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Materialistic Dogmas and Bad Conclusions

Yuval Noah Harari: What explains the rise of humans?

St. Thomas Aquinas, citing Aristotle, once wrote: “a small error at the outset can lead to great errors in the final conclusions.” What he means is that given the nature of reason, if any one of your premises is mistaken, no matter how trivial it may seem to your overall project, your conclusions may turn out to be wrong, very wrong.

A great example of what St. Thomas means can be found in a TED talk by Professor Yuval Noah Harari. In “What Explains the Rise of Humans?”, Harari argues that the homo sapiens' dominance of the earth is best explained by the human imagination’s ability to construct certain “stories” about “fictional entities” that provide the means by which we can, in large numbers, cooperate with one another. Among these fictional entities are God, human rights, and the value of paper money.

Watch the short 17-minute talk below:

Although Professor Harari is an engaging speaker and his talk rhetorically attractive, the philosophical credentials of his theory left me with more questions than the theory has the resources to answer.

Let’s begin by asking this question: How does Professor Harari know that these “stories” about the divine, natural rights, and a nation’s currency are “fictions”? He does not say. All he does is assume that the correct account of reality is materialism, the belief that the only things that are “real” are those physical things that are subject to quantifiable measure.

As he says about the nature of human rights:

Human rights, just like God and heaven, are just a story that we’ve invented. They are not an objective reality; they are not some biological effect about Homo sapiens. Take a human being, cut him open, look inside, you will find the heart, the kidneys, neurons, hormones, DNA, but you won’t find any rights. The only place you find rights are in the stories that we have invented and spread around over the last few centuries. They may be very positive stories, very good stories, but they’re still just fictional stories that we’ve invented.

So it turns out that because human rights (not to mention, God) cannot be detected by the instruments and methods of the natural sciences, they are not part of “objective reality.” But like the country singer Johnny Lee, who once sang of his vain search for love in “single bars” and with “good time lovers,” Professor Harari is looking for rights in all the wrong places. He is, as the philosopher Edward Feser puts it, like “the drunk who insists on looking for his lost car keys under the lamp post, on the grounds that that is the only place where there is enough light by which to see them.”

Where then should we “look” for rights? We need not go further than Professor Harari’s own lecture. By offering an account of the rise of humans that he believes is correct, he is implying that those who disagree with this account are mistaken. Assuming that the purpose of argument, as well as the use of evidence in support of an explanation, is to arrive at the truth or something approximating the truth, it follows that the mistaken person has no right to claim that he is correct.

It also follows from this that a person who ignores evidence, good reasoning, and thoughtful reflection, while embracing wishful thinking, fallacious reasoning, and thoughtless meandering, is wronging himself. Yet to make such a judgment one must know the ends to which the human person is ordered.

But such ends, or final causes, cannot be detected by the instruments and methods of the natural sciences. If you cut open a human being, as Professor Harari would put it, you cannot see the goods to which the person is ordered. If that is what makes such goods not part of “objective reality,” however, then the practitioners of the scientific enterprise itself are bereft of any grounds by which to condemn ignorance and extol wisdom, two judgments whose veracity depends on the “fictional story” of an immaterial reality, a human being’s form. After all, you cannot know that a being comes up short in the use of any of its natural powers unless you first know the sort of thing that it is. Thus, we say a blind person lacks sight while a sightless stone lacks nothing.

The laws of logic are also central to the scientific enterprise. That is, in order to engage in a scientific inquiry one should reason well, which means that one should not violate the laws of logic. But the laws of logic are not material entities that one can find by cutting anything open, let alone a human being. In fact, the relationships between an argument’s premises and terms are logical, not spatial, which means that they are not physical objects. Consider a valid argument form, modus ponens:

If P, then Q
P
Therefore Q

This is a valid form, not because the two premises somehow together physically cause the conclusion, as a cue ball moves the 8-ball when they touch. Rather, as a matter of logical necessity, the conclusion is entailed by the premises.

That relationship is not physical, though it seems just as real and part of “objective reality” as the relationship between the two billiard balls or what one sees when one cuts open a human being. So, we have yet another reason to reject Professor Harari’s materialism.

Here’s the point: if someone offers a theory of reality that excludes what seems to be obviously true, it’s probably a good idea to be skeptical of the theory rather than to doubt common sense. For it is, ironically, our common sense—what we pre-reflectively believe about the good, the true, and the beautiful—that makes theory-making, even bad theory-making, possible.
 
