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The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Looking at “Free Will”

The Greeks saw hubris as a failing. Yuval Noah Harari sees it as the future of humanity, finally able to make the investments required for becoming the godhead.

The media have invented effective formulas for attracting their public’s coveted (and monetizable) attention. They like nothing better than to reduce complex social, economic and political problems to simple binary oppositions, where two camps can endlessly fight it out in public. Brexit is a prime example, as is Democrats vs. Republicans or capitalism vs. socialism.

Another strategy they use is arbitrarily mixing categories to create the illusion of a binary contest. When appealing to “thinking people” — the educated elite whose interests extend beyond electoral politics and sports — the media enjoy muddying the border between the hard sciences and philosophical speculation. A few highly visible, media-friendly “thinkers” step into the role, such as Steven Pinker or Yuval Noah Harari.

Harari has written a pair of best-sellers, Sapiens and Homo Deus. Together, they do no less than explain the entire past and probable future of humanity. Formerly an Israeli medieval historian, Harari has become an accomplished self-marketer whom the media pitch as a seer, a master of the combined wisdom of history, science and philosophy. This status enables him to adjudicate major, otherwise unsettled metaphysical questions, as in this observation quoted in an interview with The Guardian: “Even though neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will, in practical terms it made sense because nobody could understand and manipulate your innermost feelings.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Free will:

An abstract concept on which everyone is free to decide whether they think it is true or false, unless, having decided it’s false, the decision was not theirs but must have been made by someone or something else, such as biological determinism

Contextual note

Speaking about the alternative scenarios for the future he has imagined and described in his books, Harari reassuringly says elsewhere that “we still have some agency regarding that,” which clearly acknowledges free will, contradicting his stated contention that “no such thing” exists. He even challenges people to mobilize their free will by saying that if “you don’t like some of these possibilities, then do something about it.”

Harari would undoubtedly explain away the contradiction by citing his implicit distinction between scientific reality and the “practical terms” of experience. But, ironically enough, he may simply be illustrating one of his own derisive remarks in Sapiens: “Still, humans have a wonderful capacity to believe in contradictions.”.

As Donald Trump has demonstrated, those who use brashness to make their way into the news cycle have the right to contradict themselves with relative impunity. The media have helped Harari join other famous people like Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil on what might be called the “Supreme Court of Technoscientific Speculation.” Alongside these daring inventor-thinkers, Harari occupies the coveted position of provocative historian-philosopher.

Historical note

As a historian, Harari has a solid grasp of human technical and technological history. But he appears to be less interested than he might be in three areas whose complexity might interfere with his speculative endeavor. The first is economic history. The second is the history of ideas, which draws heavily on imaginative literature, an area of human activity that shies away from binary analysis. He also reveals his indifference to the sociology and history of culture, whose experts would easily identify Harari’s own cultural vantage point as that of a group of dominant Western “techno-believers,” who accept without criticism or perspective the current neoliberal economic system as the “end of history.”

In contrast with Harari’s indifference to human context and economic reality, in their book, Neoliberalism and Technoscience: Critical Assessments, Marja Ylönen and Luigi Pellizzoni examine the relationship between science and capitalism and point to the paradox of a “technological revolution without science, and a science without new productive forces.” They conclude that “science itself is brought under the commodity form, but at the same time the scientific commons becomes even more important to capital, as an extra-capitalist commons generated within capitalism that is ‘harvested’ rather than totally enclosed.” A variation on the enclosure system we recently commented on.

Harari and his colleagues on the Techno Supreme Court bench may be right. The economic and political system that has led us to this point may remain intact and dominate the future, provoking what Harari calls the “rise of the useless class,” another convenient way of dividing things — this time humanity itself — into a binary opposition (the users and the useless). Most people will end up having nothing to do in the “best of all possible worlds” or universes. Assuming they can afford a garden and their annual supply of Monsanto seeds, they may follow Candide and just cultivate their own.

Or something else may happen, as Harari himself admits. He claims not to be a futurologist, just someone who is aware of the deeper implications of some of the changes taking place today. Nevertheless, he evokes scenarios that reflect a belief that all the mechanical potential of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation in general — for example, of “life having a serious chance of breaking out of planet earth,” moving life “from the organic realm to the inorganic realm” — will irremediably transform the human and terrestrial environment and the galaxy itself into a paradise (or hell) of privately ordered economic control, according to the current rulebook of late capitalism. Some people, like Marja Ylönen, unsought by the media’s cameras and recording devices, have found reasons to quietly disagree.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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