I wonder too about Harari’s seeming complacency on occasion, for instance about where economic progress has brought us to. Is it acceptable for him to write (on p296): ‘When calamity strikes an entire region, worldwide relief efforts are usually successful in preventing the worst. People still suffer from numerous depredations, humiliations and poverty-related illnesses but in most countries nobody is starving to death’? Tell that to the people of Haiti seven years after the earthquake with two and a half million still, according to the UN, needing humanitarian aid. Or the people of South Sudan dying of thirst and starvation as they try to reach refugee camps. There are sixty million refugees living in appalling poverty and distress at this moment. In the light of those facts, I think Harari’s comment is rather unsatisfactory.
But there is a larger philosophical fault-line running through the whole book which constantly threatens to break its conclusions in pieces. His whole contention is predicated on the idea that humankind is merely the product of accidental evolutionary forces and this means he is blind to seeing any real intentionality in history. It has direction certainly, but he believes it is the direction of an iceberg, not a ship.
This would be all right if he were straightforward in stating that all his arguments are predicated on the assumption that, as Bertrand Russell said, ‘Man is…but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms’ and utterly without significance. But instead, he does what a philosopher would call ‘begging the question’. That is, he assumes from the start what his contention requires him to prove – namely that mankind is on its own and without any sort of divine direction. Harari ought to have stated his assumed position at the start, but signally failed to do so. The result is that many of his opening remarks are just unwarranted assumptions based on that grandest of all assumptions: that humanity is cut adrift on a lonely planet, itself adrift in a drifting galaxy in a dying universe. Evidence please! – that humanity is ‘nothing but’ a biological entity and that human consciousness is not a pale (and fundamentally damaged) reflection of the divine mind.
The fact that (he says) Sapiens has been around for a long time, emerged by conquest of the Neanderthals and has a bloody and violent history has no logical connection to whether or not God made him (‘her’ for Harari) into a being capable of knowing right from wrong, perceiving God in the world and developing into Michelangelo, Mozart and Mother Teresa as well as into Nero and Hitler. To insist that such sublime or devilish beings are ‘no more than’ glorified apes is to ignore the elephant in the room: the small differences in our genetic codes are the very differences that may reasonably point to divine intervention – because the result is so shockingly disproportionate between ourselves and our nearest relatives. ) but…so near, yet so so far.
- ‘accidental genetic mutations…it was pure chance’ (p23)
- ‘no justice outside the common imagination of human beings’ (p31)
- ‘things that really exist’ (p35)
This last is such a huge leap of unwarranted faith. His concept of what ‘really exists’ seems to be ‘anything material’ but, in his opinion, nothing beyond this does ‘exist’ (his word). Actually, humans are mostly sure that immaterial things certainly exist: love, jealousy, rage, poverty, wealth, for starters. Dark matter also may make up most of the universe – it exists, we are told, but we can’t measure it.