Yuval Noah Harari's Dismal Nihilism

            Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian with a love for the long view, as in where did we, as a species, come from, the topic of his first book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014), and where we, as a species, are going, the topic of his second book, Home Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016). Of course, the latter book depends on our ability to move from the past to the future through the challenges presented by the present. Just how will get from where we have been to where we are going?

            He tackles the present in his third book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

            The topics he addresses are familiar enough.

            Artificial intelligence may well change the nature of work, yielding a transformation as significant, perhaps more so, than the industrial revolution. We need to rethink distributive justice if most of us will soon have no productive role in the economy.

            But who will decide who gets what?

            Big data is big brother’s new incarnation. But it is not the state that controls and watches, but a handful of tech companies who control our digital lives. Can we wrest control of our own lives from algorithms that discern our every mood, whim and fancy? Harari is clear – offline time is good for the soul. Count him among a growing chorus of writers who rightly fret that the “community” created by social media is more malevolent than not.

            “Facebook’s crucial test,” he writes, “will come when an engineer invents a new tool that causes people to spend less time buying stuff online and more time in meaningful opportunities with friends. Will Facebook adopt or suppress such a tool?”

            I think we know the answer. Facebook is a vortex, drawing ever more into its web; what incentive will it have to loosen its grip on the automatons it mines for data and revenue. Social media is rapidly becoming the metric of social control in China, where algorithms yield citizenship scores for citizens. Good scores yield preferred access to life’s good things. Score low enough and then what – no food?

            But Harari is no Cassandra. The end isn’t near, he wants to believe; we have choices to make and we can choose a better future. He wants us to learn to “keep our fears under control and be a bit more humble about our views.”

            That sounds like a defense of some form of pluralism, the view that there are multiple, and sometimes conflicting, visions of the good life all entitled to equal respect and regard. Pluralism makes modesty and circumspection into virtues.

            But why is that? If my vision of the good is, in fact, the truth, then ought I not defend the truth against those whose vision of the good, true and beautiful is inconsistent with mine? Is tolerance over-rated, diversity oversold?

            Buried within pluralism is the unstated assumption that tolerance and diversity will yield, in time, a vision of the good that all people of good will can, should and will embrace. I am to be tolerated as I express my parochial vision of the truth on the expectation that as I outgrow it, I will embrace a more universal vision of the truth. Hidden in pluralism is the monistic belief that the truth can be found, given enough time, effort and good will.

            Biography, national history, to the pluralist, is a chapter in universal history, the story Harari is anxious to tell, the tale of a species that developed consciousness, then civilizations, then theories of mind, then shared methods of arriving at, well, what exactly?

            The future? Globalism’s empty dream? Human rights for all, everywhere and all at once?

            Pluralism is in crisis just now. Harari knows it.

            We’ve come to value diversity for diversity’s sake and now the only good worthy of recognition is tolerance of difference. But does that mean that all lives matter? To put the question in that way highlights the difficulty of the question. Of course, all lives matter, in theory – everyone is entitled to equal respect, right?  But that does not mean that all lifestyles, all cultures, all attitudes toward life, are of equal utility – if you believed that, you’d go for health care to a witch doctor, not a medical doctor.

            Harari treads on dangerous grounds when his discussion reaches the level of what makes social cooperation possible. “Religions, rites, and rituals will remain important as long as the power of humankind rests on mass cooperation and as long as mass cooperation rests on belief in shared fictions.”

            Our fictions divide us into warring tribes at a time in which we face global challenges. Are there global fictions that can sustain us? Candidly, I doubt it.

            Harari’s discussion of fictions is thin. I think what he means is that cultural myths, let’s say the wisdom of the founders of this nation, sustain growth of communities: So long as they are believed as felt necessities – truths, if you will – they unite those in their thrall. But what if they are no longer recognized as necessary truths, but are seen to be time-worn contingencies? Then they no longer serve the need for truth; the ideals that once we thought worth dying for become fictions that can be taken or left. Many are the churchgoers who regard church teaching as on par with a fairy tale.

            Conflicting visions of the good prompt conflict. This is what makes immigration such a hot topic. Harari is clear sighted on immigration debates, breaking the basics down into simple terms. He notes three basic terms:

            “Term 1: The host country allows the immigrants in.

            “Term 2: In return, the immigrants must embrace at least the core norms and          values of the host country, even if that means giving up some of their        traditional norms and values.

            “Term 3: If the immigrants assimilate to a sufficient degree, over time they    become equal and full members of the host country. `They’ become `us.’”

            No one dares any longer to talk about the duty of immigrants to assimilate to the norms of their host. Today the host must yield, and accommodate difference. Immigrants aren’t welcome arrivals hoping to adapt to the norms of their host; the burden is on the host to adjust. It is a remarkable transformation borne of the collapse of pluralism.

            Harari senses this is a problem but lacks the vocabulary to describe it. Instead, he tip-toes around the perimeter of the problem.

            “At present,” he writes, “it is far from clear whether Europe [one might say North America, as well] can find a middle path that will enable it to keep its gates open to strangers without being destabilized by people who don’t share its values.”    

If we can’t find a middle path, an ability to declare that some ways of life are better than others, then we may not make it to the future, Harari suggests.

            I read with anticipation. What is the solution? What does Harari suggest?

            In the end, nothing.  After this sweeping review of the century’s challenges, Harari retreats to autobiography and discusses how meditation helps him cope with a world in flux. Mindfulness matters, he tells us; it defangs the terrors of the day.

            I suppose that’s true. But mindfulness is simply a way of making nihilism tolerable. I suspect Dostoevsky was mindful in the moments before he thought he was about to be executed. Are the answers to life’s larger questions mere fictions? Be mindful of the value of the moment. Is the world’s climate soon to become inhospitable? Be mindful. The stranger at your door demanding recognition of a way of life foreign to your fictions of preference? Mindfulness, mind you.

            It was a disappointing finish to an otherwise clear-sighted book.

            I’m not saying Harari is wrong. Perhaps the species has run its course, and there is no there, there. All is fiction save the naked lust to survive. And in a world in which appetite is destiny all we can do is know our tastes.

            If that’s all there is, we’d have never come so far as a species.

            Harari’s dismal nihilism is a counsel of despair. I want better answers. I suspect most of us do.

Comments: (2)

  • Nice piece to read!
    Nice piece to read! "We’ve come to value diversity for diversity’s sake" - Not me and is why I'm hated by people who were assumed to be friend's and by the public at large. They decided Identity trumps all. Nothing more than them getting to play victim and trying to get an advantage on others and taking from others.
    Posted on February 19, 2019 at 2:50 pm by EJM
  • Nice analysis
    I liked your post a lot. In particular, the thing about his 3 terms for immigrants struck me. Indeed following Harari's philosophies is a recipe for nihilism and despair. When you say "If that's all there is, we'd never come so far as a species", I am reminded of his thoughts about capitalism, and how it holds the idea of progress to be its greatest virtue. I find it ironic that the dispute to nihilistic explanation seems to come from such a mainstream ideology.
    Posted on March 2, 2021 at 6:39 pm by Josef Lazar

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