Michael Shermer with Dr. Yuval Noah Harari — 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (SCIENCE SALON # 38)



this is your host Michael Shermer and you're listening to science salon a series of conversations with leading scientists scholars and thinkers about the most important issues of our time if you enjoy the video audio and written content we produce please show your support by making a donation at skeptic comm / donate or a monthly pledge at patreon.com slash skeptic your ongoing patronage is vital to our organization's mission to promote science and critical thinking congratulations on your third book 21 lessons for the 21st century a sequel as it were in your trilogy may be of sapiens and Homo Deus I read both of those actually I listened to both of them on audio the unabridged audio recordings which is a really a great way to consume books when you're living in Southern California driving around a lot most of the books they read these days actually listen to them yeah it's it's good and podcasts I don't know if you've discovered teaching company courses but they're also really valuable for a way of consuming time and content so do you have a heart out here today or how much time do you have I'll be the US for about two weeks oh no I mean just right now in our conversation oh right no I will still be up an hour or so yep that sounds fine yeah that sounds good I I think isn't as an entry into your book I want to bring up the the issue of CP snows famous essay about the two cultures now over half a century ago he described this problem of the sciences and the humanities with this gaping chasm between them and it seems like they weren't communicating well I think this problem has largely been solved my agent and the author and literary agent Jon Brockman causes the third culture these are these are books that are written for everybody humanities people science people anybody really in it excuse me the genre sort of goes back to Darwin the Origin of Species for example is not the popular version of this technical theory it's the only version there is and anybody can read it and I think if Jared Diamond's books particularly Guns Germs and Steel I you know Jared's a longtime good friend and I I know how that book was written and it's not like he published a bunch of technical papers in scholarly scientific journals and then dumbed it down for the public and Guns Germs and Steel no pens German steel is the only book and a way to get his theory same thing with Dawkins The Selfish Gene and many of Steve Pinker's books like the blank slate and better angels of our nature so I think if your books in that genre that sort of third culture John Roth written for everybody not dumbed down the this is serious writing and yet it has a broad appeal and I'm wondering if you sort of see yourself in that genre as an author oh yes certainly I think I come from the opposite direction then most of the people you mentioned because I count from the humanities and I try to bridge the gap from our side of the edge of the chasm but I definitely see myself writing an inter edition of people like Jared Diamond or was maybe the biggest influence to me and also France Duvall and Steven Pinker certainly mm-hmm yeah it's nice to see a historian I by training I'm also historian of science and that that our profession is alive and well in terms of talking about current events not just you know the past and what's happened there so I think it's critical for historians and philosophers and social critics to be far more engaged with what is happening in fields like biology and genetics and computer science not just because it makes their work deeper and moral and and more informed but also because the most important questions are now at the borderlands between the humanities and the life sciences and information sciences and when certainly when it comes to political and social questions then this should be the expertise of historians and philosophers and if they don't understand the technical aspects of these questions then they can't contribute much right I think of Jarrod's books for example particularly Guns Germs and Steel is you know most historians writing some narrow technical scholarly area that they're describing have have a narrative that in which you know a happens then B happens then C happens then D happens and so on and Jared at some point just says okay let's stop here for a moment and ask why did it happen in that sequence and not some other sequence like you know why did civilization develop at certain rates in the Middle East versus in Australia versus North America and let's look at the geographical conditions and so on so bringing that that it's a historical perspective integrated with scientific hypothesis testing and and laying over a theoretical framework really I think helps bring it into sharp focus of why we should care and I think of your books doing that yeah this is what I try to do at least and basically the most important is insight here is that humans are animals and you cannot really understand history if you don't take into account the underlying biology and ecology but on the other hand humans are quite unique animals and you cannot explain human history and current politics if the only thing you know is just biology and just brain science and just ecology I don't think there is a satisfying biological explanation for the second world war or for the economic crisis of 2008 biology helps us to explain them in many many different ways but it's not enough you need to take culture into account you need to take ideas and stories and fictions and these are things which we are very far from having satisfying description of in terms of genes and no runs and neurotransmitters you know definitely for sure and and you do that beautifully in your books particularly in the latest 121 lessons here for the 21st century I was just watching you're at the economic forum you just paid it out a few months ago I guess and it's out of room in some of the big questions people ask you like almost like you're a guru and I remember the first time I saw Stephen Hawking he came to Southern California he used to come to Cal Tech every year to work and he would have some big public event and people had just asked him you know like is there a god what's the meaning of life you know like like he knows that but but and it reminds me a little bit of the current Jordan Peterson phenomenon of you know the people by the thousands turning out for his talks asking in these deep questions I think what you're tapping into here is a human need for meaningful stories to put some kind of framework on the apparent chaos of the world yes but I'm very much afraid of this label or image of the Guru because I know very well that I don't have the answers maybe some answers to some questions but not the answers to all the questions and it's extremely dangerous when people turn anybody into this figure of the Guru who knows everything then they stop thinking for themselves and also it's not very good for for the alleged Guru because it tends to go to your to your head start believing in everything that people say about you then it's it's not very good for your ego and for your peace of mind I think that's right that's perfectly said but still it you know there is a human need for some kind of structure some kind of story you you in all your books you talk about humans as storytellers myth makers democracy is a fiction money is a fiction in a way these are useful fictions though that we need to bring order to the chaos and so let's just get right into the the 21 lessons I don't have time to go through all 21 of them but but right at the beginning chapter one disillusion at the end of history has been postponed I like that subtitle because when I was in graduate school and a ph.d program in history 1989 is when Francis Fukuyama published that famous essay the end of history you know after the fall of the of the Communists the Soviet empire and you know for a while it seemed like he was right it's like all the different many countries were converting to liberal democracies and you know that trend is Pinker tracks in the better angels of our nature that you know we're up to about a hundred and twenty liberal democracies now whereas a century ago in nineteen twenty I mean women couldn't even vote in America until nineteen twenty I mean that that so you're not technically a liberal democracy if not all your adult citizens can vote so you know we've come a long ways and yet on the other hand it seems like countries are and national leaders are doubling down on nationalism now and not moving in the direction of a more liberal narrative and so let's just start there with with the end of history or at the end of history being postponed yes this is what everybody's talking about right now to present it in the most general way in the twentieth century we had three big stories to explain everything to explain the human past and the present and what's going to be in the future you had the fascist story the communist story and the liberal story and then the Second World War knocked out the fascist story and the second half of the 20th century was this great ideological battle between communism and liberalism and then communism collapsed and the liberal story remained is our only guide to the past to the present into the future and this is when people started talking about the end of history not in the sense that nothing will happen anymore but in the sense that we now know where we are heading we know the end of the story we just need to sit and and watch it happen and then an amazing thing