Yuval Noah Harari, 21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY (post #2)

Here’s my second concluding post about Harari’s third book.

As usual, I find it hard to condense my notes too far, when the author has so many interesting things to say, especially in this second half.

In the range of topics this book discusses, it’s one of the best books I know of that addresses the big issues of our day, and of the future. And final chapters delve into deep matters that are almost a separate topic, but worth deep thought.

Further comments before chapter 20, below.

Part III: Despair and Hope

“Though the challenges are unprecedented, and though the disagreements are intense, humankind can rise to the occasional if we keep our fears under control and be a bit more humble about our views.”

Ch10, Terrorism: Don’t Panic

  • Terrorists kill very few people but manage to terrify billions of people across the world. Terrorism is usually adopted by groups who have very little real power. Conventional warfare kills thousands of times more than terrorist attacks. Terrorists count on their enemies overreacting and disrupting their society much more than the terrorists could ever do directly.
  • States respond with theaters of security, especially things that can be seen on television.
  • Three things should be done: states should focus on clandestine actions; the media should avoid providing the terrorists publicity for free; and individuals should resist our obsession with the dangers of terrorism – keep things in perspective.

Ch11, War: Never Underestimate Human Stupidity

  • The last few decades have been the most peaceful era in human history. Yet in recent years military expenditures are ballooning.
  • Wars used to build empires. Even the US, acquiring those territories. Recent conflicts have not gone well; China avoids them altogether. Even Israel. The only successful invasion of the 21st century is Russia conquering Crimea.
  • It’s difficult for major powers to wage successful wars in the 21st century. For one, assets now are mostly not material; they are economic, and not so easily seized.
  • But never underestimate human stupidity; humans might still launch new wars. Ironically the defeated nations in WWII become economically prosperous anyway; they were wrong about the need to start the war. Leaders think they take rational steps; but the world is more complicated than a chess board.

Ch12, Humility: You Are Not the Center of the World

  • Most people believe they and their culture are the center of the world, e.g. Hindus believe their ancient sages invented all modern devices. “Needless to say, the British, French, Germans, Americans, Russians, Japanese, and countless other groups are similarly convinced that humankind would have lived in barbarous and immoral ignorance if it hadn’t been for the spectacular achievements of their nation.” 185.3.
  • All these claims are false. Morality, art, spirituality, and creativity are universal human abilities embedded in our DNA. Author will use Judaism, his own culture, in following examples.
  • Jewish children are taught that their history is the main plotline of the entire human story. But Judaism is a small part of history; the idea that Judaism is one of the three great religious, along with Christianity and Islam, is warped; it presumes none before it preached universal ethical rules.
  • Moral ideas like “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal” were well known long before the Biblical prophets came along. The Jews, actually, turned them into tribal codes, to the exclusion of Gentiles. Christians took some of the Jewish morals and turned them into universal commandments; this is why they split. Confucius, Laozi, Buddha, et al established ethical codes long before Paul and Jesus.
  • Does Judaism deserve credit for pioneering monotheism? No, Akhenaten did that. Anyway monotheism is arguable one of the worst ideas in human history, 194.7. It did nothing to improve moral standards; instead it made people more intolerant. Thus crusades, jihads, inquisitions.
  • Jews have dominated 20th century science, but due to individuals, not the culture or religion, with limited impact before 1800, as secularism took hold. And their discoveries weren’t e.g. “Jewish physics.” Examples. They built on the work of Gentile thinkers. Anti-Semitic paranoia is as ludicrous as Jewish megalomania. Humans of all creeds would do well to take humility more seriously.

Ch13, God: Don’t take the name of god in vain

  • For some God is the cosmic mystery, for others the worldly lawgiver. People who think the latter are very sure what he thinks and what he forbids; this is the god of the crusades and the inquisitors. Believers move from one concept to the other, hoping no one will notice. Something began the universe, therefore no gay marriage. The link between these two positions is usually some holy book. “The book is full of the most trifling regulations but is nevertheless attributed to the cosmic mystery.” In fact one has nothing to do with the other; humans wrote the holy books to legitimize social norms and political structures. The third commandment might well say “Leave God out of it”—your desire to wage war or steal your neighbors’ land.
  • People argue without God there would be no morality. But religious faith is not necessary for moral behavior; this implies there is something unnatural about morality. Societies are moral without believing in the gods of *other* societies.
  • True morality doesn’t mean “following divine orders” it means “reducing suffering.” Humans are social animals and one’s happiness depends on their relations with others. Preying on strangers destroys commerce. Thus the golden rule. And hurting others hurts oneself too. Maybe belief in a god helps curb their anger. But we don’t need a god to live a moral life; secularism can provide us with all the values we need.

