His book Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind has sold over 10 million copies, been translated into 50 languages, and has been recommended by Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Recently, he delivered the Penguin Annual Lecture in Mumbai, which was prefixed by serpentine queues, a nasty traffic jam and an audience spilling over by the hoards into the lawn adjoining the venue. This kind of overwhelming popularity, where an academic is elevated to cult fanfare usually reserved for reality stars and red-carpet royalty, comes with its share of question marks—Hipster intellectual? Silicon Valley’s latest fad? Or is it cringe-worthy platitudinal prose contextualising the human race in some self-helpy way? But Professor Yuval Noah Harari—the Israeli meditation-loving vegan historian and bestselling author—is none of the above. Through his books and talks, he boldly takes on the big questions and seamlessly brings together history, philosophy, science and a clarity of thought that is profound in our over-cluttered post-truth, fake news, big-data age. Plus, for an academic, his work rarely gets caught up in semantics. Instead, he’s an engrossing storyteller weaving tales packed with fact and anecdote, making complex philosophical thought accessible, sincere and exciting. Currently touring with his most recent publication, 21 Lessons For The 21st Century, Harari takes time out from his schedule and continues his philosophical mavericking over email. Excerpts from the interview:
Shahnaz Siganporia: You’ve managed to straddle that very difficult space of being a ‘popular intellectual’—two words that don’t often go together. How do you understand this space?
Yuval Noah Harari: My job is to build a bridge between the scientific community and the general public, and to make the latest scientific discoveries accessible to everyone. This is urgent, because nowadays science and technology change our societies, economies and personal lives more than any political movement. Indeed, our greatest political problems are now scientific challenges—climate change, artificial intelligence, bio-engineering.
Of course, you don’t need a PhD in biology or computer science in order to engage in politics. But you should be able to grasp the dynamics of climate change and the potential power of AI. People who say things like “so what if global temperatures rise by 2° Celsius; it will just be a bit hotter” or “artificial intelligence will never be able to replace human intuition” don’t understand the magnitude of the challenges we face.
I think I am able to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public because, as a historian, I’m very aware of the power of stories. The vast majority of humans think in stories rather than in facts, equations or statistics. When scientists try to get involved in public debates about things such as climate change or AI, they frequently fail to engage the public successfully, because they assume it is enough to bombard people with facts. This assumption comes from the way the scientific community itself works. If you want to publish an article about climate change in a prestigious journal like Nature or Science, then telling a good story is less important, whereas the facts are extremely important. So in my work, I of course try to get the facts right. But I know that without telling a good story, few people will read me. When I write, I imagine my reader to be not a university professor but rather a curious teenager. Thus, when I try to explain capitalism, I ask myself: “Would a 17-year-old understand this?” If I cannot explain capitalism to a 17-year-old, then I probably don’t understand the subject myself.
SS: You ask the big questions. You even attempt to answer these big questions. As a philosopher, what’s been your most difficult truth to face?
YNH: The greatest difficulty is to realise the inherent gap between truth and power. Philosophers often imagine that by telling the truth they can change the world, and that truth is ultimately more powerful than fiction and lies. I wish it was so. Sometimes, truth is indeed powerful, but ultimately truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate paths.
The reason is that in human society power relies on mass cooperation, and you cannot organise masses of people effectively without relying on some mythology… Indeed, false stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people. If you want to gauge group loyalty, requiring people to believe an absurdity is a far better test than asking them to believe the truth. If a big chief says, “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west,” loyalty to the chief is not required in order to applaud him. But if the chief says, “the sun rises in the west and sets in the east,” only true loyalists will clap their hands.
Consequently, scholars throughout history have faced this dilemma: Do they serve power or truth? Should they aim to unite people by making sure everyone believes in the same story, or should they let people know the truth even at the price of disunity? The most powerful scholarly establishments— whether of Christian priests, Confucian mandarins or Communist ideologues—placed unity above truth. That’s why they were so powerful.
SS: You share quite the connection with India and you’ve spoken extensively on how Vipassana has shaped you and your success…
YNH: While I was doing my doctorate at Oxford, a good friend nagged me for a year to go try a Vipassana meditation course. I thought it was some kind of superstition or cult, and since I had no interest in hearing yet another mythology, I declined. But after a year of patient nudging he got me to give it a chance.
Previously I knew very little about meditation and presumed it must involve all kinds of complicated mystical theories. I was therefore amazed by how practical the teaching turned out to be. The teacher at the course, SN Goenka, instructed the students to sit with crossed legs and closed eyes, and to focus all their attention on the breath coming in and out of their nostrils. “Don’t do anything,” he kept saying, “don’t try to control the breath or to breathe in any particular way. Just be aware of the reality of the present moment, whatever it may be. When the breath comes in, you are just aware—now the breath is coming in. When the breath goes out, you are just aware—now the breath is going out. And when you lose your focus and your mind starts wandering in memories and fantasies, you just know—now my mind has wandered away from the breath.” It was the most important thing anybody ever told me.
