Fast Talk The Road to Happiness

Talking to: Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, 36, teaches history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Married to Itzik. Lives in Moshav Mesilat Zion, near Beit Shemesh Claim to fame: The best seller ‘A Brief History of Humanity,’ a survey of human history from man’s appearance on the world stage to the present day Where: On his balcony When: Sunday, 1 P.M.

I find much of what you wrote in the book disturbing.

What, for example?

Fast Talk - Ilya Melnikov - April 27, 2012
Ilya Melnikov

This: “The human race is no more than a herd of sheep that ended up with tanks and atomic bombs because of an evolutionary accident.”

Fundamentally, mankind was unimportant in the ecological system. Then, in one fell swoop, an evolutionary blink of an eye, the human race is transformed from something unimportant to the most important thing in the world.

It’s usually assumed that we were superior to other species.

Not necessarily. For example, everyone is so enthusiastic about the fact that man created tools. But that does not make man an especially important animal. As beavers build dams and bees build hives, human beings have spears. Or take the high intelligence of human beings, the ability to make plans, to transmit information − that was also there before, but that, together with the tools, was not enough to make man special. If you want to single out what it was that really catapulted us from the margins to center stage, it is the ability to communicate and transmit messages in very large numbers.

Through language.

Through language. What chimpanzees or Neanderthals can do in groups of 50, we can do in groups of 50 or 500 million.

So that’s how we triumphed in the reality of life.

Yes. A reality program does actually illustrate it well. The key to victory lies more in manipulation and cooperation than in exceptional personal skills.

You believe that we are not talented enough to cope with everything we have created.

“Without a doubt. It’s much bigger than us. We release tremendous forces and foment amazing revolutions, but no one has a clue where it’s going. Take the Industrial Revolution, which shaped the world over the past 200 years. That is no more than a collection of small, specific decisions − let’s say, to take a steam engine that pumped water in a coal mine and use it to move a train. Or today’s genetic engineering − its future impact on the world is beyond our understanding. Our consciousness is sufficient to create the change, but insufficient to understand its implications.

In a certain sense, we have now closed the circle by achieving the power to create.

Yes. We are engineering other creatures, like God in Genesis.

Effectively, we are monkeys who succeeded in obtaining the keys to the universe.

Yes. It is a truly astonishing story. You look across 4 billion years of evolution and you don’t see anything that even approaches it. Where life is concerned, there are only two points on a cosmic axis of time: There is the appearance of life, 4 billion years ago, and there is us, at the point we are arriving at today, with the ability to engineer life. For a billion years life developed on the basis of the logic of natural selection. Suddenly we have changed the disc.

And you think that, in this way, we are actually dooming ourselves to extinction.

The more likely scenario is extinction by means of upgrading, by creating something that upgrades us to something different from what we are. That will be the end of homo sapiens. And, given homo sapiens’ record in the world, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Even though it will be replaced by something planned by homo sapiens. There is no guarantee it will not be even more problematic.

That’s the subject of the last chapter in the book, which is very disturbing. First of all, how do you define “singularity”?

From my viewpoint, singularity is the point at which our world of meaning collapses.

And you think this may well happen.

It is clear to me personally that it’s close at hand. I don’t know whether it will be in our lifetime or in another generation or two, but not much past that. I think that within a very short time − I am speaking in terms of decades − technology will change our world to such a degree that we have no way to imagine or talk about what will happen after the change.

Crowning glory

You speak, for example, about a future in which we will be replaced by superbeings and cyborgs possessing physical, cognitive and emotional capabilities that are different from ours. Why, in your view, does that thought make us so uneasy?

First of all, it’s not us, it’s them, and that is already enough to cause uneasiness. I think it stems from our understanding of ourselves − that we are not the crowning glory of creation, as we had always thought. In the course of thousands of years, people grew accustomed to seeing themselves at the top of the pyramid and to justify everything they did, particularly to animals, with the argument that “we are the crowning glory of creation.” But if we are not at the top of the pyramid, if something else occupies that place, the whole, vast baggage of inferiority that we have attached for thousands of years to animals and whomever is below us on the chain explodes in our faces. If we are allowed to do experiments on monkeys because we are superior to them in a certain way, then someone who is superior to me is allowed to do experiments on me.

I thought of it also in terms of “the threatened” − the fear of what is familiar but at the same time alien.

True. And it is also connected to death. Human beings work on themselves intensively all their lives to suppress very powerful desires to be forever young. And when someone comes along and says it’s possible, there is a very great fear that all that suppressed baggage will burst out. Think about how the world would look in a situation in which you can live forever, but only if you have plenty of money. Let’s say it’s possible to live forever at a cost of $500 million. The frustration of those who do not have $500 million, or what those who have only $400 million will be ready to do, will spawn a world fraught with the danger of a tremendous eruption of the most primal urges and instincts. A pure struggle of survival, of “I just want to live.” That is extremely frightening. The consolation is that mankind has a marvelous capacity to ignore the worrisome things and to keep going.

