By Yuval Noah Harari
P xii – Democratic politics, human rights and free-market capitalism seemed destined to conquer the entire world. But as usual, history took an unexpected turn, and after fascism and communism collapsed, now liberalism is in a jam. So where are we heading?
Liberalism is losing credibility exactly when the twin revolutions in information technology and biotechnology confront us with the biggest challenges our species has ever encountered.
Big Data algorithms might create digital dictatorships in which all power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite while most people suffer not from exploitation, but from something far worse – irrelevance.
P xiii – Is there still a clear border separating reality from fiction?
Who are we? What should we do in life? What kinds of skills do we need?
What can we say about the meaning of life today?
Philosophy, religion and science are all running out of time. People have debated the meaning of life for thousands of years.
P xiv – Artificial intelligence and biotechnology are giving humanity the power to reshape and re-engineer life. Very soon somebody will have to decide how to use this power – based on some implicit or explicit story about the meaning of life. Philosophers are very patient people, but engineers are far less patient, and investors are the least patient of all.
P xv – After some soul searching, I chose free discussion over self-censorship. Without criticizing the liberal model, we cannot repair its faults or go beyond it.
If you value this book, you should also value the freedom of expression.
P 4 – Since the global financial crisis of 2008 people all over the world have become increasingly disillusioned with the liberal story.
P 5 – Today, few would confidently declare that the Chinese Communist Party is on the wrong side of history.
Some discovered a liking for the old hierarchical world, and they just don’t want to give up their racial, national or gendered privileges.
In 1938 humans were offered three global stories to choose from, in 1968 just two, in 1998 a single story seemed to prevail; in 2018 we are down to zero.
To be suddenly left without any story is terrifying.
Many liberals fear that Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump portend the end of human civilization.
P 6 – Already today, computers have made the financial system so complicated that few humans can understand it.
For example, it might become impossible or irrelevant to tax dollars, because most transactions will not involve a clear-cut exchange of national currency, or any currency at all.
Will the political system manage to deal with the crisis before it runs out of money?
P 7 -- If a thought buzzed in our mind and kept us awake at night, most of us did not know how to kill the thought.
The revolution in biotech and infotech will give us control of the world inside us, and will enable us to engineer and manufacture life. We will learn how to design brains, extend lives, and kill thoughts at our discretion. Nobody knows what the consequences will be. Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely.
Similarly, it will be easier to redirect the flow of our minds than to divine what it will do to our personal psychology or to our social systems.
In the coming century biotech and infotech will give us the power to manipulate the world inside us and reshape ourselves, but because we don’t understand the complexity of our own minds, the changes we will make might upset our mental system to such an extent that it too might break down.
The revolutions in biotech and infotech are made by engineers, entrepreneurs and scientists who are hardly aware of the political implications of their decisions, and who certainly don’t represent anyone.
P 8 – Ordinary people may not understand artificial intelligence and biotechnology, but they can sense that the future is passing them by.
In 2018 the common person feels increasingly irrelevant.
The liberal story was the story of ordinary people. How can it remain relevant to a world of cyborgs and networked algorithms?
P 9 – It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.
P 10 – In particular, the liberal story learned from communism to expand the circle of empathy and to value equality alongside liberty.
P 11—Liberty is not worth much unless it is coupled with some kind of social safety net.
Most people who voted for Trump and Brexit didn’t reject the liberal package in its entirety – they lost faith mainly in its globalizing part.
P 12 – The rising Chinese superpower presents an almost mirror image. It is wary of liberalizing its domestic politics, but it has adopted a far more liberal approach to the rest of the world.
Democracy is based on Abraham Lincoln’s principle that ‘you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time’. If a government is corrupt and fails to improve people’s lives, enough citizens will eventually realize this and replace the government. But government control of the media undermines Lincoln’s logic, because it prevents citizens from realizing the truth. Through its monopoly over the media, the ruling oligarchy can repeatedly blame all its failures on others, and divert attention to external threats – either real or imaginary.
P 13 -- By manufacturing a never-ending stream of crises, a corrupt oligarchy can prolong its rule indefinitely.
But I am yet to meet a single person who dreams of emigrating to Russia.
P 14 – People may give the system an angry kick in the stomach but, having nowhere else to go, they will eventually come back.
P 16 – But liberalism has no obvious answers to the biggest problems we face: ecological collapse and technological disruption.
However, economic growth will not save the global ecosystem – just the opposite, it is the cause of the ecological crisis. And economic growth will not solve technological disruption – it is predicated on the invention of more and more disruptive technologies.
We are consequently left with the task of creating an updated story for the world.
P 17 – We are still in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, after people have lost faith in the old stories but before they have embraced a new one. So what next? The first step is to tone down the prophecies of doom, and switch from panic mode to bewilderment.
Any story that seeks to gain humanity’s allegiance will be tested above all in its ability to deal with the twin revolutions in infotech and biotech. If liberalism, nationalism, Islam or some novel creed wishes to shape the world of the year 2050, it will need not only to make sense of artificial intelligence, Big Data algorithms and bioengineering – it will also need to incorporate them into a new meaningful narrative.
P 20 – It turned out that our choices of everything from food to mates result not from some mysterious free will, but rather from billions of neurons calculating probabilities within a split second.
If you think AI needs to compete against the human soul in terms of mystical hunches – that sounds impossible.
P 21 -- For how can a computer understand the divinely created human spirit?
P 22 – Two particularly important non-human abilities that AI possesses are connectivity and updateability.
