Monday, September 17, 2018

Yuval Harari on Freewill and Liberalism

In an article that returns to his theme from Homo Deus, Yuval Harari argues that a great flaw of liberalism is its assumption that people have free will. The classic liberal is progressive and revolutionary in insisting that political and economic power should be diffuse, not centralized as in aristocratic or dictatorial society in which a minority rules over the majority. This is because the justification of our power to rule flows not from our bloodline or even from our particular accomplishments, but from human nature which we all share. We have the right to attempt to overcome obstacles to our happiness because of the miracle of our being at liberty to understand and to conquer them. Unlike the other animal species, we have the capacity for self-control, says the liberal; we can think about our actions and plan for the future instead of just reacting instinctively to circumstances. As Harari writes, “Liberalism tells us that the voter knows best, that the customer is always right, and that we should think for ourselves and follow our hearts.”

Freewill and Liberalism

But Harari points out—following, perhaps, John Gray’s account in Black Mass—that this secular story about human nature derives from Christian theology and is thus dubious on its face. Christians needed to believe we deserve to be punished in hell, because they were saddled with the New Testament and with the moral overtones of Jewish monotheism, which in turn were inherited from Zoroastrianism. If we don’t deserve to be rewarded or punished by God, monotheistic religion is a monstrous lie and Western society lapses into anarchy. Thus, God implants in the human body an immaterial spirit which is free to choose between good and evil, which is free, that is, from natural forces to serve as a spark of divinity in the darkness of the material wilderness. That spirit is the source of our moral responsibility. Alas, cognitive scientists discovered no such spirit in their explorations of the brain and in their untangling of our evolutionary programming. It turns out not just that we’re animals, after all, says Harari, but that we’re “hackable” ones. “Every choice depends on a lot of biological, social and personal conditions that you cannot determine for yourself. I can choose what to eat, whom to marry and whom to vote for, but these choices are determined in part by my genes, my biochemistry, my gender, my family background, my national culture, etc—and I didn’t choose which genes or family to have.” 

Harari supports this by appealing to his Buddhist practice of meditation. We can confirm that we’re not free merely by paying close attention to the source of our thoughts that pop into our head. We don’t choose what to think or to feel, because there is no comprehensive self, no central agency in the mind deciding on the contents of our conscious awareness. Rather, these mental states bubble up by way of the brain’s attempt to reach equilibrium despite the quasi-evolutionary competition between its neural fluctuations. Just as the appearance of intelligent design in biological forms is an illusion—there’s no top-down designer, but only bottom-up struggles and mutations—there’s no homunculus in our skull that’s unbound by external chains of cause and effect, implies Harari. This means it’s possible that engineers and technocrats, politicians and salespeople can know us better than we know ourselves. All that’s needed are “a good understanding of biology, and a lot of computing power,” writes Harari. Corporations and governments might eventually have both, as they harvest terabytes of data from our addictions to social media and the internet, “and once they can hack you, they can not only predict your choices, but also reengineer your feelings.”

It’s worth quoting Harari at length on this threat of totalitarian control which liberals aren’t prepared for because of their myth of the individual’s free will:
At present, the hackers rely on analysing signals and actions in the outside world: the products you buy, the places you visit, the words you search for online. Yet within a few years biometric sensors could give hackers direct access to your inner world, and they could observe what’s going on inside your heart. Not the metaphorical heart beloved by liberal fantasies, but rather the muscular pump that regulates your blood pressure and much of your brain activity. The hackers could then correlate your heart rate with your credit card data, and your blood pressure with your search history. What would the Inquisition and the KGB have done with biometric bracelets that constantly monitor your moods and affections? Stay tuned.
Harari’s point is meant to be more radical than just to issue the warning that we should strive to know ourselves better, to guard against the hacking of our nature. The real problem with liberalism, for him, is that its ultimate goals are based on the falsified myth of monotheism. “For 300 years,” he writes, “liberal ideals inspired a political project that aimed to give as many individuals as possible the ability to pursue their dreams and fulfil their desires. We are now closer than ever to realising this aim—but we are also closer than ever to realising that this has all been based on an illusion. The very same technologies that we have invented to help individuals pursue their dreams also make it possible to re-engineer those dreams. So how can I trust any of my dreams?”

