How Yuval Noah Harari Misunderstands What Makes Us Human

August 27, 2019 | Roger Scruton
About the author:

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 on City Journal: