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Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind



I am not happy with this book.

In Chapter 2 of this book, "The Tree of Knowledge," the author discusses the "fictions" that hold us together as societies and cultures and enabled us to dominate our world, the most successful of all vertebrates. (Let's not go into the matter of rats, the inevitable outriders of civilization, able to establish huge colonies right under our cities, thriving on the detritus and forgotten storehouses of our world.) Yes, we do refer to binding contracts, the names of countries, and various legal rituals as "legal fictions<" but anything that can cause massive chances in our lives and the lives of other forms of life that exist all around us the way towns, cities, nations, map grids, last wills and testaments, etc. can are as real as earthquakes, droughts, massive population movements, and anything else in the human world (and beyond). The author tells us that gods and spirits don't exist, though they are useful fictions that bind us together as societies, as well, even though most Magickians, sorcerers, witches, priests, and others wielding Magickal power and/or representing whole religious communities honestly believe in such things. It never occurs to him to ask why they do, nor why attorneys believe in laws and legal systems. Beliefs are founded on what works, and what works either references real things or draws on them to create their own reality, and those who traffic in beliefs are generally no fools, not psychotic, but able practitioners of their own Arts and Sciences.

But there's an even deeper issue. All the things the author labels "fictions" are information. True, what information is, what it means and what it implies, are non-physical entities. Encoded in matter and energy, information is neither -- and yet it determines the course of human history and, indeed, life itself, of whatever kind, wherever it may be found. Apparently biological reality believes that information is real; all biological entities are encoded in biochemical "blueprints" such as DNA, RNA, or more exotic molecules, the information in which determines the course of development in each living being, its reproductive behavior, and all the other things that enable it to survive and pass on its genes. Yes, genetic information is nothing but patterns found in certain types of molecules -- but without it, there would be no life, and no us.

The sort of reductionist thinking that the author engages in closely resembles the grand folly of neo-Skinnerianism. B. F. Skinner, the founder of behaviorist psychology, decided that since you cannot weigh or measure the mind, the mind itself cannot be a true scientific subject, but behavior, which can be recorded and analyzed through objective means, can be. All right, as far as it goes. But then along came the neo-Skinnerians who, acknowledging that you can't weight and measure the mind, have decided that therefore the mind does not exist. (I asked my friend Fred, who was taking a survey course of all the psychological disciplines during his senior year and had learned this from the course, how the hell the neo-Skinnerians came to such an asinine conclusion. Shrugging broadly, Fred said, "Introspection?" Yes.) Similarly, the things that author Harari tells us are "fictions" sure are unusual forms of things that supposedly don't exist: they are information, not energy as such, not matter as such, but real in their own way and encoded in matter-energy media. They are not "real," because their reality does not exist in and of themselves, but rather in how we or other supposedly real entities experience and interpret them; they range from the nucleic acids that encode the genes to the characteristics of matter and energy that cause things around them to behave certain ways in response to them, to the millions or billions of documents and books printed up and published every year, to what we see on our computer screens (arrangements of colors and patterns encoded electronically and painted onto our screens due to the actions of our computers), to the behavior of the brain and other major organs in response to the information encoded in chemicals, physical impacts, and sound waves and printed missives created by other human beings, and so on and on.

Above all, if Harari is right, the mind itself doesn't exist, but is instead a plausible fiction -- i.e., a lying idea -- that we decided to believe in because it's convenient. And the same is true of everything the mind is involved in -- language, the processing of sensory input, decisions about what to do about stimuli coming into the mind from outside, and so on. We have no way to know objectively whether anything exists beyond the confines of our individual skulls -- but that doesn't keeps us from living our lives and making decisions as if it does.

No, I don't think Harari realized that that is what his arguments about human "fictions" come down to. But simply put, in a commendable effort to simplify certain aspects of human reality for the sake of making his arguments more understandable to the reader, he has opened the door to the sort of monster that can reduce all arguments, analysis, and thought to so many ideational matchsticks in the wind.

Needless to say, as bugged by the second chapter of Sapiens as I obviously am, I am not going to wade through the rest of it. I will leave that to braver and more enterprising explorers of the philosophical universe. Wish I could do more, but now I have this headache, because of which I will now bow out of the task of reading this tome and get on with other things.

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