Mr. Daniel Gray, Bachelor of Arts, The University of Washington

Mr. Daniel Gray, B.A. History, 2019, The University of Washington

I taught university philosophy at various institutions for thirty years from 1987 – 2017. In that time I had between 8,000 and 10,000 students. Of all those students I only remember about 25 of them really well.

And of those, there are only two that I still have regular contact with. (This is partly due to the fact that we have moved around the country.) One is my son-in-law who took two of my classes at UT-Austin where he met my daughter. The other is a young man I met while teaching briefly at Shoreline Community College near Seattle. In the ensuing years, we have become good friends and regularly get together. (He is pictured above at his recent graduation from The University of Washington.)

I recently wrote him a congratulatory email which he humbly described as “about the nicest thing anyone has ever written or said to me.” That may be true but it is nearly impossible not to love Daniel. He is a man of intellectual and moral virtue—both a careful and conscientious mind as well as a humble and honorable soul. He is also an epitome of courage. In short, he is one of the “good guys” in this world.

June 14, 2019

Dear Daniel:

Congratulations! The road to your degree was much more difficult for you than for many others—just getting to class is tough for you. You should be proud.

I still remember seeing you wheel through the door of room (about) 1812 at Shoreline CC about eight years ago. You stuck out—being late, as tall sitting as I am standing—and you had a big smile on your face. You cracked some joke shortly thereafter and I thought—I like this guy! A very clear memory. I thought I had a lot to teach Daniel, little did I know he had a lot to teach me.

Daniel, you are a world-class human being, one of the few such people I’ve ever known. Consider how many persons seek nothing but money or fame or power, while you mostly seek wisdom.

And while I’m sure life is tough on you in ways I can’t imagine, you never whine, complain, or bemoan. You have found the Stoics secret to happiness—not getting what you want but wanting what you get. And this in a world where people who have it all are constantly dissatisfied. They are rich but want to be richer, powerful but want more power, famous but not famous enough. They are lucky enough to play golf under blue skies but then complain that the round is too slow.

Let me just say that some of the most memorable times I’ve had in the last few years have been when you motored around your neighborhood and I tried to keep up while listening to your jokes. And thanks too for listening to an old retired philosophy professor pontificate—something he really misses doing! You always let me babble on about something stupid without interruption.

And let me also say that no matter how painful and tragic and meaningless life is, you are a shining star within all this madness. Knowing you has been a great privilege, and one of the things that have made my own life worth living. You are making what Joseph Campbell called, the hero’s journey. You are, like Dicken’s Copperfield, the hero of your own life. And you have enriched mine more than you know.

Finally let me say, Daniel, as Plato did of his beloved friend Socrates, that you are of all those I’ve known one of “the best and wisest and most just.”

with my deepest affection,
with my most fervent wishes for your future health and happiness,
I remain,
as ever,
your friend,

Dr. J

Ancient Process Philosophers

Utrecht Moreelse Heraclite.JPGZhang Lu-Laozi Riding an Ox.jpgBuddha in Sarnath Museum (Dhammajak Mutra).jpg

Heraclitus                                                               Laozi                                  Buddha

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)
https://darrellarnold.com/2018/02/08/process-philosophies-2-heraclitus-laozi-buddha/

Heraclitus and Laozi can be viewed as the earliest representatives of what we can call process philosophy. Heraclitus doesn’t deny that there are things. But he certainly does not emphasize things; and he describes things in reference to their processes, as seen in his teaching on the transformation of the elements. In Taoism, too, the focus on processes is fundamental. Many interpretations of Taoism go so far as to see all particular things as merely parts of the greater whole, which is in process — the Tao. Indeed, a common interpretation is that the objects are mere constructions of human language. The ultimate reality — the Tao, the way, or nature’s way — cannot be known with language. But it can only be, somewhat inadequately, described as in involved in process and flow.

Buddhism also can be viewed as another of the primordial process philosophies. In Buddhism (or at least main strands of it) … it is not clear that objects have any ultimate existence at all. For Buddhists, certainly, our ordinary understanding of things as distinct from other things is really only of instrumental value. The words used to differentiate one object from another do not capture what is ultimate. Ultimate reality transcends what we might call thingness … Buddhists maintain that the ultimate cannot be grasped by specific concepts at all.