P 23 – Today close to 1.25 million people are killed annually in traffic accidents (twice the number killed by war, crime and terrorism combined).
P 24 – Many doctors focus almost exclusively on processing information: they absorb medical data, analyse it, and produce a diagnosis.
The human care industry – which takes care of the sick, the young and the elderly – is likely to remain a human bastion for a long time.
P 25 – Of all forms of art, music is probably the most susceptible to Big Data analysis, because both inputs and outputs lend themselves to precise mathematical depiction.
P 27 – In the long run, algorithms may learn how to compose entire tunes, playing on human emotions as if they were a piano keyboard.
P 29 – Instead of humans competing with AI, they could focus on servicing and leveraging AI.
P 30 – How do you unionise a profession that mushrooms and disappears within a decade?
P 32 – At least in chess, creativity is already the trademark of computers rather than humans!
P 33 – Thus even after self-driving vehicles prove themselves safer and cheaper than human drivers, politicians and consumers might nevertheless block the change for years, perhaps decades.
The challenge posed to humankind in the twenty-first century by infotech and biotech is arguably much bigger than the challenge posed in the previous era by steam engines, railroads and electricity.
P 34 – Technology is never deterministic, and the fact that something can be done does not mean it must be done.
P 36 – In the stock exchange, for example, algorithms are becoming the most important buyers of bonds, shares and commodities.
Algorithms obviously have no consciousness, so unlike human consumers, they cannot enjoy what they buy, and their decisions are not shaped by sensations and emotions.
P 37 – These models should be guided by the principle of protecting humans rather than jobs.
One new model, which is gaining increasing attention, is universal basic income. This will cushion the poor against job loss and economic dislocation, while protecting the rich from populist rage.
P 38 – This is in fact the utopian vision of communism.
P 39 – Taking the right steps was more important than making speedy progress.
P 42 – To really achieve its goals, universal basic support will have to be supplemented by some meaningful pursuits, ranging from sports to religion.
P 43 – But in the lives of all people, the quest for meaning and for community might eclipse the quest for a job.
P 45 – You might object that people were asked ‘What do you think?’ rather than ‘What do you feel?’, but this is a common misperception. Referendums and elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality.
P 46/47 – Just as divine authority was legitimized by religious mythologies, and human authority was justified by the liberal story, so the coming technological revolution might establish the authority of Big Data algorithms, while undermining the very idea of individual freedom.
Feelings are thus not the opposite of rationality – they embody evolutionary rationality.
P 48 – For all practical purposes, it was reasonable to argue that I have free will, because my will was shaped mainly by the interplay of inner forces, which nobody outside could see. I could enjoy the illusion that I control my secret inner arena, while outsiders could never really understand what is happening inside me and how I make decisions.
However, soon computer algorithms could give you better counsel than human feelings.
When the biotech revolution merges with the infotech revolution, it will produce Big Data algorithms that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can, and then authority will probably shift from humans to computers.
P 49 – But by 2050, thanks to biometric sensors and Big Data algorithms, diseases may be diagnosed and treated long before they lead to pain or disability.
P 52 – Algorithms will repeatedly make mistakes due to insufficient data, faulty programming, muddled goal definitions and the chaotic nature of life.
… because most people don’t know themselves very well, and most people often make terrible mistakes in the most important decisions of their lives.
P 53 – It might become so easy to manipulate our opinions and emotions that we will be forced to rely on algorithms in the same way that a pilot suffering an attack of vertigo must ignore what his own senses are telling him and put all his trust in the machinery.
P 55 – Humans are used to thinking about life as a drama of decision-making.
What will happen to this view of life as we increasingly rely on AI to make decisions for us?
P 56 – Already today we are becoming tiny chips inside a giant data-processing system that nobody really understands.
People might object that algorithms could never make important decisions for us, because important decisions usually involve an ethical dimension, and algorithms don’t understand ethics.
P 57 – The moral of the parable is that people’s merit should be judged by their actual behavior, rather than by their religious affiliation.
P 58 – That’s just the way natural selection has shaped Homo sapiens. Like all mammals, Homo sapiens uses emotions to quickly make life and death decisions.
Distracted, angry and anxious human drivers kill more than a million people in traffic accidents every year.
Computer algorithms, however, have not been shaped by natural selection, and they have neither emotions nor gut instincts.
P 59 – In effect, every car will be driven by Michael Schumacher and Immanuel Kant rolled into one.
Granted, the philosophical algorithm will never be perfect. Mistakes will still happen, resulting in injuries, death and extremely complicated lawsuits.
Given that human drivers kill more than a million people each year, that isn’t such a tall order.
P 60 – So if you want to study something that will guarantee a good job in the future, maybe philosophy is not such a bad gamble.
Tesla will produce two models of the self-driving car: the Tesla Altruist and the Tesla Egoist.
P 61 – Yet the real problem with robots is exactly the opposite. We should fear them because they will probably always obey their masters and never rebel.
P 62 – The real problem with robots is not their own artificial intelligence, but rather the natural stupidity and cruelty of their human masters.
P 63 – Yet autonomous weapon systems are a catastrophe waiting to happen, because too many governments tend to be ethically corrupt, if not downright evil.
P 66 – Not only will the regime know exactly how you feel – it could make you feel whatever it wants.
Democracy in its present form cannot survive the merger of biotech and infotech. Either democracy will successfully reinvent itself in a radically new form, or humans will come to live in ‘digital dictatorships’.
