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Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sapiens

Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, 2015) does what I am trying to do in these essays but in a different form. He uses a linear form which makes for a very readable story; whereas I use a more circular collection of thoughts. He is showing an arrow of time. I am trying to circle in on an insight. But we are both leading to the same point where we must, as a species reaching beyond our modern mind, make a decision about who we want to become or as he says "what we want to want."

Harari presents the history of humankind using the latest in scholarship, and especially evolutionary anthropology. He organizes his history by four revolutions: Cognitive, Agricultural, Industrial, and Scientific. The Cognitive Revolution is the unintended result of the natural selection of genes that permit homo sapiens to imagine, that is, to symbolically order the world, and thus create culture. The other three revolutions are the results of the interplay of the myths that were made and used by tribes and civilizations to support cooperation and conflict within and among them. "Despite the lack of such biological instincts, during the foraging era, hundreds of strangers were able to cooperate thanks to their shared myths."

In his story Harari is showing us some choices for the next revolution which is already thrusting beyond the modern era. Shall we call it the Second Cognitive, the Interstellar, the Empathic, the Intersubjective, or the Unified Consciousness Revolution?

In presenting his story he is attending to the myths that now run our social, economic, and political orders; and he is fashioning a new myth. Our imagined order, whose religion is "liberalism," with its themes of individual, free market, progress, community, humanism, democracy, nation state, articulated in our myths and religions, is a fiction. But it is a fiction we need so we can adopt the values and norms to organize ourselves for survival and reproduction. 

Our fictions have changed and will continue to change with our direct contact with an environment that we are affecting by patterns of behavior supported by those fictions. We are in constant design for a new myth to solve the contradictions of the previous one. "There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison."

Harari identifies three "realities": subjective, objective, and intersubjective. A phenomenon is subjective if it is only the perception of an individual, like a revelation or hallucination. Something is objective if it does not rely on the experience or categorization of humans, like radioactivity, sound waves, light particles. Something is intersubjective if its perception is shared by many. But here I quibble a bit with Harari. There is no purely subjective; for even personal experiences are shaped by social milieu. There is no purely objective; for while radioactivity, sound waves, and light particles are judged to be come from an environment distinct from the human organism, they are experienced and understood only within the affirmation of human thinking. In other words, even the subjective and the objective appear only in a social milieu. Both subjectivity and objectivity are intersubjective.

But in saying this I am merely supporting his thesis of the cognitive revolution that creates the context for the other three and the ones to come. Thinking is intersubjective. The human engagement of a world through symbolic forms is an intersubjective activity. Thus the fictions or myths of culture are a condition for the continued existence, and progress, of homo sapiens.

"After the agricultural revolution, human societies grew ever larger and more complex, while the imagined constructs sustaining the social order also became more elaborate. Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture.’" Religion, the arts, the sciences are cultural fabrications relying on myths.

And yet here is where postmodern humans have reached a point of both peril and possibility. Because we now know that our economy and polity is founded on the myths of culture, do we no longer have beliefs able to sustain us?  "A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them."

At the end of this wonderful book, Harari asks the question for which it seems neither evolution nor history have an answer.  "Science and the Industrial Revolution have given humankind superhuman powers and practically limitless energy. The social order has been completely transformed, as have politics, daily life and human psychology. But are we happier?" 

Progress? better? happier? Do these mean anything in an age without divine or natural laws, without an afterlife to reward or punish, without true essences and clear and distinct ideas? We continue this question in our next essay. 

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