How Yuval Noah Harari Misunderstands What Makes Us Human

About a decade ago, the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari abandoned his specialized study of the Middle Ages to write Sapiens, a brief history, from a decidedly mechanistic perspective, of the human species. He followed this with Homo Deus (published in English in 2016), in which he speculates about the human future in a coming age of artificial intelligence, genetic modification, and other technology that he believes will have fundamentally transformative effects. Examining both books, Roger Scruton notes that Harari’s contempt for religion is evident but not absolute:

Harari thinks that rights are fictions—that all moral claims are fictions. But fictions have power, he says, and this is especially true of the fictions propagated in the name of religion. Our gods perform a vital and life-enhancing function. They unite us in larger groups than families and tribes, give beauty and appeal to the sacrifices undertaken in their name, and stand watch over the rites of reproduction. By means of them, we have transformed our world from a habitat to a home. The supernatural sphere is not simply a purposeless invention; it is a byproduct of the great cognitive revolution, whereby human beings began to think and talk about things other than the objects in our immediate field of perception: absent things, past things, future things; the possible, the imaginary, the nonexistent.

Nevertheless, argues Scruton, Harari’s reductionist and deterministic approach to humanity ultimately misses what most makes us human:

Like Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and others who have defended the biological view of the human condition, Harari is troubled by the first-person case, which seems to deliver a different world from the world of scientific inquiry. . . . The obstacle that stands in the way of all biological reductionism is not consciousness but self-consciousness, the “I think” that accompanies my perceptions, as Kant put it.

This “I,” which is always subject and never object, which flits behind its own awareness and is never in its own line of sight, belongs to the “deep grammar” of the human condition. . . . There is no place where it can be captured, and no quality or condition that points to where it hides. It is the source of our freedom and the thing whose story remains always to be told, when the causal theory has been completed. It is what we are, and its absence from Harari’s narrative implies that his comprehensive biological theory is not a theory of humanity at all. It is an account of homo, without the sapiens. Harari’s world would contain only objects and no subjects.

Read more at City Journal

More about: Artifical Intelligence, Humanism, Religion, Technology

How to Save the Universities

To Peter Berkowitz, the rot in American institutions of higher learning exposed by Tuesday’s hearings resembles a disease that in its early stages was easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and now is so advanced that it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Recent analyses of these problems have now at last made it to the pages of the New York Times but are, he writes, “tardy by several decades,” and their suggested remedies woefully inadequate:

They fail to identify the chief problem. They ignore the principal obstacles to reform. They propose reforms that provide the equivalent of band-aids for gaping wounds and shattered limbs. And they overlook the mainstream media’s complicity in largely ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing repeated warnings extending back a quarter century and more—largely, but not exclusively, from conservatives—that our universities undermine the public interest by attacking free speech, eviscerating due process, and hollowing out and politicizing the curriculum.

The remedy, Berkowitz argues, would be turning universities into places that cultivate, encourage, and teach freedom of thought and speech. But doing so seems unlikely:

Having undermined respect for others and the art of listening by presiding over—or silently acquiescing in—the curtailment of dissenting speech for more than a generation, the current crop of administrators and professors seems ill-suited to fashion and implement free-speech training. Moreover, free speech is best learned not by didactic lectures and seminars but by practicing it in the reasoned consideration of competing ideas with those capable of challenging one’s assumptions and arguments. But where are the professors who can lead such conversations? Which faculty members remain capable of understanding their side of the argument because they understand the other side?

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Academia, Anti-Semitism, Freedom of Speech, Israel on campus