P 69 – But in reality, there is no reason to assume that artificial intelligence will gain consciousness, because intelligence and consciousness are very different things.
P 70 – Hence despite the immense power of artificial intelligence, for the foreseeable future its usage will continue to depend to some extent on human consciousness.
The bots could identify our deepest fears, hatreds and cravings, and use these inner leverages against us.
P 71 – Unfortunately, at present we are not doing much to research and develop human consciousness.
The economic system pressures me to expand and diversify my investment portfolio, but it gives me zero incentives to expand and diversify my compassion. So I strive to understand the mysteries of the stock exchange, while making far less effort to understand the deep causes of suffering.
Indeed we have no idea what the full human potential is, because we know so little about the human mind.
If we are not careful, we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world.
P 73 -- …and just as humankind seems about to achieve global unification, the species itself might divide into different biological castes.
Inequality goes back to the Stone Age.
Property is a prerequisite for long-term inequality.
Following the Agricultural Revolution, property multiplied and with it inequality.
P 74 – Industrial economies relied on masses of common workers, while industrial armies relied on masses of common soldiers.
The history of the twentieth century revolved to a large extent around the reduction of inequality between classes, races and genders.
An entire generation grew up on this promise.
Now it seems that this promise might not be fulfilled.
Already today, the richest 1 per cent owns half the world’s wealth. Even more alarmingly, the richest hundred people together own more than the poorest 4 billion.
P 75 -- At the same time, improvements in biotechnology might make it possible to translate economic inequality into biological inequality.
Humankind might split into biological castes.
By 2100 the rich might really be more talented, more creative and more intelligent than the slum-dwellers.
By 2100, the richest 1 per cent might own not merely most of the world’s wealth, but also most of the world’s beauty, creativity and health.
It’s very dangerous to be redundant.
P 76 – Instead of globalization resulting in global unity, it might actually result in ‘speciation’: the divergence of humankind into different biological castes or even different species. Globalisation will unite the world horizontally by erasing national borders, but it will simultaneously divide humanity vertically.
From this perspective, current populist resentment of the ‘elites’ is well founded.
Not just entire classes, but entire countries and continents might become irrelevant.
P 77 – Maybe one of ‘our’ biggest problems is that different human groups have completely different futures.
The key is to regulate the ownership of data.
… and politics will be a struggle to control the flow of data. If data becomes concentrated in too few hands – humankind will split into different species.
P 78 -- Once algorithms choose and buy things for us, the traditional advertising industry will go bust.
P 79 – In the big battle between health and privacy, health is likely to win hands down.
The key question is: who owns the data? Does the data about my DNA, my brain and my life belong to me, to the government, to a corporation, or to the human collective?
Politicians are a bit like musicians, and the instrument they play on is the human emotional and biochemical system.
P 80 – Data is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, it can move at the speed of light, and you can create as many copies of it as you want.
How do you regulate the ownership of data? This may well be the most important political question of our era. If we cannot answer this question soon, our sociopolitical system might collapse.
P 89 – People estranged from their bodies, senses and physical environment are likely to feel alienated and disoriented.
Yet they cannot live happily if they are disconnected from their bodies. If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.
P 90 – Yet it is extremely difficult to know each other as ‘whole’ people. It takes a lot of time, and it demands direct physical interaction.
Will Facebook take a true leap of faith, and privilege social concerns over financial interests?
P 92 -- We may come to miss the good old days when online was separated from offline.
P 93 – Just as in nature different species fight for survival according to the remorseless laws of natural selection, so throughout history civilizations have repeatedly clashed and only the fittest have survived to tell the tale.
P 93/94 -- Muslim countries will never adopt Western values, and Western countries could never successfully absorb Muslim minorities.
Chimpanzees live in mixed groups of males and females. They compete for power by building coalitions of supporters from among both sexes.
P 96 – In truth, European civilization is anything Europeans make of it, just as Christianity is anything Christians make of it, Islam is anything Muslims make of it, and Judaism is anything Jews make of it.
To be German in 2018 means to grapple with the difficult legacy of Nazism while upholding liberal and democratic values. Who knows what it will mean in 2050.
P 97 – Similar distortions of ancient traditions characterize all religions. The Islamic State has boasted that it has reverted to the pure and original version of Islam, but in truth, their take on Islam is brand new.
P 98 – The heated argument about the true essence of Islam is simply pointless. Islam has no fixed DNA. Islam is whatever Muslims make of it.
Species often split, but they never merge.
P 99 -- Indeed, links may form even between sworn enemies.
War spreads ideas, technologies and people far more quickly than commerce.
P 101 – Global politics thus follows the Anna Karenina principle: successful states are all alike, but every failed state fails in its own way, by missing this or that ingredient of the dominant political package.
No group rejecting the principles of global politics has so far gained any lasting control of any significant territory.
P 107 – Today, learned people throughout the world believe exactly the same thing about matter, energy, time and space.
P 108 – The people we fight most often are our own family members. Identity is defined by conflicts and dilemmas more than by agreements.
P 109 – The big challenges of the twenty-first century will be global in nature. What will happen when climate change triggers ecological catastrophes? What will happen when computers outperform humans in more and more tasks, and replace them in an increasing number of jobs? What will happen when biotechnology enables us to upgrade humans and extend lifespans?
Though humankind is very far from constituting a harmonious community, we are all members of a single rowdy global civilization.
Might a return to traditional nationalism be the solution to our desperate global crises (sic)? If globalization brings with it so many problems why not just abandon it?
