Discovering That Humans Don't Know Everything

Discovering That Humans Don’t Know Everything

Humans have a great ability to explain the world through narratives that seem to make sense. One problem, however, is that our narratives may feel coherent, but fail to accurately reflect the true nature of reality. We are great at explaining why things happen a certain way, at identifying causal relationships between phenomenon, and creating reasons for why things are the way they are. We are not great at recognizing when we don’t know something and when our explanations couldn’t possibly be correct.
 
 
Yuval Noah Harari sees humans overcoming our tendency to create incorrect explanations of the world as a major development toward the Scientific Revolution. In his book Sapiens, he writes, “The great discovery that launched the scientific revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.” From our modern vantage point, this is obvious. We just launched the JWST into space to help us understand questions to which we do not have answers. And even with the incredible power that the telescope has, it won’t tell us why there is a universe at all rather than nothing. There are questions we realize that we do not have actual scientific answers for.
 
 
In the past, we used narratives to explain the unexplainable. Religious explanations are not scientifically based, but create compelling and relatable narratives to why the world is the way it is. Magic and other supernatural phenomena explained everything from earthquakes to human economic behavior. They felt correct on an intuitive level, but couldn’t possibly explain reality in an accurate way.
 
 
The Scientific Revolution required that humans acknowledged gaps in knowledge. It required acknowledging that narratives and myth were insufficient to explain the true nature of the world. From this starting point humans could begin to make objective measures of the world around them, could test their causal explanations, and could begin to understand the world in a way that assumed there were lessons to learn and that myth and stories didn’t contain all the answers we need.
Does the Arc of Humanity Bend Toward Justice? - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - The Better Angles of our Nature Steven Pinker - Joseph Henrich the WEIRDest People in the world - Joe Abittan

Does the Arc of Humanity Bend Toward Justice?

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “there is absolutely no proof that human well-being inevitably improves as history rolls along. There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread, while less beneficial cultures must disappear.” Harari effectively argues that there is not a grand arc of humanity bending toward justice, that our cultures and civilizations around the globe are not necessarily moving toward being more cooperative and peaceful, that cultural evolution is not driving us toward better lives. If that is happening, then it is chance, Harari may argue, or we may be moving in a better direction, but that our path is not necessarily the most optimal for humans. Harari continues, “There is no proof that history is working for the benefit of humans because we lack an objective scale on which to measure such benefit.”
 
 
Around the same time that Harari published Sapiens, Steven Pinker published The Better Angles of Our Nature, and in that book he argues that the grand arc of humanity does bend toward justice, and that humans are becoming better and building better cultures over time. Pinker presents many objective scales on which humans are less violent, less impulsive, and are living better lives compared to humans of the past. Across multiple measures and various perspectives, humanity is improving and the history of humans does seem to be working toward our benefit. It may not feel that way, but cultures are becoming less violent and impulsive, and we can measure it in many ways.
 
 
In 2021, about 6 years after Sapiens was published, Joseph Henrich published The WEIRDest People in the World, in which he examines what cultural values contributed to western, educated, industrialized, rich, democracies, and how Europe and the Untied States became so WEIRD. He suggests that history could have taken different paths and that chance events could have moved history in different directions, but shows how certain cultural arrangements seem to have had different outcomes for humans, and how some cultural arrangements were more favorable and spread in an evolution-like manner. There may not have been a specific WEIRD end goal of this cultural evolution and one could argue that human culture lost some valuable aspects along the way, but Henrich’s argument seems to suggest that Harari is incorrect in stating that beneficial cultures for humans do not outcompete less beneficial cultures.
 
 
Harari may be correct if the evolution of humanity moves in a similar direction to the evolution of chickens. Chickens are some of the most abundant living things on the planet. There are more chickens alive than humans. What  they did to become so evolutionarily prosperous was become incredibly valuable to humans as a food source. However, this evolutionary success in terms of overall numbers is not good for individual chickens. Their lives are short and brutal. Their species population has exploded at the cost of the individual chicken’s life quality deteriorating. If this is the ultimate fate of humans, then Harari may be correct, human evolution does not move in a direction that makes the most out of life and existence.
 
 
However, that doesn’t seem to be where our species is headed. Birth rates globally are declining. While humans face great challenges with climate change and technological development we certainly don’t seem to be heading toward a world of more and more humans with ever less enjoyable lives. And Harari is incorrect in saying that we cannot find a universal measurement with which we can evaluate human progress. We fight fewer wars, kill each other less, and are less violent toward others, as Pinker demonstrates. By all measures (possibly with the exception of happiness measures from physically dominant 25 year-old males who want to fight everyone) this is an objectively good thing. Additionally, Henrich demonstrates that cultural factors which favored increasing trust with strangers, as opposed to only being able to trust family clans, favored a more civilized and peaceful society, thus outcompeting less beneficial cultural arrangements.
 