Maybe that is what makes man superior to animals.

In fact, one of the less appreciated traits is our marvelous capacity for cognitive dissonance. We are constantly operating in a dual process. We know things, but when they bother us we suddenly forget we knew them.

I assume that we are creating far more cases of cognitive dissonance than was the case a century or two ago.

The world has become immeasurably more complex. We see this clearly in all kinds of moral problems we face in this era. Consider that terrible crimes are ostensibly being committed in my name and in your name, without our being aware of it. I have no idea which Vietnamese child worked at starvation wages to sew the shirt I am wearing, and I have no idea what horrors the chicken whose egg I am eating underwent. The world is organized in such a way that I never encounter that, and do not need to encounter it.

The process is hidden. There is only the product.

Exactly. And even if I insist on understanding the process, it is almost impossible to understand, say, how the money in my pension fund is invested in a company that sells weapons to some African dictator.

Do you think we live lives that are very unsuited to us?

I think that for homo sapiens there is no such thing as an unsuitable life. The meaning of the language revolution − people’s ability to create imaginary worlds and then to live in them − is that there are situations in which human beings will be more or less satisfied, but there is no longer a natural situation for homo sapiens. Our life situation nowadays − individuals in a large industrial city − is as “natural” as the life of a tribe of hunter-gatherers who sit around the bonfire and conjure up the tribal elders.

Human dissatisfaction

Was there a particular period in history that offer greater potential for happiness or satisfaction?

Part of the problem people have is that they are always busy changing their conditions instead of making the most out of what they have. If there is something I do think we can take from the gatherers, it is to try to look at the world more as they see it: I am in a particular environment and I exploit what I have and do not busy myself trying to change the environment. The vast majority of my efforts are devoted to coping with what exists by means of what exists. The more history advances, the more human beings engage obsessively with what is not.

But with what could be.

Precisely. All the efforts go into that. Despite all the achievements, people still find it difficult to stand still. The pace of change constantly increases.

Is the conclusion that the desire to move forward effectively dooms us to a harder life?

If we replace “harder” with “unsatisfying,” it will be easier for us to agree on that. The more people attain, the greater their inclination not to be satisfied, but to find more and more problems in the new situation and try to solve them, too. We see it, for example, in the areas of health and beauty. People are healthier and better looking than ever before. Objectively. But despite this, the system has not achieved a state of balance. There is no satiation. In the field of improving human capabilities, the ambition to create a superhuman, it is very clear that it has no end. There is no point we will reach and say that this is it. That is humankind’s basic nature. And of the universe in general. An absence of satisfaction.

Where did this originate, and why?

That is one of the greatest questions of human thought.

Is there no answer?

I am working on it. For example, I go to retreats, meditation seminars. That is actually the question I am researching. The question of suffering and dissatisfaction. In my experience, at least, there is no more important and difficult question than this. It is the fuel that propels the whole system, at the level of the individual and of history. Every year, in the summer break, I go to India for a vipassana [insight meditation] course of 30 to 45 days. The longer you do it, as in any scientific experiment, the better the results.

Can you explain your conception of vipassana as a scientific experiment?

It’s like an experiment in a laboratory that needs sterilization. The study of the consciousness needs to be done in a sterile environment, and part of that is to reduce the external stimuli that excite the consciousness, which make it harder for it to observe itself. The first stage in any such course involves quieting and focusing the consciousness so that it will be sharp and capable of observing itself. That is usually very difficult. In the first days you focus the consciousness on a single object, the breath. You observe it entering and leaving through the nostrils. You tell the consciousness, “Here is something very simple, air enters and air exits, focus on that. Do not try to change it.” This is very difficult training for the consciousness, which is used to dealing only with what it wants and with what is convenient and inconvenient for it. At this point, all manner of frustration and anger and boredom arise, but the instruction remains the same – only to observe.

Interesting. I never thought of it in that way.

Well, when you are researching something, don’t occupy yourself with what you want to achieve and with whom you like and don’t like, but with what the texts actually say. When you reach the stage of observing reality without the need to react to it, you take the very sharp tool of focused consciousness and start to observe systematically. To observe at the subjective level. The instruction is always the same. Not to create anything and not to aim it at any object. Only to observe and see what arises. For me, as an academic, it is purely scientific work.

Amazing. What, then, are your interim conclusions on the subject of human dissatisfaction?

It is the basic nature of reality. It is not a secondary system, it is the deep root. Everything we see or experience, all the distinctions we draw − good and bad, man and woman, what I want and what I do not want − stand on the foundation of dissatisfaction. “I want it to be like this, but different.”

Maybe that serves the survival mechanism? If you never achieve balance and are constantly trying to change what bothers you, your chances of survival improve.

