Category Archives: Philosophy-Popular

Truth and Power? Commentary on “Why Fiction Trumps Truth,” by Yuval Noah Harari

I recently read the historian Yuval Noah Harari’s extraordinarily thoughtful piece, Why Fiction Trumps Truth, in the May 24, 2019, New York Times. Here is his opening paragraph:

Many people believe that truth conveys power. If some leaders, religions or ideologies misrepresent reality, they will eventually lose to more clearsighted rivals. Hence sticking with the truth is the best strategy for gaining power. Unfortunately, this is just a comforting myth. In fact, truth and power have a far more complicated relationship, because in human society, power means two very different things.

As a professional philosopher dedicated to the search for truth, I found these words disquieting. The truth doesn’t win out? What exactly does Hariri mean by this?

Harari begins by distinguishing between power “as the ability to manipulate objective realities: to hunt animals, to construct bridges, to cure diseases, to build atom bombs. This kind of power is closely tied to truth. If you believe a false physical theory, you won’t be able to build an atom bomb.”

However, there is another kind of power that

means having the ability to manipulate human beliefs, thereby getting lots of people to cooperate effectively. Building atom bombs requires not just a good understanding of physics, but also the coordinated labor of millions of humans. Planet Earth was conquered by Homo sapiens rather than by chimpanzees or elephants, because we are the only mammals that can cooperate in very large numbers. And large-scale cooperation depends on believing common stories. But these stories need not be true. You can unite millions of people by making them believe in completely fictional stories about God, about race or about economics.

[I also think there is a third kind of power that has to do with manipulating human beings without any interest in getting them to cooperate. In other words, manipulating them simply to dominate, exploit, or enslave them. This may entail getting them to believe common stories about why they should be dominated, exploited, or enslaved but it might not. You might simply overpower them.]

For Harari this “dual nature of power and truth results in the curious fact that we humans know many more truths than any other animal, but we also believe in much more nonsense.” This is a superb observation. As he puts it:

We are both the smartest and the most gullible inhabitants of planet Earth. Rabbits don’t know that E=MC² , that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old and that DNA is made of cytosine, guanine, adenine and thymine. On the other hand, rabbits don’t believe in the mythological fantasies and ideological absurdities that have mesmerized countless humans for thousands of years. No rabbit would have been willing to crash an airplane into the World Trade Center in the hope of being rewarded with 72 virgin rabbits in the afterlife.

Now according to Harari, fiction has some significant advantages over truth in terms of uniting people. “First, whereas the truth is universal, fictions tend to be local.” Consequently, we don’t distinguish our tribe from foreigners very well with a story about, for example, how yeast causes bread to rise since foreigners might have come to that same conclusion independently. But if you believe that little green gremlins cause bread to rise by their dancing that’s almost certainly an idea that foreigners wouldn’t have. This false but unique idea then serves to unite you with, and be able to identify, your clan.

The second advantage of fiction over truth has to do with the fact that believing outlandish stories is a reliable signal that one is a member of the group. For example, “If political loyalty is signaled by believing a true story, anyone can fake it. But believing ridiculous and outlandish stories exacts greater cost, and is therefore a better signal of loyalty.” Put differently, anyone can believe a leader who tells the truth but only true devotees will believe nonsensical things.

Third, and most important, the truth is often painful and disturbing. Hence if you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you.” Consider an American presidential candidate who tells the whole truth about the sordid American history. This may be admirable but it isn’t a viable election strategy.

Of course, if believing fictional stories becomes habitual, if zealots believe only nonsense this may be self-defeating. But Hariri suggests that even fanatics “often compartmentalize their irrationality so that they believe nonsense in some fields while being eminently rational in others.” For example, the Nazis believed a pseudoscientific racial theory to exterminate millions but “when it came time to design gas chambers and prepare timetables for the Auschwitz trains, Nazi rationality emerged from its hiding place intact.”

