Authors: Yuval Noah Harari
During the Second Temple period a rival religious elite was formed. Due partly to Persian and Greek influences, Jewish scholars who wrote and interpreted texts gained increasing prominence. These scholars eventually came to be known as rabbis, and the texts they compiled were christened ‘the Bible’. Rabbinical authority rested on individual intellectual abilities rather than on birth. The clash between the new literate elite and the old priestly families was inevitable. Luckily for the rabbis, the Romans torched Jerusalem and its temple while suppressing the Great Jewish Revolt (
70). With the temple in ruins, the priestly families lost their religious authority, their economic power base and their very
. Traditional Judaism – a Judaism of temples, priests and head-splitting warriors – disappeared. Its place was taken by a new Judaism of books, rabbis and hair-splitting scholars. The
scholars’ main forte was interpretation. They used this ability not only to explain how an almighty God allowed His temple to be destroyed, but also to bridge the immense gaps between the old Judaism described in biblical stories and the very different Judaism they created.
Hence according to our best scientific knowledge, the Leviticus injunctions against homosexuality reflect nothing grander than the biases of a few priests and scholars in ancient Jerusalem. Though science cannot decide whether people ought to obey God’s commands, it has many relevant things to say about the provenance of the Bible. If Ugandan politicians think that the power that created the cosmos, the galaxies and the black holes becomes terribly upset whenever two
males have a bit of fun together, then science can help disabuse them of this rather bizarre notion.
In truth, it is not always easy to separate ethical judgements from factual statements. Religions have the nagging tendency to turn factual statements into ethical judgements, thereby creating terrible confusion and obfuscating what should have been relatively simple debates. Thus the factual statement ‘God wrote the Bible’ all too often mutates into the ethical injunction ‘you ought to believe that God wrote the Bible’. Merely believing in this factual statement becomes a virtue, whereas doubting it becomes a terrible sin.
Conversely, ethical judgements often hide within them factual statements that people don’t bother to mention, because they think they have been proven beyond doubt. Thus the ethical judgement ‘human life is sacred’ (which science cannot test) may shroud the factual statement ‘every human has an eternal soul’ (which is open for scientific debate). Similarly, when American nationalists proclaim that ‘the American nation is sacred’, this seemingly ethical judgement is in fact predicated on factual statements such as ‘the USA has spearheaded most of the moral, scientific and economic
advances of the last few centuries’. Whereas it is impossible to scientifically scrutinise the claim that the American nation is sacred, once we unpack this judgement we may well examine scientifically whether the USA has indeed been responsible for a disproportionate share of moral, scientific and economic breakthroughs.
This has led some philosophers, such as Sam Harris, to argue that science can always resolve ethical dilemmas, because human values
hide within them some factual statements. Harris thinks all humans share a single supreme value – minimising suffering and maximising happiness – and all ethical debates are factual arguments concerning the most efficient way to maximise happiness.
Islamic fundamentalists want to reach heaven in order to be happy, liberals believe that increasing human liberty maximises happiness, and German nationalists think that everyone would be better off if they only allowed Berlin to run this planet. According to Harris, Islamists, liberals and nationalists have no ethical dispute; they have a factual disagreement about how best to realise their common goal.
Yet even if Harris is right, and even if all humans cherish happiness, in practice it would be extremely difficult to use this insight to decide ethical disputes, particularly because we have no scientific definition or measurement of happiness. Consider the case of the Three Gorges Dam. Even if we agree that the ultimate aim of the project is to make the world a happier place, how can we tell whether generating cheap electricity contributes more to global happiness than protecting traditional lifestyles or saving the rare Chinese river dolphin? As long as we haven’t deciphered the mysteries of consciousness, we cannot develop a universal measurement for happiness and suffering, and we don’t know how to compare the happiness and suffering of different individuals, let alone different species. How many units of happiness are generated when a billion Chinese enjoy cheaper electricity? How many units of misery are produced when an entire dolphin species becomes extinct? Indeed, are happiness and misery mathematical entities that can be added or subtracted in the first place? Eating ice cream is enjoyable.
Finding true love is more enjoyable. Do you think that if you just eat enough ice cream, the accumulated pleasure could ever equal the rapture of true love?
Consequently, although science has much more to contribute to ethical debates than we commonly think, there is a line it cannot cross, at least not yet. Without the guiding hand of some religion, it is impossible to maintain large-scale social orders. Even universities and laboratories need religious backing. Religion provides the ethical justification for scientific research, and in exchange gets to influence the scientific agenda and the uses of scientific discoveries. Hence you cannot understand the history of science without taking religious beliefs into account. Scientists seldom dwell on this fact, but the Scientific Revolution itself began in one of the most dogmatic, intolerant and religious societies in history.
The Witch Hunt
We often associate science with the values of secularism and tolerance. If so, early modern Europe is the last place you would have expected a scientific revolution. Europe in the days of Columbus, Copernicus and Newton had the highest concentration of religious fanatics in the world, 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.