Yes. In evolutionary eyes, living creatures, including homo sapiens, are machines for genetic dissemination that are relentlessly occupied with how I can maximize the dissemination. If my existence is threatened, I will protect myself or I will get all kinds of resources that will make it possible for me to produce more offspring and support them. There is no other goal. Accordingly, 4 billion years of evolution have honed this to a point where there are creatures that are activated solely by basic evolutionary dissatisfaction. From the evolutionary viewpoint, there is no such thing as enough. There is no point at which evolution says, “Fine, there are enough zebra genes, we don’t need any more zebra genes.”

Out of the drawer

Do you think it will be possible to resolve the problem of dissatisfaction?

I doubt it. We don’t even know whether it’s a problem that has a solution. The scientific way of thought − “We will invent a pill and solve it” − is not useful. But it’s already happened a little. Nowadays we live like the books of Stanislaw Lem − all that 1960s’ sci-fi − who predicted that we would take pills so we could continue living in happiness. We are there.

From many points of view, yes, but it did not achieve the coveted results. The operation succeeded and the patient did not die, but his condition did not really improve. Do you think that your point of view in the book is somewhat like that? Your angle is very rationalistic. You write something like: The more we examine the inner aspect of humankind in depth, the less soul we find there, only organs, hormones, synapses and genes. Is that what you really think?

Personally, I don’t know. That’s by far the most dominant approach in scientific research, and I try to put that on the table. For example, the tremendous rise of pharmaceuticals-based psychiatry comes at the expense of humanistic psychology. That is truly a phenomenon that cannot be ignored or denied. It’s part of the lifestyle − to change life by means of chemistry and technology.

But that observation also misses a great deal.

Part of what I try to do in the book stems from the successful human proclivity for cognitive dissonance. There are truths everyone knows, and when it’s inconvenient to cope with them, they go back into the drawer. As though they don’t exist. But I want to remove those things from the drawer and put them on the table.

And close the drawer behind them.

Precisely. To ask what our society truly believes in. Both as a child and an adolescent, that method drove me crazy − to take things out at the right moment, and at another moment to pretend they don’t exist. Let’s take the question of the meaning of life. The consensus in the West today, more or less, is that life has no meaning. But most of the time this is ignored. People talk about things like the sanctity of life, for example. But you just said it’s not so. It’s the same with the consensus about the synapses and the hormones. In hospitals that’s the consensus, but in the courts or in politics, or in everyday life overall, it’s ignored. So I am really trying to put a spotlight on it and say, “This is what your society really thinks. If it disturbs you, and I think it should disturb you, cope with it.” And not by means of a ramified system of drawers.

Checking out the Buddha

Your partner also took part in writing the book. He is responsible for the illustrations. Do you think your sexual preference affects your research perspective?

Of course. To begin with, it provides a very clear base for understanding the whole system of the imagined order. By that I mean that we agree between us that there are rules that control the world and we need to live according to them. To ensure that people do not challenge these rules, we say, “God said so” or, “These are the laws of biology or economics.” An issue like sexual proclivity teaches you, on your flesh, the story of “But that’s not how I feel.” Most people agree that a particular thing is good and right. But why? Who said so?

I recall that Foucault describes sex in ancient Rome or Greece as a function solely of power and social hierarchy.

Absolutely. Concepts of gender and sex have changed a great deal in the course of history, and then you understand that these are no more than human conventions, that there is nothing solid here.

It is very clear to me that I personally do not fit the ideal evolutionary model. So it is much easier for me to be an external observer of that evolution and not accept it as self-evident. It gives you a critical space: “Okay, so evolution works like this.”

But I don’t work like that.

Exactly. I don’t work like that. From this point of view, every good researcher in every field brings baggage from the experiences of life into the research. So, why do I need to listen to evolution? It doesn’t explain my life all that well.

Can we say that, in the end, the equation is evolutionary success at the expense of human suffering?

The great lack in the theory of evolution, at the level of perspective, is that the questions of suffering and happiness do not enter into it. I believe that this is what’s ultimately important. The more we observe reality through the power of evolution, the more we forget that evolution is indifferent to such matters as suffering and happiness. We can say that humanity is now undergoing evolution to the level of a god − to live forever and create at his will. But while acquiring these traits, we are not relating to the issue of human dissatisfaction. And the danger inherent in that, for us and for the world as such, is huge. Try to think of God dissatisfied, suffering, obsessively focused on himself and lacking compassion for all creatures.

If you could go back in time, which historical period would you choose?

The simple answer is that I am suited to the present period, and I am already too old to undergo a process of compatibility with a different period. I’m ready to go for a spin and look, but not to live there.

Let’s say it’s a good time machine − you can come back. You won’t get stuck like in the 1980s comedies. Where would you go?

To India at the time of the Buddha, to find out whether there really was a person who succeeded in getting to the root of the root of human dissatisfaction and resolving it. If so, that is worth anything.

If so, you can stay stuck there.

Exactly. If so, I am ready to stay.