Like Taoists, Buddhists stress the impermanence of specific things. They emphasize flow. One of the three marks of existence in Buddhism is impermanence. Another is no-self. Grasping that all things, including the self, continue to change is necessary for enlightenment. Understanding this helps us overcome one of the other three marks, suffering. If we recognize that all things change, we should no longer suffer at our plight, for in some sense the self that is suffering has no ultimate real existence. No-self focuses on how what we understand as the self is not really adequate. The self, like everything, is continually changing. And whatever brought the suffering … will also disappear.

Even though Taoists and Buddhists emphasize flow or impermanence, they do recognize accounts of ourselves as preserving through time. We obviously refer to ourselves with the same names as we change through time. The word “I” refers to any subject who uses it for him or herself. But in what sense is the “I” the same at the various times that a subject uses it? From the 9 pound, eight-ounce child that I was when born, to now, I have a sense of personal identity — even though I don’t even have consciousness of those earliest years, and though I am much larger now than at birth. Other things have changed as well: I now speak two languages fluently. I spoke none at birth. I’ve learned to play a guitar. I can sing. I write and read. In what sense is this me the same me as when I was a child?

Some of these insights of the Buddha or that one can imagine from a Taoist are reinforced from the perspective of contemporary biology. Biologists tell us that every single cell in our bodies changes every seven years. From a contemporary perspective of various sciences, there are good reasons to question the stability of things through time, an idea that dominates our “common sense.” The examples from ecosystems thinking that I have already mentioned drive this home clearly. Process philosophers emphasize the changing of the self and of all things in time as well as their interrelations.

The Basics of Process Philosophy

Alfred North Whitehead.jpg

Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947)

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)
https://darrellarnold.com/2018/02/06/process-philosophies-1/

There is a strong tendency to overlook process and to think we simply live in world full of separate things. We use nouns, which indicate some kind of stable entities — what in the philosophical tradition have been called “substances.” It’s quite normal to think of the world as a thing, filled with other things — rivers, mountains, lions, mosquitos, people, all sort of things. It’s also quite normal to think of these individual things as distinct from other things, which they are not. The fish is not the river. It is in the river. The river is not the river valley. It flows through the valley. The valley is not the region. But it is a part of a region. Objects are parts of bigger objects still. Wholes are parts of other wholes.

It is indeed very natural for us to think in terms of such objects. Yet some philosophers have tried to orient us away from focusing so much on things and to guide us to think of processes as primary. The fish then is seen as a form of life only sustained through the eating of other fish and plant life, the absorption of minerals, whose habit is the healthy river, and whose well-being and even survival is dependent on the health of the river. The river is water in flow, but a healthy river needs water blockages in places, such as rocks and logs that create dams from which water overflows further into the river. These overflows add oxygen to the water, creating a healthier habitat for fish. Overflow into the flood plain is necessary for healthy rivers. There bacteria forms, which filter nitrates from the to nitrogen gas, which then is returned to the atmosphere. Without this filtering process, the nitrate levels of the river water also can become too high and fish in a lake into which a river feeds may become unhealthy and die. This process of overflow also creates ponds and puddles, which serve as habitat for various animals in the river valley.

Now, where does the river stop and the river valley begin? The ponds and puddles were once a part of the river, but later a part of the river valley. How are these separable in any definitive sense? Ecosystems have fuzzy boundaries. The region, for its part, is also not just an area of some square miles or hectors (though we can draw one up that way for political purposes). But for the purposes of biology, a bioregion likewise has a fuzzy boundary. In modern society,  a region is characterized not only by the flora, fauna and geographical formations but by industry, flows of traffic, people who have moved to the region, and other things, all which influence the biodiversity of the area, the health of the river, and so on. Processes are involved at every step being described here. We cannot understand the things mentioned without understanding the processes in which they are involved. Process philosophers tend to emphasize these processes that interlink these various things, and they emphasize that the things themselves have fuzzy boundaries and are also characterized by their processes.

The focus on processes is rarer than the focus on stable things. But especially in light of our environmental concerns today, and the fundamental importance of understanding the intersection of biological and human processes in order to address those concerns, a focus on processes is vital.

In referring to process philosophy in this context, I am leaning on some ideas developed by Nicholas Rescher in Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues (Univ. of Pittsburg Press, 2000.) But I am focusing on different figures than he does.

