#8 Transition Points in our Development
Hi. My name is Brian. Welcome to episode 8 in the podcast “Homo Deus: Humanity’s evolution from Social Institutions to World Peace.” In his book, Harari describes how advances in science are undermining the ‘facts’ that Humanism depends on. When these advances result in changes to every day technology, routine activities and economic structures, it is hard to see how Humanism will last. We will talk about some of these technological advances, such as robo-rats. In addition, given that Humanism may be in decline, we will look back to some of the previous transition points in our path of development and see if there are any lessons for today.
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Harari: The free-willed individual is a myth
[1:02] In chapter 8 of his book, Harari goes deeper on the fundamental flaw in the religion of Humanism. The main issue is Humanism depends on the existence of free will and a single self. These concepts made sense back in the 1700s humans were basically a black box and we didn’t know any better, but modern science has proven these ideas to be wrong. This is what Harari calls the ‘time bomb in the laboratory’. Humanism, like other religions, depends on moral judgements but also on certain statements of fact. And it is these facts that have been undermined by science, showing that the free-willed individual is just a fictional tale. The medieval crusader who believed God gave meaning to their wars is equally delusional as the modern liberal who believes their free choices provide meaning to their lives.
Although notion of the ‘free-willed individual’ has been disproven by science, people still go on believing in the humanist myth. For example, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and the other champions of the new scientific worldview refuse to abandon liberalism. Even after dedicating hundreds of erudite pages to deconstructing the self and the freedom of the will, they perform breathtaking intellectual somersaults that miraculously land them back in the 18th century, as if all the amazing discoveries of evolutionary biology and brain science have absolutely no bearing on ethical and political ideas. This points to an important principle — people don’t necessarily stop believing in religions even if they are disproven. It usually takes something more than proof to get people to give up their religion.
Harari: Humanism will falter as scientific insights are translated into everyday technology
[3:08] And something more is on its way. People’s adherence to Humanism will likely falter as the new scientific insights are translated into everyday technology, routine activities and economic structures. It is one thing for Humanism to be threatened by the scientific evidence that ‘there are no free individuals’. It is another thing to face a flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans. When this flood comes, Humanism is unlikely to survive.
For example, consider robo-rats. Robo-rats are laboratory rats who have electrodes inserted into the sensory and reward parts of their brains. The electrodes enable scientists to control the rats by remote control, even doing things that rats don’t normally like to do, such as jumping from extreme heights. To the best of our knowledge, the rats do not suffer in these experiments. In fact, the rats genuinely feel they are doing exactly what they want to do. When the scientist presses the button to make a rat turn left, the rat’s brain is sent a single and the rat suddenly feels a strong desire to turn left. Because we are able to manipulate the desires of rats it suggests they do not have genuine free will. Similar, but less invasive technology has been tested on humans. These tests demonstrate that the human will can be manipulated too, suggesting that humans also do not have genuine free will.
Liberal Humanism also holds that humans are individuals. And if an individual strives to get in touch with herself, she will discover a single clear and authentic voice, which is her true self. This is also a fiction. Harari sites interesting research into patients whose neural cable connecting the two hemispheres of their brain has been severed. When asked questions, these individuals will give different answers depending on which side of the brain is asked. (One side of the brain responds to verbal questions, the other to written questions.) Another line of research that has demonstrated that we don’t have a single self is research conducted in behavioural economics. It has demonstrated that we have an experiencing self and a narrating self. The experiencing self actually lives through our experiences whereas the narrating self determines the meaning of the experience afterwards. When we talk about ourselves, we most closely associate with the narrating self. These two lines of research demonstrate that the liberal individual is just a fiction. Harari gives a lot more detail on this research in his book.
Given we are about to transition out of Humanism, what can we learn from our previous transitions?