Ch14, Secularism: Acknowledge your shadow

  • Secular is usually defined as the negation of religion, but that’s a negative identity. Secularists view morality and wisdom as inherent in all humans. Its values of truth, freedom, etc., are the foundation of modern scientific and democratic institutions.
  • The secular ideal includes a commitment to truth, based on observation and evidence rather than mere faith. Beliefs do not make anything true. Another secular commitment is compassion, an appreciation of suffering. (“There is something deeply troubling and dangerous about people who avoid killing just because ‘God says so.’”) When dilemmas occur, they weigh the options and try for a middle path that causes as little harm as possible—not ask what God wants. Secularists are unafraid to reexamine conclusions, look for new evidence, and change their minds.
  • Yet, 211b, “Many people are afraid of the unknown and want clear-cut answers for every question. Fear of the unknown can paralyze us more than any tyrant. People throughout history …” Full quote below.
  • Yet people accuse the likes of Stalin as being atheist, or secular, as if that invalidates the concept. Yet if anything secularism sets the ethical bar too high; repeatedly secular movements mutate into dogmatic creeds. Thus Marx’s encouragement to investigate led to Stalin’s communist party, which said the global order was too complicated for ordinary people to understand. Stalin didn’t believe in God, but he failed the positive definition of secularism. Similarly capitalism has solidified into dogma, depending on endless growth. Many liberals believe if oppressive regimes just held fair elections, everything would be fine, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Even the doctrine of universal human rights is just a story, a dogma, that people agree to believe in. It’s not some kind of natural law.
  • Secularism has its problems—it promises to perfect humanity and harvesting the planet’s bounty (which has led to melting ice caps). We should wonder how movements like Christianity and Marxism and now secularism let themselves become so distorted? All these ideologies have their shadow. At least secularism, unlike religions, has the power to change.

Part IV: Truth

“If you feel overwhelmed and confused by the global predicament, you are on the right track. Global processes have become too complicated for any single person to understand. How then can you know the truth about the world, and avoid falling victim to propaganda and misinformation?”

Ch15, Ignorance: You know less than you think

  • No one can keep track of all these topics, despite the idea in recent centuries of the rational individual. But we’ve learned that most people are *not* rational, but make decisions based on emotions and heuristic shortcuts that are not suitable for the modern age. Even individuality is a myth; humans think in groups, this is in fact what allowed humans to become masters of the planet, by thinking (cooperating) together in large groups.
  • Individuals today know far less about the world than our ancestors did. We rely on experts. This has worked out well; no one *can* know everything about the world.
  • The problem with this is that the world is becoming more complex, and people *think* they know more than they do, leading to strong views about various topics, and living in echo chambers of those who hold similar views. Providing people with better information rarely works. People hold on to their views for the sake of group loyalty. People resent too many facts and don’t want to be thought stupid, and so are unlikely to change their minds.
  • Even political and corporate leaders are subject to these effects. Power distorts the truth; being in power means you can’t trust what anyone tells you. The truth is found by escaping power and wasting lots of time on the periphery. Leaders are trapped with a distorted view of the world, and it will only get worse. How then do we tell the difference between right and wrong, justice and injustice?

Ch16, Justice: Our sense of justice might be out of date

  • This sense too has been formed over millions of years of evolution, and may now be obsolete. The problem is one of size, applying our old intuitions about justice to a much larger world. It’s more difficult to see cause and effect. [[ This is Pinker’s thesis in RATIONALITY. ]]
  • Now we can be accused of being implicit in crimes around the globe just for taking nothing to stop them. Is that reasonable?
  • The problem in today’s world is that it is difficult to know the effects of everything we do. If the firm you invest in steals a river, so to speak, are you responsible? Most injustices today are structural biases, not individual prejudices. And each of us has a particular viewpoint; it’s hard to appreciate the viewpoints of so many others, especially disadvantaged peoples. How can we do this?
  • Four methods: downsize the issue by making it personal, and a simple plot. Second, focus on a personal story that stands in for the larger conflict; charities understand this. Third, weave conspiracy theories. But the world is too complicated for these to be true, 234b. Fourth, create a dogma and follow that, and deny the complexity of reality.
  • So which? Trust the voters? Give in to groupthink? There are lots of tribes, but no real global community. Do we abandon ourselves to a post-truth era?