happened or is happening which is that the liberal story is now collapsing and this creates not just disillusionment but panic and bewilderment because the the shift from a single story that explains everything to having zero stories is the most unsettling thing you can think about I mean if you move from two stories to one story it actually creates more certainty okay now we know the answers but then to move from one story to zero this is extremely difficult mentally to cooperate and one of the results of one of the solutions or at least a temporary solution is to bring out of the Attic all kinds of fantasies about the past all kinds of stories stories which we thought at least that we have left behind a long time ago and you see a revival of nationalism and of religion as some something to fill the vacuum with mm-hmm yeah I remember when when we're in the middle of the Afghan and Iraqi Wars and and george w bush was making his argument for the case for democracy and he referenced natan Sharansky book the case for democracy the power of freedom to overcome tyranny and terror and i and i thought yeah that's a really good argument but on the other hand the idea of sending the troops in to help bring about democracy seems problematic and that's exactly what's happened particularly in iraq backfiring for against that idea of bringing democracy to people that well yeah you you don't want to say they're not capable of it or they don't want it but the country is to tribal to unite under a larger democratic umbrella i think i'm not an expert on iraq so I'm not sure what rank went wrong there but something obviously went very very wrong there and you know it's I mean 15 years ago the Americans were trying to impose liberal democracies on countries unwilling countries and populations on the other side of the world and now 15 years later they are having doubts about their own liberal democracy so we've definitely come a very long way for all the invasion of Iraq yeah yeah by the way I should know parenthetically at the beginning of your book in the intro you you say that you're critical of much of the liberal philosophy and campaign but not not that you don't think it's good that that we must be able to criticize ourselves from within so I I think that serves a useful purpose there are many issues like forcing democracy on people that just doesn't work and you know in the other hand we can't ignore the threats to civil rights and civil liberties around the world I'm reminded of in the Clinton administration you know he he did not intervene in Rwanda soon enough and you know hundreds of thousands of people died in that genocide and he was severely criticized for that so he does intervene in Kosovo and then he's accused of being the world's policeman running around intervening in other people's businesses it just seems like no matter what you do you're gonna get be criticized in it but it's difficult to know what's the right thing to do well that's always the case when you're very powerful no matter what you do you will attract some criticism if you just want to please everybody you will never succeed in doing that so yeah but I think that the main problem now I would say with liberal democracy and liberalism is not so much the attempt to impose it through force and violence on other countries it's the I would say that the difficulty in formulating any meaningful vision for the future of humanity and even more so the difficulty of coming to terms with the scientific discoveries and technological inventions of this generation I would say that thing affirm for a long-term perspective the biggest problem of liberalism is that humans are now hackable animals and this doesn't sit well with the liberal worldview once you can hack human beings I mean but by that I mean that you can understand them better than they understand themselves you cannot just predict there voices you can increasingly manipulate and control their desires their feelings and ultimately you could perhaps even replace them and the idea that you can hack people and you can really control and manipulate the feelings and emotions makes a mockery of the liberal ideas of elections and of the free market and you know and until today it wasn't such a big problem because we didn't have the technology even if it was never true that humans make choices out of free will and that my feelings reflect some kind of metaphysical spirit even though it was never true nobody ever had technology to hack human beings and now we are beginning to have that technology or at least some of us so this now becomes a practical problem not a philosophical problem I mean the philosophical arguments about free will and our people makes decision they are thousands of years old but thousands of years ago or even a couple of decades ago nobody had the biological knowledge and the computing power necessary to hack human beings and now we have them and this I would say is the greatest long-term threat to liberal democracy mm-hmm yeah when when the Russian hackers Russian hacking story first broke I first thought you know this kind of treating Democrats like their their automata like they can't think they have no volition they're just being you know pushed around through social media by these these Russian hackers but you know when you think about what influences us and how we make our decisions and all the cognitive psychology research on that we are pretty etana we are autonomous automations in that sense that you know somebody like a Google or a Facebook or a Twitter can push our push around our preferences without us even knowing it so it seems like what you've described is is already underway yeah it has been prepared by a century and a half of research in biology and in brain science ultimately what Darvin teller tells us and what all the latest research in brain science tells us is that organisms are algorithms and that our decisions and our choices and our feelings reflect biochemical algorithms extremely complicated ones which is why up till now nobody was able to decipher them but if you have enough data if you have enough understanding of biology and if you have enough computing power it's not impossible to hack these algorithms and then you can control and manipulate people and what we have seen with the Russian hackers and with the trolls over the last couple of years always YouTube pushing to us funny cat videos and Amazon pushing products to us this is really just at the beginning of the tip of the iceberg because up till now most of the analysis mode of the most of the hacking of human beings has been done on the basis of external signals of where you go and what you search online and which kind of videos you watch on YouTube and what you buy and things like that but the real turning point will be when we will start having enormous amounts of biometric data coming from within our bodies so whether it's Amazon or whether it's Netflix or whether it's the government or whether it's the Russian hackers they will be able to track not just what we buy or what we search for but what is happening to our hearts and brains as we do it what is happening to our hearts and brains really every moment of our life and the kind of information you can gain from that is really mine mind-boggling and you really will we really will be in a situation when an external system can understand me much better than my mother understands me much better than my husband understands me much better than I understand myself and this is a philosophical question it's also a very practical political question our institutions whether in the political system or in the economic system have not been built to deal with this kind of situation hmm maybe I shouldn't have signed up for the 23andme genome scan it was just kind of on a whim to write one of my scientific American columns about it and but now they have my data that gets sent here chapters 3 & 4 on liberty and equality about big data and to what extent were free well let me know parenthetically I just got back from Moscow for a science conference and I had an extra day to do some sightseeing so I went to their big Victory Park which is what we would call a World War two museum they don't call it that it's the Great Patriotic War Museum I saw no where at reference the Second World War just the Great Patriotic War and I thought oh boy you know we are we are a long ways from this naive vision I have of you know all the all countries in the world are liberal democracies like America I mean that you know and you know history has not ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet empire I mean they still very much see themselves as you know a national character of a certain type different from other national characters yes it's it was never true that all the world definitely not a liberal democracy and also not not on the way of becoming a liberal democracy it was widespread theory for a short while but looking back it doesn't seem that this was ever the case right and it's this museum is unbelievable just how many people died and I mean tens of millions of Soviet mostly men in the just the war itself not not to mention what Stalin did to his own people and all that they don't mention that of course but but just it is true that certainly when you look at the numbers World War Two in Europe was a war between Germany and its allies and the Soviet Union yeah and everything else was a small sideshow at least until the end of 1944 I mean you know in in the Western Desert in North Africa Rommel had two German divisions and a couple of Italian divisions whereas in on the Eastern Front we are talking about