The meditation retreat lasted for 10 days. It was the most difficult thing I did in my life. Trying to stay focused on reality was incredibly difficult, because the mind constantly tries to avoid confronting unpleasant realities. I think I learned more about myself and about humans in general during these 10 days than I learned in my whole life before. And to do so I didn’t have to accept any myth. I just had to observe reality as it is. The most important thing I realised was that the deep source of my suffering is in the patterns of my own mind. When I want something and it doesn’t happen, my mind reacts by generating suffering. Suffering is not an objective condition in the outside world. It is a mental reaction generated by my own mind.
SS: Any advice for those who want to explore meditation?
YNH: I would give people three warnings about starting to meditate. First, it is serious and hard work. You often encounter things in yourself that you spend your whole life escaping— maybe it is your fears, maybe your guilt, maybe your boredom. It can be a very difficult experience. Secondly, because it can be so difficult, don’t try to do it all by yourself. Look for a good teacher. Thirdly, don’t look for special experiences. It is a method to get to know yourself better and accept reality as it is. Sometimes people think that if they experience something special, or if they have some very pleasant feeling, this is a good meditation, while if they just feel pain or fear or boredom, this is a bad meditation. That’s not the case. If you mediate for an hour and feel nothing but pain and boredom but you get to know your pain and boredom better and you learn how to accept them, that’s a wonderful meditation.
SS: And finally, what according to you is the greatest challenge and the greatest luxury of our age and time?
YNH: Our greatest luxury is that we are more free from famine, plague and war than ever before in human history. For the first time ever, today famine kills fewer people than obesity, plagues kill fewer people than old age, and violence kills fewer people than accidents. Sugar is now a greater threat to your life than gunpowder. That’s a luxury.
As for the challenge, the most complicated challenge of all is posed by disruptive new technologies. Whereas nuclear war and climate change threaten only the physical survival of humankind, disruptive technologies might change the very nature of humanity, and are therefore entangled with humans’ deepest ethical and religious beliefs. While everyone agrees that we should avoid nuclear war and ecological meltdown, people have widely different opinions about using bioengineering and AI to upgrade humans and to create new life forms. It will be very difficult to devise and administer ethical guidelines for the new technologies, especially if we fail to reach a global agreement on this.
When it comes to formulating such ethical guidelines, nationalism suffers above all from a failure of the imagination. Nationalists think in terms of territorial conflicts lasting centuries, while the technological revolutions of the 21st century should really be understood in cosmic terms. After four billion years of organic life evolving by natural selection, science is ushering in the era of inorganic life shaped by intelligent design.
In the process, Homo sapiens itself will likely disappear. Today we are still apes of the hominid family. We still share with Neanderthals and chimpanzees most of our bodily structures, physical abilities and mental faculties. Not only are our hands, eyes and brains distinctly hominid, but so are our lust, our love, anger and social bonds. Within a century or two, the combination of biotechnology and AI might result in bodily, physical and mental traits that completely break free of the hominid mould. Some believe that consciousness might even be severed from any organic structure, and could surf cyberspace free of all biological and physical constraints. On the other hand, we might witness the complete decoupling of intelligence from consciousness, and the development of AI might result in a world dominated by super-intelligent but completely non-conscious entities.
What has Israeli, Russian or Indian nationalism got to say about this? Not much. Nationalism does not think on such a level. Thus, Indian nationalism is very concerned about the question, “Will Kashmir be ruled by Indians or Pakistanis a century from now?” but it hardly cares about the question “Will Earth be ruled by Sapiens or cyborgs a century from now?” In order to make wise choices about the future of life we need to go way beyond the nationalist viewpoint and look at things from a global or even a cosmic perspective.
A cheat sheet to surviving the 21st century by Yuval Noah Harari
1. We need to integrate science and politics more closely because our greatest political problems demand a good scientific understanding.
2. We need better global cooperation because all our existential problems are global problems that cannot be solved on a national basis.
3. And we need to explore the human mind because it is the greatest mystery in science and the deepest source of our political problems.
1. We should beware of nostalgic fantasies. The past wasn’t fun, and in any case, we cannot go back there.
2. We should beware of technological utopias. Technology can be very helpful, but it can also be extremely destructive. Merely developing new technologies won’t solve any of our problems—the big question is how to use the new technologies wisely.
3. And we should beware of fatalism and pessimism. History is never deterministic. Humankind has already managed to overcome immense challenges, such as famine and plague. If we make wise choices, we can overcome the new challenges of the 21st century, too.
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