 
Thus column first appeared on the website The Catholic Thing (www.thecatholicthing.org). Copyright 2015. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
 
 
(Image credit: TED)

Dr. Francis J. Beckwith

Written by

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, where he also serves as Associate Director of the Graduate Program in Philosophy. Among his many books is Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft (InterVarsity Press, 2010).

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  • David Hardy

    Let’s begin by asking this question: How does Professor Harari know that these “stories” about the divine, natural rights, and a nation’s currency are “fictions”?

    While I would prefer the term narratives to fictions, Professor Harari appears to be stating that the origins of these stories are in the minds of people. We did not discover them in the same was as we came across natural features, but rather formed them through communicating about the meaning of our experiences. It does not necessarily mean they do not have an objective basis, only that the only basis we have observed is that these ideas are constructed.

    By offering an account of the rise of humans that he believes is correct, he is implying that those who disagree with this account are mistaken. Assuming that the purpose of argument, as well as the use of evidence in support of an explanation, is to arrive at the truth or something approximating the truth, it follows that the mistaken person has no right to claim that he is
    correct.

    Not true. The fact that the idea of human rights may be a narrative does not invalidate it. An idea can be judged by how well it reflects reality, or by its utility. Human rights are vital to maintaining society and positive social interactions, and by this utility it is valid. By extension, while a person may have no objective right to claim to be correct or incorrect, allowing for dialogue can promote understanding, making it a valuable right. Professor Harari seems to hold that many of these ideas are valuable, but because they are not objective, it is vital to actively maintain them, since we cannot take for granted that they would endure otherwise.

    It also follows from this that a person who ignores evidence, good reasoning, and thoughtful reflection, while embracing wishful thinking, fallacious reasoning, and thoughtless meandering, is wronging himself. Yet to make such a judgment one must know the ends to which the human person is ordered.

    No, one must only determine if the effects are harmful. Optimism, for example, is a state of mind that often involves ignoring some evidence that indicates things might not turn out well, reasoning in a way that may not be fully accurate, and reflecting more on the good than the bad. Yet many optimists thrive by this mindset.

    Personally, I have found that the foundation of human behavior is found in instincts, which are encoded in DNA and expressed in our biological structure. We have instincts to pursue certain things, like food, drink, stable social relationships, and so forth, while also avoiding pain, neglect and a breakdown of relationships. Ideas, including ideas of human rights, God, and money, can assist in more successfully satisfying these instincts, and here is the utility. As a final thought, Professor Harari appears to be indicating that human intellect and our social nature together explain our ability to overcome environmental barriers and thrive. This appears to be the case, since social societies have allowed for specialization, which has promoted the development of technology, which has helped humanity to thrive.

    • Mike

      is a "homophobic" instinct "encoded in (our) DNA"?

      • David Hardy

        I am not sure what you mean. Homophobia has culture specific influences. More generally, sexual orientation, like ethnicity, cultural background or religion, may become the focus of fear and distrust due to the inclination to form in-groups and out-groups, which is an innate instinct that appears to have both genetic and environmental influences.

        • Mike

          You said that morality is based on instincts and homophobia according to many atheists is very very prevalent in western society indeed everywhere on earth so i was just wondering if you thought that homophobia had a genetic basis.

          see why would certain cultures exhibit it in the first place if it wasn't genetic?

          • David Hardy

            homophobia according to many atheists is very very prevalent in western society indeed everywhere on earth

            Regardless of their religious or non-religious perspective, anyone claiming homophobia to be universal in all cultures is mistaken.

            why would certain cultures exhibit it in the first place if it wasn't genetic?

            Because many patterns of thought and behavior exist that are only genetically based in the most general way. Genetics usually does not determine specific behaviors, but rather sets general boundaries and inclinations for behavior. Specific behaviors are almost always shaped as much by environment as by genetics. Forming in-groups and out-groups is an inclination based in genetics. The specific basis for out-groups is shaped through environmental factors, including culture. Therefore, discrimination based on sexual orientation is a culture-specific behavior, rooted in part in the genetic inclination to form out-groups. The same genetic inclination can also lead to discrimination based on race, religion, culture, allegiance to a particular sports team, or any other difference that is viewed as relevant.

          • Mike

            so "cultural" homophobia is more a function of in/out group social psychology than anything "nefarious"/"bigoted"? is that a correct interpretation of your view?

          • David Hardy

            Not exactly. Just because homophobia originates in part in out-group thinking does not mean it is not bigoted or nefarious, to use your chosen terms. These words describe and judge the behavior, while the genetic tendency to out-group thinking provides an explanation. We are talking at two different levels of understanding, mine being in regards to explaining the behavior, yours being in regards to judging its effects. In other words, a culture specific behavior rooted in a genetic tendency could still also be bigoted.