battles and in front involving hundreds of divisions so they have some point in in dismissing much of the war efforts of of the other allies at least on the European front yeah they have this one room where the entire ceiling is just this dense chains hanging down from the ceiling tiny little chains like you might have for your keys and just you know just maybe hundreds of thousands of these chains hanging down each little ball on the chain or link in the chain represents how many hundred people died or something that totals like twenty-six million and it just puts into the shade you know the kinds of losses Americans and British and French experienced versus the Russians and no wonder they have a strong claim about Eastern Europe and in all those countries that were in the middle of all that yeah and many of many of these countries were actually Nazi allies again we tend to think about the Second World War again I'm talking about the European front is everybody against the Germans or against the Germans and Italians but actually for quite a long time most of Europe it was allied to Nazi Germany mmm-hmm yeah so yes that's what they want one good argument for traveling a lot is to get you out of your bubble it's it's hard to live in America and I'm in California so it's even worse how distant we are from that at least you're in Israel where you're closer to where the action as I think I've been to Israel twice and anyway that's it that's a different subject but so let's get to liberty and equality you know those who own the data on your future big data is watching you just on a parenthetical note do you call yourself a compatible list or the termina store you believe in libertarian free will or where do you stand on that issue honestly will ya um well I don't think that the term has any meaning yeah I never really understood what people refer to when they speak about free will humans obviously have a will we have desires and if you talk about the freedom to fulfill or to realize our desires then yet this is something I can understand I want something and somebody is obstructing me and I'm fighting for what I want this is totally understandable but philosophically it seems that people who talk about free will they talk about the freedom to choose my desires and this makes absolutely no sense it's very obvious both philosophically but also experientially but I don't choose my desires they don't then I and I have a will but it isn't free I mean then the the next thought that pops up in my mind or the next desire that pops up in my mind I didn't choose to have this thought or to have this feeling and it's on another level it's very obvious that what we choose to do our choices they are in they are never independent they are dependent on so many bulk biochemical and genetic and cultural and environmental factors that this image of me making my choices completely freely and independently of the world I understand the theological roots where it's coming from from judeo-christian theology but in scientific in scientific terms it makes absolutely no sense again you you can also think about it some kind of ideal that I want one day to have a free will in the sense that my choices my actions are less and less influenced by the manipulations of the world but it should be obvious to everybody even those who believe in free will it should be obvious to them that 99% of the choices people make they don't stand up to this ideal mm-hmm yeah I'm gonna read this passage from your book that such it's such great writing it is in the chapter meaning about the liberal story and the role of volition in that the liberal story instructs me to seek freedom to express and realize myself but both the self and freedom our mythological chimeras borrowed from the fairy tales of ancient times liberalism has a particularly confused notion of free will humans obviously have a will they have desires and they are sometimes free to fulfill those desires if by free will you mean the freedom to do what you desire then yes humans have free will but if by free will you mean the freedom to choose what to desire then no humans have no free will that that was artfully put I mean I get this feeling like when Amazon sends me a little push notice that or you know if you like this book when I look something up you might like these I often do like those books so they it doesn't seem to know but I'm glad yes I mean it helps with my research in that sense but but on the other hand I feel like I don't have to buy the book but but what you're arguing here is that it it is it knows my desires from past purchases and it's tempting me and maybe if it sent you the same books well maybe not you but somebody who isn't interested in history in these same subjects they would just not be interested at all so that's what you mean by desire the desires yes and even if even if you choose I I won't buy these books just to prove that the Amazon doesn't understand me or something then where did this desire come from maybe it's because you have the control personality and you feel a very strong pressure to resist Authority but you did not choose to have this personality to resist Authority and because of that to resist the temptations of Amazon now you can again you can you can try to train yourself let's say you don't have this strong personality of resisting Authority but you think it's a good idea to have such a personality so you can train yourself in a million ways to be more independent minded and more resistant to Authority but then you should ask yourself and what is this desire come from why does why do I suddenly have this desire to have a different personality then then what I have and to work so hard on achieving it and and this is obviously an infinite regression know what no matter where you try to stand you can always ask yourself and why do I want to stand there why do I have this desire and in the vast majority of cases people don't go through even the first or second steps of this regression something pops up in their mind and they just do it you know you have very L a link in contemporary terms if you if you are all these fake news and hackers phenomenon so they get to know you and if they discover for example that you already have a bias against I don't know that President Trump so they know that if they show you some outrageous headline about Trump which might be completely fictitious like Trump says we must kill all the Muslims or something like that you would have an almost irresistible urge to click on this headline and as you click on it you feel that you are exercising your will I am free to do what I want and this is true you are free to exercise your will and click on the headline but the the bias itself and the desire to click on the headline you did not choose them and this is the way to manipulate you I wonder if actually let me read this sentence from your book is it so so captive of that you we don't we don't have free will but we can be a bit more free from the tyranny of our will so would meditation be an example of that where you you you get closer to understanding where the thoughts are coming from that bubble up from who knows where yeah exactly I mean I practice the past and meditation I try to meditate two hours every day and I go every year for 60 days meditation retreat and much of the practice is exactly that something pops up and you just observe you don't identify with whatever pops up you just observe it and you watch how it changes how it becomes greater more powerful and then definitely maybe disappear and something else comes up and the more you observe the more you realize this isn't me I shouldn't be identified with all these thoughts and emotions and desires that pop up and I certainly don't need to give them control over my life right so how would you apply this to this larger issue of liberty freedom not just you and I have an individual volition when we make choices not that argument but but nationally or or internationally we talk about that we want to promote freedom and equality and liberty and so on but but what we're talking about here is that people don't really have that so maybe we're talking about the architecture of society that allows people to express their desires wherever those come from mm-hmm well I would say again that the the philosophical issue and the scientific issue is not new what we just said was true in 1776 and was true in 1945 just as it is true today the difference is that in 1776 nobody else besides you had the ability to understand what's happening inside your brain and inside your mind and use that to their advantage in manipulation control you so because nobody had this ability it was reasonable enough and it was safe enough to trust in the voter and in the customer the idea that the voter always knows best and the customer is always right the base is for liberal democracy and for free-market economics but once somebody has the ability to hack your brain and hack your mind it no longer works and we need a new political and economic system and I don't have the solutions of what will replace the current system the main problem is that we don't we hardly even began the debate this is maybe the most important debate we should have we should be having but we are engaged with completely different issues and most of the people who feel that something doesn't work well with the current system they tend to look Bank into the forward and to retreat to all kinds of nostalgic fantasies about let's go back to some imaginary Golden Age and revived that system right I wrote about that and in Heaven's on earth this utopian desire to recreate