onto the sciences—and, in particular, onto artificial intelligence and biotechnology—is incredibly important. More people should be doing this.

Yet I’ve been struck, watching Harari speak at various elite global institutions on YouTube—many of which are tech or economics related—by the reverential way many of the hosts and audience members look at him. Sure, Harari’s smart. But it’s like these people haven’t spoken to anyone outside of their narrow field of expertise in decades; it’s like they forgot the humanities existed.

So, much credit is due to Harari for translating his work as a historian to other fields of knowledge. It’s not easy to do. But the cost is often oversimplification, in which vital nuance and detail gets lost. So, when Harari asks rhetorically, “Maybe I’m missing something?” I couldn’t agree more. Aren’t we all?

Shawn Vandor has written extensively on the ethics of donor insemination, Judaism, and other topics. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Southern California.

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