Or consider how

the Scientific Revolution began in the most fanatical culture in the world. Europe in the days of Columbus, Copernicus and Newton had one of the highest concentrations of religious extremists in history, and the lowest level of tolerance … The luminaries of the Scientific Revolution lived in a society that expelled Jews and Muslims, burned heretics wholesale, saw a witch in every cat-loving elderly lady and started a new religious war every full moon.

Hariri argues that this

ability to compartmentalize rationality probably has a lot to do with the structure of our brain. Different parts of the brain are responsible for different modes of thinking. Humans can subconsciously deactivate and reactivate those parts of the brain that are crucial for skeptical thinking. Thus Adolf Eichmann could have shut down his prefrontal cortex while listening to Hitler give an impassioned speech, and then reboot it while poring over the Auschwitz train schedule.

[Consider scientists in their lab who abhor supernatural explanations but attend church on the weekends. (Although there are far fewer such people than we often imagine.)]

Hariri also notes that though “we need to pay some price for deactivating our rational faculties, the advantages of increased social cohesion are often so big that fictional stories routinely triumph over the truth in human history.” Thus the choice that is often made between truth or social harmony. Should those in power unite people with some fiction or tell the truth at the cost of societal unity?” His conclusion? “Socrates chose the truth and was executed. The most powerful scholarly establishments in history — whether of Christian priests, Confucian mandarins or Communist ideologues — placed unity above truth. That’s why they were so powerful.”

Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian and the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

Brief reflections – I’m not sure of this supposed connection between fiction and social cohesion. Science is an enterprise based on truth and is a cooperative venture. I’m just not sure that fictional stories—about Adam and Eve, Jesus, Mohammed, alien abductions, faked moon landings, flat earth theories, etc.—are necessarily better uniters than truthful ones. There is no doubt though that fictional and irrational stories unite people as ridiculous religious and political stories attest.

I also think the purpose of the lies told by religious and political leaders is usually the more sinister one. Power. Here I think Orwell said it best:

“Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

The Myth of the Self-Made Man or Woman

A recent post suggested that while we are individually insignificant we may be significant nonetheless by being a part of something larger than ourselves. This led me to consider how dependent we are at all times on others. In this spirit, I say remember that … 

We were all once helpless infants who survived only because of the care and concern of the adults around us.

We didn’t educate ourselves. We were taught by teachers, who used books others had written, in schools someone else had built.

We don’t drive to work alone. We drive on roads that someone else built, in vehicles others constructed, over bridges engineers designed.

We don’t stay healthy alone. We rely on caregivers and pharmaceuticals and hospitals and medical research past and present. 

We eat food others grow, wear clothes others produce, live in shelter others construct.

And we breathe the oxygen that trees provide, we drink the earth’s water (after it has been filtered by others) and feel our suns warmth. With any of them, we couldn’t survive at all. 

Remember that all of our wealth comes originally and continually from the sun’s energy that plants convert into the food that fuels our bodies and their brains. 

Never believe the myth of the self-made man.

Anti-Biography

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“Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
~ Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca

I have written a short biography to introduce myself to my readers. But I want to make clear that the bio was meant as informative only—not to be taken as claiming any self-importance. I am mindful of how small both our lives and our thoughts are in the vastness of space and time. As I have written elsewhere on this blog,

Against [the] immense backdrop of speed, space, time and mystery shouldn’t we be humbled by our limitations and apparent insignificance? Who, other than the ignorant or delusional, would claim to know much of ultimate truth? I make no such claim; no one should.

Yet we live in a world were sports figures, movie stars, and the rich and famous have ghostwritten biographies asserting their importance. (By contrast, one of my intellectual heroes, David Hume, wrote a very brief biography titled “My Own Life.” It exudes humility despite the fact that he was one of the great thinkers in the history of Western civilization.)

We also live in a world where some of the worst people strongly believe in their own self-importance. I unequivocally disavow such claims. While I may be important to my wife or children, from sub specie aeternitatis I am insignificant.