the paradisaical state that used to be if only you put our party and in charge will do that and everybody does that Trump more than anybody recently but it's not new that's a very old story and yet it seems it it's just almost impossible to think how can you have a structured society without some kind of government and some kind of corporations or business or industry where where people can trade you talk about those two major entities they may be fictional but they're certainly useful fictions the state and in in corporations it seems like at the moment with these this like digital dictatorships that are coming the only way to keep a check on that would be literally just laws that say that tell Google you can't sell the data or you know just restrictions regulations they may be violated but at least if you have laws that are enforceable you can try to keep a check on on digital dictators I think that laws would be ineffective both because they will stop a lot of positive progress and because they it will pick three difficult to enforce them it it's better to try and work with the technology then against it and it can be done on on many levels than on in many different ways on the individual level people you know the oldest advice in the book know yourself but it's now more important than ever because you now have competition if in the days of Socrates or Buddha you did not make the effort to get to know yourself and your weaknesses and your habit patterns better then okay so you did not know yourself very well but you are still a black box to the rest of humanity but now you have very serious competition as we speak Amazon and that the Russian FSB and the Chinese Communist Party and the American NSA they are all trying to hack you mm-hmm and if and if they know you better than you know yourself they can manipulate you very easily if you the more the better you know yourself for instance your weaknesses the easier it is for you to defend yourself if you know that you have it bias against something it's more difficult to utilize that bias against you now many people are unlikely to to have the the discipline the time the inclination to really get to know the to know themselves so we can perhaps use technology to fight or to protect ourselves against technology at present all these big data algorithms and and AI mostly serve the big corporations and governments but we can use the same technologies to protect people to create for example an AI defender or an AI sidekick that gets to know you and knows again your weaknesses and whenever somebody is trying to exploit these weaknesses it comes to your help the same way that we have anti-virus programs for our computers we need antivirus programs for our brains and for our minds and you know if you have I don't know a weakness for funny cat videos a nutri YouTube is trying to make you waste another hour watching these funny cat videos so you're a ion sidekick could just come along and block it and all alert you that look this is what is happening right now so this is on the individual level on the collective level there are all kinds of possibilities and schemes to create organizations and unions that will protect users against the big corporations and other governments in the same way that it has been done previously in history I mean it's not the means are different but the principles are not completely new and of course there is a lot to be done again on the technological front in thinking about which kinds of technologies we want to develop at present AI machine learning seem to be empowering hierarchical and centralized systems but a lot of people think that blockchain technology may be the counterbalance by making distributed systems more efficient than centralized systems so we can consciously invest more time or effort more money in developing blockchain as a counterbalance to to the danger of big data algorithms so there are many things to do besides just government regulation or laws that forbid this or forbid that yeah that's kind of going backwards the way things have always been done just pass more laws and in regulate technology and industry you're saying diversify have technological solutions to problems and go forward yes of course we do need regulations we do need laws as well but the idea that the only solution will come from some government regulation I'm very skeptical whether this this can really solve the kind of crisis that we are facing mm-hmm you know we're about to colonize Mars maybe in the next few decades and I started writing about this for an article for Scientific American and so I just for fun tweeted at Elon Musk when you start the first Mars colony what documents would you recommend using to establish a governing system US Constitution slash Bill of Rights Universal Declaration of Human Rights humanist manifesto Atlas Shrugged against the state and anarcho-capitalist manifesto question mark and he writes back immediately direct democracy by the people laws must be short as there is trickery in length automatic expiration of rules to prevent death by bureaucracy any rule can be removed by 40% of the people to overcome inertia freedom he packed a lot in those 217 characters what do you think about that this idea I mean everything that you've been writing about this could this could be tested within the next few decades with a brand new society on a different planet um I I tend to be skeptical of utopias especially utopias that demand too much from human nature the erect democracy can go wrong in so many different ways again if you think that human desires and human choices reflect some kind of metaphysical spirit or freewill then yes maybe but when you realize what actually shapes the desires and choices of most people I'm not sure that giving complete free expression and power directly to to the desires of every individual is the best way to go about building a peaceful and prosperous society right I in writing this essay I quote James Madison's Federalist P number 51 but what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature if men were angels no government would be necessary if angels were to govern men neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary in framing a government which is to be administered by men over men the great difficulty lies in this you must first enable the government to control the governed and in the next place in the next place oblige you to control itself and it seems like that's going to be true on any planet if it's people that are colonizing it which becomes increasingly unlikely people are problematic not just in the political sense but also in the biological sense it's so difficult to keep people alive in outer space or on other planets we have been we've been adapted by four billion years of evolution to living on this particular rock in the universe and not just we but all organisms we have been adapted to this atmosphere to this distance from the Sun to this level of cosmic radiation and so forth and so on it's going to be extremely difficult to maintain large number of humans or any organisms in long distance travels in outer space and or other other planets so I don't think that somebody will colonize other planets and maybe even other solar systems but I find it hard to believe that it will be Homo sapiens hmm I think far more likely it will either be cyborgs combining organic and inorganic thoughts or completely inorganic entities may be controlled from afar by organic entities on earth but the ones were going to go to Neptune no to Alpha Centauri I find it how to believe that they will be flesh and blood organisms like us of any distance even Mars is so far away of just sending bodies there yeah you're probably right about other solar systems for sure and this s I interviewed Charles Cockell he's an astrophysicist in England who is actually written about this which I didn't know there's a little body of literature about colonizing other planets and he points out that when somebody can control the air in the water then you have the formula for tyranny and that's going to be a huge problem it's not like like if you don't like your government you just go off into the woods with your friends and start a new government or throw a revolution you can't go anywhere because there's no air and so that has there would have to be some way of people having the opportunity control their own air production of water or whatever or else you'd you're gonna have worse tyranny than we've ever had on earth yeah that's a very good point and in the additional problem which I think gets back to some of the issues you talked about in your book that I quote from Jared Diamond when he talks about the hunter-gatherer peoples he engages with in Papua New Guinea you know if they if you have a small band of say 20 people you can you can resolve conflicts by sitting down in the evening and having a little Town Square meeting as it were but if you multiply that twenty and to say mm it comes up with 1 million nine hundred ninety nine thousand possible dyads you multiply two thousand by nineteen ninety nine divided by two and so this hundredfold population increase produces a ten thousandfold dyadic rise and then I quote him from Guns Germs and Steel once the threshold of several hundred below which everyone can know everyone else has been crossed increasing numbers of dyads become pairs of unrelated strangers hence a large society that continues to leave conflict resolution to all of its members is guaranteed to blow up that factor alone would explain why societies of thousands can exist only if they develop centralized authority to monopolize