Friday, February 7, 2020

The Pseudo-profundities of Yuval Noah Harari

Until last week, I had never read a word by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli intellectual whose books often make their way onto the best seller lists. But then, I came across a New York Times piece of his, purportedly about truth and desire.

Given that these subjects are near and dear to me, I decided to give it a go. In a better world Harari’s arguments would have been illuminating and probative. Sadly, they were not. They feel like the pseudo-profundities you trot out in order to allow your readers to think that they are serious thinkers. 

Harari seems to think that he has discovered a big profound idea when he states that elections do not establish the truth. By truth, he means empirically determined scientific truth. And yet, he has merely set up a straw premise, so we do not expect that he is going to spin out a very satisfying theoretical discursus. 

After all, did it ever cross your or anyone else’s mind that elections establish scientific truth? I am sure that I do not need to tell you that scientific truth is established by experimental results. The fact that all of the world’s scientists agree on something does not make it a scientific truth. It means that all of the world’s scientists agree on something.

Did you notice the slight of hand there? If Harari believes that a poll of scientists establishes scientific truth he is basing truth value on something like an election. It’s an election where only a select few can vote, but still, it’s an election.

As for desire, on a good day the concept is slippery. Does Harari mean lubricious longings? Does he mean self-interest? Does he allow desire to be guided by rational judgment or does he think that it has a mind of its own?

As best as I can tell, Harari takes desire to mean something like self-interest. One suspects that he is harkening back to Adam Smith, who thought that the free market allowed different participants to compromise their self-interest in order to allocate goods and services rationally. Of course, this involves compromising your desire, and not getting everything you really, really want. About that Harari has nothing to say.

Anyway, by his theory, elections allow different people with different desires to compromise. He does not consider the possibility that a vast majority of Americans might have the same desire: to live in a free, fair and prosperous nations. Besides can you have a desire to compromise your desire?

Allow him his word:

Elections are not a method for finding the truth. They are a method for reaching peaceful compromise between the conflicting desires of different people. You might find yourself sharing a country with people who you consider ignorant, stupid and even malicious — and they might think exactly the same of you. Still, do you want to reach a peaceful compromise with these people, or would you rather settle your disagreements with guns and bombs?

As it happens, some people are ignorant and malicious. Democratic elections have empowered groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Some people are consumed by a desire to destroy, not so much because it’s what they really, really want, but because they believe that it’s the only way to restore their flagging pride.

Perhaps people vote for pride, not desire. Perhaps they vote for courage, not cowardice. The notion that people vote their desires while compromising their desires leaves much to be desired. 

Besides, some people willingly subsume their personal interest in favor of family interest, community interest or national interest. About that, Harari has nothing to say… a clear sign that he has not thought very deeply about his pseudo-clever dualism.

He continues, digging himself into a deeper rut:

Since elections are a method for reaching a compromise about our desires, in the polling stations people aren’t asked “What is the truth?” They are asked “What do you want?” That’s why all citizens have equal voting rights. When searching for the truth, the opinions of different people carry different weights. But when it comes to desire, everybody should be treated the same.

When was the last time anyone at a polling booth asked you what you want? Surely, he does not really believe this. It is far too lame for a serious thinker.

And he does seem to understand that some people vote for a candidate because they judge him capable of doing a good job. They vote for a candidate because they agree with his policy proposals. They vote for him because they have seen, in pragmatic terms, that such policies, when enacted in the past have produced positive outcomes. 

Unfortunately, Harari does not allow for anything like a rational decision-making process, one that judges what has or has not worked in the past. And thus, what is more likely to work in the future.

Surely, pragmatic truths, truths about what works, are a sub-species of empirical scientific truth. Leaving them out of the decision making process is sloppy. Worse yet, the fact that people make pragmatic judgments, judgments that might not fulfill their desires, exposes the lameness of Harari’s argument. 

Recall that William James once explained that “the truth is what works.” Don’t educated voters consider that truth when they cast their ballots? We would imagine that many of them, however much they are consumed by a desire for free stuff will be sufficiently intelligent to know that policies designed to hand out free stuff have always destroyed economies. 

As for science, Harari proposes that we leave it in the hands of the experts, though, as noted above, he believes that science is about taking a vote of scientists:

Holding a plebiscite on whether to accept Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is a ridiculous idea, because that is a question of truth that should be left to experts. When discussing relativity, the opinion of one physics professor counts for far more than the opinion of a thousand history professors or a thousand lawyers.

Dare I mention, that the word “opinion” has no place in a discussion of scientific fact. An opinion does not make a fact. And scientists can certainly be wrong.

Later in his article Harari will, naturally, introduce the scientific “fact” of anthropogenic climate change.

As an example, let’s consider the crucial case of climate change. The question “Do human actions cause the earth’s climate to warm?” is a question of truth. Lots of people wish the answer to this question to be “no,” but their desires don’t change reality. So it would be ridiculous to put this question to a plebiscite in which all people enjoy equal voting rights.

If most climate experts answer “yes,” while most voters say “no,” we should believe the experts. The majority of voters should not have the power to stop academic departments and media outlets from studying and publishing undesirable truths.

Does anyone believe anymore that academic scientists, men and women whose grants and tenure depend on their toeing the line on climate change, are trying to establish the truth about climate change. 

Unfortunately, many important climate experts do not believe that human actions are having a decisive influence on the climate. Hundreds of them sent a letter to the United Nations last September stating as much. Besides, as Richard Feynman once pointed out, there is no such thing as settled science. Science, in all cases, is based on skepticism, not pious certainties.