Ch 17, Post-Truth: Some fake news lasts forever

  • Are we in an age of post-truth? Politicians lie all the time and justify it by serving a higher truth. But was there ever an age truth?
  • We’ve always lived in an age of post-truth. Homo sapiens create fictions and live by them. Christians lock themselves into a bubble never questioning the veracity of the Bible; the Muslims, the Quran. Religious verities, without an ounce of evidence, live forever.
  • These are features, not bugs; they have made large-scale cooperation possible, and have inspired great works of art. Some may be offended by the equation of fake news and religion. But if you think the Bible is literally true, what about all those other holy books? Are they just elaborate fictions? Billions of people have put their trust in them.
  • OTOH religious myths can lead to murder and massacre, e.g. concerning the Jews in the 13th century. Chaucer adapted it. It took 700 years for the church to renounce it.
  • Nations have created their mythologies. A lie told a thousand times becomes the truth; propaganda must repeat just a few points over and over. Soviets were good at this. Actually it was easier to get away with atrocities in the 1930s than today with Facebook. Commercial firms also engage in story-telling to ‘brand’ their produces. Coca cola.
  • Human cooperation depends on a balance of truth and fiction. It requires a kind of mythology to organize masses of people. In fact believing in an absurdity is a better test of loyalty than believing in the truth. Conventions like the dollar are consensual agreements. There really isn’t much difference between them and fiction. People learn to respect money, and holy books, because *other* people respect them. Things work even though they are human conventions; sports is another. Most of the time people don’t really think about them.
  • This doesn’t mean that fake news is not a problem. We should try harder to distinguish reality from fiction. Don’t expect perfection. No politician, no newspaper, is free of biases, but some are much better than others.
  • Two rules of thumb, for reliable information. First, pay for it. If you get your news for free, most likely you are the product. Second, for important issues, read the scientific literature—peer-reviewed articles, the writing of professors from reputable institutions, etc. And scientists need to be more engaged in public debates.

Ch18, Science Fiction: the future is not what you see in the movies

  • In the early 21st century perhaps the most important genre is science fiction. That’s where people get their ideas about AI or genetic engineering. Thus sf needs to be more responsible in how it depicts scientific realities. Its worst sin might be confusing intelligence with consciousness.
  • Movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show recoil from the full implications of their premises. So what if Truman does fulfill his fantasy? People are already trapped inside a box. What you can feel inside the box is the same as exploring the real world. Our mental experiences, and our feelings, are the same.
  • Most sf movies tell an old story: the victory of mind over matter, 254.3. All the movies and novels you’ve consumed have shaped your ideas of life.
  • Disney’s Inside Out concerns free will. Disney tells one myth over and over: a hero faces difficulties, but eventually triumphs by finding their authentic self and following their free choices. Until Inside Out. Riley is controlled by mechanisms inside her. There is no true self; her well-being depends on the interaction of different mechanisms. It’s not just about Joy. The movie became a hit, perhaps despite most viewers missing its point.
  • OTOH Brave New World. It reflects its era of 1931. Humans are manipulated with drugs and sex. Not the fear and violence of Orwell’s novel. Why is Huxley a dystopia? It comes in the climax with John and Savage and the World Controller, p258. Morality in a bottle. Quote 158-9. The right to be unhappy. He escapes civilization, but attracts so much attention he commits suicide.
  • Perhaps we need to escape the narrow definition of self.

Part V: Resilience

“How do you live in an age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed and no new story has yet emerged to replace them?”