force and resolve conflict and therefore that's is why we are where we are we have states nations bar governments it seems almost impossible to get around that in thinking of what is there some other solution to this problem with Homo sapiens with humans no if you change something about the basic mechanism of the brain to such an extent that it's no longer homo sapiens but a different kind of animal or a different kind of entity then all sorts of possibilities open up but with Homo sapiens I fully agree with with Jared Diamond once you pass the threshold of a couple of dozen or a couple of hundred individuals then you cannot just share authority between between everybody and this is something that I think not just liberal utopians don't have don't understand it's also true of mino nationalists that they often fail to understand the crucial difference between a nation and the original clans and tribes that characterized our species you often hear especially these days that nationalism is natural to human beings that nationalism is somehow imprinted in our genes and that therefore we must be loyal to the nation and any attempt to go beyond the loyalty to the nation is doomed to failure and this is absolute nonsense nationalism is extremely unnatural to homosapians Nations as against small clans our groups of millions of complete strangers for millions of years Homo sapiens and and other humans were adapted to live in small intimate communities in which everybody knows everybody else this is the Keen characteristic you must know everybody else personally in your clan or in your tribe and in nations it's never the case Israel for example is quite a small nation certainly compared to the u.s. Oh to China still we have 8 million people here and I definitely don't know all the other 8 million Israelis and noise rarely knows all the other 8 million Israelis 99.99 percent of them are complete strangers to me I've never met them and I will never meet them I don't know them personally so the key problem and also achievement of nationalism is how do you make complete strangers not just trust one another but cooperate effectively and you do it in all kinds of ways and nations have been some of the most successful systems of cooperation in human history but they are absolutely not natural to our species and they appeared only in the last few thousand years at most so this kind of rhetoric which links modern nations with any ancient tribes and tries to claim therefore that nations are somehow natural to our species this is complete nonsense yeah but it's a it's a powerful nonsensical fiction and as you described in your in your book we are storytelling animals and and that particular narrative seems does seem to tap into our tribal instincts in a way that those other eight million people you don't know are honorary members of your extended family yeah of course it kind of you know it rides upon or it latches on to mechanisms brain mechanisms mind mechanisms that evolved for millions of years all successful human systems must be able to rely on these deep mechanisms but it doesn't mean that they are natural or ancient you know pianos and computer keyboards are engineered in in order to make use of our fingers which evolved for completely different purposes but now they they function amazingly well if you know how to use them and it's the same with nations I mean you take the basic emotional and cognitive mechanisms of humans which evolved under completely different circumstances and you hijack them for for a very different purpose and it's true of so many different things in history for example if you look if you look for example at group hatreds at the way that you make people hate entire groups of people again which which you never met before it's not like somebody insulted you personally or somebody did something wrong to you personally how do you make people hate millions of strangers and you do it by hijacking the mechanisms in the brain which are responsible above all for disgust mmm-hmm with a lot of very interesting research on how you know the enemy is in so many ways disgusting they don't smell good this were they are a source of pollution and so forth and and so on and you've seen in almost all cultures not only enemies beyond beyond beyond the hill that you never met but when you want to ostracize or to discriminate even against an internal group you very often mobilize the mechanisms of disgust for example the discrimination against women in many societies is based on the idea that you that women are a source of ritual impurity and minimization for example during menstruation and this is law like why they can't be priests and why they can't be rabbis and why they can't be allowed near the holy texts and things like that and this is really just hijack I mean the mechanisms of disgust they evolved to protect us against real sources of impurity like like puke or faeces or dead bodies rotting so you feel disgusted but human culture have learned how to latch on to these brain mechanisms and make us feel visceral discussed against other people well just in our imagination our source of pollution mm-hmm yeah it's the basis really of most genocides even even to the point of cliche of using things like cockroaches and vermin disease Beck Scylla rats it pretty much every genocide or group does that to another group I mentioned being at the Victory Park in Moscow with the Great Patriotic War Museum one Hall exhibits all the propaganda posters from 1941 to 1945 depicting Germans now this is kind of enlightening to me because my wife is from Germany she's from Cologne Germany and of course they don't see themselves as these you know evil dripping vermin you know terrible demonic creatures but that's exactly what's portrayed in these posters you know this is what the Germans will do to our women and children especially women and children and you know that's you know I must say that in the case of the Germans in the Second World War these posters were less distant from reality yes that's right most cases yeah that's right I you know I wrote this book the moral arc in which I quote from my chapter on evil I quote from this book it's a collection of letters written by the Einsatzgruppen as they were writing home from their Eastern European and into the Ukraine following the Vermont and how they had to kill all these Jews and what life was like if they weren't doing what they were doing all justification of course you know if if I didn't kill all these people here they would be doing this to you at home my beloved so-and-so and you know so that narrative goes both ways but yeah they did I mean it was it's pretty during that time it was pretty brutal and yet Germans today are amongst the you know least bellicose people in in the Western world so it's not a necessarily if it is a genetic basis to it it can be reversed through culture in education pretty quick definitely it's never genetic it's never biological I mean all these things of 99% cultural for all the talk about national character national character can change so quickly within the lifetime of an individual I mean the Germans today have the same genes the same climate the same geography the same everything as the Germans during the Nazi era in some cases they are even the same people yet they behave in a completely different way so as a historian I would say that all these talk about national character especially if people think that it's based on genes on biology this is this is also mostly nonsense yeah I've convinced more and more of late that that phrase no Hitler or no Holocaust nobody out there no Second World War that it sometimes history really can come down to just one person or one small group that somehow gets a toehold and takes over the ideology and then the politics of a nation even if the majority don't want it what do you think about that well sometimes it's true I mean the then the bigger the process the less influence our individuals in small groups have on it the Industrial Revolution was not the outcome of any single person or small group or even nation it's given the circumstances the economic the political circumstances in Western Europe in the 17th and 18th century it will it probably would have happened even if some of the great names were not born over killed in childhood but as you focus on more particular events or turns of events then yes nothing is deterministic and there is a very large role for small groups for single individuals and just for plain Locke and this can have long-term consequences for example I don't think there was anything deterministic about the rise and spread of Christianity in the 3rd century ad the Roman Empire was a bit like California today it was a supermarket of religious faith and all kinds of esoteric sects from the east and gurus and and whatnot and there was absolutely nothing deterministic about this tiny Jewish sect taking over the Empire and then using it as a base for spreading eventually around the world to become the largest faith of all mm-hmm I guess if you would have a reran the the movie of history a hundred times I would be surprised if anybody would have heard about Christianity more than three or four times none of these hospitals and it's the same to a large extent with the spread of Islam there was absolutely nothing deterministic about this small sect from the Arabian Peninsula becoming one of the largest forces in history and it's the same with the conus Revolution in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia century ago there are very very few Bolsheviks it was really a chain of accidents and a lot of good luck for