P 110 – Contrary to common wisdom, nationalism is not a natural and eternal part of the human psyche, and it is not rooted in human biology.
P 112 – It is a dangerous mistake to imagine that without nationalism we would all be living in a liberal paradise. More likely, we would be living in tribal chaos.
The list of countries lacking robust national bonds includes Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo and most other failed states.
For generations the most basic criticism of nationalism was that it led to war.
P 114 – In 2016, despite wars in Syria, Ukraine and several other hot spots, fewer people died from human violence than from obesity, from car accidents, or from suicide. This may well have been the greatest political and moral achievement of our times.
P 115/6 – Humans are destabilizing the global biosphere on multiple fronts. We are taking more and more resources out of the environment, while pumping back into it enormous quantities of waste and poison, thereby changing the composition of the soil, the water and the atmosphere.
For thousands of years, Homo sapiens behaved as an ecological serial killer; now it is morphing into an ecological mass murderer.
P 117 – ‘Hello, I am Homo sapiens, and I am a fossil-fuel addict.’
P 118 – At present the meat industry not only inflicts untold misery on billions of sentient beings, but it is also one the chief causes of global warming, one of the main consumers of antibiotics and poison, and one of the foremost polluters of air, land and water. According to a 2013 report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, it takes about 15,000 litres of fresh water to produce one kilogram of beef, compared to 287 litres needed to produce a kilogram of potatoes.
This might sound like science fiction, but the world’s first clean hamburger was grown from cells – and then eaten – in 2013. It cost $330,000. Four years of research and development brought the price down to $11 per unit, and within another decade industrially produced clean meat is expected to be cheaper than slaughtered meat.
P 119 – This technological development could save billions of animals from a life of abject misery, could help feed billions of malnourished humans, and could simultaneously help to prevent ecological meltdown.
Hence there are many things that governments, corporations and individuals can do to avoid climate change. But to be effective, they must be done on a global level.
P 120 – Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia depend on exporting oil and gas. Their economies will collapse if oil and gas suddenly give way to solar and wind.
P 121 – In order to avoid such a race to the bottom, humankind will probably need some kind of global identity and loyalty.
P 122 – Some believe that consciousness might even be severed from any organic structure, and could surf cyberspace free of all biological and physical constraints. On the other hand, we might witness the complete decoupling of intelligence from consciousness, and the development of AI might result in a world dominated by super-intelligent but completely non-conscious entities.
Each of these three problems – nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption – is enough to threaten the future of human civilization. But taken together, they add up to an unprecedented existential crisis, especially because they are likely to reinforce and compound one another.
P 123 – In times of crisis people do risky things.
P 124 – Technology has changed everything by creating a set of global existential threats that no nation can solve on its own.
P 125 -- True, when you have multiple loyalties, conflicts are sometimes inevitable. But then who said life was simple? Deal with it.
We now have a global ecology, a global economy and a global science – but we are still stuck with only national politics.
P 126 – Rather, to globalize politics means that political dynamics within countries and even cities should give far more weight to global problems and interests.
P 127 – Yet secular people are a minority.
P 128 – Traditional religions are largely irrelevant to technical and policy problems. In contrast, they are extremely relevant to identity problems – but in most cases they constitute a major part of the problem rather than a potential solution.
Medicine too fell within the religious domain. Almost every prophet, guru and shaman doubled as a healer.
P 129 – Even mental illness – the last bastion of religious healers – is gradually passing into the hand of the scientists, as neurology replaces demonology and Prozac supplants exorcism.
Traditional religions have lost so much turf because, frankly, they just weren’t very good in farming or healthcare.
Scientists too know how to cut corners and twist the evidence, but in the end, the mark of science is the willingness to admit failure and try a different tack.
P 131 – There is no such thing as ‘Christian economics’, ‘Muslim economics’ or ‘Hindu economics’.
P 132 – Humankind is likely to be divided into two main camps – those in favour of giving AI significant authority, and those opposed to it.
P 133 – It would go without saying that Evangelicals will object to any cap on carbon emissions, while Catholics will believe that Jesus preached we must protect the environment.
From this perspective, religion doesn’t really have much to contribute to the great policy debates of our time. As Karl Marx argued, it is just a veneer.
P 134 – Human power depends on mass cooperation, mass cooperation depends on manufacturing mass identities – and all mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities.
So, in the twenty-first century religions don’t bring rain, they don’t cure illnesses, they don’t build bombs – but they do get to determine who are ‘us’ and who are ‘them’, who we should cure and who we should bomb.
P 135 – Other religious traditions fill the world with a lot of ugliness, and make people behave meanly and cruelly.
Freud ridiculed the obsession people have about such matters as ‘the narcissism of small differences’.
In Saudi Arabia, a lesbian could not even drive a car until 2018 – just for being a woman, never mind being a lesbian.
In 1853 an American fleet forced Japan to open itself to the modern world.
Yet Japan did not copy blindly the Western blueprint.
Japan upheld the native religion of Shinto as the cornerstone of Japanese identity.
P 136 – Any element in Buddhism, Confucianism and the samurai feudal ethos that could be helpful in cementing loyalty to the state was added to the mix. To top it all, State Shinto enshrined as its supreme principle the worship of the Japanese emperor, who was considered a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and himself no less than a living god.
Japan was the first power to develop and use precision-guided missiles.
Japan sank dozens of allied ships with precision-guided missiles. We know these missiles as the kamikaze.