[6:34] I accept that there is no such thing as an individual and there is no free will, as conceived of by Liberal Humanism. But it is a lot to take in. It is easy for me to say ‘I agree with Harari’ but have I really internalized this reality? Have you? Liberal humanism is the religion of our day and it is difficult to really extract one’s self from it. If Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker can dedicate hundreds of erudite pages to these concepts and still end up with their beliefs in liberal humanism unchanged, I’m sure it is easy for readers of Harari to whip through his chapter saying, ‘yes, I agree with all this. Isn’t it great?’ and yet come out on the other side not really believing any of it in ways that actually affect their lives. So it is worth reading his chapter again, carefully, and really thinking about it. The only caveat Harari makes is with regards to consciousness. Science does not understand how to reconcile the latest research with the existence of consciousness. Who knows what we will find there? But whatever it is, it will not be the liberal notions of the individual and free will.
Given that Humanism is poised to fade away, like so many other religions before it, this episode is a good opportunity to get into some more detail regarding path of religious development humanity is on. If we are almost at a transition point, it would be good to look back at previous transition points for any ‘lessons to be learned’. Why was Humanism able to replace monotheism? Or Monotheism replace Polytheism? What made these religions a better basis for cooperation?
Also, as we know, technological development is proceeding at an unprecedented pace. And as established in the last chapter, religion and technology always dance a delicate tango. They push one another, depend on one another, and cannot stray too far away from one another. We can easily see the changes technology happening all around us. Religious changes are harder to see so technology is an important clue to us that religion, is changing or will change at a similar pace. This adds some urgency to our task of understanding our path of religious development.
Humanism replaced Monotheism because it is better connected to reality
[9:26] Harari says the medieval crusader and the modern liberal equally delusional? I will grant that both are delusional, but is it possible that one is slightly less deluded than the other? Going back to our ethical discussion of murder, what makes more sense? Saying that we shouldn’t murder because ‘God said so’? Or saying murder is wrong because ‘it hurts people’s feelings’? I know I have been negative on relying on human feelings, but hurt feelings at least get us closer to the point. The feelings aroused by murder often lead to violent actions. Society can’t let this get out of control if it wants to survive. To be clear, the theistic and humanist prohibitions against murder work equally well as long as everyone believes. But which one is more believable? Human feelings are grounded in a reality that we all experience every day. Whether or not God is against murder cannot easily be connected to reality. Although Humanism has its delusions, it has an advantage over Monotheism because of this connection to reality. Humanism is more believable.
Let’s look more closely at the relationship between Monotheism and the Polytheism that came before it. As you will recall from previous episodes, Homo Sapiens have practiced Polytheism since at least the Agricultural Revolution. (We could possibly consider humans polytheists all the way back to the Cognitive Revolution 70,000 years ago. But recognizing that there were significant changes in religion when humanity shifted to agriculture, we will just start our count there.) Polytheism is the belief in many gods, whereas monotheism is the belief in one god. Monotheism started with the Jews somewhere around 1000 B.C.E. and remained a small, insignificant movement until 312 C.E. when the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity. After this whenever Monotheism and Polytheism came into conflict, Monotheism prevailed. When the polytheistic Germanic tribes conquered Rome, they ended up becoming Christians. When the Polytheistic Vikings conquered England and other parts of Europe, they became Christians. When the Prophet Mohammed introduced Islam to the polytheistic Arabian Peninsula, he was able to conquer it and establish a greatly expanded civilization.
In Polytheism, the gods are the personification of our acts of communal violence
[12:25] How can we understand Polytheism? How did Homo Sapiens end up believing in many gods? And why were these beliefs effective for thousands of years? To answer this question, I would like to re-visit the myth about Python the Water Snake that we talked about in episode 2. It is a short story so let me repeat it for you here.
Python the water snake had two wives. The first knew who he was but the second wife did not know and she was not supposed to know. In the middle of the night she would wake up drenched. The first wife tried to protect her husband secret but her rival was curious and after a good deal of spying on him she discovered the truth. Then all the rivers dried up. The only water left was in the lake at the bottom in which Python had taken refuge.