          • Mike

            aha ok i agree that it doesn't matter whether some particular trait or social activity has a genetic "basis"; what matters is whether it is just or right or wrong based on that "other level" of analysis that you referred to.

  • "Where then should we “look” for rights? We need not go further than Professor Harari’s own lecture."

    But we are not told how or where to look for rights. The best this article does is claim that it seems "obviously true" that things like rights and logic have some independent ontological status from the thoughts and ideas that apply them. Okay, but how do we identify them? Indeed what are they on the theist or substance dualist view?

    I suspect that the answer is to say they are "x" where x is a label referencing an entity or substance that is completely mysterious and unobservable. Call it God or immaterial substance or what you will. Applying a label to your ignorance of what explains our concepts of rights and logic does not explain them, it is simply an attempt to mask one's ignorance.

    I would say rights and logic are abstractions. They are ways we have of thinking about the material world. They need not have independent ontological status.

    • Mike

      Rights only exist on paper as enacted by governing bodies or courts otherwise they are a figment of ppls' imaginations - a useful fiction that complex societies tell themselves to keep the peace and reward more productive members.

      No that can't be right there must be some other source of human rights...

  • Raymond

    This seems to be another in the long line of weak and spurious articles on this website. (It's a good thing that there have been good articles in the distant past, and good rebuttals of the recent stinkers, or one would have to give up on the site.) How empty is this piece of "reasoning"?

    "By offering an account of the rise of humans that he believes is correct, he is implying that those who disagree with this account are mistaken. Assuming that the purpose of argument, as well as the use of evidence in support of an explanation, is to arrive at the truth or something approximating the truth, it follows that the mistaken person has no right to claim that he is correct."

    This overly long statement is nothing more than "Not NOW! Someone is WRONG on the Internet!" He totally dismisses Professor Harari's totally reasonable assumption that there are many things that have no intrinsic value or no physical component that we still value because we value the concept.

  • GCBill

    “a small error at the outset can lead to great errors in the final conclusions.”

    For once I find myself in agreement with Aquinas. :D

    Assuming that the purpose of argument, as well as the use of evidence in support of an explanation, is to arrive at the truth or something approximating the truth, it follows that the mistaken person has no right to claim that he is correct.

    This is running dangerously close to equivocation. If we say someone has "no right" to misuse a certain process, we are making a normative judgment. But one can make such judgments without endorsing the idea that there are "human rights" in the sense meant by natural lawyers or moderns. You may be able to derive said rights from some particular conception of normativity, but normativity alone does not get you all the way there. So there is no reason to think that any conception of right and wrong must necessarily entail that which the modern man affirms is "common sense."

  • Doug Shaver

    All he does is assume that the correct account of reality is materialism,

    Yes, materialism is an assumption. But so is its denial. There is no non-question-begging proof that materialism is either true or false.

    • Mike

      But if the assertion is that there is nothing that isn't material then it is false, right?

      • Doug Shaver

        I don't define materialism as "the assertion that there is nothing that isn't material."

        • Mike

          but you deny that anything non material exists right?

          • Doug Shaver

            No, I don't.

          • Mike

            ok interesting.

  • I'm always struck how both the materialist and the religious use the word "just" and "only."

    The Religious often say something is "only" a theory. While the Materialist say something is "just" a myth.

    What each fail to recognize is that both theory and myth point to something beyond themselves. And do so in the most robust way possible given the nature of the phenomena over which they properly claim authority.

    That there are aspects of reality which materialist theory is more than adequate to explain does not mean that only the things which materialism explains are real, or that the aspects of reality best explained by myth are any less so.

  • David Nickol

    Assuming that the purpose of argument, as well as the use of evidence in support of an explanation, is to arrive at the truth or something approximating the truth, it follows that the mistaken person has no right to claim that he is correct.

    I don't think the concept of human rights has anything at all to do with the use of "no right" in the above passage, which is not a quote from Yuval Noah Harari, in any case.

    I do agree that this TED talk is at best quite incomplete, but then again, it's only 15 minutes long.

    It does seem to me true (and uncontroversial) that paper money has no intrinsic value. Whether or not human rights exist objectively, they are worthless if nobody believes in them. And assuming rights do exist objectively, and further assuming the right to an abortion is not a human right, nevertheless if everyone believes it is a right, then for all practical purposes it is one.