The Relative Independence of all Living Things

Curiously, Harari then notices that this radical questioning of the goal of being happy by way of fulfilling our potential to freely pursue our interests opens up the possibility of higher freedom: “From one perspective,” he writes—presumably from a Buddhist one—“this discovery gives humans an entirely new kind of freedom.” If we stop identifying with the “rollercoaster” of our mind’s thoughts and feelings, we can end our self-absorbed cravings and become more attentive to the outside world. This new kind of freedom is paradoxical, though, since the Buddhist denies there’s any singular self that can stand outside of nature, so that once we see through the illusion of self-control that’s perpetrated by the conscious mind, we’re left with something like the Daoist or the Stoic conclusion that we find peace by accepting our slavery to the ways of nature. This is “freedom” through greater slavery. Were there a self that emerges beyond the interdependent arising of our mental states, the Buddhist recommendation that we disassociate from our mind and from our narrative self would leave open the possibility of freewill. Harari denies there’s any such self and yet he resorts to speaking paradoxically about “a new kind of freedom.”

The reason for this tension, I believe, is that his entire case against freewill is incoherent, and unraveling the contradiction simultaneously sheds light on what the self is that’s manifestly free. The problem for Harari is that the hacking of an animal is already a non-animalistic, relatively anti-natural capacity. Alternatively, if you wish to associate human Machiavellianism with the other species’ exploitation of each other’s weaknesses, the problem remains that all living things are thereby free—compared to nonliving things. A rock isn’t free at all to follow its path, because the rock has no proper path beyond the one assigned to it by the physical regularities that prevail across the universe, which wholly determine the rock’s properties. The rock can’t resist any part of nature or act in anything like a non-rocky fashion. By contrast, all creatures resist the environment to some extent, by definition. Unlike physical things, biological entities have self-sustaining processes, such as the maintaining of homeostasis and metabolism and the adapting to an environment which can include an intelligently-designed rearrangement of the external conditions.

So all living things are free compared to physical things, some mammals are freer than most other species, and humans are by far the freest of all. But my point is that this is what Harari must be presupposing when he offers the ominous warning that we’re “hackable animals.” If we’re so, some of us must be the hackers, and all of us must have the potential to likewise hack rather than be hacked, to be the puppeteers rather than the puppets. To return to his example, the analyzing of signals, the setting up of biometric sensors, the correlation of heart rates with credit card data, and even the very agenda of exploiting people to dominate them—these are the deeds of slave masters, not slaves. Thus, Harari is obliged to explain how the hacker or the puppeteer wouldn’t stand apart from nature, contrary to Buddhism, Daoism, and Stoicism. Where in physics are the concepts sufficient to redefine the hacker or slave master as just another kind of hacked servant or mere object? The special science of biology is needed in addition to physics, precisely because living things are manifestly not mere slaves, compared to physical objects, just as psychology and sociology are needed to explain the more godlike capacities of human self-control and attempted mastery of the planet. Thus, it does no good for Harari to say that all of our choices are determined by our genes, biochemistry, gender, family background, and national culture, since those are all parts of the wider resistance against nature, the greater liberation from physical necessity. Physics would have us act solely as masses in motion or as particles in spacetime, and it’s because our behaviour transcends that description that we’re compelled to posit degrees of selfhood and freewill.

So yes, if we don’t personally select the mental states that pop into our head, this means there’s no all-powerful director within the mind, but there’s no need to identify with so narrow and quasi-Christian a notion of the self. Like climate, an economy or a nation, the self is a hyperobject in something like Timothy Morton’s sense of an object so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend the Newtonian clockwork presumption of spatiotemporal locality. For example, the self is nonlocal in that its totality isn’t encompassed by any local manifestation of it. Again, this is presupposed by Harari’s point that our decisions depend on our family history and so forth, since the self extends to its past, including its upbringing and thus the character of its parents during the person’s formative years. Remember, these influences on our behaviour don’t automatically make us slaves, since the biological and social influences are already forms of liberation from the inanimate physical flow of matter. Moreover, as a hyperobject, the self is phased in that it occupies a higher dimension, appearing to come and go in three-dimensional space. For example, the self is present in his or her representations such as writings, movies, or other works. And the self is intersubjective in that it’s formed by relations between objects and so is perceived only up to its imprint. We never see each other in our fullness, since we’re immediately aware only of the sliver of our totality in a particular time and place. We’re aware of what we look like on a particular occasion or of the words we use now and again, but never of the universe of experience that’s responsible for our actions. And we’re defined partly by how others perceive us, which is to say we’re social creatures.      