Harari has mistaken scientific truth for what more closely resembles religious dogma. As for who is stopping whom from publishing undesirable truths, the so called objective climate scientists will happily shut you down and shut you up if you deviate from prevailing dogma.

And then, Harari takes up the Brexit referendum:

But the question that appeared on the ballot in the 2016 referendum was not about truth. It was: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” That’s a question about desire, and there is no reason to privilege the desires of experts over those of everyone else.

I cannot imagine that anyone believed that a vote on Brexit was going to establish scientific fact or truth. Besides, questions of “should” are ethical questions. They concern the difference between right and wrong, better and best. Even so, I can imagine a group of policy wonks, even a group of economists, who say that they have a better idea about what Brexit will produce than does a greengrocer or a dry cleaner.

As it happens, these benighted souls insisted throughout the Brexit debate that they knew better, that they understood the situation better than did the average British subject. It happens that they seem mostly to have been wrong, but who’s counting?

Harari recognizes this point:

You could argue that desires are nevertheless formulated on the basis of facts, and that the Brexit debate hinged on proving or refuting certain economic theories. For example, would leaving the European Union result in an increase or a decrease in Britain’s gross domestic product? Most people are not equipped to answer such a complicated economic question. Therefore, you might conclude, Brexit really should have been left to the experts.

Here, Harari does not believe that this should disqualify the public from voting, no matter how many nationalist sentiments and religious ideals they harbor. It’s big of him. Many Remainers did not share his view.

In a democracy voters are perfectly entitled to prefer nationalist sentiments and religious ideals over economic interests.

But then, why has he confused desire with religious ideals and nationalism? The question of Brexit seems really to be about national pride. You might say that we desire national pride, but then the term desire becomes too vague to be useful. Is your desire for pride akin to a desire for dinner?

And we ought to notice that a national referendum, surely a democratic activity, is not the basis for the British government. Surely, America does not have national referenda, and thus, is not really a democracy.

But then, Harari has so weak a grasp on the concept of desire that he applies it to all manner of conditions:

Democratic elections are about human desire, and the one desire everyone shares is the desire to win. How then can we make sure that powerful political parties don’t rig the game in their favor?

If everyone shared a desire to win, then both American political parties would share it. Some people do not care about winning and losing because they do not want to compete. They are pursuing ideals and do not care if their team wins or loses, as long as it is sufficiently diverse. 

Better yet, if it’s just about winning, then the losers will become an army of malcontents, willing to do anything to win. Perhaps we are wrong to think that the desire to win governs the process. Perhaps we are wrong to think that winning is the only thing. Perhaps we really want to have a say, which is not the same as the infantile wish to get our way. Perhaps we really want to participate in a fair process, and that we value fairness over winning. 

This does not mean that we do not want to win, but it does mean that if we are sensible rational adults we are capable of accepting not winning. Otherwise, we will spend our time discrediting those who have beaten us and we will refuse to accept loss. Does reason guide desire? Perhaps it should. And if we have multiple, competing desires, defined in terms of self, family, community and nation… what then?

Perhaps we can say that desire aims at ideal conditions. Perhaps desire aims at satisfying appetites, alimentary or sexual. Perhaps desire aims to destroy or to pervert.

Harari does not recognize that people can exercise their rational judgment and to vote for something that is not their heart’s desire. We might even say the same thing about a manager or a corporate CEO. Do these people make decisions based on their desires? Perhaps so. But, if what is best for the company differs from what is best for them, we might imagine that they will have some difficulty deciding which desire to follow? If they are choosing between two conflicting desires, do we really believe that they are acting on their desire?

As for truth, here again Harari muddles the issue. There are several different kinds of truth. To limit it to scientific fact distorts the issue. For example, there is such a thing as logical truth.The truth value of a statement, like “Either it will rain tomorrow or it will not rain tomorrow” is logically true, regardless of tomorrow’s weather. It is not a provable or disprovable hypothesis. 

Similarly, if we say that a policy has failed because it produced some appallingly bad outcomes, someone might say that without the policy it might have been worse. Logically, this is true. And then….

In effect, ideologues often trot out this dodge when they are trying to explain why their desire should prevail over the facts. Using formal logic to decide such questions is a fool’s errand. Similarly with pretending that mere desire, detached from ethical considerations, detached from rational deliberation, detached from custom and law… determines who votes for whom.

And then there is the question of the truth of your desire? Do you really know what you really, really want? Is it your truth?


trigger warning said...

Harari is full of phlogiston.

Sam L. said...

"Elections are not a method for finding the truth. They are a method for reaching peaceful compromise between the conflicting desires of different people. You might find yourself sharing a country with people who you consider ignorant, stupid and even malicious — and they might think exactly the same of you. Still, do you want to reach a peaceful compromise with these people, or would you rather settle your disagreements with guns and bombs?" PEACEFUL?? Not where Democrats are involved.

Suzannemarie said...

Harari declared on Dutch TV that in the Western world, nut allergies cause more deaths than terrorism.

UbuMaccabee said...

I tried to read his last book. It was recommended by a friend who reads the NYT and thinks it makes him smart. I went at it with a pencil as I read, and soon there was as much written in the margin as words on the page. I quit halfway through. He has no wisdom. He represents the failure of the elites to be either wise or elite. They must all be replaced before they get us all killed.

Sam L. said...

Nuts, with GUNS!!!!!!11111!! The world is ending!