Posts Tagged 'Humanism'

Gandhi, Sartre, the Depths of Violence

Between the years 1893 and 1914, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (later known as the Mahatma, or “Great Soul”), was living in South Africa, and it is then he formed his personality and his political and spiritual path, becoming a social and spiritual leader. Gandhi’s book, Satyagraha In South Africa, recently published in Hebrew (Babel Press, tr. Matan Kaminer) was written about the struggles he led as a local labor leader of the Indian migrant worker community there. It was through these activities that Gandhi consolidated his non-violent struggle principles, which he called Satyagraha. Decades later he would use this path in the fight for Indian independence from British rule. In South Africa he uses Satyagraha to force the British imperialist machine to acquiesce to the demands of the local Indian laborers for fair treatment.

Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore

Satyagraha means “Holding on to truth”, and is a principle rooted in ancient Indian culture, and to which Gandhi gave a modern rendering. The idea is that the truth – which here is not just the facts as they are, but the proper deed, action according to one’s karma, preordained role and ego-less work – has a power of its own, and those who hold on to it steadfastly, even at the cost of personal suffering, are assured of victory. In fact, the suffering which the holder-on-to-truth is willing to accept is an integral part of this path: By internalizing pain and sorrow the individual gathers inner power which is translated into effective force with which to change the world. This is a force that derives not only from the righteousness of the individual’s moral position and not only from his or her ability to bring their interlocutor to recognize this righteousness. In the end it is also a super-natural power employed upon the world by one who is at once within it and outside of it, concurrently in the conditional field and the absolute field, charged with the fire of justice and endowed with the lever of absolute truth.

According to Gandhi:

Satyagraha is soul-force pure and simple, and whenever and to whatever extent there is room for the use of arms or physical force or brute force, there and to that extent is there so much less possibility for soul-force. […] not only has hatred no place in satyagraha, but it is a positive breach of its ruling principle. […] In passive resistance there is always present an idea of harassing the other party and there is a simultaneous readiness to undergo any hardships entailed upon us by such activity; while in satyagraha there is not the remotest idea of injuring the opponent. Satyagraha postulates the conquest of the adversary by suffering in one’s own person.

Gandhi led the Indian laborers in South Africa on various campaigns and time after time managed to force the British rulers to capitulate to his demands – without, as mentioned above, resorting to any violence whatsoever. Gandhi’s critics would claim that his method is only successful against an opponent capable of appreciating courage, nobility and fairness, an opponent like British colonialism and unlike one founded upon totalitarian ideology or fundamentalist religion. This is probably true, although one should keep in mind that Gandhi was perfectly willing to die for the truth he held, and to him this would not have proved that he had lost the struggle, but rather that he had upheld the truth to his death – a priceless achievement according to him.

Sartre with Che Guevara

In the preface to Franz Fanon’s book The Wretched Of The Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre brings a completely different approach to the struggle against oppression. Sartre states that the duty of the oppressed is but one: “to thrust out colonialism by every means in their power.” According to Sartre the irrepressible violence of the oppressed is “neither sound and fury, nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man re-creating himself.” For Sartre:

…no gentleness can efface the marks of violence; only violence itself can destroy them. The native cures himself of colonial neurosis by thrusting out the settler through force of arms. When his rage boils over, he rediscovers his lost innocence and he comes to know himself in that he himself creates his self. Far removed from his war, we consider it as a triumph of barbarism; but of its own volition it achieves, slowly but surely, the emancipation of the rebel, for bit by bit it destroys in him and around him the colonial gloom […] The rebel’s weapon is the proof of his humanity. For in the first days of the revolt you must kill: to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man, and a free man.

Like the pod of a thorny thistle about to burst, this text holds within it the seeds for several fertile post-colonial vectors currently eating away at the moral and ethical spine of various Western intellectual circles. Sartre not only shows tolerance for anti-colonial violence, but puts it on a pedestal, seeing its deployment as the personal realization of the occupied person, his final release. Sartre’s existentialism-is-humanism gives a license to kill anyone by any means, provided that the killer be in the midst of a struggle for political liberation. According to Sartre, en route to achieving political freedom the violent person will also achieve his or her own personal liberation, for he or she is fulfilling their duty and obligation toward themselves, indeed recreating themselves.

