Yuval Noah Harari’s conflation (lumping together) of “common imaginations”

I have now read Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind (2014), and have watched him giving lectures and interviews. From an overarching perspective, he is a very clear writer and well informed, and reading him was a “smooth” process. However, in his reflections on human history there are intertwined different interests which left me somewhat confused as to his overarching concern, especially with the last chapters which were reflections on happiness and the prospects of various types of engineering of “sapience.”

So, as a first attempt at understanding his book, these various strands of interest should be distinguished. Here I will concern myself only with one major and fundamental confusion, which is embraced or covered over by the use of the word “fiction” and by the phrase “common imagination.”

To clear up this confusion, we must start — as does Harari — with the distinction between humans beings and animals.

Watch the following video in which Herari tries to explain this difference (as well as other topics).

Commentary: He says that the difference between humans and animals is the fact that humans can cooperate more widely than, lets say, chimpanzees. That is true. But this cooperation is possible because we humans have a “human” language which no other animal does or can have. This allows us to share information with others and to make agreements. But from this elementary truth, he quickly jumps to the idea that we tell each other stories which gain acceptance. And he calls these stories “fictions,” giving the institution of money as a prime example. But then, in the same vein of thinking, he talks about religions and their “fictions.”

This is confusing. The word “fiction” is a pejorative term which suggests that what is talked about is not real in some sense of “real.” I was similarly confused by the title of the book, Bentham’s Theory of Fictions, until I realized that Bentham was referring to abstract (non sensorial) concepts as “fictions” and reserved the term “fables” for mythological stories. Harari, unfortunately, does not make this distinction, but conflates it.

With the use of language, humans can make agreements. However, we must distinguish those agreements which make a language possible in the first place, from the kinds of agreements which we can make by the use of language. An elementary feature of language is the existence of names. An animal is able to associate a sound with some object or activity, but only a human is able to understand that the sound “water” is, let us say, a common name in a language for water.

With the working of a language, which could be described, though not happily, with Harari’s phrase as existing in a “common imagination” and as a “fiction” (= creation of the mind), different activities are possible through Speech Acts. As an antidote to what Harari writes, I urge the reader to get acquainted with what John Searle had written and lectured on Speech Acts. See:

John Searle explains how social reality is created

Searle distinguished five types of speech acts: Assertives, Expressives, Directives, Commissives, Declarations.

Harari’s confusion is explicitly present in the following summary paragraph:

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” (Sapience, p. 28)

The claim that there are or that there are not gods is an Assertive which can be true or false — no matter how many people believe it. But to make such an assertion requires possession of a language, and a language exists — so to say — in a “common imagination.” But this is simply to note that an assertion can be made only is a language, and that a language exists only in humans. But the question of whether the assertion is true or not, is independent of what anyone asserts or believes. By “common imagination,” can only mean here that a community subscribes to some assertion or claim.

As concerns the term “nation,” it is a term of classification. In one sense, classes exist outside of human classification, but humans can choose which classes to use. As I use the term, a nation is composed of all the people who use a common language and give that language a preferential status. This could be my idiosyncratic understanding, but if others agree with me, then that is the meaning of the term for us. But here we are dealing with the elementary level of what does a word mean, and not with any assertion as is done, for example, with religious beliefs. I also know that the term “nation” or “nationality” is used by others in something like a disjunctive manner: A person is a member of the nation (or nationality) N if A or B or C or . . . And various things can be put for the variables. All this shows is that the terms “nation” and “nationality,” as commonly used, are ambiguous and vague.

As to rights and laws, these are the result of implicit or explicit Declarations. And declarations are either by common agreement, or by the declaration of some authority, such as a legislature or a judge. Justice, as I conceive it, is simply the abiding by agreements.

Harari has managed to conflate all these distinctions by saying that they all depend on a “common imagination.” And this conflation is not confined to some segment of his book but pervades it.