The Buddhist searches the mind for the ultimate agency, like David Hume she can’t find any, and so the Buddhist concludes that there’s just a great flux of events that interdependently come and go likes waves in an ocean. But the flux isn’t chaotic and scientists discern levels of natural order, calling for the distinctions of physics, biology, and psychology. So the fact that there’s no local agency, homunculus or dictator within the brain or the mind that can be identified at any one moment doesn’t entail there’s no such thing as the self or as free will. That’s a Buddhist fallacy which Harari commits.

"Betrayal," by Mario Sanchez Nevado
How, though, can the self as a hyperobject be free? By being identified with many forms of biological, social, and personal acts of liberation from physical regularities. Even genetic programming is a kind of freedom, since we’re programmed to act out of self-interest, not just to persist as inanimate objects; that is, we’re programmed to act, not just to react. But all of these levels of freedom—our genes, upbringing, gender, and so on—come to a head literally in the (relatively powerful) executive control center of the cerebral cortex and in our moments of intense self-awareness. We can detach from the mental rollercoaster in the Buddhist manner, and that very ability indicates a higher willpower, a resistance to our animal nature which would bestow us only with narrower interests. We can ride a train of associated thoughts or exercise discipline to keep our attention focused on an end that we set according to our ideals. These ideals that guide us are part of the self’s footprint, as it were; they’re the values that emerge from a lifetime of preferences and accumulated wisdom. We can have more or less strength of character in staying true to our ideals, and thus more or less personal integrity. The more our convictions inform our actions, the more we distinguish ourselves and thus the greater the evidence we have of our individual resistance to rival value systems, not to mention to the flow of living-dead matter.

Harari’s case against freewill is incoherent, since his assumption that we’re hackable machines presumes that there’s a programmer who stands apart from the mechanisms to exploit them. If the programmer is equally a series of mechanisms, the sense of the metaphor of “programmable machines” vanishes, and instead of cognitive science being distinct from physics, we have the Buddhist’s negative theology of the interdependent arising of events—with no further empirical or normative distinctions to draw. The analogy of “hackable animals” means that we can exploit our weaknesses and even turn each other into slaves or puppets. But by what right does the alleged determinist help himself to the notion of exploitation when there’s no such concept in physics, let alone in the Buddhist view of the world as a senseless “arising” of interconnected events? If the hacking and the being hacked are mere “events” and that’s all we can say about them, that analogy from computer science is vacuous and the understanding it affords is mere illusion. If that’s so, Harari’s case for determinism collapses, because he can no longer appeal to the sciences to demonstrate any line of causality in our behaviour. Buddhism entails mysticism, not scientific understanding. Once Harari admits that scientific knowledge isn’t an illusion, that there’s natural order to be discerned in the flux of events, he’s presented with plentiful evidence not just of our servitude, of our being coerced and manipulated, but of our being the dominators, the exploiters, and the manipulators. That’s the manifest evidence of our relative freedom, which Harari’s article and book presuppose, contrary to his thesis.   

The Arbitrariness of Equal Rights

Still, the determinist has a point against the theological, supernatural notion of freewill. After all, the Christian needs us to be perfectly, infinitely free to justify eternal reward and punishment. No one has any such absolute independence in nature. We exert our personal willpower only now and again and often to slight degrees, as we manage to stay true to our ideals against the temptation to revert to animal preoccupations or to perform some designated role in a foreign script. But to reduce the secular humanist’s conception of freewill to the supernatural one is to strawman the modern view. This isn’t to say that secular humanism or liberalism is without flaws. Such flaws abound, but Harari’s appeal to Buddhist determinism leads to a dead end.

To understand what’s really wrong with liberal humanism, we need to recognize our uniqueness in the universe and the existential stakes in the secret history of our frequent failure to free ourselves, to be personal selves in the first place and not just animals or objects. The problem became obvious with Nietzsche’s observation that there’s no assurance that secular, natural freedom or personhood will be equally distributed. In short, the liberal’s egalitarian intuition that human nature itself affords us with rights conflicts with the loss of the monotheistic conception of the liberated self. Naturalized freedom is likely to be unequally distributed, since freewill is an achievement, not a birthright. We create our higher, personal self (as opposed to our mammalian identity) by disciplining our inclinations in conformity to a worthy goal in life and by integrating the rollercoaster of our mind into a coherent worldview. There’s no reason to think every human is personal in that higher sense. So the most elevated form of freewill needn’t be for everyone. Many “people” may indeed be little more than hackable animals, because they haven’t disciplined their mind or distinguished their character from the inauthentic roles they play. Our personhood depends on the strength of our character, which can reinforce itself with the right kind of actions. We’re all born with a human brain, but brains are very differently programmed by our experience. Sometimes, experience can get the better of us, and so we surrender our higher calling to live as animals or puppets.