The kamikaze thus relied on combining state-of-the-art technology with state-of-the-art religious indoctrination.
Knowingly or not, numerous governments today follow the Japanese example. They adopt the universal tools and structures of modernity while relying on traditional religions to preserve a unique national identity.
P 137 – No matter how archaic a religion might look, with a bit of imagination and reinterpretation it can almost always be married to the latest technological gadgets and the most sophisticated modern institutions.
The North Korean regime indoctrinates its subjects with a fanatical state religion called Juche.
Though nobody claims that the Kims are descendants of a sun goddess, they are worshipped with more fervor than almost any god in history.
Religions, rites and rituals will remain important as long as the power of humankind rests on mass cooperation and as long as mass cooperation rests on belief in shared fictions.
Unfortunately, all of this really makes traditional religions part of humanity’s problem, not part of the remedy.
P 138 – There certainly are religious sages who reject nationalist excesses and adopt far more universal visions. Unfortunately, such sages don’t wield much political power these days.
Built on the promise of universal liberal values, the EU is teetering on the verge of disintegration due to the difficulties of integration and immigration.
P 139 – Though globalization has greatly reduced cultural differences across the planet, it has simultaneously made it far easier to encounter strangers and become upset by their oddities.
… it has been Europe’s very success in building a prosperous multicultural system that drew so many migrants in the first place.
P 140 – But should this be understood as a duty or a favour? Is the host country obliged to open its gates to everybody, or does it have the right to pick and choose, and even to halt immigration altogether?
P 141 – Anti-immigrationists stress that one of the most basic rights of every human collective is to defend itself against invasion, whether in the form of armies or migrants.
P 143 – Anti-immigrationists tend to place the bar high, whereas pro-immigrationists place it much lower.
Precisely because Europe cherishes tolerance, it cannot allow too many intolerant people in.
If Europe allows in too many immigrants from the Middle East, it will end up looking like the Middle East.
P 144 – Tolerance is a universal value.
P 145 – For pro-immigrationists, if third-generation immigrants are not seen and treated as equal citizens, this means that the host country is not fulfilling its obligations.
The root issue of this debate concerns the gap between personal timescale and collective timescale.
P 147 – Indeed, if all human cultures were essentially the same, why would we even need anthropologists and historians?
If cultural differences are insignificant, then whatever we discover about Harvard undergraduates should be true of Kalahari hunter-gatherers too.
P 148 – Unfortunately, such broad-minded attitudes cannot stand the test of reality.
P 150 – Traditional racism is waning, but the world is now full of ‘culturists’.
P 151 – Skin colour matters a lot.
The shift from biology to culture is not just a meaningless change of jargon. It is a profound shift with far-reaching practical consequences, some good, some bad.
P 153 -- …when you clearly define a yardstick, a time, and a place, culturist claims may well be empirically sound.
While culture is important, people are also shaped by their genes and their unique personal history.
P 155 – Terrorism is the weapon of a marginal and weak segment of humanity. How did it come to dominate global politics?
P 159 – Diabetes and high sugar levels kill up to 3.5 million people annually, while air pollution kills about 7 million people. So why do we fear terrorism more than sugar, and why do governments lose elections because of sporadic terror attacks but not because of chronic air pollution?
As the literal meaning of the word indicates, terrorism is a military strategy that hopes to change the political situation by spreading fear rather than by causing material damage. This strategy is almost always adopted by very weak parties who cannot inflict much material damage on their enemies.
P 163 – Like terrorists, those combating terrorism should also think more like theatre producers and less like army generals. Above all, if we want to combat terrorism effectively we must realize that nothing the terrorists do can defeat us. We are the only ones who can defeat ourselves, if we overreact in a misguided way to the terrorist provocations.
A terrorist is like a gambler holding a particularly bad hand, who tries to convince his rivals to reshuffle the cards. He cannot lose anything, and he may win everything.
P 167 – The success or failure of terrorism thus depends on us. If we allow our imagination to be captured by the terrorists, and then overreact to our own fears – terrorism will succeed. If we free our imagination from the terrorists, and react in a balanced and cool way – terrorism will fail.
Mena note: Here I find myself substituting efawism (EFAW – Evil Forces At Work) with terrorism and substituting terrorist with efawist.
Hence while present-day terrorism is mostly theatre, future nuclear terrorism, cyberterrorism or bioterrorism would pose a much more serious threat, and would demand far more drastic reaction from governments.
P 168 – It is hard to set priorities in real time, while it is all too easy to second-guess priorities with hindsight.
P 169 -- … reunified Germany is hailed today as the leader of the free world, and China has become the economic engine of the entire globe.
We just cannot prepare for every eventuality.
These are different problems that demand different solutions.
P 171 – In contrast, in 2018 successful wars seem to be an endangered species.
P 172/3 – Though some Third World dictators and non-state actors still manage to flourish through war, it seems that major powers no longer know how to do so.
The greatest victory in living memory – of the United States over the Soviet Union – was achieved without any major military confrontation.
China, the rising power of the early twenty-first century, has assiduously avoided all armed conflicts since its failed invasion of Vietnam in 1979, and it owes its ascent strictly to economic factors.
For all its military prowess and for all the hawkish rhetoric of Israeli politicians, Israel knows there is little to be won from war. Like the USA, China, Germany, Japan and Iran, Israel seems to understand that in the twenty-first century the most successful strategy is to sit on the fence and let others do the fighting for you.