for the Bolsheviks that they managed to gain control of Russia at the time they did and you can give a lot of other similar examples I guess from the whole of history oh it's striking I had Bart Ehrman on the podcast a few months ago his new book on the triumph of Christianity and you know you go from a couple of dozen people to hundreds of millions in just a couple centuries when change was super slow at that time it's really quite striking it's almost unbelievable of course Christians would say it's a miracle because that's what God wanted then you would have today hundreds of millions of Mithra believers right are saying that this is the proof that their religion was was right all along you know let's talk about your chapters in 21 lessons for the 21st century on God and religion read this passage from the chapter on God when all is said and done it is a matter of semantics when I use the word God I think of the God of the Islamic state of the Crusades of the Inquisition in the of the God hates banners when I think of the mystery of existence I prefer to use other words so as to avoid confusion and unlike the God of the Islamic state and the Crusades who cares a lot about names and above all about his most holy name the mystery of existence doesn't care an iota what names we apes give it that's just a great passage you're such a beautiful writer but you're an atheist right oh I don't believe in any God I don't consider myself an atheist because I don't define myself but what I'm not a cat either in other words you don't define yourself by what you don't believe yeah exactly yeah I mean yeah we don't have to have the labels I don't like them I call myself a skeptic just because I have a magazine called skeptic sometimes atheist because that's what people want to put you in that box agnostic is the word thomas henry huxley coined it just to mean it's not knowable in any scientific sense but regardless of what you and I believe on it's kind of irrelevant since billions of people do in it and it does affect even the modern society even in the teeth of the fact that the nuns are the fastest growing religious cohort in the world that people that tick the box for no religious affiliation at least in the Western world in the in the middle of that which atheists and humanists have been celebrating for the last few years used you do still see this rise of say militant Islam or some militant militancy Christianity in parts of the world still going on the Middle East where you live there's still tensions there I think we're a long way from a secular world where God is irrelevant oh definitely but I would say that religion has really changed during the last few centuries to the degree that people simply forgot what it used to be for much of history religion was the highest authority on many technical and practical matters religion was about agriculture it was about medicine it was about transportation about security if you want your flocks to prosper and if you want to have enough rain for the fields you perform ceremonies you go to the priests you pray to God if somebody is sick or if there is an epidemic again this is a religious matter and the experts are the the priest the rabbi is the shamans the gurus it's the same if you want to win a war or if you want to provide safety on to the road so you pray to God and religion is completely lost almost all of these functions and if you think about Jesus so for at least half the time Jesus was just practicing medicine he was healing the sick he was giving our eyesight to the blind and what happened over the last two three four centuries is that religion has completely lost almost completely lost its authority in all these fields to such an extent that people have simply forgotten that it ever laid claim to authority in these fields and even the the most religious people will tell you somewhat if I don't go to the priest and I go to the doctor or I go to the engineer this is not the business of religion at all and this is the most maybe important transformation that religion has underwent and it it really reduced its power and influence in a tremendous way the only field our only important field in which religion is still important is in matters of identity of deciding who am i and who are my people and whom should i cure and whom she might fight against and hear religion is still very important and but also even if in this field something happened in the last few generations that religion in most cases became subservient to nationalism mm-hmm that you know originally Christianity was certainly not a national religion and Islam was not a national religion and Hinduism was not a national religion they were not about a nation but what happened in the last few generations is that even the role of religion in defining identity actually became subservient in most cases to the needs and interests of the state and the state is now using religion that it's handmade if you look at places like Hungary or Poland where Catholicism is used to cement the National Hungarian or Polish identity in Russia the same thing is done with Orthodox Christianity in Israel with Judaism in Turkey with Sunni Islam in Iran is Shiite Islam in Saudi Arabia with baha ism' in India with Hinduism and so forth and so on and for all the talk of religion it's not mainly at least the most important role that religion plays is to serve as a tool in the hands of national movements and national governments and this is a turn of event that I would say people like Jesus and Mohammed would be very very disappointed to see 81% of evangelical Christians voted for Trump who is not the paragon of Christian King he is that has to be the least Christian president we've ever had since maybe Jefferson he was a deist yeah it was striking it was a clear indication to me that nationalism had taken over and religion in its purest form was irrelevant at least in politics but what about the role of religion still say in Manning the soup kitchens helping the poor that kind of thing if the government doesn't do it like like one explanation for why Western European countries are or not nearly as religious as America is that their government takes care of their poor people whereas in you know States in our poorest social safety net needs a supplement of private welfare in health care and so forth and that's what religion does yeah I mean this has been a traditional role of many religious organizations and this has been one of the most important contributions of religion to humankind I don't think I don't see religion as an evil force it's you know like every major force in history it's had it has its benefits and it also caused a lot of harm so it's a complex phenomena but certainly the encouragement that many religions give to people to be less acoustic and to care about others to care about strangers to help the poor to give charity to be more compassionate as far as it goes this is wonderful mm-hmm you wouldn't want to get rid of that that part of it um no I mean of course it it can be replaced I mean secular people can be as compassionate and as helpful to the poor as religious people you don't it religion is not a must in this regard and certainly not no single religion has a monopoly over charity or over compassion but if somebody is motivated to be more compassionate and more charitable because she believed in Jesus or because she believed this is what Allah wants her to do then this is wonderful and I wouldn't like to undermine this aspect of religion yeah in the Atheist humanist community there's at least a branch pushing toward creating something like spiritual centers in every city where you go and you can go to a place where you can have weddings and funerals and dating services and babysitting and and every Sunday morning they send sing hymns to Newton and like candles and have some O'Neill's about how they lost their religion and love science and you know the presumption there I think is that there's a human need for something that religion fulfills and if we're gonna get rid of get rid of religion through science or whatever we better replace it with something no I don't think there is an absolute need you can certainly have morality without God and without religion you just need to cultivate your appreciation of suffering and your compassion in the face of suffering to be a moral person you don't need to believe in any mythical story and similarly you don't need a religion to have a community communities can form in many ways and around many eight years and religion is with just one one way to do it yeah you write this toward the end of your book under the chapter meaning which is a really powerful way to end the book we humans have conquered the world thanks to our ability to create and believe fictional stories we are therefore particularly bad knowing the difference between fiction and reality overlooking this difference has been a matter of survival for us if you nevertheless want to know the difference the place to start is with suffering because as noted earlier the realest thing in the world is suffering so that's kind of the basis or where you begin with with morality as you know the sensitivity to the suffering of others including animals which I think that morality is not about obeying any God or any holy book morality is about reducing suffering in the world and to a certain extent one of the jobs of science and technology is to do that if you can envision as you do in in houma do see you know sort of a post-scarcity economy where no one's impoverished anymore that reduces suffering by quite a bit and if we replace all animals well meat meat