The most egregious naive view of Harari is his view of ethics as a prescription to do whatever feels good. But I will put off a criticism of this for later. Here I want to say something about the title of his book: Homo Deus.
I realize that he is using this title for its – let us say – shock value. But though his intent is to argue for the possibility or even probability of enhancing human characteristics, such as physical and mental powers, and even the creation of human-like machines, the title is literally a contradiction in terms. Why? Because of our conception of God and gods. [See C. D. Broad,
“The Validity of Belief in a Personal God”]
Simply put, the ancient Greeks imagined the gods to be immortal, while humans are not. [See Robert Graves,The Greek Myths]
So, the title of Harari’s book conveys the view that a mortal can become an immortal, which is impossible for the following reason. Anything with parts can be destroyed. God, as conceived in the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions has no parts, while humans do. Only two things can be said to be indestructible: ultimate parts – if there are such – as studied by quantum mechanics. And the universe, if the conservation of energy is true. And this is why for Spinoza the universe is identified with God. Consequently, neither man nor any artificial intelligence can be a Deus.
Ideas do have some power, but these are ideas which are promulgated by tradition and propaganda. But even such ideas are no match for the private ideas of a dictator who has at his disposal a sword — money, weapons, police, and soldiers.
A current example of the impotence of ideas is the worldwide protests against the Iraq War on Feb 15, 2003. Here is an article about this:
Bret Weinstein and his wife Heather Heyting after refusing to leave the campus on the controversial “Day of Absence,” resigned with a settlement with Evergreen State College in 2017. Here is a three-part documentary about the affair:
Part 1:Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying & the Evergreen Equity Council
Part 2: Teaching to Transgress
Part 3: The Hunted Individual
After watching the three videos about what happened at Evergreen State College in 2017, I have made the following judgment. Although the focus is on the dismissal of Heather Heyting and Bret Weinstein from the college, it is more like a study of how a mob is allowed to take control of a college.
What Bret Weinstein did at Evergreen by not participating on the “Day of Absence”
was equivalent to striking a match in standing conditions which caused the match to burn.
What were these standing conditions? A college is a business enterprise (corporation). It has a board of trustees, a CEO, managers, and workers. And it has a clientele — the students. Everyone who works at the college is relying on their job for a livelihood (self-preservation).
The culmination of a student mob taking over was initiated by the new President, George Bridges, who was hired in 2015. He introduced a policy statement for the college to recognizing a phenomenon called “Racism,” and a school policy formulated by an Equity Council to fight against this Racism. Part of this policy required a contractual yearly written self-evaluation of racism by each white faculty member. There was also a policy of requiring some kind of “equity” justification for hiring new teachers. This policy was voted on openly by the faculty senate. And the majority — probably out of fear for losing their jobs — voted in favor.
As events progressed, it was evident that the white faculty had to submit to the wishes of student mobs. In fact the students were allowed by the President to take control of speech. The main one was a censorship (by booing, disruption, and silencing) as based on the assumption that to criticallly examine racism is Racism. Students were also allowed by the President to take physical control of buildings to the extant that faculty were in effect hostages.
Evergreen also had a tradition of a “The Day of Absence” on which black students and faculty were encouraged not to attend the college. In 2017, this holiday was switched to asking white teachers to absent themselves from the college.
One white teacher, Bret Weinstein, refused, and held a class on this day.
A group of students — both students of color and white — confronted him outside his classroom and clamored for his dismissal. And as time progressed, it became something like a lynching mob. And the security personnel were ordered by the the President to stand down. In consequence Bret Weinstein had to go into hiding. And finally a settlement was reached with Bret Weinstein and his wife Heather Heying for their dismissal.
Comment: A school should be a place for the critical examination of everything, including the nature of what is called “racism.” And a critical discussion is not a free for all shouting. There must be some kind of procedural rules. In the case of Evergreen State College, the President made a fundamental mistake of taking an institutional stance against what he understood as “racism.” He further aggravated the situation by letting students control meetings, and not allowing security to intervene when necessary.