 
In short, both Pinker and Henrich provide examples which refute this post’s opening quotes from Harari. The arc of humanity does seem to bend toward justice and human cultures do seem to evolve in a direction that is better for humans over time, even if that evolution is slow, more complex than we fully understand, and not necessarily the most optimal pathway of all possible pathways. 
Why Study History? Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - Joe Abittan Blog

Why Study History?

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari asks why we should study history if history is not deterministic. If history was deterministic, then we would be able to look back in time at what has happened and determine where things will go next. We would  be able to see clear causal links between events of the past and easily adjust our behaviors and decisions moving forward. If history was truly deterministic, then the trite saying, “those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it,” would actually mean something.
 
 
But history is not deterministic. There are random changes, chance events, and other unpredictable factors that influence everything from technological development, to GDP, and even marriage and family structures. We can look back and create a compelling narrative, but the causal power of our explanations is extremely low. We can see the how of history, that is how things unfolded, but not the why, not the causal structures underlying everything.
 
 
And that makes it reasonable to ask why we should bother studying history at all. Harari responds to this inquiry by writing, “history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”
 
 
History helps us see that racial hierarchies, monarchies, and other aspects of life and culture are based on little more than chance. It helps us understand that humans can live in more ways than we imagine and can have more experiences than we imagine. History doesn’t help us predict what is going to happen in the future and doesn’t tell us how we should live now, but it does help us see that the world is not as rigid as we may imagine. History should expand our knowledge of the possible and humble us in the choices and decisions we make.
Level Two Chaos & History

Level Two Chaos and History

“It is an iron law of history that what looks inevitable in hindsight was far from obvious at the time,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. History seems pretty clear when we look backwards. It is certainly complex, but whether it is our own lives, a sports season, or the rise and fall of an empire, we generally do a pretty good job of creating a compelling narrative to explain how history unfolded and why certain events took place. But these narratives create what we call the hindsight bias, where past events (in this case the course of human history) appear nearly deterministic. The reality is that small changes could shape the course of history in dramatic ways, and that the future is never clear at any point – as our current uncertainty about social media, climate change, and political polarization demonstrate. Harari continues, “in a few decades, people will look back and think that the answers to all of these questions were obvious,” but for us, the right answers are certainly far from obvious.
 
 
History, for human beings, is shaped by the innumerable decisions that we make every day. The course of history is not deterministic, but is instead chaotic. Harari argues that history is a level two chaotic system and writes, “chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it … level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it, and therefore can never be predicted accurately.”
 
 
The weather is a level one chaotic system because it doesn’t respond (on a day to day basis) to our predictions. Whether our computer models suggest a 1%, 45%, or 88% chance of rain on a given day doesn’t change what is going to happen in the atmosphere and whether it will or will not rain. Despite our sometimes magical thinking, scheduling a wedding or stating our hopes for or against certain weather patterns does not influence the actual weather.
 
 
History, is not a level one chaotic system. History is shaped by elections, the general beliefs within the public, the actions that people take, and how key actors understand risk and probability. Our predictions can greatly influence all of these areas. Predicting a landslide victory in an election can demotivate the losing side of a political divide, possibly turning what could have been a marginal victory into the predicted landslide as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Reporting that general beliefs are becoming more or less prevalent among a population can influence the rate and direction of changing beliefs as people hear the predictions about belief trends (this seems like it may have happened as marijuana and gay marriage gained acceptance across the US). Our reactions to predictions can influence the final outcomes, contributing more uncertainty and chaos to the system.
 
 
We cannot predict exactly how people will react to predictions about the systems they participate in. It makes the predictions and forecasts more challenging since they have to incorporate different levels of response to various inputs. History cannot be thought of deterministically because so many small factors could have changed the outcomes, and those small changes in turn would have influenced exactly what predictions were made, in turn influencing the reactions of the people involved in the various actions of history. Our confidence in understanding history and why history played out as it did is not warranted, and is simply a fallacy.
The Hindsight Fallacy &The Hindsight Fallacy & the How & Why of History - Jim Collins Good To Great Bias the How & Why of History

The Hindsight Fallacy & the How & Why of History

Looking forward and making predictions and judgments on what will happen in the future is incredibly difficult, and very few people can reliably make good predictions about what will happen. But when we look to the past, almost all of us can describe what did happen. It is easy to look back and see how a series of events unfolded, to make connections between certain conditions and eventual outcomes, and to be confident that we understood why things unfolded as they did. But this confidence is misleading and is something we can reliably expect from people.
 