P 175 – Russia has been following the playground-bully principle: ‘pick on the weakest kid, and don’t beat him up too much, lest the teacher intervenes’.
P 176 – Together, the USA and EU have five times more people than Russia, and ten times more dollars.
Today, information technology and biotechnology are more important than heavy industry, but Russia excels in neither.
P 177 – As Putin’s rise sparks an upsurge of Polish nationalism, this will only make Poland more anti-Russian than before.
P 178 – There are no silicon mines in Silicon Valley.
The atom bomb has turned victory in a world war into collective suicide.
P 179 – We should never underestimate human stupidity. Both on the personal and on the collective level, humans are prone to engage in self-destructive activities.
Germans, Italians and Japanese were enjoying unprecedented levels of affluence. Why, then, did they go to war in the first place? Why did they inflict unnecessary death and destruction on countless millions?
P 180 – Human stupidity is one of the most important forces in history, yet we often discount it.
The problem is that the world is far more complicated than a chessboard, and human rationality is not up to the task of really understanding it. Hence even rational leaders frequently end up doing very stupid things.
Moreover, it is exceedingly dangerous to assume that a new world war is inevitable. That would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the other hand, it would be naïve to assume that war is impossible. Even if war is catastrophic for everyone, no god and no law of nature protects us from human stupidity.
P 184 – It is certainly true that Judaism begot Christianity, and influenced the birth of Islam – two of the most important religions in history.
P 185 – Similarly, without Judaism you would not have had Christianity, but that doesn’t merit giving much importance to Judaism when writing the history of the world.
But when you look at the big picture of our history as a species, since the emergence of Homo sapiens more than 100,000 years ago, it is obvious that the Jewish contribution to history was very limited.
P 186 – The coin, the university, the parliament, the bank, the compass, the printing press and the steam engine were all invented by Gentiles.
P 187 – All social mammals, such as wolves, dolphins and monkeys, have ethical codes, adapted by evolution to promote group cooperation.
Apes not only avoid taking advantage of weak group members, but sometimes actively help them.
P 188 -- … but apparently ape leaders developed the tendency to help the poor, needy and fatherless millions of years before the Bible instructed ancient Israelites that they should not ‘mistreat any widow or fatherless child’ and before the prophet Amos complained about social elites ‘who oppress the poor and crush the needy’.
P 190 – The Bible is far from being the exclusive font of human morality (and luckily so, given the many racist, misogynist and homophobic attitudes it contains).
Confucious, Laozi, Buddha and Mahavira established universal ethical codes long before Paul and Jesus.
Buddha and Mahavira already instructed their followers to avoid harming not only all human beings, but any sentient beings whatsoever, including insects. It therefore makes absolutely no sense to credit Judaism and its Christian and Muslim offspring with the creation of human morality.
P 191 – From an ethical perspective, monotheism was arguably one of the worst ideas in human history.
Monotheism did little to improve the moral standards of humans.
What monotheism undoubtedly did was to make many people far more intolerant than before, thereby contributing to the spread of religious persecutions and holy wars. Polytheists found it perfectly acceptable that different people will worship different gods and perform diverse rites and rituals. They rarely if ever fought, persecuted, or killed people just because of their religious beliefs. Monotheists, in contrast, believed that their God was the only god, and that He demanded universal obedience.
P 192 –Nevertheless, by insisting that ‘there is no god but our God’ the monotheist idea tended to encourage bigotry.
P 194 – Einstein was Jewish, but the theory of relativity wasn’t ‘Jewish physics’.
Darwin was a Christian.
Does it imply that the theory of evolution is a Christian theory?
P 195 -- … it was the Gentile thinkers who laid the groundwork for the achievements of Einstein, Haber and Freud.
P 196 – Many religions praise the value of humility – but then imagine themselves to be the most important thing in the universe. They mix calls for personal meekness with blatant collective arrogance. Humans of all creeds would do well to take humility more seriously.
P 197 – Does God exist? That depends on which God you have in mind.
Why is there something rather than nothing? What shaped the fundamental laws of physics? What is consciousness, and where does it come from?
This is the God of the philosophers; the God we talk about when we sit around a campfire late at night, and wonder what life is all about.
P 198 – The deeper the mysteries of the universe, the less likely it is that whatever is responsible for them gives a damn about female dress codes or human sexual behavior.
In truth, we haven’t got any evidence whatsoever that the Bible or the Quran or the Book of Mormon or the Vedas or any other holy book was composed by the force that determined that energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared, and that protons are 1,837 times more massive than electrons. To the best of our scientific knowledge, all these sacred texts were written by imaginative Homo sapiens. They are just stories invented by our ancestors in order to legitimize social norms and political structures.
P 199 – I personally never cease to wonder about the mystery of existence. But I have never understood what it has got to do with the niggling laws of Judaism, Christianity or Hinduism. These laws were certainly very helpful in establishing and maintaining the social order for thousands of years. But in that, they are not fundamentally different from the laws of secular states and institutions.
Perhaps the deeper meaning of this commandment is that we should never use the name of God to justify our political interests, our economic ambitions or our personal hatreds.
You want to wage war on your neighbours and steal their land? Leave God out of it, and find yourself some other excuse.
When I think of the mystery of existence, I prefer to use others words, so as to avoid confusion.
... the mystery of existence doesn’t care an iota what names we apes give it.
Of course the cosmic mystery doesn’t help us at all in maintaining the social order. People often argue that we must believe in a god that gave some very concrete laws to humans, or else morality will disappear and society will collapse into primeval chaos.