  • David Nickol

    That relationship is not physical, though it seems just as real and part of “objective reality” as the relationship between the two billiard balls or what one sees when one cuts open a human being. So, we have yet another reason to reject Professor Harari’s materialism.

    I suppose it is a matter of whether "logical necessity" is a human invention or a human discovery.

  • He is, as the philosopher Edward Feser puts it, like “the drunk who insists on looking for his lost car keys under the lamp post, on the grounds that that is the only place where there is enough light by which to see them.”

    I'm reminded of when a columnist in my high school newspaper attributed "carpe diem" to Robin Williams. “Did You Lose the Keys Here?” “No, But the Light Is Much Better Here” At least Beckwith was only mistaken by a century or so!

  • All he does is assume that the correct account of reality is materialism, the belief that the only things that are “real” are those physical things that are subject to quantifiable measure. ... So, we have yet another reason to reject Professor Harari’s materialism.

    I searched around for something showing that Harari is a philosophical materialist, rather than a methodological naturalist as is common among academics. I didn't find anything. This article might be based on a phantasm.

    • neil_pogi

      how about the 'nothing' that created the universe, according to the most topnotch astronomers and physicists hawking and krauss? is 'nothing' a 'materialism'?

      • Doug Shaver

        how about the 'nothing' that created the universe, according to the most topnotch astronomers and physicists hawking and krauss?

        Materialists don't have popes. We don't have to agree with anything Hawking or Krauss says.

        [Edited for typo.]

        • neil_pogi

          or you just deny them? (sean carroll, krauss, hawking)...

          aren't you glad you have these brilliant scientists?
          they really are brilliant and yet don't know how to define a 'nothing'
          if you don't believe that a 'nothing' created the universe, then what are your beliefs? you deny also that the universe just 'pop'
          you also deny that the universe starts from a 'big bang'
          you also deny the eternal universe..
          you also deny the eternal nature of retina, iris, optic nerves, lens, etc (because 'they happen to be there'?

          or are you just make a fool out of me?

          • Doug Shaver

            or are you just make a fool out of me?

            That has not been my intention.

      • is 'nothing' a 'materialism'?

        Uh, what? Wikipedia, as always, has a useful consensus definition of the word:

        Materialism is a form of philosophical monism which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all phenomena, including mental phenomena and consciousness, are identical with material interactions.

        Did you mean to ask whether "nothing" is a material?

        Also, were your questions intended to relate to what I said? I don't see the connection...

        • neil_pogi

          when i say 'nothing', it is nothing.. then how come this nothing produce a universe (materialism)?, as stipulated by your greatest physicists and astronomers krauss and hawking

  • Here’s the point: if someone offers a theory of reality that excludes what seems to be obviously true, it’s probably a good idea to be skeptical of the theory rather than to doubt common sense. For it is, ironically, our common sense—what we pre-reflectively believe about the good, the true, and the beautiful—that makes theory-making, even bad theory-making, possible.

    Wait, what? Common sense doesn't look to be much more than the assumptions we form about the world based on our experience. Maybe we could also count useful inferences from those assumptions as also being part of common sense. Sure, we start from our pre-reflective notions before we can have post-reflective notions, obviously. But why should my pre-reflective assumptions based on my experiences, and your pre-reflective assumptions based on your experiences, get preferential treatment to a theory of reality based on impartial measurements and years of reflective debate among scholars who can draw on vast experience? I'd say the opposite is true -- we should be more skeptical of lazy intuitions than of conclusions developed via careful work!

  • ...the practitioners of the scientific enterprise itself are bereft of any grounds by which to condemn ignorance and extol wisdom, two judgments whose veracity depends on the “fictional story” of an immaterial reality, a human being’s form. After all, you cannot know that a being comes up short in the use of any of its natural powers unless you first know the sort of thing that it is. Thus, we say a blind person lacks sight while a sightless stone lacks nothing.

    I'd say a sightless stone lacks sight.

    Also, I wouldn't condemn people for being ignorant; rather, I'd encourage them to learn more about the world. I don't see why I should even desire reasons to condemn people who aren't doing anything wrong.

  • Michael Murray

    Here’s the point: if someone offers a theory of reality that excludes what seems to be obviously true, it’s probably a good idea to be skeptical of the theory rather than to doubt common sense.

    Indeed. There are, I know this will astound everybody, people who theorise that the sun moves in the sky because the earth rotates ! Rotates ! Whereas those us who get up early enough to watch the sun rise know that that is what it does. It rises in the morning moves across the sky and sets in the evening. It's obviously true. It's common sense.