When they learn from the first wife the reason for Python’s disappearance, the old men decided that a beer offering should be prepared. Divination revealed that Python desired the company of his second wife. While the men were playing the flute, the young woman entered the water carrying the beer offering in a basket. As the music grew louder, she disappeared, and the rain began to fall; the rivers filled up and the people all rejoiced
The conclusions we came to in episode two were that this community was experiencing a real crisis — a drought. It is based on a true story. To address the problem the community ‘sacrificed’ a young woman by making her walk into the lake and drown. In addition, the community had likely previously sacrificed other victims too, including her husband Python, who was at the bottom of the lake.
One thing we did not talk about is how the community’s view of the victims changes. Python has been transformed from ‘a guy in the community who happened to have two wives’ into a semi-divine water snake, who can live at the bottom of a lake. The woman who was sacrificed is still characterized as a human, but over time, as the community moves farther away from its crisis, and the story starts to sound less believable, it is likely that she too would evolve into a god. After all, if she is married to a god, shouldn’t she also be divine? After all, if her death caused the rain to start, she must be more than just a normal human. How else could the community really understand the salvation they experienced? This is how Polytheism works. The gods are the personifications of our acts of communal violence. This is why when you read through the Greek myths there is so much murder and rape.
The signature religious rite of Polytheism is sacrificing humans or animals. These religious rites are re-enactments of original more spontaneous violent acts. Both the spontaneous events and the religious rites produce cathartic effects — enabling the community to rid itself of excess violent urges by directing them at vulnerable victims.
Monotheism replaced Polytheism because it gives up belief in the false gods of our violence
[16:13] Monotheism does away with all this belief in the gods and the religious rites of sacrifice. No longer are the gods the personification of our acts of violence, and we no longer re-enact these violent events through ritualistic killings. Instead, the belief is in a Great Spirit who has created the world, sustains it and provides order to it. True, Judaism still practiced animal sacrifice in Roman times but I think this is best understood as a transition period. Everyone practiced sacrifice in Roman times. Prior to Roman times, Israel was still a polytheist society, even though some radical monotheistic ideas were being bounced around. It is only after being conquered by and exiled to Babylon that the Bible was edited into its current form and monotheism really emerged. After the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in the year 70, animal sacrifice was eliminated from Judaism. And mainstream Christianity ever incorporated it. This is what we should expect — when innovative monotheistic ideas emerge, there will be a transition period where society is a blend of both. Indeed today’s society, which is Humanist, still contains many elements of monotheism. You can see churches and mosques everywhere. And you can even find people who think we should restart the animal sacrifices. There is no clean break. But as an illustration of how much things have changed, consider how likely it is we as a society, could get a cathartic feeling from watching a young woman drown to death, accompanied by beautiful music? It just isn’t something we would be comfortable with. This is obviously a good thing. I am just bringing it up to illustrate how things have changed.
In an earlier episode we talked about how Herodotus and Thucydides were part of a polytheistic society that believed in Zeus, Hera and Hermes. Herodotus and Thucydides wrote books that greatly impacted the writing of history because of their attempt to do objective investigation and for Thucydides, discuss events in terms of natural causes, rather saying the gods made everything happen. Did these two giants of history really believe in Zeus, Hera and Hermes? The answer is yes and no. Clearly, by the way they wrote their histories, these gods were not central to all their thoughts. On the other hand, you don’t really need to be a full believer in these gods to make polytheism work. As long as you support the status quo with regards to who in society gets privilege, how society enacts violence and participate in the religious rites, that is all that is needed. There is nothing in the writings of Herodotus and Thucydides that directly challenge the polytheistic systems they were part of the way the Bible challenged Polytheism or the way Harari challenges Humanism. Herodotus and Thucydides accepted and participated in the Polytheistic religious deal of classical Greece. On the other hand, Herodotus and Thucydides’ lack of religious zeal suggests weakness in the Polytheistic religion. Perhaps its effectiveness was waning? It is hard to measure. But what is certain is that when Monotheism emerged, it was able to engender stronger belief — and Polytheism was swept away.
The general rule is we move closer to the truth at our transition points. But how far can we go?