P 200 – Yet though gods can inspire us to act compassionately, religious faith is not a necessary condition for moral behavior.
Morality of some kind is natural. All social mammals from chimpanzees to rats have ethical codes that limit things such as theft and murder.
P 201 – Morality doesn’t mean ‘following divine commands’. It means ‘reducing suffering’. Hence in order to act morally, you don’t need to believe in any myth or story. You just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering.
Even inquisitors who deliberately inflict as much pain as possible on their victim, usually use various desensitizing and dehumanizing techniques in order to distance themselves from what they are doing.
One obvious answer is that humans are social animals, therefore their happiness depends to a very large extent on their relations with others. Without love, friendship and community, who could be happy? If you live a lonely self-centred life, you are almost guaranteed to be miserable. So at the very least, to be happy you need to care about your family, your friends, and your community members.
P 202 – On a much more immediate level, hurting others always hurts me too. Every violent act in the world begins with a violent desire in somebody’s mind, which disturbs that person’s own peace and happiness before it disturbs the peace and happiness of anyone else. Thus people seldom steal unless they first develop a lot of greed and envy in their minds. People don’t usually murder unless they first generate anger and hatred. Emotions such as greed, envy, anger and hatred are very unpleasant. You cannot experience joy and harmony when you are boiling with anger or envy. Hence long before you murder anyone, your anger has already killed your own peace of mind.
If you were completely free of anger you would feel far better than if you murdered an obnoxious enemy.
So the value of the lawgiver god ultimately depends on the behavior of his devotees.
But if a particular temple causes violence and conflicts, what do we need it for? It is clearly a dysfunctional temple.
Secularism can provide us with all the values we need.
P 203 – According to this definition, secular people do not believe in any gods or angels, do not go to churches and temples, and do not perform rites and rituals.
Self-professing secularists view secularism in a very different way. For them, secularism is a very positive and active world view, which is defined by a coherent code of values rather than by opposition to this or that religion.
Rather, morality and wisdom are the natural legacy of all humans.
In contrast, secular people are comfortable with multiple hybrid identities.
P 204 – This ethical code – which is indeed accepted by millions of Muslims, Christians and Hindus as well as by atheists – enshrines the values of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility.
What then is the secular ideal? The most important secular commitment is to the truth, which is based on observation and evidence rather than on mere faith.
Often, strong beliefs are needed precisely when the story isn’t true.
This commitment to the truth underlies modern science, which has enabled humankind to split the atom, decipher the genome, track the evolution of life, and understand the history of humanity itself.
The other chief commitment of secular people is to compassion.
Such people are motivated by obedience rather than compassion, and what will they do if they come to believe that their god commands them to kill heretics, witches, adulterers or foreigners?
When secular people encounter such dilemmas, they do not ask ‘What does God command?’ Rather, they weigh carefully the feelings of all concerned parties, examine a wide range of observations and possibilities, and search for a middle path that will cause as little harm as possible.
P 206 – Healthy relationships require emotional, intellectual and even spiritual depth.
Suffering is suffering, no matter who experiences it; and knowledge is knowledge, no matter who discovers it.
P 207 – We cannot search for the truth and for the way out of suffering without the freedom to think, investigate, and experiment.
Humans should always retain the freedom to doubt, to check again, to hear a second opinion, to try a different path.
It takes a lot of courage to fight biases and oppressive regimes, but it takes even greater courage to admit ignorance and venture into the unknown. Secular education teaches us that if we don’t know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging our ignorance and looking for new evidence.
Many people are afraid of the unknown, and want clear-cut answers for every question.
People afraid of losing their truth tend to be more violent than people who are used to looking at the world from several different viewpoints. Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
P 208 – If the world is full of misery, it is our duty to find solutions.
Instead of praying for miracles, we need to ask what we can do to help.
The secular world judges people on the basis of their behavior rather than of their favourite clothes and ceremonies.
P 211 – The only place rights exist is in the stories humans invent and tell one another.
It thereby contributed to the happiness and welfare of humanity probably more than any other doctrine in history.
As long as you define yourself as ‘an individual possessing inalienable natural rights’, you will not know who you really are, and you will not understand the historical forces that shaped your society and your own mind (including your belief in ‘natural rights’).
If we are committed to the right to life, does that imply we should use biotechnology to overcome death? If we are committed to the right to liberty, should we empower algorithms that decipher and fulfil our hidden desires?
P 213 – But if you believe in a quest for truth by fallible humans, admitting blunders is an inherent part of the game.
P 214 – What was the biggest mistake your religion, ideology or world view committed? What did it get wrong? If you cannot come up with something serious, I for one would not trust you.
P 217 – Democracy is founded on the idea that the voter knows best, free-market capitalism believes that the customer is always right, and liberal education teaches students to think for themselves.
P 218 – Humans rarely think for themselves. Rather, we think in groups.
We think we know far more today, but as individuals, we actually know far less.
We think we know a lot, even though individually we know very little, because we treat knowledge in the minds of others as if it were our own.
From an evolutionary perspective, trusting in the knowledge of others has worked extremely well for Homo sapiens.
P 219 – Bombarding people with facts and exposing their individual ignorance is likely to backfire. Most people don’t like too many facts, and they certainly don’t like to feel stupid.
P 220/1 – Even scientists are not immune to the power of groupthink.
It is extremely hard to discover the truth when you are ruling the world. You are just far too busy.