    • neil_pogi

      because i often see the sun rises on the east and the sun sets on Manila bay (west) and i thought that my observation here in Manila is true. The bible writers also experienced that. they thought that the sun rotates around the earth because they observed it on land.

      astronomers debunked that claim because they observe that the earth rotates around the sun, and obviously, they are correct, why? because they observe it on outer space, either in spaceship or space station!

  • Consider a valid argument form, modus ponens:
    If P, then Q
    P
    Therefore Q
    This is a valid form, not because the two premises somehow together physically cause the conclusion, as a cue ball moves the 8-ball when they touch. Rather, as a matter of logical necessity, the conclusion is entailed by the premises.
    That relationship is not physical

    How do you know it's not physical? It sure looks like it might be physical. Logical necessity, entailment, and valid argument forms appear to us just as patterns in how we put together sentences; we define them by writing them out explicitly as patterns of sentences like for modus ponens above. In an ordinary situation when people use premise sentences to describe things, the custom is that they implicitly also agree to using the conclusion sentence as describing the things, and so we are expected to act on the conclusion as well as the premises. But if people use the sentences differently, then we have to ask what they mean or figure it out from context before we know how to act based on what they said, which is an inconvenience. It's much more convenient to stick to the linguistic habits everyone expects.

    Now maybe there's something more to logic than that, but we don't seem to need anything more to account for logic. I prefer not to bother with unnecessary additions to theories until there's evidence that the additions are real. So if that's all there is to logic, then logical relationships are just linguistic habits encoded by long-term potentiation in our synapses.

    • ben

      How do you know it's not physical?

      If,

      If P, then Q
      P
      Therefore Q

      is physical what's its mode of physical existence? What's it mass and volume, chemistry, temperature, location in space?

      • Hans-Richard Grümm

        Spin is a physical concept, but it has neither mass nor volume nor temperature. It is a property of material system,. thus it is material itself. Only material *things* may have mass, volume, temperature etc.

        And modus ponens is an abstraction of material processes in material brains. .

      • If you read past the first sentence of my comment, you'll see I addressed that. To reiterate: "So if that's all there is to logic, then logical relationships are just linguistic habits encoded by long-term potentiation in our synapses."

        So the location in space is between your ears. The mass of an average adult human brain is about 3 lb. Its volume is about 5 cups. Its chemical makeup is the same as the rest of biology in terms of overall proportions of different elements: mostly oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen. On a molecular level, glutamate is predominant among excitatory neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. Potentiated synapses keep vesicles full of the stuff ready to dump into the synaptic cleft, and so one could reasonably focus on that chemical as being of special importance whenever you use your CNS, such as to think logically. The temperature is a fairly constant 99 Fahrenheit.

  • James

    If we cut open the body as Mr Wizard suggests I wonder how we could ever tell why the "Self" has any more right to exist on a clump of cells behind the skull than in the bone marrow. Because if there is no God as he boldly asserts, then he has no soul--then no free will to make any assertions whatsoever.

    Are these stories located in the pancreas? Maybe my gallbladder loves my children and my Creator God. So to get this straight---The New Testaments the same as Homer coming up with Poetry --because Luke, Matthew, John, Peter, Paul, Mark and hundreds of others decided to spread the Diabolical message to Love our Enemies only to be murdered by these very people as they prayed for their forgiveness?

    To equate the Gospel with anything else is just flat out ignorant.

    Maybe we didnt just dig up the New Testament 30 years ago, or however young Mr know it all is--- and Please--dont defend him, you need to be so utterly delusional to make the Proclamation to Humanity, "There is no God". How can he possibility know that? A story he told himself? These people are so arrogant, with their heads so deep in the sand, they actually act like churches weren't formed in practically every city, that Kings weren't converted, countries formed and billions of lives changed. Stories?

    A story is what this guy is peddling. A philosophy backed by Nothing. Its just getting so disgusting watching this parade of child philosophers making a living making people dumber. They couldn't hold a candle to the men they accuse of being liars.

    The New Testament is Testimony given by men and woman whose lives were changed by the Truth.
    With nothing to gain and everything to lose, ridiculed by friends family, strangers, beaten, flogged, spit on with rocks whipped at their heads, thrown in prison, and tortured to death, they sacrificed their lives--many leaving behind their families so they could spread a "Story" they made up? Yeah, I guess unbelievers need to put their faith in that story so they don't have to change. It's thoroughly embarrassing to honestly fail to see the difference, but the subject matter--our eternal judgement explains the blindness. But how about seeing the world without your fear deciding what the truth is?