 
The hindsight fallacy is the term which describes our overconfidence in describing what happened in the past and determining which causal factors influenced the outcomes we observed. When the college football playoff is over this year, sports commentators will have a compelling narrative as to why the winning team was able to pull through. When the stock market makes a jump or dip in the next year, analysts will be able to look backward to connect the dots that caused the rise or fall of the market. Their explanations will be confident and narratively coherent, making the analysts and commentators sound like well reasoned individuals.
 
 
However, “every point in history is a crossroads,” writes Yuval Noah Harari. Strange and unpredictable things could happen at any time in history, and the causal factors at work are hard to determine. It is worth remembering that the best social science studies return an R value of about .4 at most (the R value is a statistical value reflecting how well the model fits reality). This means that the best social science studies we can conduct barely reflect the reality of the world. It is unlikely that any commentator, even a seasoned football announcer or stock market analyst, really understands causality well enough to be confident in what caused what, even in hindsight. Major shifts could happen because someone was in a bad mood. Unexpected windfalls could create new and somewhat random outcomes. Humans can think causally, and this helps us better understand the world, but we can also be overconfident in our causal reasoning.
 
 
Harari continues, “the better you know a particular historical period, the harder it becomes to explain why things happened one way and not another. Those who have only a superficial knowledge of a certain period tend to focus only on the possibility that was eventually realized.” What Harari is saying in this quote is that we can get very good at describing how things happened in the past, but not exactly very good at describing why. We can look at each step and each development that unfolded ahead of a terrorist attack, a win by an army, or as Harari uses for demonstration in his book, the adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire. But we can’t always explain the exact causal pathway of each step. If we could, then we could identify the specific historical crossroads where history took one path and not another and make reasonable predictions about how the world would have looked had the alternative option been the one that history followed. But we really can’t do this. We can look back and identify factors that seemed important in the historical development, but we can’t always explain exactly why those factors were important in one situation relative to another. There is too much randomness, too much chance, and too much complexity for us to be confident in the causal pathways we see. We won’t stop thinking in a causal way, of course, but we should at least be more open to a wild range of possibilities, and less confident in our assessments of history.
 
 
One of my favorite examples of the hindsight bias in action is in Good to Great by Jim Collins. In the book published in 2001, Collins identifies 11 companies that had jumped form being good companies to great companies. One of the companies identified, Circuit City, was out of business before Collins published his subsequent book. Another, Wells Fargo, is now one of the most hated companies in the United States.  A third, Fannie Mae, was at the center of the 2008 financial crisis, and a fourth, Gillette, was purchased by P&G and is no longer an independent entity. A quick search suggests that the companies in the Good to Great portfolio have underperformed the market since the books publication. It is likely that the success of the 11 companies included a substantial amount of randomness, which Collins and his team failed to incorporate in their analysis. Hindsight bias was at play in the selection of the 11 companies and the explanation for why they had such substantial growth in the period that Collins explored. 
Free Will & Judicial Systems

Free Will & Judicial Systems

What happens to the justice system in the Untied States when a majority of people no longer believe that humans actually have free will? There is still a debate within science as to whether or not humans actually have free will, but there is evidence to suggest that free will is a useful illusion, but not an idea that is supported by science.
 
 
Ideas of free will assume there is some sort of inner magic taking place within humans. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari compares the inner explanations of free will to Christian explanations of the soul. While I think there may still be a non-religious stance from which one could argue free will exists, I think his comparison is useful – though perhaps a bit intentionally provocative. Harari writes, “Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there. They increasingly argue that human behavior is determined by hormones, genes, and synapses, rather than by free will.”
 
 
Science suggests that humans are pretty easy to manipulate in a controlled lab setting. We can give people suggestions and directions without them realizing it, and they will make excuses and justifications of their action that support the idea of free will afterward. This doesn’t translate into some sort of totalitarian regime of mind control, but it does challenge ideas of free will. Additionally, we can observe action potentials within the brain that trigger an action before a person is consciously aware of an action. This is another suggestion that free will is more of an illusion than a central aspect of our consciousness.
 
 
Which brings me to the question in the title of this post. A question Harari asks directly by writing, “our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep such inconvenient discoveries [scientific findings that suggest we don’t have free will] under the carpet. But in all frankness, how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science?” What happens to the judicial system when it is not just a group of brainy scientists and nerds who read Sapiens that agree that free will doesn’t appear to be real? When we view human behaviors and decisions as greatly influenced by biological factors beyond the control of an individual, how do we justify incarceration, seemingly arbitrary prison sentences, and ideas of responsibility for committing crimes?
 