Further commentary on Ian Shapiro’s course: “Moral Foundations of Politics”

There is much in his course that I admire, and I appreciate his summaries, and various insights. But still I have fundamental disagreements.

These disagreement are based on the fact that I have my own independent outlook which acts as a base for evaluating the views of others, including the history of political thinking of others, and views of Shapiro himself.

To begin with, I am wary of ambiguous and vague abstractions and hasty generalizations as, for example, giving a historical period names, i.e., periodizations, placing thinkers into Schools and Movements. Shapiro classifies his course into three idiosyncratic parts: Enlightenment, Anti-Enlightenment, and Democratic Theory. By doing this, he is answering his fundamental question as to the moral foundation of politics with the following general answers: (1)[Enlightenment] the moral foundations of politics are x, y, or . . . z. (2)[Anti-Enlightenment] there are no moral foundations of politics, and (3) [Democratic Theory] the best form of current politics is some form of democracy.

Furthermore, His whole course seems to be based on an idiosyncratic concept of the Enlightenment, which he says is based on two claims. The first is that science can provide foundations for morality and politics. The second is an endeavor for freedom. But the nature of this freedom is left unspecified.

Concerning the first claim. If science seeks the truth, and truth concerns what is; while morality concerns what ought to be the case and what I ought to do, and David Hume, who lived during the Enlightenment, observed that “is does not imply ought,” [as Shapiro himself point out] then at least one Enlightenment thinker did not subscribe to the claim that science can provide moral foundations for politics.

As to Shapiro’s second characteristic of the Enlightenment — as a search for freedom — suffers from ellipsis. More precisely it should be formulated as freedom from … and freedom to do …

And Shapiro could have done better in his description of the Enlightenment by citing Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” in which the whole endeavor of the Enlightenment is expressed as: critically assessing all opinions; with a call to the government for freedom for everyone to publicly express their opinions.

My blog “Escaping from bullshit,” exemplifies this Enlightenment project.

From this perspective, the Enlightenment project started in ancient Greece through the systematic use of the principle of non-contradiction. This is the principle that two contradictory claims cannot be true simultaneously. This principle was used in the Middle Ages to systematize theology. However, the period up to the 17th century was loaded with all sorts of mythologies which could not be assessed simply on the basis of non-contradiction.

But with the scientific discoveries in the 17th centuries, an additional principle was established for determining superstitions (mythologies). This extended rationality from just relying on non-contradiction to an appeal to empirical scientific claims as providing better explanations.

The other serious problem was the existence of censorship — both religious and secular. Religion persecuted heretics (which still persists in Muslim countries); while the Monarchs favored the myth of a divine right of kings, and suppressed any political criticism — again, a problem which persists even today.

However, during the 18th century one unsolved problem remained which gave succor to theology — the existence of a complex, law-regulated cosmos, especially the existence of life forms, culminating in human beings. This mystery of life and lawful complexity left room for God, for free will, and room for an immortal soul. Thus, if one was free from contradictory beliefs and from the fact that science was limited, one could be justified in being at least a Deist.

This problem of the existence of life forms was solved by the theory of evolution, with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), which ushered in an Age of Secularism or Materialism.

The achievement and progress of the Enlightenment is scholarly expressed by Andrew Dickson White’s book: A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896-7)

Propaganda and Rationality

Susan Stebbing in Chapter 7 of Thinking to Some Purpose (1939) made two important distinctions. The first was to disambiguate the concept of propaganda in the neutral sense of propagating information, of making it widely available; from the disparaging sense of propagating false information (what nowadays is sometimes referred to as “fake” news).

The other distinction which she wished to stress was between what she stipulated as “conviction” and “persuasion.” She stipulated that conviction was to be the result of reasonable arguments, whereas persuasion was the result by all other means.

In view of the fact — which Stebbing admitted — that “conviction” and “persuasion” are often used synonymously, it would be clearer to simply prefix the adjective “rational” to these terms. We way then speak of rational persuasion (or conviction), irrational persuasion (or conviction), and non-rational persuasion (or conviction).