First of all, I want to underline the importance of adding various Eastern philosophers to the list of process thinkers, including Laozi and Buddha. Among Western philosophers, I will also emphasize some different thinkers than Rescher does. In addition to thinkers that Rescher mentions — of course, Alfred Whitehead, the 20th century American philosophers most clearly identified with the label of process philosophy, as well as Heraclitus, Henri Bergson, Charles Sanders Pierce and William James — I think it important to add Hegel and Marx, certain systems thinkers, as well as Giles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri, two important 20th century French philosophers. These thinkers too underline the importance of systemic interactions, of process, of change.

All of these thinkers share at least the first four characteristics that Rescher views as basic tendencies of process thinkers. In Rescher’s words:

  1. Time and change are among the principle categories of metaphysical understanding.
  2. Process is a principle category of ontological description.
  3. Processes are more fundamental, or at any rate, not less fundamental than things for the purposes of ontological theory.
  4. Several, if not all, of the major elements of the ontological repertoire (God, nature as a whole, persons, material substances) are best understood in process terms.
  5. Contingency, emergence, novelty, and creativity are among the fundamental categories of metaphysical understanding.  (5-6)

The final criterion is the one that some of the thinkers on my list are considered by some not to meet. Hegel and Marx are often read as not allowing contingency. Nonetheless, these thinkers, like Heraclitus and Laozi, and the others mentioned, focus on process as fundamental to understanding history, self, and much else. So there is good reason to include them.

A future post will focus on Heraclitus, Laozi, and the Buddha as some of the original process thinkers.

_________________________________________________________________________

Rescher, Nicholas. Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues. (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press. 2000)

Schlesinger, Bill. June 7, 2016.“What Makes a Healthy Stream?”  Translational Ecology. Citizen Scientist. Web. Access February 8, 2018.

Is There A Divine Plan?

The front ends of two vehicles after an accident

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)
https://darrellarnold.com/2018/10/05/jesus-and-car-crashes/

After a near-fatal car accident, philosophy professor Darrell Arnold penned this essay.

“Jesus And Car Wrecks”

I was recently in a car accident. It was a serious one in which I suffered a broken rib, a broken collarbone, a fractured ankle, stitches on my right wrist and right hand, and stitches from the tip of my nose to the top and along the bridge of my nose to my eyebrows. My nose was fully split open. The insurance assessor who looked at the car agreed with my initial assessment when he saw it: I was lucky to be alive.

A few days later my wife put a notice on Facebook that I was healing well and was going to be fine. I was released from hospital four days after the accident and again put a picture on Facebook showing me to look pretty good — from a distance with bad lighting — for a person who had just been run over by a Toyota Tacoma. Many condolences came in, along with well wishes. Many people thanked God that I was alive. Some assured me that God must have a special plan for me since he saved me from death in this accident.

The mythologizing of this event in our context, of course, provides an opportunity to reflect on the idea of a divine plan that people often invoke when speaking in such contexts or, as I will put it more provocatively and more specifically for the given situation, Jesus and car wrecks. Many religious systems have some idea of a divine plan. I’m going to get at Christianity’s in a somewhat roundabout way by speaking of the influence upon it by an ancient Greek school of thought, Stoicism.

The Stoics, who emerged in the third century BCE,  thought that everything that happens does so in accordance with the dictates of rationality, the logos. This rational core of reality isn’t imposed on nature by a deity outside of it. Rather it is imposed internally by nature itself, which unfolds in accordance with its own rational, divine plan. We, humans, have no freedom to influence the course of events around us. What we can do is change our attitudes towards the things that do occur. This is the key to our happiness or tranquility.

Christians, influenced by Stoics and others, developed a similar notion of Christian Providence. Everything that occurs, many Christians believed and believe, is ordained by God’s plan. Here though, for the most part, the Christian tradition has seen the plan not as imposed by nature itself but by a transcendent God on nature.

To get back to my accident: In alignment with this view, it was ordained by God’s plan, as was my healing after the accident. The fact that I’m alive now rather than not is because God, in his divine wisdom, didn’t think it was my time to go yet. God, as the giver of life, can in this view take it whenever he pleases. The giver of life is not culpable for also being the taker of life. In many cases, he appears to use reckless drivers or other irresponsible parties to achieve his plan.

While for the Stoics there was no chance of changing the divine plan, one was simply to learn to accept it, for Christians, as well as other members of Abrahamic religions, questions have arisen about whether God might change his plan depending on prayers and supplications. But that leads us to another set of questions, which I can’t explore here.