It is important to see that while Gandhi’s path is different, opposite in fact from that of Sartre, it aims at the same outcomes. Not only does Gandhi, like Sartre, wish to remove the yoke of the oppressor from the neck of the oppressed – that goes without saying – but like Sartre, Gandhi also sees the consolidation and liberation of the oppressed individual the essence of his struggle. The struggling individual, with his duties towards himself as well as towards the surrounding society, are at the heart of the liberation journeys depicted by these two thinkers, and they both forge an ethical framework within which the individual is supposed to act in order to realize his goal – which is to say, his self-realization.

In addition, note that for both violence is the axis around which one must align throughout his or her journey. For Gandhi violence is the weapon of the weak, the oppressor, and the ability of the oppressed to make him employ it unopposed, the ability of the oppressed to persevere in non-violence and the willingness of the oppressed to endure the oppressor’s brutality, are supposed to bring about a transformation on both sides: The oppressor will realize the immorality of his actions, whereas the oppressed, through his holding on to the truth, will enhance his moral image and gather power (political, and as mentioned above, super-natural as well). For Sartre it is incumbent upon the oppressed, in response to the oppressor’s violence, to retaliate in violence and destroy him. For Sartre, as well, a transformation occurs on both sides: “There remain a dead man, and a free man.”

The different directions to which the two thinkers point the violence – Gandhi inwardly, Sartre towards the other – are replications in miniature of divergent cultural directions in East and West (speaking in a schematic and simplified manner). Major schools of Eastern religions provide their adherents with a path of spiritual progression based on looking inward to the soul. The individual is required to direct his actions – or his refraining for various actions – towards a transformation that is mostly internal. On the other hand, the Western religions turn away from man, to a divinity that is inherently different from him. Here the individual is required to direct his actions towards the “complete Other”, the source of truth and good as far as he is concerned, to refrain from that which this supreme source forbids and to try to get closer to it, or become more like it, inasmuch as he can. While India and China will give us different kinds of “spiritual paths”, Rome and Israel will give birth to different ways to stand before heaven, to pray.

These two paths translate into a relationship with the violent element in life. While the West will use violence as part of the dialogue with the divinity – sacrifices, crusades, jihad – the East will teach itself to internalize violence, use it upon itself in various forms of asceticism and self-denial. As said, this division is highly schematic, and there are more than two ways to address violence in both hemispheres. But I think this division is well illustrated in the cases before us, of Sartre and Gandhi. Sartre turns outward to deal with the problem he encounters. Gandhi turns inward. Sartre is in a dialogue – that turns into a monologue. Gandhi is in a monologue, which is intended to produce a dialogue.

Gandhi’s and Sartre’s thinking, with the central place they accord to violence in the individual’s spiritual/existential journey, raises the centrality of violence in man’s search for meaning. We must note how different this idea is from our typical approach to violence as modern people. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor points out how far mankind has come since the days when violence (along with sex) was a central means of religious ritual. Killing and intercourse were means to achieve intimacy with the divine. Through the offering of sacrifice and through sacred orgies the basic urges served as steps to the Gods.

A great change took place with the rise of religions which distanced the spiritual or sacred realm from the world and from nature. Upanishadic Hinduism, Buddhism, Rabbinical Judaism and then Christianity and Islam all turned the desire for violence into a negative thing, and violence itself into a necessary evil at best. Violence ceased to be a way to worship the divine, and sometimes turned in and of itself into a taboo, something forbidden (at least in theory).

After the Protestant revolution the West underwent another phase, in which violence became something despicable, a sin. In fact, in the modern perception we have become accustomed to writing off violence as nothing more than a malfunction, something that happens when proper order is upset – a nuisance. But if we recall the roots of the human attitude to violence, perhaps we can better understand what excites so many young people about violence, from brawls over football to enlisting in wars they have nothing to do with.

In his book Humanity, philosopher Jonathan Glover brings testimonies of soldiers (mostly Russian and American) who describe taking part in war as nothing short of ecstatic. Beyond the intensive activity and the blood-ties forged between the fighting men, the encounter with death – and with killing – placed the individual face to face with the yawning chasms of his soul. He quotes a Vietnam veteran who testifies that war

is for men at some terrible level the closest thing to what childbirth is for women: the initiation into the power of life and death. It is like lifting off a corner of the universe and looking at what’s underneath.

