How Yuval Noah Harari Misunderstands What Makes Us Human

Aug. 27 2019

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.

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Read more at City Journal

More about: Artifical Intelligence, Humanism, Religion, Technology

Reengaging the Syrian Government Has Brought Jordan an Influx of Narcotics, but Little Stability

As Syria’s civil war drags on, and it seems increasingly unlikely that Bashar al-Assad will be overthrown, Arab states that had anathematized his regime for its brutal treatment of its own people have gradually begun to rebuild economic and diplomatic relations. There are also those who believe the West should do the same. The case of Jordan, argues Charles Lister, shows the folly of such a course of action:

Despite having been a longtime and pivotally important backer of Syria’s armed anti-Assad opposition since 2012, Jordan flipped in 2017 and 2018, eventually stepping forward to greenlight a brutal, Russian-coordinated Syrian-regime campaign against southern Syria in the summer of 2018. Amman’s reasoning for turning against Syria’s opposition was its desire for stability along its border, to create conditions amenable to refugee returns, and to rid southern Syria of Islamic State cells as well as an extensive Iranian and Hizballah presence.

As hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians were swiftly besieged and indiscriminately bombed from the ground and air, Jordan forced its yearslong Free Syrian Army partners to surrender, according to interviews I conducted with commanders at the time. In exchange, they were promised by Jordan a Russian-guaranteed reconciliation process.

Beyond the negligible benefit of resuming trade, Russia’s promise of “reconciliation” has resolutely failed. Syria’s southern province of Daraa is now arguably the most unstable region in the country, riddled with daily insurgent attacks, inter-factional strife, targeted assassinations, and more. Within that chaos, which Russia has consistently failed to resolve, not only does Iran remain in place alongside Hizballah and a network of local proxy militias but Iran and its proxies have expanded their reach and influence, commanding some 150 military facilities across southern Syria. Islamic State, too, continues to conduct sporadic attacks in the area.

Although limited drug smuggling has always existed across the Syria-Jordan border, the scale of the Syrian drug trade has exploded in the last two years. The most acute spike occurred (and has since continued) immediately after the Jordanian king Abdullah II’s decision to speak with Assad on the phone in October 2021. Since then, dozens of people have been killed in border clashes associated with the Syrian drug trade, and although Jordan had previously been a transit point toward the prime market in the Persian Gulf, it has since become a key market itself, with Captagon use in the country now described as an “epidemic,” particularly among young people and amid a 30-percent unemployment rate.

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Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Drugs, Jordan, Middle East, Syrian civil war