Ch19, Education: Change is the only constant

  • What do we teach children today to help them survive in the world of 2050? What skills will they need? We don’t know.
  • A thousand years ago the world didn’t change much over the course of a lifetime. Even a couple centuries ago, few knew much about the outside world, and most books were either novels or religious tracts. Modern schools that provide basic facts about the world are great improvements. Yet today we’re bombarded by information, everywhere, including misinformation. It’s hard to focus. What’s needed now is the ability to make sense of it, to tell the difference between what’s important and what’s not, and to combine it all into a broad picture of the world. Liberal education has always assumed students would figure the grand narratives out; but now there isn’t time for that.
  • What should we be teaching? Perhaps the four Cs: critical thinking; communication; collaboration; and creativity. Life skills.
  • By 2048 a person’s skills and identity may change every decade. But there’s no way we can anticipate such a future. The basic structure of life – a period of learning, followed by a period of working—may become obsolete. Constant change will be stressful. People are less inclined to change as they get older.
  • But as life expectancy increases, people will need to keep learning to stay relevant. That will require mental flexibility and emotional balance. These things are difficult to teach. The old production-line model of education is now bankrupt; but we haven’t created an alternative.
  • So advice to 15-year-olds: don’t rely on the adults. Rely on technology? It can control you. On yourself? But you are easily manipulated. So the best advice may be the oldest: know thyself. Be aware of who’s trying to hack you, and why. Of the algorithms watching you. Some people don’t mind and just take the ride. But to retain control over life, learn to leave your illusions behind.

[[ The next chapter is where the author is either revealing a deep truth, or going off the rails, as if abandoning the ostensible topic of his book for his own personal interests. This recalls Sam Harris’ THE END OF FAITH, reviewed here http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2020/03/18/sam-harris-the-end-of-faith-2004/

[[ Yet this, of course, dovetails with my own conclusions about life and the psychological insights of the past two or three decades: we understand reality via human nature in terms of stories, in terms of causes and effects, even when these things, by objective analysis, don’t exist.

[[ Despite my cavils, this may be the most profound chapter in the book, which is why I’ve bolded some passages that help summarize it. ]]

Ch20, Meaning: Life is not a story (41 pages!)