 
Our judicial system relies on beliefs of the individual, of conscious, rational, and free will decision-making. When those foundational aspects of the judicial system are challenged by enough people in society, it is unclear how we truly proceed with pursuing justice. Everything from arrests, to trials, to the length of prison sentences may potentially be shaken up and reconsidered if we collectively agree that free will and ideas of the individual are more of illusions than concrete aspects of our reality.
Liberal Humanism

Liberal Humanism

“Today, the most important humanist sect is liberal humanism, which believes that humanity is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of individuals is therefore sacrosanct,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens.
 
 
Consciousness is something we don’t actually understand all that well, but is central to ideas of humanism. I cannot actually prove that another person is conscious in the way that I am conscious. All I know is that there appear to be thoughts taking place within my head, and that those thoughts appear to be part of a single conscious entity (myself). I cannot confirm that my dog, my neighbor, or anyone else actually has the same conscious experience of the world taking place within their mind, but I can infer that they do.
 
 
Further, I cannot confirm that the way that I interpret and experience the world is the same as anyone else. Who is to say that the way that I perceive the wavelength of light that is the color red is the same as you perceive that wavelength? Who is to say that the quality of redness that we experience is the same. What if the quality that my mind places on the wavelength of light that we call green is the quality that your mind attributes to the wavelength of light that we call red? Again, since I am not inside your brain and can’t tell if you actually have thoughts and consciousness of your own or what your experience is like relative to mine.
 
 
Humanism assumes that all people are conscious and have qualitative experiences of the world that are effectively similar, but possibly different in an infinite number of ways. Liberal humanism assumes that all of these differences matter and should be thought of equally. Humans have a right, liberal humanism argues, to experience the world in their own unique way. Liberal humanism argues for human rights, that our consciousness is so special and individualized that we have unalienable rights to certain things in order to guarantee the continuation, protection, and exploration of our consciousness – our individual humanness.
 
 
Harari continues, “The inner core of individual humans gives meaning to the world, and is the source for all ethical and political authority. If we encounter an ethical or political dilemma, we should look inside and listen to our inner voice – the voice of humanity.” Humans should not be subjugated, dominated, or forced into a specific way of understanding their consciousness or their human experiences and existence. We are equal in terms of having a conscious mind that can experience joy, pain, pleasure, fear, and the full spectrum of human emotions. Having a ruler, a deity, or anyone and anything else force a specific view and interpretation of the world upon us is a violation of our unique humanness – it is a violation of human rights. Liberal humanism celebrates the unique individuality of human consciousness above all else, and seeks to protect it from states, gods, and other humans.
Humanism

Humanism

I don’t know many people, in my personal life or in any of my media orbits, who I could say is definitely not a humanist. I think virtually everyone I interact with or whose thoughts I engage with subscribes to some version of humanism. It is the dominant lens through which I, and seemingly everyone else, sees the world, even if we can see that it is at some level based on myth.
 
 
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “humanism is a belief that Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature, which is fundamentally different from the nature of all other animals and of all other phenomena.” There is something about our conscious experience of the world that seems to set humans apart from everything else. We do not know if another intelligent species exists in the Universe, and we see ourselves as a lone and isolated bright spot in the Universe. We are worth protecting and it is worthwhile to continue the human experience if for no other reason than that we appear to be unique within the communicable reaches of our universe.
 
 
We recognize that other animals certainly appear to be conscious and have complex thoughts and emotions. Humans don’t have the largest brains on earth, but each of us individually has a rich and complex consciousness that we view as separate from the likely consciousness of dogs, whales, elephants, or fungi (does fungi count as conscious?).  Our experience is held above the experience and states of being of other creatures, and this is observed in the way we treat factory farmed chickens, the way we think about the suffering of wild animals (or don’t think about it) and the way we make charitable donations to help other humans. Even thinkers like Peter Singer who are further along the path away from humanism than most people that I can think of still places a unique value on humans for being conscious, able to reason, and possibly able to help all other living life.
 