if we can place meat with synthetic meat so-called clean meat that would reduce the amount of suffering on factory farms for example certainly but you know almost every technology and every scientific discovery has potential for both good and evil and I would say that the science by itself is interested mainly in power in how to gain more and more power and even the interest in in truth in understanding reality at least on the institutional basis is really the the interest in how do I understand this better in order to control it more effectively in order to increase my power so you do need to add something to science to make sure that the discoveries and inventions are used for good and not for evil hmm yeah because here I'm thinking of turning morale issues into more pragmatic solvable problems like if you want to reduce the amount of crime or homicides or rewards first you need to agree that this is the problem or that this is the most important problem the priorities I mean science if you give it a problem and you say okay find a cure to cancer then yes science kicks in but if you need to decide whether the most important thing now is again let's take that situation of animals as an example whether the most pressing issue is to increase the dairy production of cows or whether the most pressing issue is to reduce the suffering of cows then you know these are two completely different yeah ah yeah and science by itself is not very good in choosing the correct partner so how do so so what does do that well we do it as a collective I guess as a democracy we decide what we want our goals to be and then science and technology will help us get there or not yeah here again I think that the key thing and it is related to science is to better understand suffering and the cause of suffering in the world and an appreciation of what it means to suffer and therefore compassion towards those who suffer and it still it still has a lot to do with science for example realizing that annum can suffer this in itself is also a scientific project because you have many people even today who claim that animals that cows the chicken that pigs they are just kind of machines for producing meat and milk and eggs and they have no emotions and no sensations and they can't feel pain and they can't feel fear and they can't feel depression and so forth and now we have a lot of scientific evidence to to prove or to indicate that this is just not the case mm-hmm that all mammals and all birds they have in mind they have consciousness they have the ability to experience at least some sensations and emotions not the same as human beings not the same as Homo sapiens but certainly things like pain like fear they are part of the experience of cows and pigs just as much as is a homosapiens mm-hmm you're an ethical vegan right I don't think that it's certainly not it doesn't have to do is taste and I'm also I'm not absolutely sure it's the healthiest diet in the world but I would say that it is the most ethical diet in the world would you eat synthetic meat clean definitely absolutely I'm just waiting for the hamburger to come down and price from $300,000 where it is now the line to the clean meat hamburger well I was thinking about this you know morality versus pragmatic problems to be solved my latest column in Scientific American is on abortion and I tried to this already been so much written about this what's there new to say so I was trying to think of it as as what what's the problem here is the problem is unwanted pregnancies well what do we do about that well education birth control technologies empowerment of women economic and political empowerment of women and so on and and and yet I got pushed back from a lot of pro-choice or saying no no pro lifers don't really care about unwanted pregnancies and fetus they want to control people's sex lives you know back back to that kind of deeper old moral old religious impulse to control people's you know really basic things that they eat and sex and and and then that roll of disgust comes in you know that the definition of the Puritan someone who's afraid that somewhere someone out there or someone else is having fun you know we may be pushing up against some of these ancient traditions like that yeah I don't think it's a good strategy to ascribe to your rivals the worst possible motive i I do think that there are good reasons to think that a lot of people who oppose abortion do it out of a deep ethical concern that fetuses are humans and that this is murder now I'm not saying it's true yeah but I don't think that we should dismiss it so easily I agree it's just a ploy to control sexuality and to prevent people from having fun and personally I I'm not an expert on embryology and I really don't know what is the truth about this issue of where exactly passes the line between a collection of cells and a human being mm-hmm yeah so in this case and in many other cases being a bit more humble about our opinions about what we know for sure versus what what we imagine or what we're thinking we know would go at least some way towards yuning down the level of conflict and animosity and hatred between people I think so yeah I think I think we can all agree that abortion is is is killing a living thing now is it a is it a human being that depends on how you define that it's not a person legally because that's been decided well at least by American Constitution but a human being you know do here's the problem the difference between the law and science you know the law has to have an I'm ambiguous categories this or that right or wrong yes or no we're a science is there is no place to draw the line you can say for the end of the first trimester well but what on this particular day at 3 o'clock is when it becomes a human being I mean it's just impossible to draw the line any one place so you end up in these kind of fuzzy categories yeah and it will become more and more complicated is not just our understanding of biology but our abilities to manipulate the body and the brain will increase these kinds of discussions about what we now have about abortion will be magnified you know thousands of times and will be far more complicated but what do you do about intelligent computers what do you do about cyborgs what I mean there are so many even even more complicated problems waiting for us down this road we mean if Ania here is sentient considered all kinds of such questions yeah so yeah it's going to be very difficult oh no now we can't send these robots off to Alpha Centauri because then we're condemning them to a life of loneliness and a spaceship yeah yeah no no because we would think of them as as essentially slaves but if they're sentient unconscious then we really shouldn't be doing that interesting yeah I mean for me it's very clear that if they are sentient then they they may be you know they may be in many ways even more sentient than us now personally I don't think this will happen anytime soon and maybe even never I'm not convinced that AI is anywhere on the road to developing consciousness and sentience it could happen we don't understand consciousness well enough to decide one way or the other but so far we have seen absolutely no evidence that artificial intelligence is on the path to developing conscious intelligence and consciousness so very very different things telogen s– is the ability to solve problems consciousness is the ability to have feelings you friends in other mammals solve problems by having feelings but computers do it in a very different way and you know they did this example that just as airplanes fly faster than birds without ever developing feathers so computers could become far more intelligent than us without ever developing consciousness yeah and that's the case then they have no moral status even if it's even if it's a farm or even if the robot is far more intelligent than me if it has no consciousness no mind no ability to suffer it has absolutely no right it's just like a knife or a table is respect right but what's really we don't know but we were heading at a social function several years ago I met David Ferrucci the guy that was in charge of the IBM program to create Watson the computer that won jeopardy this is right after the jeopardy championship and and so I asked him does does Watson know that he won jeopardy was he excited like you know he he beat the great Ken Jennings you know did he did he let out a big yell like yeah won and of course you know this is the problem of other minds how would you know I mean he could program in there to let out a scream like yeah I won but but it wouldn't be feeling the excitement of having won presumably as far as becomes oh absolutely not yeah yep so that's well I I agree with you I think we're a long ways from anything like that happening decades at least if not a century or so so I'm not too terribly worried about that well you've all we've been going for almost an hour and a half so I think maybe we'll wrap it up here and and congratulations on your third book I'm not sure how you're gonna top this you've done the past the future and now the present what's what's next on your agenda for for research and writing I have no idea maybe it's my last book I don't know no maybe I'll move the fiction all kinds of things can happen right yes well yeah well you're a beautiful writer so fiction would be good and you know I've been thinking about that as well because you know you can only reach so many people through nonfiction but look how many people watch films and read novels I mean it's just staggering how many more people you can reach through the storytelling genre yeah