  • What is the meaning of life? Given all that we know, what’s the best answer we can give today?
  • People expect an answer in terms of a story. They think the universe works like a story. They want to know their part in the story.
  • One such story is that we are part of an eternal cycle that connects all beings. The Bhagavad Gita, how every must follow their own path. Repackaged as The Lion King. The circle of life. Simba can’t escape his dharma. The cosmic drama is a circular story. Forever.
  • Other religions follow linear cosmic dramas. In the beginning; laws handed down; judgement day; paradise or hell. Forever. The Muslim story.
  • Nationalism is another linear story. e.g. the Zionist story, focusing on ethnicity, ending with a prosperous land of Israel. Communism, with its focus on class rather than ethnicity, ending with a communist paradise. Each of these stories imply different roles in life, obligations about what to do.
  • Scales very widely; the Zionist story applies only to 0.2 percent of humankind. And doesn’t apply to the vastness of space or time. Such myopia can have serious consequences. We know the age of the universe, the expected lifetime of Earth. Yet many people are easily satisfied by such a small story.
  • Author recollects growing up in Israel. He came to wonder what was the point? How likely is it Israel, or Palestine, will be around in billions of years? Other national movements are just as narrow-minded.
  • All these stories are incomplete. But to provide meaning in life, only two conditions are needed: a story must give me some role to play; and the story must extend my horizons. To something bigger than oneself. But what makes that something important? Turtles all the way down.
  • If you tell the story well enough, people don’t worry about such questions. The bigger issues don’t matter. People aren’t good at numbers. It takes little to exhaust our imagination.
  • OTOH many people believe all that matters is that they “leave something behind.” But that just extends life, rather than making it more meaningful. Even if life is an endless cycle, what’s the point of that? And there’s no evidence of past lives. Something tangible? A poem or a child? Yet few people throughout history have been successful in leaving anything that matters in the long run.
  • How about making the world a little bit better? But that is easily just another chain; where does it end?
  • Romance? Yet your partner is just another person.
  • Of course stories don’t have to be true; to the best of our knowledge, none of thousands of cultural or religious stories invented throughout history is true. The universe does not work like a story. People believe in fictions because they define their personal identities, and our collective institutions. It takes nerves to question the fictions. Even if the stories have the flimsiest of foundations, e.g. the Christian story, 286b, example of reason western and eastern orthodox Christians split. Thus stories persist.
  • What makes such stories feel real? Rituals. “Hocus-pocus, X is Y!” Communion. Hindu sacrifice of a horse. Lighting candles, counting beads, bowing the head, etc. All kinds of food. Rituals apply to political stories too: the throne, the crown. Military formations. Colorful ribbons. Confucius was expert on these. National flags. Example of Indian flag. Rituals are all the more effective if they are costly.
  • Of course none of these prove that your beliefs are true. But people’s faith increases the more they sacrifice; they don’t like to admit that they are fools. Sacrifice seems to prove your commitment. Martyrs. Example Shiite Muslims. When sacrifices are made we are either cruel villains or the story is true. Monotheists have committed human sacrifices on far larger scales than any polytheistic cults. Orthodox Jews force others to follow their restrictive sabbath taboos. They justify it by insisting their story is true.
  • The ancients had many gods to sacrifice to. Still today, people keep a portfolio of stories for various needs. E.g. a Tea Party’s supporter’s faith in Jesus, and support for the NRA. Hardly anyone has just one identity. Yet fascism was a fanatical creed that insisted only the nationalist story was true. The term has become watered-down though. Fascism means one’s nation is supreme, and is owed exclusive obligations. No matter the cost to other nations, the betrayal of truth, etc. Everything serves national interests, even art, even teaching kids. It’s seductive in its simplicity, but recalls the mistake in which villains are cruel even to their supporters, p298t. Evil is not necessarily ugly. When fascists look in the mirror, they see the most beautiful thing in the world.
  • The word comes from Latin for ‘bundle of rods.’ Powerful metaphor. But which bundle? Germany recovered from Hitlerism quickly.
  • The Muslims who take revenge on the French yet go to heaven doesn’t make sense. There are two contradictory stories here that most people just don’t think about. [[ Same with Christians looking forward to heaven but doing everything to stay alive. ]]
  • Humans have always believed in several stories at the same time, never absolutely convinced of the truth of any one of them. Blind faith has come to look like mental slavery. Hamlet, the lion king, never resolved his question. Modernity opened up a supermarket for stories. Totalitarian movements reacted against this freedom. But most people pick and choose from that supermarket. Liberal mythology is that everyone will eventually realize all the stories are fakes. Instead it’s about faith in oneself.
  • Nothing is inherently sacred; human feelings make it so. The liberal story is a kind of creation story: each person is the creator of the meaning of his life. It’s about creation, and liberty from constraints. The problem with this is the apparent lack of free will; we cannot choose what to desire. If we desire to change our desires, but whence came that desire? Why do different people make different decisions?
  • Instead we can be less obsessive about our opinions and desires. The ‘self’ is a story too. Look at how people create versions of themselves for Facebook, leaving out so much. The real self is as much as the winds that mess up your hair.
  • You are not a story.
  • Buddhism went further in denying even the inner drama of human creation. The universe has no meaning, nor do human feelings; get over it. Meditation is key to observing what actually happens. Buddha taught that everything is constantly changing, nothing has any enduring existence, and nothing is completely satisfying. Failing to appreciate this leads to suffering. So do nothing. Yet even this turns into a heroic epic about self-improvement. And yet such people still squabble and fight. Examples. Japan. Now Myanmar. So meditation will hardly lead to world peace.
  • Reality still exists. The issue isn’t the meaning of life, but how to stop suffering. Ask who in a story can suffer. Can a nation suffer? No. only its citizens can suffer. Beware politicians who speak in mystical terms. Especially the four words sacrifice, eternity, purity, and redemption. The reality is individuals suffering.
  • Observe suffering and explore what it is. The answer isn’t a story.

Ch21, Meditation: just observe

  • So how does author, so skeptical, wake up cheerful every morning? He realizes his solution won’t work for everyone.
  • Author realized the pervasiveness of stories as a teenager. University didn’t help. Eventually he attends a meditation course. Lesson: Just be aware.
  • People ask what happens after they die, as if their “I” has already been the same; actually it keeps changing every moment. The soul is just a story. We have hardly any control over our minds. Pay attention to body sensations. Realize what anger is. This is all about observing reality.
  • Since then the author meditates two hours a day, and takes a retreat of a month or two away from home and work.
  • We don’t understand how the mind emerges from the brain. Brain is neurons; mind is subjective experiences. We can study the brain, but not the mind. We can observe, like anthropologists, but we need training to do so. Ancient methods are summarized as ‘meditation,’ which is not necessarily religious or mystical. Author is familiar with just one technique, Vipassana.
  • Meditation might complement brain research; digging from both ends.
  • We need to observe who we are and know ourselves while we have the chance, before the algorithms do it for us.


Several full quotes later, perhaps in a separate post.

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