 
In the grand cosmos which humans expect to last for billions and billions of years, humanity means almost nothing. We are matter that has arranged itself to be self-replicating and self-observing. There is no real reason to believe that humans and our conscious experience of the universe is anything more. But nevertheless, because we experience the world and are self-aware that we are experiencing the world, we view ourselves as somehow unique and special. We adopt humanist views without even recognizing that we do so.
Syncretism - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens

Syncretism

Modern Christianity, along with other dominant religions (though I know very little about any world religion besides Christianity – and even then I don’t know that much), is a monotheistic religion. If you attend a church service in the United States then you are likely to hear about a single tripartite deity who controls the world. The deity is omnipotent and omniscient, yet allows humans a level of autonomy and free will, for reasons human mortals cannot understand. At the same time, however, modern Christianity, as you may hear it described on a typical Sunday in the United States, also has many dualist characteristics. The religion claims to be purely monotheistic, with frequent denouncements of false idols such as money, the Dallas Cowboys, or other spirit gods (like the gods of traffic lights who shine their green lights upon us – or punish us with red lights at every intersection when we are running five minutes late), yet still manages to violate it’s own monotheistic principals.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the incredible ability for humans to create religious organizations and institutions that simultaneously hold and violate ideas of monotheism, dualism, polytheism, and other structures. Harari writes,
 
 
“The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and animist ghosts. Scholars of religion have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion.”
 
 
Syncretism is an amalgamation of beliefs and belief structures formalized into a religious framework, as described in the passage above. But syncretism really isn’t that different from anything else we may come to believe. I consider myself a pretty rational person, but I have conflicting and contradictory beliefs in terms of personal responsibility. I have even gone so far as to believe in two different forms of personal responsibility based on reference points. I think we should view ourselves as responsible for our life outcomes, while viewing everyone else basically as a victim of circumstances and luck. This ensures that each of us individually works hard and does our best to reach our goals and be successful, while looking at others in a sympathetic light, giving them a pass for bad behavior and seeing them as deserving of a helping hand. These two beliefs contradict each other, but just as Christianity demonstrates, there is no reason opposing and contradictory beliefs cannot be tied together in an influential manner.
 
 
The truth is that humans and our societies are complex and we don’t understand society by thinking in terms of statistical chance and variation. When someone yells at a an employee of a company when being told to pull their mask up over their nose, we assume that there was a personal and individual reason for why the mask-averse individual yelled at the employee. We don’t see it as simple statistical chance that some amount of people are generally disagreeable, won’t have enough coffee on a given day, will have lost something important while running late, and will be short tempered when told to fix their mask. We don’t do a good job holding statistical chance in our minds and instead view causal explanations, even when chance and randomness may be the better perspective. In the end, we pull a lot pieces together in how we understand the world, and those pieces may narratively work together, but may not be the best rational fit together.
 
 
Syncretism is the result of an amalgamation of different narratives with individual perspectives and experiences as they relate to religious beliefs. We have different experiences and interactions with the world which manifests in different ways of explaining and interpreting the world. We fit all these contradictory and complimentary understandings into larger frameworks, fudging the edge when necessary and adopting beliefs that are convenient and consistent with the narratives that support our experiences.  The result is a worldview and belief system that seems jumbled together, like a monotheistic religion where an all powerful deity allows an antagonistic lesser deity to run amuck . This normally isn’t a problem of human existence, but rather a feature that allows us to come together with various shared beliefs for cooperation and trust among a diverse group of individuals and experiences.
New Gods and the Shift to Agrarian Society

New Gods and the Shift to Agrarian Societies

In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that there has been an evolution to the types of gods that humans have believed in throughout history. His argument is that humans at one point were more likely to believe that animals, plants, and other inanimate features of the environment had spirits and supernatural abilities, that those beliefs were eventually dropped in favor of gods responsible for certain outcomes, and that in the end those gods became consolidated within a single omnipotent deity. This transition could be attributed to simple chance, but Harari argues that a causal pathway exists from animal and plant spirits to an omnipotent deity.
 
 
For the first step in the process, Harari argues that human agriculture and a transition to an agricultural society was the primary causal driver. Harari writes, “gods such as the fertility goddess, the sky god, and the god of medicine took center stage when plants and animals lost their ability to speak, and the god’s main role was to mediate between humans and the mute plants and animals.”
 
 
A pre-agrarian society, Harari argues, didn’t need to control plants or animals. An agrarian society, however, did. Farmers ordered plants in the ground, made efforts to control their water supply, competition, and the nutrient level of their soil. Herders had to control and direct their flocks, we’re responsible for the continued reproduction and health of animals in their herds, and had to ward off predators. In new agrarian societies, men became responsible for plants and animals, and it became necessary to appeal to higher powers to influence successful crop yields and herd survival when many things remained beyond the control and influence of early agrarian humans. Spirits within animals and plants were not helpful, gods who could influence plants and animals were very helpful.
 
 
According to Harari the transition to gods for specific needs or to influence aspects of the environment occurred in many places in corresponded with agrarian living. The gods were a result of the efforts and subsequent needs of humans. There was an evolutionary procession based on the needs of humans that shaped how gods manifested in belief systems.