One may wonder whether, in the course of our diligently cultivated bourgeois respectability we haven’t lost something, some direct contact with the underbelly of things, some deep intuitions regarding the forces that drive humans. We may have forgotten that they are not only the aspiration for freedom and goodness, but a yearning for the absolute, for life and death. Of course, these very sentiments were sounded from fascist throats in the early 20th century. They also mocked bourgeois refinement and glorified violence. I have no intention of joining them. I wish only to offer another vantage point on the desire for violence – and most certainly not to approve it.

Both Gandhi and Sartre, I think, treat violence with the respect it deserves, as a deep element around which various forces are arrayed in the human soul, as an essence in reality through our relationship with which we learn about ourselves – and about the truth. It seems to me that without denying many other reasons (religious, cultural, social, economic), only through such an understanding can we properly evaluate outbreaks of mass violence, be they in the West during the world wars, or these very days, in the Iraq of the ‘Islamic State’.


Published in Hebrew on Makor Rishon newspaper.

Post-Humanism, Post-Theism – Religion and Ethics in the Trans-Human Project

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

It is the beginning of the sixties, the first sixties ever, and St. Paul is disclosing his own personal transcendence, which he understands as redemption from Original Sin. He is no longer himself, but another lives in him – or is it through him? His very self is transformed and altered – it is no longer “he” who lives. Something very dramatic has happened to his spirit or his soul. As for his bodily life, the life he lives “in the flesh,” it is also changed: It is now lived “by the faith of the Son of God,” sustained, perhaps even animated, by a higher power.

2014-06-07_192818There is nothing new, then, in humanity’s attempts to transcend itself. Quite the contrary: Religion and post-humanism have been intertwined, sometimes even synonymous, since what has been called “the Axial Age” – in other words, the era, around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., when religion and philosophy became self-reflective, universally inclusive and emphasized self-cultivation through ethical rites and processes. Indeed, the Moksha of Upanishadic Hinduism and Jainism, the Nirvana of Buddhism, the Ataraxia of the ancient Greek philosophical schools, and the redemptive “putting on” of Christ for early Christians – these are nothing if not post-humanist and trans-humanist visions thorough which the individual transcends and transmutes his or her self.

The Ecstacy of St. Paul, Nicolas Poussin, Oil on Canvas 1643

Truth be told, for almost 2,000 years, the West has turned its back on post-humanist projects, and busied itself with the proper construction of man. Partly due to its Judaic heritage, partly inspired by the Hellenistic traditions (especially the Aristotelian and Platonic), the Christianized Roman Empire sought to establish its association with Truth not through rejection of man, but by placing him (and sometimes her) in a proper dialogical relationship with God, or The One.

Being the ultimate Other, the transcendent divine of Jewish, Christian and Muslim monotheism held within itself the Truth , and required any who wished to partake of it to look to “Him” for answers. This yearning “upward,” toward the transcendent, ceased in the first centuries of the Common Era to be actualized through mystical ascent and apotheosis for all but a very select elite, and for most believers meant instituting an inter-subjective and dialogical connection with the great Other, often through sacred texts and rituals.

Through a process that Hegel would later refer to as the master-slave dialectic, this double-ended relationship intensifies and empowers not only the master – in our case, the transcendent God – but also the slave – in our case, the religious human. The Western perception of the human being was configured as an autonomous individual in large part through its understanding of itself as a dialogical partner engaged in an intentional relationship with the divine Other.

Humanism thus owes many of its roots to the religious traditions of transcendent monotheism. It is against and toward the transcendent divine that Renaissance man, and later the Protestant reformers, laid down the first tracks of the humanist project, a project that even at its highest ideological point, arguably at the end of the 18th century with the American and French revolutions, relied on God for the origination and continual securing of (what was beginning to be called by then) human rights.

It is not hard to understand, then, why the decline and final fall of the transcendent, monotheistic God has presented the humanist vision with a fundamental challenge. The destruction of the transcendent idea, brought about by the consolidated processes of the rise of the naturalistic perception of the universe, the de-mystification of life caused by the scientific revolution and the augmentation of inner-worldly and subjective sources of morality and authority (such as rational-analytic thinking, or inner – “spontaneous” and “natural” – feelings and passions) made the idea of a transcendent God either unnecessary or unthinkable, and brought about wide-ranging unbelief, on the one hand, and a different kind of religion, on the other.