[20:25] The general principle here is that as society develops, new religions will arise to replace older ones and the new ones will need to be more believable — and they do this by moving closer to the truth. This is not true of every religious movement that pops up of course, but it is for the ones that really catch on, and get used to organize society on a mass basis, it is. As Harari noted in an earlier chapter, our stories need to have the right blend of truth and fiction. Too much fiction and you won’t be able to compete with your more clear sighted neighbours, too little fiction and you won’t be able to inspire the masses. But in terms of our path of development, as time moves on, we need to keep on blending in a higher percentage of truth to make the stories believable.
The question is, how much closer can we get to the truth before we run out of room? Is there a point where order to be believable we need to go all the way?
- Animals control their internal violence through the dominance structure or pecking order
- Homo sapiens control their internal violence through social institutions that organize the violence through a combination of incentives, prohibitions and directing surplus violence towards ‘easy targets’.
- Under Polytheism blaming victims was straightforward — it worked and therefore we believed. But at some point we found it more difficult to believe. Both Monotheism and now Humanism reflect a significantly altered ability to blame scapegoats. How do we inflict violence on innocent victims when we believe in human rights? It is difficult, but up to now we have always found a way to squeeze it in, whether it is through racism, nationalism, the class system, etc.
But we are running out of room, and the pace of change is just accelerating. Let’s take a look at the timeline:
- Polytheism worked for Homo Sapiens for over 10,000 years, from the agricultural revolution until the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, in 312 of the common era.
- Monotheism was then in the driver seat for about 1,400 years. Note that these dates are generalizations and pertain mostly to Europe. The timelines would be different for other regions. For our purposes here it makes the most sense to focus on Europe because Humanism started there and then spread out to become, more or less, the religion of the entire world.
- Humanism has now been in the driver seat for about three hundred years. It could go on longer, but as Harari discusses in this chapter, Humanism is in trouble.
We can see here that the timelines for major religious change are condensing, consistent with our accelerating pace of technological change. This suggests an exponential pattern. So even if a convincing new religion emerges to replace Humanism and enables continued cooperation for Homo sapiens, it is not likely to last even 100 years. We are not slowly moving towards a tipping point, we are accelerating towards the tipping point.
The full truth will force us to cooperate differently. We will no longer be Homo sapiens.
[24:16] But it is more than just the math. Our approach to holding back our violence with social institutions will simply no longer work. We can see evidence of this all around us today. Social institutions always include elements of coercion and violence. Governments enact laws and then force everyone to follow them. If you don’t follow the law, you are punished. The laws determine some boundaries, but within the law each person competes for advantage. The end result is never equality; certain people end up with significant advantages. Even under Communism, which explicitly tries to eliminate competition, the issues are the same — there are still winners and losers and still lots of coercion. These types of system will always be busting at the seams with violent impulses — we will be doing well to avoid all out war, never mind solving complex problems like climate change, where extra-ordinary cooperation is required.
Therefore, it is unlikely that our future will just be ‘more of the same’. If we have a future, it will be something significantly different than the Homo sapien world we are familiar with. This is the path of religious development we are on. It leads to a dead end for Homo sapiens. Our only hope is that the door of evolutionary innovation opens up and an updated version of ourselves, with new methods of cooperation, is somehow able to go through it.
But what could a more sustainable version of Homo sapiens look like? In the last episode we talked about Sadio Mane as potential proto-type of the new humanity. Sadio is a rich footballer who uses his wealth to help others, greatly limits his indulgences and participates in a local Mosque by cleaning toilets. This behaviour could possibly be explained in terms Homo sapiens are familiar with, but it could also be a sign that something new is happening in our evolution. The behind the scenes cleaning toilets part always strikes me as behaviour particularly difficult to explain satisfactorily in Homo sapiens’ terms. If Sadio was the only example, then we could dismiss him as an anomaly. But the reality is there are many examples; both of famous people and ordinary people. These people are learning and implementing this new way of relating because they find it truly desirable. These are the innovators we need to watch and join.
The transition from being Homo sapiens to being something new will be challenging
[27:25] That being said, I acknowledge that humanity has a long way to go. It is difficult to imagine a day when we don’t need governments, police, courts, jails and armies anymore. But we need to stretch our imaginations, because governments, courts and police will not be effective for much longer.