Yet, I find this insight edifying rather than depressing. It helps us to care about values that transcend our frail, fleeting, fragmentary egos. In this way, we are enlarged rather than diminished. If our concerns are self-centered only, they will die with us. If our concerns transcend the bounds of our egos we attain a measure of immortality.

Moreover, by seeing ourselves not as individual atoms but as part of a process which, hopefully, progresses toward higher levels of being and consciousness, we can find real significance as links in this chain. So we are either part of a vast cosmic web—which may be meaningful—or we are essentially insignificant.

For we are (almost) nothing alone.

What is A Worldview?


My friend Ed Gibney has written on each and every one of the thought experiments in  Julian Baggini’s, The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher. He has also summarized his own 100 blog posts on Baggini’s 100 thought experiments in “What I learned from 100 Philosophy Thought Experiments.”

Overall Gibney’s careful and conscientious effort to summarize, categorize, and comment on all these thought experiments and place them in the larger context is a superb intellectual achievement. 

After finishing this work Gibney claimed “that this writing project made subtle but important changes to the way I looked at things. In other words, I felt my worldview change.” Not many books do that. But what exactly is a worldview? Let Gibney explain. 

From Ed Gibney’s blog, reprinted with permission.
http://www.evphil.com/blog/what-i-learned-from-100-philosophy-thought-experiments

What is a worldview? We all have one. It’s possible that they can be explicitly known and explored, but more commonly they are a bundle of hidden assumptions tied together by a few professed beliefs you’ve either grown up with or adopted later in life. They can be passively absorbed from the society around you, or actively built through personal research and rational reflection. They aren’t always, if ever, perfectly consistent, but they have many interrelated and interlocking components, which makes them very difficult to shift. They’re sometimes called a “personal philosophy,” but since 1790, when Immanuel Kant coined the German word weltanschauung in his book Critique of Judgment, the specific idea of a worldview has been adapted and adopted all over the world as a term that “refers to the framework of ideas and beliefs forming a global description through which an individual, group, or culture watches and interprets the world and interacts with it.”

What specifically does this framework of ideas and beliefs consist of? A brief search through the Internet turns up several different but often overlapping elements of what a worldview must include. According to several sources (1234), a worldview ought to:

… explain the nature of the world; give us direction; tell us what to value; tell us how to act; explain what we can know; provide consistency and coherence to the story we tell ourselves; incorporate facts that we encounter; explain how things function; tell us why we are the way we are; yield insights into our feelings and emotions; tell us how to organise politically; help us choose future paths; uncover the origins of the universe and life itself; give us meaning and purpose; answer questions about gods and other mysteries; tell us what is good, what is truth, and what is beauty; help us feel less terrified of death; shed light on our joys and sorrows; and guide us through our darker hours.

Such core beliefs of our lives “are often deeply rooted…and are brought to the surface only in moments of crises. [But] the philosophical importance of worldviews became increasingly clear during the 20th century for a number of reasons, such as increasing contact between cultures, and the failure of some aspects of the Enlightenment project, such as the rationalist project of attaining all truth by reason alone.” Adding to the difficulty of getting our worldviews from fragmentation to integration has been the arrival of the information age. Ever since “the final decade of the 20th century, we have had an enormous amount of information at our disposal. On the one hand, this makes it easier for us to form an image of the world in which we live, but on the other hand, this introduces a new type of difficulty, i.e. we must develop the ability to take into account all this information.” We now have all the facts we could ever consume, but many worldviews are struggling to properly digest them.

This rising complexity and clash of worldviews in the late-20th century remind me of an illustrative passage of dialogue I just read in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, which was published in 1868 and therefore foreshadowed some of these issues. In the novel, one of the minor characters reacts negatively to the modernism of his time by appealing to some good old-fashioned nostalgia (which never seems to go out of style). Recalling an earlier time, he said:

“Back then, people were driven by a single idea somehow, now they’re more edgy, more mature, more sensitive, able to cope with two or three ideas at a time…the man of today has a wider apprehension and, believe me, that prevents him from being as harmoniously integrated as they were in those days.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Two or three ideas? Those were simpler times! What about when we are forced to cope with thousands of them? Or even just 100 that have been chosen very precisely to pick apart the tiniest inconsistencies in your worldview. How could anyone manage to be “harmoniously integrated” in the face of such a deluge? As I worked my way through Baggini’s book, it became apparent that he had ordered his thought experiments pretty much at random, and that made it very difficult for me to see how the changes he was causing might be strung together into a coherent summary of what I had learned. But then, this is a lot like life. And philosophy has been used to make sense of life for thousands of years.