It is to that last kind of religion that I will turn now, as I would like to propose that it is the basis for both the modern spiritual search, as displayed in the contemporary spirituality milieu (sometimes referred to as “the New Age”), and to the different groups engaged in a trans-human soteriological quest, based on technological achievements and scientific, or quasi-scientific, assumptions.

Singularity and monotheism 

Now, when referring to the religious characteristics of the technological quest for the improvement and transcendence of man, I am not just addressing the obvious points of resemblance between ideas such as Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” and monotheistic Messianism. As can be understood by the title of Kurzweil’s 2005 book “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” there is not even an attempt to camouflage the clearly Messianic patterns of discourse.

I am also not speaking about groups such as the Raëlists, the Immortalists, the technopagans or the Luciferians, all of which have distinct religious themes and characteristics, and display clear and even conscious use of religious symbols and ideals.

I am referring rather to the structure of this religious quest, its form more than its content. For it is the form of religion that has fundamentally changed over the last few centuries in the West, leading to a process of secularization that is much more post-theism than a-theism. By post-theism, I mean a religion that is not centered around the grand old monotheistic transcendent king, but one that is concerned with what Foucault would call “the care of the self.” It is a religion that manifests itself less as a communal faith, based on collective rituals and rules of social conduct, and more as a personal spiritual quest, or in a word: an ethic.

It is not, then, only a matter of free choice and the private fashioning of the faith. The turn from traditional organized religion toward an individual voluntary one is also the turn from traditional ritual and law toward the individual’s concern with his or her own spiritual perfectibility. It is this change that we must note well, for it is this which ties the contemporary spiritual scene to the post- and trans-human projects at this time.

Now, to understand this religious metamorphosis, we must appreciate the dramatic consequences of the loss of the transcendental monotheistic god. Note that the assumption of a transcendental source of authority and truth is closely associated with a binary view of reality that presents clear dichotomies between presumed opposites such as this world and the next, nature and man, matter and spirit, body and soul, and man and woman. Moreover, in order to appropriately obey our God, we must fully embrace only one part of each binary couple, and seek divine truth by rejecting the latter and yearning, as it were, up and away from our earthly existence.

The elimination of the transcendent God has made this-worldly reality the focus of our religious life. It is in our present condition that we seek truth and redemption, through the phenomenal world as we see it, be it nature, our body, our mind or our feelings. A system of ethics, which regularly includes moral tenets and meditation practices, is supposed to bring us, by adherence to it, to full realization of religious redemption (whether spiritual liberation, emotional balance, or unification with nature).

In a way, this is a return to the transformative type of religiosity displayed by St. Paul, as mentioned above, and by Hellenistic Epicureanism and Stoicism, Upanishadic Hinduism and some strands of Buddhism. It is also the type of spiritual life we can sometimes find in the mystical traditions of the West, such as Sufism, Kabbalah, neo-Platonism and Hermeticism. What makes the current state of affairs in the West revolutionary in this respect is the magnitude and prevalence of this religious logic. From being the esoteric approach of a distinct elite, it has become the obvious and evident religiosity of the masses. Indeed, it is the dialogical “covenant” made with a transcendent God that has become a rarity in contemporary Western culture (though more in Europe than in the U.S. and Israel, of course).

I see trans-humanism, being the view that humans can and should (be permitted to) use technology to transform the human organism, as a specific creed within this major religious current. As with many New Age spiritual paths, it aimes to improve the individual condition in order to achieve superhuman goals, such as extended memory, bionic strength, full immunity to disease and even immortality. It thus offers a way towards private redemption, the difference from most of contemporary spirituality being that instead of a practical rule of ethics, it uses advanced technology for that purpose.

But the effort to improve and transcend the human condition is mutual. As Patrick Hopkins writes in an article entitled “Transcending the Animal: How Transhumanism and Religion Are and Are Not Alike”:

I see transhumanism as a reaction to the perceived oppressive and disappointing limitations of given human nature. Like religion – but unlike accepting or coping secular humanism – transhumanists want strongly to transcend the animal and actively work toward doing so. Unlike merely hoping that transcendence can occur, transhumanists aggressively pursue the physical practices, the technologies, that could make transcendence a reality.