And I would note that I am not expecting a smooth transition. We should expect Homo sapiens will be quite destructive as they lurch towards their extinction. However, as the situation becomes more and more desperate, people will be looking for answers and they will become much more open to following the path suggested by Sadio’s behaviour. We have talked about how violence is contagious — one violent act triggers subsequent acts of violence and eventually the entire community is infected. Non-violence can also be very infectious. Leaders like Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Greta Thunberg have inspired large groups of people to move in the direction of new methods of cooperation. I particularly like watching the 1982 biographical film Gandhi. He truly inspired a nation and indeed, the entire world. Sure Gandhi, and these other leaders may not have been perfect and many of their followers are inclined to translate their messages into religions that Homo Sapiens are more comfortable with. But that should be expected. What is not expected by our normal understanding of evolution is the dramatic impact they had and the lasting inspiration they continue to effect on our methods of cooperating. Yes, the door of evolutionary innovation is opening and if we are persistent, we just might be able to go through it.
Episode 8 Summary
[29:34] That’s it for episode 8. In this episode we covered some of the same data as in previous episodes. For example, we talked about Python the Water Snake, Herodotus and Thucydides and the ethics of murder again. But we combined them in new ways to learn new lessons. Let me summarize:
- Humanism is the religion that organizes modern society. It is based on the premise that each human is an individual and has free will.
- These concepts made sense back in the 1700s when we didn’t know any better, but science has now shown that individuals and free will do not exist.
- That being said, for now Humanism remains a vibrant religion. People don’t necessarily stop believing in a religion just because it has been disproven. Usually something more is required.
- And something more is on its way! A flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans is about to become part of our daily lives. Robo-rats, whose desires can be manipulated by remote control, were discussed.
- Given that Humanism may be ‘on the ropes’ we should look back to previous turning points in our path of development to see if there are any ‘lessons to be learned’.
- Humans in agricultural societies were polytheists. This lasted for over 10,000 years. In Western societies, monotheism started replacing polytheism in the year 312 when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. And Humanism started replacing monotheism in the 1700’s. What conclusions can we draw from these changes?
- Each of these religious innovations moved us closer to the truth about our own violence. And yet, each has been able to incorporate enough fiction that is it still able to support a traditional Homo sapien society. Ultimately, we will run out of room and traditional Homo sapien society, where the violence is held in check by social institutions like government, the police and the courts will no longer be possible.
- The pace of religious change is accelerating. The time between transition points is getting shorter.
- Once we reach the tipping point Homo Sapiens will go extinct. We shouldn’t expect them to go quietly though. When their approach to managing violence no longer works, we should expect that violence will run wild.
- In the midst of this chaos and destruction, the door for evolutionary change may open. Humanity continues to be inspired by individuals who demonstrated new ways of relating such as Sadio Mane, Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Greta Thunberg. In addition to the people who catch the headlines, there are many ordinary people practicing these new ways of cooperating today. By dedicated ourselves to these practices, we just might be able to go through the door of evolutionary innovation, and become the new Homo Deus.
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Episode 9 Trailer
[33:32] So please join me for the 9th episode in this podcast. In chapter 9 of his book, Harari discusses the threats posed by Artificial Intelligence including (1) eliminating employment for the majority of humanity (2) undermining our understanding of ourselves as individuals, and (3) taking over the world and wiping out humans. We will discuss these risks as well as other existential risks faced by humanity such as the eruption of a super-volcano or invasion by an alien species. With all these risks facing us, where should we focus our attention? Please join me for the next episode.
 The Girard Reader, Chapter 9 page 119. Python and his two wives: An exemplary scapegoat myth. The original version of the myth was recorded by Luc de Heusch in his Le Roi ivre ou l’origine d’etat (Gallimard, 1972, 61–62).
 323–11,000 = 11,323.785 = 1522, 1750–323 = 1,427.785 = 300, 2040–1750 = 290.785 = 86, 86.77 = 33.
Homo Deus: Humanity's Evolution from Social Institutions to World Peace
We are living in times of unprecedented technological development. Many of the tools and devices we invented 20 years…
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