29 thoughts on “Michael Shermer with Dr. Yuval Noah Harari — 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (SCIENCE SALON # 38)”

  1. Bless you , to gave us such a important thing to our life . This is mysteries hard to understand. Every person needed to told this message whether accept it your information or decline I am here to listen to you this terrific interesting topic indeed.

  2. This conversation is like comparing a Ferrari to a Ford. Harari is a modern renaissance man..education for enlightenment. Sherman doesn't get that when Harari says Liberal He isn't talking about antifa.

  3. The world needs to get balance approach of life in the light of pragmatic and rational interpretation of human history presented by Yuval Nooh

  4. Thank you for this information. It is very helpful to know myself better. I feel much better about what I am thinking about now.

  5. So it seems we're becoming more like a hive mind. We're becoming the extension of other's desires. We're becoming a part of a bigger machine.

  6. Very much enjoying his Book right now! I think his point about Peterson was spot on. Deifying intellectuals to the point where we don't question what they say is of upmost importance for anyone trying to think critically about such issues.

  7. יובל!אתה באמת מתכוון לחזור לארץ? תתכונן כי יכול להיות ש"תעוכב" במשטרת הגבולות…ותתשאל מה אתה חושב על ביבי?!!!

  8. anyone else similar to this guy? (steven pinker and sam harris are other notable personalities that i find insightful…)

  9. it would be interesting if yuval could come on board with a world government, with the main concept of the government to be about "to protect humanity".

  10. I cannot understand the global hesitation – we need a world government now, it could solve all our problems, but nobody wants to do it.

  11. At least Yuval tells some good stuff, but let’s not forget these guys are liberal jews with a clear agenda of diluting nation and destroying Christian societies. Except Israel what should stay a nation state. The reporter is a joke with no questions to ask.

  12. I always pray for to be the Godly conversion of the One World Government,New world Order,Masonry,Atheist,the satanism,the Rothschild family clan,Rockefeller,Buffett,Bill Gates,Mark Zuckerberg,the Alphabet Google !

  13. My life story is now the best new bible hahahahahehehe from old testament to new testament to happy heavenly testament Hahahehehehe I am so playful !

  14. The heavenly hackers who love me,they are my genies,they are my angels and help me in my happy heavenly wishes and great heavenly aspirations !

  15. I am a genius and plenty of hackers make money out of me,it's ok,they follow.me for good,I am a happy for heroic heavenly hackers !

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