Why have these distinctions? The idea of non-rational is to apply to the cognitive life of animals (and we are animals, after all), which includes instinct, association, and conditioning. These cognitive modes are operative as passions — including beliefs, which in humans are shaped linguistically. And there must be some kind of Weltanshauung which people acquire while being raised and living in some linguistic culture. Call it a pre-reflective ideology, if you like. It has also been called an “inherited conglomerate.” In my dissertation on Wilfrid Sellars, I called it an Alpha World, as distinct from a transformed or successor Beta World.

I am reminded here of George Santayana’s idea of “animal faith” and the idea that we must start in “medias res.” I am also reminded of Alfred North Whitehead’s point in “Science and the Modern World,” that each age has a set of presuppositions.

Now, the culture in which you find yourself may be riddled with pseudo-scientific myths, slogans, epigrams, and proverbs — which are false. And the task is to free — at least — yourself from this Platonic cave of bullshit. At the same time there are various bullshitters keeping you in (cognitive) chains.

Bullshitters — intentionally or non-intentionally — use non-rational means to persuade (convince). And — worse — through cognitive dissonance you may even be persuaded to accept that which is irrational. It is irrational to accept a contradiction.

Escape from the cave is through rationalism. I agree with Karl Popper’s description of rationalism in “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” Chapter 24:

Since the terms ‘reason’ and ‘rationalism’ are vague, it will be necessary to explain roughly the way in which they are used here. First, they are used in a wide sense; they are used to cover not only intellectual activity but also observation and experiment. It is necessary to keep this remark in mind, since ‘reason’ and ‘rationalism’ are often used in a different and more narrow sense, in opposition not to ‘irrationalism’ but to ‘empiricism’; if used in this way, rationalism extols intelligence above observation and experiment, and might therefore be better described as ‘intellectualism’. But when I speak here of ‘rationalism’, I use the word always in a sense which includes ‘empiricism’ as well as ‘intellectualism’; just as science makes use of experiments as well as of thought. Secondly, I use the word ‘rationalism’ in order to indicate, roughly, an attitude that seeks to solve as many problems as possible by an appeal to reason, i.e. to clear thought and experience, rather than by an appeal to emotions and passions. This explanation, of course, is not very satisfactory, since all terms such as ‘reason’ or ‘passion’ are vague; we do not possess ‘reason’ or ‘passions’ in the sense in which we possess certain physical organs, for example, brains or a heart, or in the sense in which we possess certain ‘faculties’, for example, the power of speaking, or of gnashing our teeth. In order therefore to be a little more precise, it may be better to explain rationalism in terms of practical attitudes or behaviour. We could then say that rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience. It is fundamentally an attitude of admitting that ‘I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth’. It is an attitude which does not lightly give up hope that by such means as argument and careful observation, people may reach some kind of agreement on many problems of importance; and that, even where their demands and their interests clash, it is often possible to argue about the various demands and proposals, and to reach — perhaps by arbitration — a compromise which, because of its equity, is acceptable to most, if not to all. In short, the rationalist attitude, or, as I may perhaps label it, the ‘attitude of reasonableness’, is very similar to the scientific attitude, to the belief that in the search for truth we need co-operation, and that, with the help of argument, we can in time attain something like objectivity.

It is of some interest to analyse this resemblance between this attitude of reasonableness and that of science more fully. In the last chapter, I tried to explain the social aspect of scientific method with the help of the fiction of a scientific Robinson Crusoe. An exactly analogous consideration can show the social character of reasonableness, as opposed to intellectual gifts, or cleverness. Reason, like language, can be said to be a product of social life. A Robinson Crusoe (marooned in early childhood) might be clever enough to master many difficult situations; but he would invent neither language nor the art of argumentation. Admittedly, we often argue with ourselves; but we are accustomed to do so only because we have learned to argue with others, and because we have learned in this way that the argument counts, rather than the person arguing. (This last consideration cannot, of course, tip the scales when we argue with ourselves.) Thus we can say that we owe our reason, like our language, to intercourse with other men.