If you travelled to Cairo or Istanbul around 1600, you would find there a multicultural and tolerant metropolis, where Sunnis, Shiites, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Armenians, Copts, Jews and even the occasional Hindu lived side by side in relative harmony. Though they had their share of disagreements and riots, and though the Ottoman Empire routinely discriminated against people on religious grounds, it was a liberal paradise compared with Europe. If you then travelled to contemporary Paris or London, you would find cities awash with religious extremism, in which
only those belonging to the dominant sect could live. In London they killed Catholics, in Paris they killed Protestants, the Jews had long been driven out, and nobody in his right mind would dream of letting any Muslims in. And yet, the Scientific Revolution began in London and Paris rather than in Cairo and Istanbul.
It is customary to tell the history of modernity as a struggle between science and religion. In theory, both science and religion are interested above all in the truth, and because each upholds a different truth, they are doomed to clash. In fact, neither science nor religion cares that much about the truth, hence they can easily compromise, coexist and even cooperate.
Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. It aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth. They can therefore make good bedfellows. The uncompromising quest for truth is a spiritual journey, which can seldom remain within the confines of either religious or scientific establishments.
It would accordingly be far more correct to view modern history as the process of formulating a deal between science and one particular religion – namely, humanism. Modern society believes in humanist dogmas, and uses science not in order to question these dogmas, but rather in order to implement them. In the twenty-first century the humanist dogmas are unlikely to be replaced by pure scientific theories. However, the covenant linking science and humanism may well crumble, and give way to a very different kind of deal, between science and some new post-humanist religion. We will dedicate the next two chapters to understanding the modern covenant between science and humanism. The third and final part of the book will then explain why this covenant is disintegrating, and what new deal might replace it.
Modernity is a deal. All of us sign up to this deal on the day we are born, and it regulates our lives until the day we die. Very few of us can ever rescind or transcend this deal. It shapes our food, our jobs and our dreams, and it decides where we dwell, whom we love and how we pass away.
At first sight, modernity looks like an extremely complicated deal, hence few try to understand what they have signed up to. It’s like when you download some software and are asked to sign an accompanying contract which is dozens of pages of legalese; you take one look at it, immediately scroll down to the last page, tick ‘I agree’ and forget about it. Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.
Up until modern times, most cultures believed that humans play a part in some great cosmic plan. The plan was devised by the omnipotent gods, or by the eternal laws of nature, and humankind could not change it. The cosmic plan gave meaning to human life, but also restricted human power. Humans were much like actors on a stage. The script gave meaning to their every word, tear and gesture – but placed strict limits on their performance. Hamlet cannot murder Claudius in Act I, or leave Denmark and go to an ashram in India. Shakespeare won’t allow it. Similarly, humans
cannot live for ever, they cannot escape all diseases, and they cannot do as they please. It’s not in the script.
In exchange for giving up power, premodern humans believed that their lives gained meaning. It really mattered whether they fought bravely on the battlefield, whether they supported the lawful king, whether they ate forbidden foods for breakfast or whether they had an affair with the next-door neighbour. This created some inconveniences, of course, but it gave humans psychological protection against disasters. If something terrible happened – such as war, plague or drought – people consoled themselves that ‘We all play a role in some great cosmic drama, devised by the gods, or by the laws of nature. We are not privy to the script, but we can rest assured that everything happens for a purpose. Even this terrible war, plague and drought have their place in the greater scheme of things. Furthermore, we can count on the playwright that the story surely has a good ending. So even the war, plague and drought will work out for the best – if not here and now, then in the afterlife.’
Modern culture rejects this belief in a great cosmic plan. We are not actors in any larger-than-life drama. Life has no script, no playwright, no director, no producer – and no meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. During our infinitesimally brief stay on our tiny speck of a planet, we fret and strut this way and that, and then are heard of no more.
Since there is no script, and since humans fulfil no role in any great drama, terrible things might befall us and no power will come to save us, or give meaning to our suffering. There won’t be a happy ending, or a bad ending, or any ending at all. Things just happen, one after the other. The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens’.
On the other hand, if shit just happens, without any binding script or purpose, then humans too are not limited to any predetermined role. We can do anything we want – provided we can find a way. We are constrained by nothing except our own ignorance. Plagues and droughts have no cosmic meaning – but we can
eradicate them. Wars are not a necessary evil on the way to a better future – but we can make peace. No paradise awaits us after death – but we can create paradise here on earth, and live in it for ever, if we just manage to overcome some technical difficulties.
If we invest money in research, then scientific breakthroughs will accelerate technological progress. New technologies will fuel economic growth, and a growing economy could dedicate even more money to research. With each passing decade we will enjoy more food, faster vehicles and better medicines. One day our knowledge will be so vast and our technology so advanced that we could distil the elixir of eternal youth, the elixir of true happiness, and any other drug we might possibly desire – and no god will stop us.
The modern deal thus offers humans an enormous temptation, coupled with a colossal threat. Omnipotence is in front of us, almost within our reach, but below us yawns the abyss of complete nothingness. On the practical level, modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning. Modern culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, inventing, discovering and growing. At the same time, it is plagued by more existential angst than any previous culture.
This chapter discusses the modern pursuit of power. The next chapter will examine how humankind has used its growing power to somehow sneak meaning back into the infinite emptiness of the cosmos. Yes, we moderns have promised to renounce meaning in exchange for power; but there’s nobody out there to hold us to our promise. We think we are smart enough to enjoy the full benefits of the modern deal, without paying its price.