This breakdown of institutional control has resulted in a drop of student enrollment and the failure of the college to currently find a successor President.
In my last blog I wrote about political correctness. Here I want to reflect on the timidity of philosophers, and how they sacrifice their integrity for the sake of a job. Many years ago I wrote a piece which reflected my personal predicament of having accepted a teaching position at a women’s Catholic college. It is titled, Beware of the Handmaid Scorned, 1995. The predicament is that a fundamental problem of philosophy is whether there is a justification for any religious belief. And if one pursues this question too eagerly, one gets fired.
In secular colleges and universities, there are analogous perilous pursuits. Well, we know that in the United States there was a Red Scare, with two periods: the First Red Scare (1918-1920), followed by a Second Red Scare (1947-1957), also know as McCartyism. These Red Scares led to loss of jobs, imprisonment, and deportations.
But for a political philosopher there is a more fundamental question: Is any form of a centralized government, i.e., a State, legitimate?
A political philosopher can evade this question by simply doing a sort of literary analysis of some historical political philosopher, and refrain from giving their own considered answer. As an example of this evasion, I came across a video by Tamar Gendler,
Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, and Chair of the Philosophy Department, Yale University, whose video exemplifies this safe academic approach. Her lecture is titled: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Politics.
Both Rawls and Nozick assume the kind of liberal democracy we have in the United States, and their disagreement is over policies of such a government. Rawls is for a welfare state. Nozick is against a welfare state. But the fundamental question which was raised by Rousseau as to the legitimacy of a State is side-stepped.
Instead of beginning with Rawls or Nozick, I think it is more appropriate (though not as safe) to begin with Robert Paul Wolff’s In Defense of Anarchism (1970),
Academics — just as policeman, soldiers, politicians — will do whatever it takes to keep their jobs. If they stray, they get fired or are denied tenure, as illustrated below.
I became aware of this censorship in academia by sheer accident in 1973. I was heading towards Key West in my VW camping bus, and on the way I stopped by the University of Florida where I came across a news item that a philosopher was in court fighting his firing. I had forgotten his name, but I do remember that he was a Marxist who spoke his mind in an unvarnished fashion. I stayed to listen to the testimony of the president and others. But I did not stay to find out the outcome of these hearings. But searching the internet, I have found out that the philosopher was Kenneth A. Megill, who appealed a denial of tenure by President Stephen C. O’Connell. I found the following court ruling: Dr. Kenneth A. MEGILL, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. BOARD OF REGENTS OF the STATE OF FLORIDA et al., Defendants-Appellees.
I remember other such cases. The one that sticks in my mind was the dismissal of Saul Kripke. At the time I heard of this, I was — let us say — bewildered: Saul Kripke??? Again, scouring the internet, I found this informative piece: Israel Shenker, “Rockefeller University Hit by Storm Over Tenure,” Sept. 26, 1976. Reading the piece, I discover that a whole group of other eminent philosophers had to find employment elsewhere.
Other cases of professors being fired — the euphemism is non-reappointment — or denied tenure which come to mind, are that of Howard Zinn who was dismissed from Spelman College in 1963 for supporting student protests as an act of insubordination.
There is a short clip of me here, identified as Philosophy Teacher, Wright College, Chicago, offering my two bits :
Professor Finkelstein’s DePaul Farwell, Sept. 5. 2007:
Below is a full-documentary about Norman Finkelstein:
American Radical: The trials of Norman Finkelstein 
Ward Churchill, a tenured professor, was fired from the University of Colorado in 2007 on alleged plagiarism charges but really for claiming in an article and a book that the 9/11/2001 attack against the World Trade Center was — to use Chalmers Johnson’s CIA word — a “blowback” for the U.S. policies in the Middle East. Churchill took the wrongfull dismissal case to a court, and won; but was not reinstated. The controversial article was “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,”, Sept. 12, 2001, and the book was On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality, 2003.