As we know from history, the social Darwinian themes in Nietzsche were taken up by the fascists, which culminated in WWII, forcing the Allied powers to distinguish their ideologies from those of fascist Italy, Germany, and Japan. The Soviets turned to collectivism as the basis of the equality of workers, while the United States appealed to the right of the individual to participate in capitalism and democracy. Individualism, however, is consistent with the Nietzschean objection to liberalism— which is what the West is presently learning from the resurgence of fascism across Europe and in the United States itself. Nietzsche was an individualist: he said we shouldn’t take our generalizations so seriously and should honour the particularities of everything we encounter. So if human individuals differ greatly with respect to their intellectual integrity, will power, and the coherence and thoughtfulness of their ideas, why should they be assigned equal status? Shouldn’t they fall into ranks in a hierarchy of values? In that case, the strong minority might deserve to rule over the weak majority, as aristocrats and emperors have always maintained, and so liberalism, capitalism, and democracy might not be progressive alternatives, after all. The question for the liberal is whether she can offer reasons rather than just politically correct platitudes in response to Nietzsche and fascists like Mussolini and Trump.


  1. Good work. Challenge accepted: if we don’t value the admittedly dubious claim of equality, the ones with power for accidental reasons get hegemony.

    1. I'm not sure exactly what point you're wanting to make. Most humans are roughly equal in our biological capacities, but that doesn't give us the _right_ to do anything. Natural rights are bogus. The introduction of right and wrong into nature is virtually miraculous and can't be reduced to any norm. So a fact of biological normality wouldn't establish equal rights. Also, chance certainly does help to bring the minority to power.

      The leftist talk of equal rights is flimsy because the egalitarians trivialize the emergence of rights, by handing them out arbitrarily in "virtue" of the fact of our membership in a biological species. So everyone is supposed to be equally valuable, regardless of our culture or thoughts or actions or character or commitment to existential issues. We're just supposed to ignore differences out of political correctness. Those equal rights are as bogus as the decrees by a senile and corrupt dictator. Such rights aren't respectable.

      True rights are created along with the higher self; they flow from moments of enlightenment. Otherwise, we're just glorified animals and our behavior is explained scientifically without the need to speak of our personality or creativity or other godlike qualities. When we're not philosophically or existentially/spiritually awakened to the cosmicist stakes, when we're just following orders or acting to please ourselves out of instinct or social conditioning, there's no right or wrong in our actions. We're pretty much just objects or animals.

      Those who get hegemony, though, needn't be enlightened or have higher selves or require moral analysis. On the contrary, morality and conscience are typically issues for outsiders and "losers." Hegemony and social hierarchies belong to the animal kingdom. Those who are existentially aware of our obligation to choose what's right, regardless of tradition or upbringing or the law, don't really fall into any hierarchy. They stand outside nature as unique, godlike beings, like Buddhas. They're creators of values in Nietzsche's sense.

  2. Our obligation to choose what’s right must prioritize preventing Nazi types or Stanilist types from taking over. (Oh look: he included a “both sides do it” in his point!) That priority, and the lack of a natural arbiter of value, means that power must likely be shared with those we deem unworthy, with sometimes horrifying consequences. But you’re friends with horror so you shouldn’t mind. 🙂

    1. Well, I'm not arguing in favour of dictatorships. Mind you, the liberated West's opposition to tyranny is hypocritical, since the US-led countries support obedient tyrannies in poor countries to maintain our supply chains. So indirectly, we free individuals are the tyrants abroad.

      But sure, sharing power in a democracy can have that pragmatic purpose of preventing the rise of a tyrant. My point is that we shouldn't take so seriously the claim that democracy is justified because it's based on equal rights. In any case, it's because we aren't actually committed to that stale modern myth that we seek our myths in Hollywood and the entertainment industry.