What I would add to Hopkins’ account is that this specific type of religion, in which active effort is made to transcend the human “animal” in this very life, was, as stated earlier, quite rare in the West during the last two millennia, and has only since the second half of the 20th century become a wide-ranging, mass phenomenon. I wish to note that trans-humanism is located as a specific stream within this mass phenomenon.

The strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor

And yet, there is a fundamental difference between the varied trans-humanist projects and the various spiritual paths, and it is this difference that eventually directs these enterprises toward quite opposite routes. We must remember that for almost all the religious mystical paths, transcending the human body was closely tied with transcending the human self. As St. Paul proclaims in the opening quote: “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

For Epicureanism, Ataraxia was achieved by understanding that the self is no more than a conflation of material particles, and not an ethereal soul. For strands of Hinduism, Moksha was realized when the individual understood that the Atman was in fact not the personal self, but identical with the one universal Brahman. For Buddhism, the goal was to realize that there is no separate self at all, and for different Hasidic courts, the self was the Godhead itself. Indeed, one could define the mystical quest (and I heard this brilliant definition from Moshe Halbertal) as the very process of gradual or abrupt de-selfization and de-individuation. These patterns of purpose and intention are still maintained within contemporary spirituality circles today.

In contrast to this, the trans-humanist project seeks to maintain the very same human self that exists at the outset of its path. That self may be improved upon, made stronger or smarter, may even be immortalized, but it will not be essentially changed, and definitely not annulled. I see this as a principal distinction between these two projects of “care of the self,” and as a strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor.

The reason I see this as a fundamental mistake on the part of the trans-humanists (judging from their point of view, at least so long as they want to forward human freedom), is because the self that is imagined to be improved upon and immortalized is no more than a particular human cultural construct, specifically being the rational analytical self of the Enlightenment, itself a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul. This view of the human self was presented explicitly first by Rene Descartes, and fully developed in the works of Emanuel Kant. Taking this self to be the true or real human self is erroneous, and disastrous for any work built on that assumption.

To give a quick example of this assumption I would like to take two recent movies: “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze, and Wally Pfister’s “Transcendence.” In both these films, a human or human-like intelligence is “uploaded” or created to or in a computer. This intelligence acts as a sentient being, or in simple words – a self. On the other hand, this trans-human self has no physical body, and “moves” through cyberspace at will.

I propose this view of matters, shared by many post- and trans-humanists, is totally false, and is built, as said, on the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul. As with the Judeo-Christian soul, it does not take into account the unbreakable bond between our mind and our body. I am not arguing that only brain tissue – and not silicon chips – can produce consciousness. I’m not a substance chauvinist and certainly believe that, as the saying goes, “it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.”

What I am saying is that our consciousness is dependent on our body to understand itself as well as to function. I cannot go into this in proper length, and will just stress that we are embodied creatures and only through the body can we make sense of ourselves and our world. That is why we use our hands while talking, even on the phone. That is why we think better while walking. That is why our languages are filled with metaphors of space and time in order to comprehend mind and spirit. Indeed, even words like “superhuman” and “trans-human” are spatial metaphors, and “post-human” a temporal one.

In the film “Her,” the protagonist, played by Joaquin Phoenix, makes love to his artificial intelligent partner, and she actually has an orgasm – without a body. I think the very fundamental ways in which our body affects our feelings, emotions and consciousness and in which these are dependent on it are mistakenly ignored in this post-human fantasy.

To understand how much we are indebted to the Judeo-Christian soul when we imagine an out-of-body consciousness, I would like to suggest we try to imagine a cow’s consciousness being uploaded to a supercomputer. At first glance, it must be considered easier to upload a cow’s consciousness to a computer than that of a human, a cow’s consciousness being that much simpler. But we are unsuccessful in imagining a cow’s “self” living a virtual life within cyberspace. I believe we are unsuccessful in this because we grant special status to the human mind, and that because our view of it is, as said, the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul.

When the female protagonist in “Transcendence” (played by Rebecca Hall) talks about her partner (Johnny Depp) and claims that “his mind is a pattern of electrical signals … we can upload his consciousness,” she is simply using pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to secularize the idea of a separate soul, able to disconnect from the body. When her partner accomplishes said uploading and claims “my mind has been set free,” he is plainly delivering the trans-human secularized version of the “hallelujah” shouted by the religious individual reborn in Christ.