Below is Megyn Kelly’s commentary and interview with Ward Churchill in 2014.
There is also the case of David Graeber whose contract was not renewed at Yale. Below is a link to an interview with Graeber about this affair.
Reflecting on my own learning experience, I do not remember learning much of anything (with exceptions) about controversial matters such as politics, religion, or ethics from listening to lectures. But I have learned more from participating in and listening to dialogues and debates.
Listening to a lecture — given either to a small audience such as in a typical classroom, or to a large audience such as in a public lecture — at best, one learns the opinions of the lecturer; but one does not learn the merits of such opinions unless they are subject to criticism by a person of at least equal competence. I, therefore, recommend that all controversial matters taught in schools be conducted by two competent persons with incompatible positions.
Historically, such an approach was dramatically illustrated by Plato’s dialogues, as well as by Aristotle in some of his writings, and more so by Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae. But these are imaginary or opinionated dialogues. What is needed is to witness real disputes.
As illustrations, let me offer the following debates available on the internet as examples.
The first one is a BBC radio debate between Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston in 1948:
The first thing that I would like to say is that his view of philosophy is too narrow or myopic. The broader view is that philosophy is really “philosophizing.” It is an activity whose goal is to resolve disputes and hopefully to come to agreements. This activity is called by Mortimer J. Adler “dialectic.” See his book: Dialectic (1927). A related approach can be called “critical philosophy,” as presented by C.D. Broad in “Critical and Speculative Philosophy,” Contemporary British Philosophy (1924): 77-100.
As with any activity, a critical discussion can be done with various degrees of proficiency. In this sense, there can be progress in the acquisition of such a proficiency.
As to solving problems, I will mention some which have been solved.
The first is the clarification that existence is not a predicate. This solution has been attributed to Kant, but there are better modern expositions. And since this matter is relevant to an argument for God’s existence, see: C. D. Broad, “The Validity of Belief in a Personal God,” Hibbert Journal 24 (1925): 32-48.
The third concerns the problem of a free will and determinism. The solution consists of reframing the problem as contrasting doing something freely with being coerced to do something. This solution is referred as “compatibilism.”
In short, there has been progress in philosophy in discarding superstitions and the cobwebs of language.
1. He takes Aristotle as a “paradigm?” philosopher. But is Aristotle a philosopher because he has scientific speculations? Aristotle, qua scientist was wrong about many things. And, Aristotle qua philosopher has also been criticised by other philosophers, and if these other philosophers are correct, then philosophical speculation has indeed advanced.
2. As an example of philosophy not having resolved any philosophical problems, he assumes that as to the question whether there is a God or not, there is no solution. Here he is wrong. The fact that there are people who disagree, what does that show? Can their reasoning be evaluated? Yes, relative to some agreed to standards, such as non-contradiction and compatibility with the findings of science. I pose to you the problem of finding fault with the reasoning of C. D. Broad, “The Validity of Belief in a Personal God,” Hibbert Journal 24 (1925): 32-48.
3. On the assumption that philosophy does not progress, he cites three philosophers who try to answer why this is so: Colin McGinn, Thomas Nagel, and James Sterba. By my lights, the assumption is wrong. But it does not exclude the intractability of some sorts of questions.
Thomas Sowell has written a book, Intellectuals and Society (2009),
which, in essence, repeats the thesis of Jose Ortega y Gasset, in his book Revolt of the Masses (1930), namely, that men of science who are experts in field X, espouse claims in field Y (in which presumably they are not experts).
As an example, this is exactly the charge which Sowell makes against Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky. He admits that they are experts in mathematical logic and linguistics, respectively, but denies that they are experts in social, economic, and political matters.