The views I am exploring here are of course hefty metaphysical ideas on their own part; and they are awash with questions: If there is a divine plan, how would we know what it is? Why should we accept that there is one? Beyond that, to accept that things like traffic accidents — that lead in some cases to death, and some cases not — are all part of God’s plan us in some logical conundrums.

Moving from this idea of God’s plan to Jesus’s plan — something I want to mention since I’ve titled this “Jesus and car wrecks” — of course, makes the argument more difficult still. It is, I guess, less cumbersome — though surely cumbersome enough — to show that an accident like mine was God’s plan than that it was Jesus’s plan since to show the latter, one would have to show the plausibility of the Trinity and other such things — no small feat.

But let me pursue for a moment the idea that this accident and my surviving it are parts of God’s plan. This involves us from the outset in a paradox of sorts. For if it was God’s plan that I was in the accident, then it appears that we must claim that the accident should have happened. This implies that it was God’s plan for the person who was driving dangerously, sleeping at the wheel or playing with this phone to have been driving dangerously, sleeping at the wheel or playing with his phone, whichever of those things led him to veer into my lane and crash his Toyota Tacoma into the windshield of my Prius C. In short, if the accident was supposed to happen, and the driver’s recklessness was necessary for the accident, then the driver was supposed to be driving recklessly.

The paradox is that while this metaphysical argument implies that this recklessness should have happened, we typically also have a moral imperative that runs in the opposite direction — that this driver shouldn’t have been driving recklessly. He should have been paying attention. He failed by driving recklessly to live up not only to his moral obligations but to the basic requirements of the law. The paradox then is that — in line with such an argument  — this driver both should and should not have been driving recklessly.

Now philosophers have long dealt with this basic conundrum — since Heraclitus at least — and their ways of dealing with the problem typically betray something of a sleight-of-hand. One typical route for the devout is to say that human morality is simply a conventional perspective, surpassed by a divine perspective — well, whenever God decides. In that case, the normal moral rules that we follow do not really hold in all circumstances. They are something like rules of thumb for us but surpassed as God wants them to be. So in our case, while the driver of the Tacoma normally should not drive recklessly, on this morning he should have since on this morning his driving recklessly was necessary to carry out God’s will — namely, an accident in which I was nearly killed.

Here paradoxically again God might work with the two parties of the accident in some subtle and mysterious ways. Perhaps the driver of the other car needs to awaken to the fact that he normally drives too recklessly. This accident might teach him a lesson. Or it will push him toward some moral reform since he is confronted with the potential shortness of someone else’s life. And who likes that? Perhaps I needed a near-death experience. Maybe the accident will awaken in me a gratitude for the preciousness of every day for the rest of my life.

Or some might think that a near-death experience should lead me to put aside any questions in God’s existence and devote the rest of my life to God’s service or some such thing. Here then the guilty driver should still feel guilty for driving recklessly even though it was meant to be. He should learn from this “mistake” that was meant to be and waken up to his normal responsibilities to drive safely. I should learn from this accident preciousness of life or to put aside any doubt of God’s existence or some such thing.

This way of addressing the question of Jesus and car wrecks (or God and car wrecks more generally) is related to the classical problem of evil. Why if God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving is there evil in the world? Or more specifically, why would such a deity allow bad things to happen to good people? An all-powerful God could have made me drive three seconds faster on September 25, 2018, so that I wasn’t in precisely the right spot to be run over by an inattentive driver in a head-on collision. He could have had the other driver finish reading the note on his phone this seconds earlier and look up from his phone, turn with the curve and avoid the accident. Or he could have had him not drop the cigarette, or not fall asleep. I’m not sure what his distraction was. Whatever it was, a perfectly loving God could have found some simple way to delay it a couple of seconds.

I have outlined a common way to try to counter the problem of evil — namely to deny that what appears evil is truly evil. Some things, in accord with this view, appear to be evil to humans but from a divine perspective (not comprehensible to humans) those things are really good.

In a typical discussion of this view, God does not create evil itself but merely allows it to occur — something necessary for a world with free will. I don’t want to explore these in more detail. But if one wants to maintain this and that God is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful then it seems one is forced to maintain that the human understanding of good is inadequate. Another alternative, sometimes combined with that, is to maintain that since God gives life, it is not immoral for him to take it (even according to a kind of human measure). God allows it to happen. This might provide an out — but then it would seem one would give up on saying things when such bad things occur like “It was God’s plan.” “It was meant to be.” “It all happened in accord with God’s will.”