The view of the self in much of trans-humanism, is, then, no other than a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul, thrust through the prism of the Enlightenment and “technologized,” as it were, to update it for the 21st century. It is a particular view of the human self, time and culturally bound, and quite oblivious – as its archetype, the soul, was – to the fundamental and unbreakable tie between the mind and the body.

Following this philosophical blunder – another. This view of the human self is static within the trans-human project, meaning it is not to be changed or transformed, even while the human body is changed or transformed “around” it. This is fundamentally different, as stated earlier, from the dynamic view of the self in different spiritual traditions, a self going through metamorphosis.

Here we come to another principal difference within these two currents of the contemporary endeavor for the transcendence of man. As C.S. Lewis put it as early as 1944 in his The Abolition of Man:

For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

Or, we would say today, technology. And it is those wishes of man, subduing reality, that also disclose the ethical bankruptcy of trans-humanism, for when those wishes are fulfilled they will set human life in one determinate direction. Thus, changing reality instead of ourselves, we will perpetuate the dictatorship of our self as it is today, reducing choices and options for alternative lifestyles and setting the standard for any human existence to come.

As C.S. Lewis says, these future men will be “weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands, we have pre-ordained how they are to use them.” Without changing our selves, “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”


The article was presented as a lecture last month in a conference titled Oh Man Oh Machine: The Politics & Aesthetics of Posthumanism, Tel Aviv University. It was published yesterday in Haaretz.

Consciousness, Suffering and Veganism

The correspondence between Yuval Noah Harari and Gary Yourofsky offered readers an encounter with two prominent and highly articulate representatives of the vegetarian and vegan movements. Bracingly, it also offered a glimpse of the dangerous and anti-humanist extremes of that ethical movement. I shall not waste too many words on Yourofsky. Anyone who calls humans “parasites” and explicitly advocates violence is motivated by messianic blindness and certain to eventually cause death, be it of his rivals, his adherents or himself. And the day is not far off.

"in suffering we are all equal" says the t-shirt. click to go to siteYourofsky gives vegetarianism and veganism a bad name, but he is not without a home within these movements, asthey also have an anti-humanist element built-in to them, as well as a tendency to cheapen life through a utilitarian quantification of pain and suffering. Had these noble ideas a spokesman of their own, he would have had to condemn Yourofsky, but as this is not the case, one can only hope that anyone possessed of compassion and a conscience will distance himself from him and his ilk.

Harari is another story. Not just as a popular intellectual, but as a brilliant and extremely knowledgeable person, Harari presents a much more complex view of the subject. And yet, I think he “falls” into a number of intellectual traps, two of which I shall elaborate upon here.

First, Harari’s insistence that there is no difference in consciousness between animals and humans is astonishing. Harari claims that “there seems to be no evidence that homo sapiens

has some kind of special consciousness, or a greater capacity to suffer [than other mammals].” This is an odd assertion, considering that there is no scientific proof at all of human consciousness. Neuroscience, for example, has no capacity to examine the existence of “consciousness,” but only the nervous system and the brain that, ostensibly, enable its existence.

This is why many neuroscientists and neurophilosophers believe that human consciousness is merely an “epiphenomenon,” a secondary side effect that arises from brain function and is of wholly negligible influence. The big questions raised by the Turing Test also derive from precisely the same premise – that human consciousness may only be identified via the external responses that it produces.

And it is precisely from those external responses that we see that animal consciousness is not identical to human consciousness. Animals are not capable of constructing a sentence, of adhering to ideologies, of discussing moral questions. Harari surely knows this, for the superiority of human consciousness is a key element of the excellent best-seller that he authored. It is quite strange to see him retreat from this observation, which ought to be obvious to any thinking person.

The Depth of Suffering

As for the capacity to suffer, it, too, derives from consciousness, of course. A large portion of human suffering is linked to memory, imagination and our ability to tell ourselves complex stories about what happened, what might happen and what could have been. Anticipation, longing and remorse are direct causes of tremendous suffering, such as the memory of our loved ones who have died, or anxiety in anticipation of our own deaths in the years to come. As one interested in Buddhism, Harari surely is aware that the Buddha ascribes to these same emotional impressions a central role in the suffering that we cause ourselves (and others). While animals can certainly feel pain, since they have no complex system of conceptualization and imagination they cannot feel the same intensity of suffering.