There are three possible errors in this claim. The first is that Sowell may be wrong by denying to them an expertise outside their core expertise. The second is that people may appeal to the conclusions of experts outside their own area of expertise, as do Russell and Chomsky. And, thirdly, experts disagree; so there is a need to adjudicate.
The conclusion from this reasoning should be that an intellectual should have, as C.D. Broad put it, a synoptic approach, taking into account everything relevant to what he is talking about.
So, what Sowell should be saying, or is saying, is something like the following: “Most, or many, intellectuals do not have a synoptic approach — including Russell and Chomsky; but I, Sowell, do.”
Contrary to what Sowell claims, both Russell and Chomsky have a better synoptic view than does Sowell. Why? Simply because Sowell scope of interest is in the actual state of affairs under liberal democracy and capitalism rather than in any radical alternative. Specifically, both Russell and Chomsky espouse a form of liberal socialism, about which Sowell has nothing to say. And I, for example, cite Switzerland as having a better form of democracy than that in the United States. Again, something about which Sowell has nothing to say.
But the point Sowell may be making is that there is too much bullshit coming out of the mouths of so-called intellectuals. And so, what is the remedy? Write a book such as Sowell’s exposing the bullshit. But really? Who will read his book?
The Influence of Science and Intellectuals?
Sowell exaggerates the influence of science and that of intellectuals, including his own influence. For example, Sowell has nothing to say about superstitions and religion. But, in the period of the 17th and 18th centuries, many intellectuals dismissed superstitions and religions as unworthy of belief — as incompatible with science. And recently, four intellectuals have written anti-theistic books. What impact has the Enlightenment or these authors made on the publics belief in superstition and religion?
Since Sowell constantly urges us to consult the empirical and statistical data, here are the statistics about religion: A WIN/Gallup International poll in 2015 found that 63% of the globe identified as religious, 22% as not religious, and 11% as convinced atheists. So much for the influence of science and intellectuals on popular beliefs!
Here is an interview with Thomas Sowell. Judge for yourself.
I agree with the idea of democracy as the claim that government, if moral, should be founded on the will of the people. However, Shapiro seems to use American Democracy, as if it were the paradigm of democratic government. My objection is that there are many different existing types of democratic governments, which Shapiro should have mentioned.
Shapiro mentioned Robert Dahl as being — according to him — the foremost current scholar of democracy. Because of this endorsement, I have read his book, On Democracy (1998). Dahl, in his turn, recommended looking at the freedom ranking of governments at the site:
Freedom House. What is more interesting for me is the type of governments which exist in these “free” democracies. And for that answer — by Dahl’s recommendation — we should look at the studies of Arend Lijphart, whose most important book is Patterns of Democracy (1st ed. 1999; 2d ed. 2012). [available on the Internet]
Lijphart’s main classification of democracies is into two types: Majoritarian (also known as the Westminister model) and Consensus models. For example, the United Kingdom uses majoritarian democracy; whereas Switzerland uses consensus democracy.
I am not going to get into the details except to point out two features. In England the House of Commons is elected by a principle that whichever party gets the most votes wins, and then this party chooses the Prime Minister. Whereas in Switzerland, party members are elected by proportional representation, and the four parties with the largest number of representatives nominate the 7-member Federal Council.
Arend Lijphart believes that Consensus type of democracy is preferable to the Majoritarian type.
My criticism of Ian Shapiro’s course boils down to this. He failed to tell the audience that there are different types of democracies in the world, and failed to consider which is preferable.
But that is not his only failing: i.e., the failure to differentiate and to grade democracies. Beside actual different types of democracies, there are also ideal and utopian types of democracies which are never mentioned by Shapiro. For example, Part III “Utopia” of Robert Nozick’s Anarchism, State, and Utopia points in this direction. [Contrary to Nozick, I would call his framework for utopias as the framework for anarchism] And a general description of anarchist proposals could be summarized as bottom-up federated democracies.
And without considering these alternative ideal democracies, there is no prospect for finding “the moral foundations of politics.”