Problems for Humanity: the views of Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah Harari is author of Sapiens (2014), Homo Deus (2016), and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018).

Nationalism vs. globalism: the new political divide

I have watched a few talks and interviews with Yuval Harari, and at this point I will say that what he says is partly true, but also misleading. I will mention some things which struck me as misleading. His general view of history from the point of view of “authority” is given as a three part progression. First, man finds authority in external gods. Second, man shifts authority to himself (he calls this humanism). Third, we are moving in the direction of giving authority to computer algorithms. This is misleading. Why? Because when we moved away from religious superstitions, we did not replace this with a criterion — which he says we use — of how we “feel.” No, we moved to science, using the criteria of logic and testing. The use of computers is a further extension of the use of science. But he is right that computers and artificial intelligence in the form of expert system are being used more extensively.

Another misleading matter was how he referred to such things as “nations” as “fictions.” This is misleading. Jeremy Bentham also used the word “fiction” to refer to such abstract entities as “nations” and “justice.” But this use of the word “fiction” is not the same as when we talk about “science fiction.” For the creatures of mythology and science fiction, Bentham used the word “fable.” And fictions, in this sense, are not fables. One should consult John Searle on this matter. These so-called fictions are, according to Searle, institutional facts. [Look here]

The other thing that struck me about Harari was his claim that free will does not exist. Again this is a misleading claim. In our ordinary way of talking, we contrast those occasions when someone did something without being compelled to do it and when he was compelled to do something. For example, you are mugged and are forced to surrender your wallet. We will say that you did not do this of your free will. But if you did so without compulsion of any sort, we would say that you did it freely — out of a free will. What Harari is after is the question: did you have any choice in having the desires that you have. But that is another, and different matter.

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