An addition to Karl Popper’s critique of psychologism

I am going to comment on Chapter 14 of Popper’s “Open Society and Its Enemies,” titled “The Autonomy of Sociology.”

The main purpose of this chapter is to criticize the position called “psychologism.” This position is attributed to John Stuart Mill, which claims that human actions and institutions can be explained by a psychology of human nature. Popper’s position is that they cannot; that social phenomena are sui generis, i.e., autonomous. I will not rehearse his arguments, with which I agree, but introduce my own.

Consider the case of feral children, who are by assumption normal, except for lacking a human language. Watch the following video below about such children:

The video asks whether feral children are “human.” In one sense, of course, biologically, feral children are human beings. The question is really whether they are “persons,” or “human” in the way we are. By my criterion, a person is anything with which one can make agreements. And agreements are possible only with a language. So, the origin of society as we have it, is possible only with language. Subtract language from a person, and you get a feral human being.

One interest in studying feral children is to understand under what conditions learning a language is possible. And the hypothesis is that there is a critical period of early life when learning a language is possible — something like the phenomenon of imprinting. And when that window of opportunity is passed, learning a language does not occur.

The mystery is how languages originate. And the only clear fact is that language is a social phenomenon. Other than the behavior of a feral child, all other actions of human beings are imbued with language and human institutions. Thus, if Descartes were more reflective, he would have realized that his skepticism was possible only in language; specifically, the statement “I think therefore I am” is in language. He could have concluded “I think therefore I am using a language.”

Popper concludes — and I agree — that what passes for psychology [of a language using human] is imbued with sociology.

“. . . every assertion made is to be sufficiently clear and precise to be capable of being definitely disproved if false.” Curt Ducasse

“. . . condition of any progress in philosophical discussions, which is, that every assertion made be definite enough to be definitely refuted if erroneous, rather than vague enough to leave a loophole if attacked.” Curt Ducasse, Causation and the Types of Necessity, 1924, 1969

“It tends to be the fate of lucid writers that their mistakes, being obvious, are impressive; while the contents of their insights, being rendered obvious by clarity of exposition, appear trivial.” Curt Ducasse

Can one escape from bullshit?

It was while I was teaching introductory courses in logic and philosophy at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, that I got the idea that the core of philosophy has always been escaping from bullshit. Of course, philosophers almost never used the word “bullshit” — though they used something like its cognates: absurd, nonsense, ridiculous, invalid, fallacious, moonshine, etc.

Socrates — to go to the beginning of philosophy — would simply assist his companions in dialogue to note that their hypotheses led to contradictions; which meant, of course, that their hypotheses were wrong, or, in other words . . .

Now I have always been careful not to claim that one can actually escape from bullshit. I deliberately use the word “escaping,” which means that one is trying to escape — only to the extent of having plans which may or may not be realizable.

But to evaluate something as being bullshit, one has to have a knowledge of the criteria of evaluation: one has to have some facility in clarity of language (i.e., as Stuart Chase put it: to be wary of the tyranny of words), general knowledge of the state of the world (i.e., an informed Weltanschuung), and an ability — as Susan Stebbing, in step with Robert H. Thouless, said — to spot twisted and crooked thinking.

What is extremely difficult to change are bullshit political and economic institutions. The greatest immediate danger is the ecological one. The ice caps are melting and the Brazilian rainforest is burning. The UN recognizes these dangers, and is calling for a Summit, September 23, 2019, in New York.

Now, our ecological problems are directly linked to the fact of human overpopulation. More people; the need for more resources and products. The more production, the greater pollution. However, nothing is really done about this — or even discussed.

And why not? Because the world is run by capitalism which controls governments and most of the mass media, and whose only interest is profit.

So, the situation is like this. If you were a slave, how could you escape? If you were a serf, how could you escape? And if you are a proletarian, how do you escape?

Individual escape is possible, but how does one change the institutions for the benefit of all?