Moreover: If we return for a moment to the empirical findings we find that scientific research has no doubt that the human nervous system and brain are more complex and sophisticated than that of the fly, the cat, or even the monkey. In fact, if this were not so, we’d be compelled to argue that the cause of man’s superior consciousness is not the structure of his brain, but rather his divine soul. Since depth of consciousness is directly and undeniably connected to the nervous system and the brain, it should be clear to us that the more complex these systems are, the deeper and more extensive the consciousness and suffering they can produce. Man’s capacity for suffering is immeasurably greater than that of the grasshopper or the cow. Fortunately, we also have a much greater capacity for happiness.

A second problem that arises from Harari’s statements has to do with consensual entities. Harari argues that man has “the ability to imagine things that don’t really exist, like gods, nations, money and human rights.” The equating of gods to money and nations does a disservice to atheists, who I expect would insist that gods do not exist anywhere near the extent that nations and money do, for if not, we would understand from Harari’s words that, like nations, gods divide up geographical spheres of influence, and like money, gods do in fact make the world go around. But this is the smallest problem with what he says, for none of us has any doubt that nations do exist. Harari apparently means that they would not exist without human consent, and the same goes for money – that is, these are entities dependent upon general human consent for their very existence.

This is true, but if that means that these are “things that don’t exist,” before you know it we will have to make do not just without nations, but without human beings as well, for the category of “human” also exists solely by virtue of human consent. Without the conscious ability to perceive distinct mammals and include them under a single abstract heading, all that would exist would be an undifferentiated collection of various individual organisms. The category of “science,” which Harari is so fond of citing in support of his ideas, also exists only due to human consent. The scientific method is a human creation, and the definition of a scientific experiment, and the way in which one should draw conclusions from it, are also utterly dependent upon human consent. Before Harari draws conclusions on the basis or the lack of “scientific proof,” he should take note that it, too, is a consensual entity.

But above and beyond all of these issues, a dangerous utilitarian moral stance arises from the discussion between these two thinkers. As noted above, this is a worldview that flattens and breaks down reality exclusively into units of suffering and pleasure, and that measures each action on a scale calibrated to identify these two things and nothing else. A commonly seen slogan on the T-shirts of vegan protesters is “We Are All Equal In Our Suffering,” and the same slogan can be found on the website of the 269 animal rights group, the movement that recently placed decapitated calves’ heads in various public squares in Tel Aviv. Suffering here is the common denominator among all living beings, and what makes them, despite being clearly distinguishable from one another by any other measure, “equal.”

This anti-humanist attitude not only fails to see any unique value to human life, but also fails to accord any value to life at all, instead measuring it solely in terms of the suffering or pleasure that it produces. This is the darks side of that heightened sensitivity to suffering which is gaining strength in this day and age. Amid the crumbling of universal ideals (not to mention traditional moral values), it is coming to be perceived as the sole valid index. In a world in which the pursuit of “experiences” and pleasure has become the only thing motivating us to action (Why travel to India? Why do drugs? Why see a movie? Why change jobs? – “for the experience”), causing suffering is becoming the only reason to abstain from an action.

Of course, there is an important moral dimension to our desire not to cause suffering to another being (I myself have been a vegetarian for the past 17 years). Compassion, empathy and respect of others’ wellbeing are all important elements of our moral framework. But a moral world that is reduced solely to equations of suffering and pleasure is a shallow one, incapable of grasping a complex picture in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (as is the case, for example, with human society).

In fact, such a world, ultimately, also cannot explain why it is morally wrong to cause suffering. Yes, suffering is “unpleasant,” but then quite a few cultures consider the unpleasant or uncomfortable to have positive ethical value (See: asceticism). When Harari says that “gods, nations and human rights” are “things that don’t really exist,” he ought to bear in mind that the utilitarian notion that suffering must be prevented does not ”really exist” either. A less simplistic argument is needed in order to present a valid and convincing vegetarian or vegan stance.


Published in Haaretz

Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

Interested in booking Tomer for a talk or program? Be in touch with the Jewish Speakers Bureau

Join 2,843 other followers