In my first edition of Evolutionary Philosophy, I attempted to construct a worldview through the use of a simple list of 10 tenets, and then by using a more comprehensive set of questions on how to Know Thyself. Those were both non-traditional methods for philosophers, but now it’s more of a natural fit to try and sort the 100 philosophical thought experiments into a traditional construction of a worldview by using the six academic branches of philosophy: epistemology, logic, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and political philosophy. These branches originate from very basic and universal questions: What do I know? How do I know it? Where do we come from? What is good? What is beautiful? How do we act? As I slot the lessons learned from 100 thought experiments into these six categories, I believe that all of the needs for a worldview which we listed above will be met. In fact, due to the overlap and repetition that exists in this list, we now know (specifically from #43 Future Shock) that one hundred philosophical thought experiments are more than enough to know the field.

Great. We know the journey will be worth it, so let’s get started. I’ll try to go through this as quickly as I can by summarising the lesson of each thought experiment in just a sentence or two (as I just did above after the hyperlink). If any summary doesn’t immediately feel right for your worldview, have a look at the thought experiment in full to see where one of us has gone wrong. And with that, we’re off! First, to build a view of the world, we must gain some knowledge about it.

(Next up – the thought experiments dealing with epistemology.)

A Vision of the Future

A colleague elucidated a thoughtful replay to those who believe that culture needs a vision of an ideal future that inspires people to act now so as to help bring about this ideal in the future. In my case this vision is of a future where our post-human descendents attain higher levels of being and consciousness. Our role in the drama is as protagonists in that evolutionary epic, and this provides (roughly) the meaning of our lives.

I would prefer this aspiration not to be “boxed in” to a single faraway, nearly metaphysical ideal (like Heaven, Utopia, Singularity, contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, …). Instead, I proposed that people should have a variety of aspirations and directions, from very concrete ones to achieve here and now, to very far away ones unlikely to be reached during their lifetime, and everything in between.

Rather than seeing the purpose of our lives in a specific goal, we instead think of it as a direction toward which cosmic evolution continually orients itself. As my colleague puts it:

In an evolutionary worldview, it is clear that life does not have an endpoint, but continues to evolve. Therefore, it is more realistic to replace purpose by direction: life evolves in the direction of more complexity, fitness, intelligence, synergy … you name it. Intent is a good word to capture this idea of pointing or directing, as it derives from the Latin “intendere”, which means “reaching towards.”

In practice this implies that as we reach one goal we then continue to strive for another. And this implies that we not box ourselves into a specific goal, but maintain “the flexibility to choose and change destinations any time along your journey, because … you always learn and become wiser while travelling.” So we shouldn’t accept a endpoint like a heaven, but instead remain open to adapting to lessons we learn along our journey.

This seems reasonable. Our overall purpose in life is to increase the good things about life and consciousness—goodness, truth, beauty, justice, liberty, equality, joy, pleasure—and decrease their opposites. We should try to create a heaven on earth, and for the moment we should take small steps toward this goal. In the present incremental steps may include: reshaping our criminal justice to be less punitive and more therapeutic; preserving the biosphere and stopping climate change;  defeating totalitarian political systems; overcoming racism, sexism, and xenophobia, advancing scientific research, elevating the truth versus the omnipresent lying; raising our children so that they arent’ sociopathic; creating more equitable economic systems; and advancing critical thinking and undermining superstition. Needless to say this list is almost endless.

For the moment we can do is what is humanly possible to bring about a better reality. If we do that we will be judge, if we are judge at all, favorably.