Now one might simply say that the accident was regrettable, surely not a part of God’s will, but bad things are the price we sometimes pay for human freedom. Life thus would have pain and suffering that wasn’t necessary, that wasn’t willed by a divine being and that wasn’t a part of his plan, but that happened anyway because this God gave up some of his power to people to do things like play with their phones while driving killing machines. The bigger logical problem comes because rarely will metaphysicians follow where I have just suggested going. Rather, they will say human freedom caused it, but God willed it anyway.

I think it should be clear that these arguments are little more than rationalizations from a dogmatic starting point — one that requires that no dogma be softened and any contradictions in the argument must be explained away as apparent only. Such dogmatic metaphysics clearly exemplifies what Jean-Paul Sartre had called bad faith.

The only honest course of reasoning simply highlights the inconsistency of this metaphysical thinking and the desperation that we can recognize in what we might call such a metaphysical Hail Mary pass. From a logical point of view I think the matter is relatively simple: Either God willed the accident, in which case he willed what was necessary for it, the reckless driving, or God didn’t will the reckless driving or the accident, but both happened anyway. The accident either should or should not have happened. It was or it wasn’t meant to be. (Alternatively, we could move toward an idea of a deity that is not all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. such as one finds in process theology. But this would really involve us in some parsing that is not possible here.)

I think it is because of a desire for great consolation that people believe that everything in the world happens as it should have happened or was meant to be. This consolation is not itself a reason for believing the truth of that which consoles. And in fact, there is no reason we should need such false security for consolation. The more profound truth, I believe, is that we quite clearly live in a world where many things occur that should not. (my emphasis) If moral reflection shows us anything it is that we live in a world where we are continually faced with moral failings. Things happen that should not have happened. If there is a good God, who wants what is best, then that God would want human beings to live up to their moral obligations. The view of Abrahamic religions is that such a God gave human beings freedom and that many of the failings in the world can be explained by the fact that humans have failed to live up to their ideals. We live in an incomplete world.

Oddly though, while Abrahamic religions tend to believe in such failings in the world as I’ve described, they also tend to believe in divine providence. Yet it is not possible to square the fact that there are so many failings in the world with the view that all that occurs happens in accord with God’s will or providence — that it all should happen. Holding the two views at the same time is simply logically contradictory. We can understand the various psychological reasons people have for doing so — sort of. But that doesn’t make it any less disingenuous.

Why not accept instead the more mature belief that we live in a world full of contingencies, where much happens that never should have? We live in fact in a frayed, tattered world where perhaps all of what is should never have been just as it is — since it only came together out of an entire history of failings and missed opportunities. Nonetheless, it is beautiful and surprising, disappointing and delightful. This requires the abandonment both of the traditional Stoic determinism and of Christian metaphysics that wants to maintain both the freedom of individuals and preordination — and that is often expressed in statements that accidents like mine were all part of God’s plan.

This short reflection leaves aside the general question of God’s existence. (I can say that such an accident does not provide me more reason for believing in God or Jesus, or divine rationality of the world order than I had before.) But what I mean to point out here is that there is an unresolvable tension between some points of theological dogma accepted by many that lead people to say things like this was all part of God’s plan, or God willed my accident or more horrific things still that occur to other people every day.

We can rest assured that those with the belief in God will lean on that belief when they have accidents that never should have happened to work through those and make meaning out of them. But might they do so without some false sense of security that the wrecks were meant to be?

For the non-religious or the less conventionally religious, a contemporary form of Stoicism provides another option. Modern-day Stoics will not argue that everything that occurs in the world is part of some rational plan, as the original Stoics did. Yet we might benefit from accepting a kernel Stoic teaching — that we should not try to change the things that we cannot change but only those things that we can. Other things, acts of “fate” if we want to call them that, which we cannot change, can be learned from. We might even learn moral lessons from them — like to cherish each day as special and beautiful, knowing one day that the last of our days will come.

To know those things one needn’t believe that Jesus wants terrible car wrecks or that God the Father plans them. Indeed, I think there are strong reasons for dismissing such views, since the belief in these things inherently contradicts other ideas that there are compelling reasons to believe — such as the view that we should not drive recklessly, that mistakes happen, that life doesn’t live up to our ideals.

One doesn’t need a thick metaphysics to learn from tragedy that despite its flaws, life can be very beautiful nonetheless — if one is lucky enough to live another day with a body and mind intact, healed or healing.

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.”