I liked his bold discussion about the questions of human happiness that historians and others are not asking, but was surprised by his two pages on ‘The Meaning of Life’ which I thought slightly disingenuous. ‘From a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning…Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan.’ (p438, my italics). The first sentence is fine – of course, that is true! How could it be otherwise? Science deals with how things happen, not why in terms of meaning or metaphysics. To look for metaphysical answers in the physical sciences is ridiculous – they can’t be found there. It’s like looking for a sandpit in a swimming pool. Distinguished scientists like Sir Martin Rees and John Polkinghorne, at the very forefront of their profession, understand this and have written about the separation of the two ‘magisteria’. Science is about physical facts not meaning; we look to philosophy, history, religion and ethics for that. Harari’s second sentence is a non-sequitur – an inference that does not follow from the premise. God’s ‘cosmic plan’ may well be to use the universe he has set up to create beings both on earth and beyond (in time and eternity) which are glorious beyond our wildest dreams. I rather think he has already – when I consider what Sapiens has achieved.
A curiously encouraging end
We are more powerful than ever before…Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. (p466)
Exactly! Time then for a change. Better to live in a world where we are accountable – to a just and loving God.
Harari is a brilliant writer, but one with a very decided agenda. He is excellent within his field but spreads his net too wide till some of the mesh breaks – allowing all sorts of confusing foreign bodies to pass in and out – and muddies the water. His failure to think clearly and objectively in areas outside his field will leave educated Christians unimpressed.
In fact, it was the Church – through Peter Abelard in the twelfth century– that initiated the idea that a single authority was not sufficient for the establishment of knowledge, but that disputation was required to train the mind as well as the lecture for information. This was a breakthrough in thinking that set the pattern of university life for the centuries ahead.
Fumbling the problem of evil
As the Cambridge Modern History points out about the appalling Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day in 1572 (which event Harari cites on p241) – the Paris mob would as soon kill Catholics as Protestants – and did. Oxford Professor Keith Ward points out ‘religious wars are a tiny minority of human conflicts’ in his book Is Religion Dangerous? If the Church is being cited as a negative influence, why, in a scholarly book, is its undeniably unrivalled positive influence over the last 300 years (not to mention all the previous years) not also cited? It’s simply not good history to ignore the good educational and social impact of the Church. Both sides need to feature.
Harari’s final chapters are quite brilliant in their range and depth and hugely interesting about the possible future with the advent of AI – with or without Sapiens. His rendition, however, of how biologists see the human condition is as one-sided as his treatment of earlier topics. To say that our ‘subjective well-being is not determined by external parameters’ (p432) but by ‘serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin’ is to take the behaviourist view to the exclusion of all other biochemical/psychiatric science. Recent studies have concluded that human behaviour and well-being are the result not just of the amount of serotonin etc that we have in our bodies, but that our response to external events actually alters the amount of serotonin, dopamine etc which our bodies produce. It is two-way traffic. Our choices therefore are central. The way we behave actually affects our body chemistry, as well as vice versa. Harari is averse to using the word ‘mind’ and prefers ‘brain’ but the jury is out about whethe/how these two co-exist. There is one glance at this idea on page 458: without dismissing it he allows it precisely four lines, which for such a major ‘game-changer’ to the whole argument is a deeply worrying omission.