Yet if you want to go deeply into any subject, you need a lot of time, and in particular you need the privilege of wasting time. You need to experiment with unproductive paths, to explore dead ends, to make space for doubts and boredom, and to allow little seeds of insight to slowly grow and blossom. If you cannot afford to waste time – you will never find the truth.
Worse still, great power inevitably distorts the truth. Power is all about changing reality rather than seeing it for what it is.
No sultan can ever trust his courtiers and underlings to tell him the truth.
P 221/2 -- If you really want truth, you need to escape the black hole of power, and allow yourself to waste a lot of time wandering here and there on the periphery. Revolutionary knowledge rarely makes it to the centre, because the centre is built on existing knowledge.
Leaders are thus trapped in a double bind. If they stay in the centre of power, they will have an extremely distorted vision of the world. If they venture to the margins, they will waste too much of their precious time. And the problem will only get worse. In the coming decades, the world will become even more complex than it is today.
As Socrates observed more than 2,000 years ago, the best we can do under such conditions is to acknowledge our own individual ignorance.
But what then about morality and justice? If we cannot understand the world, how can we hope to tell the difference between right and wrong, justice and injustice?
P 224 – Back then, people had only one pension fund, called ‘children’.
P 225 – The system is structured in such a way that those who make no effort to know can remain in blissful ignorance, and those who do make an effort will find it very difficult to discover the truth.
P 226 – However, in a world in which everything is interconnected, the supreme moral imperative becomes the imperative to know.
But without the benefit of hindsight, moral certainty might be beyond our reach.
P 228 – Even if we truly want to, most of us are no longer capable of understanding the major moral problems of the world.
In trying to comprehend and judge moral dilemmas of this scale, people often resort to one of four methods. The first is to downsize the issue.
The second is to focus on a touching human story.
P 229 – The third method to deal with large-scale moral dilemmas is to weave conspiracy theories.
The fourth and ultimate method is to create a dogma, put our trust in some allegedly all-knowing theory, institution or chief, and follow them wherever they lead us.
P 230 – Such a solution, however, only takes us from the frying pan of individual ignorance into the fire of biased groupthink.
But we now suffer from global problems, without having a global community.
All the existing human tribes are absorbed in advancing their particular interests rather than in understanding the global truth.
Should we call it quits, then, and declare that the human quest to understand the truth and find justice has failed? Have we officially entered the Post-Truth Era?
P 232 -- …it seems that we are indeed living in a terrifying era of post-truth, when not just particular military incidents, but entire histories and nations might be faked.
P 233 – In fact, humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions. Ever since the Stone Age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives. Indeed, Homo sapiens conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions.
As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.
… remind yourself that centuries ago millions of Christians locked themselves inside a self-reinforcing mythological bubble, never daring to question the factual veracity of the Bible, while millions of Muslims put their unquestioning faith in the Quran.
P 234 -- …yet billions of people have believed in these stories for thousands of years. Some fake news lasts for ever.
For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s toolkit.
P 235 – After Japan’s defeat Hirohito publicly proclaimed that this was not true, and that he wasn’t a god after all.
Again, that does not mean that these fictions are necessarily worthless or harmful. They could still be beautiful and inspiring.
P 237 – ‘A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.’
P 238 – Besides religions and ideologies, commercial firms too rely on fiction and fake news.
The truth is that truth was never high on the agenda of Homo sapiens.
P 239 – In practice, the power of human cooperation depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction.
In fact, false stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people.
P 240 – Thus in the economic sphere, money and corporations bind people together far more effectively than any god or holy book, even though everyone knows that they are just a human convention.
We learn to respect holy books in exactly the same way we learn to respect currency bills.
P 241 – You cannot play games or read novels unless you suspend disbelief at least for a little while.
Humans have this remarkable ability to know and not to know at the same time.
Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate ways.
P 242 – Scholars throughout history faced this dilemma: do they serve power or truth? Should they aim to unite people by making sure everyone believes in the same story, or should they let people know the truth even at the price of disunity?
The most powerful scholarly establishments – whether of Christian priests, Confucian mandarins or communist ideologues – placed unity above truth. That’s why they were so powerful.
Underneath all the fake news, there are real facts and real suffering.
Human suffering is often caused by belief in fiction, but the suffering itself is still real.
… and we should strive even harder to distinguish reality from fiction. Don’t expect perfection. One of the greatest fictions of all is to deny the complexity of the world.
It is the responsibility of all of us to invest time and effort in uncovering our biases and in verifying our sources of information.
First, if you want reliable information – pay good money for it.
The second rule of thumb is that if some issue seems exceptionally important to you, make the effort to read the relevant scientific literature.
P 244 -- The scientific community has been our most reliable source of knowledge for centuries.
Does that mean scientists should start writing science fiction? That is actually not such a bad idea.
… a good science-fiction movie is worth far more than an article in Science or Nature.
P 245/6 – In the twenty-first century, perhaps the most important artistic genre is science fiction.
… perhaps the worst sin of present-day science fiction is that it tends to confuse intelligence with consciousness.
P 246 – The Matrix depicts a world in which almost all humans are imprisoned in cyberspace, and everything they experience is shaped by a master algorithm.
P 247/8 – The current technological and scientific revolution implies not that authentic individuals and authentic realities can be manipulated by algorithms and TV cameras, but rather that authenticity is a myth. People are afraid of being trapped inside a box, but they don’t realize that they are already trapped inside a box – their brain – which is locked within a bigger box – human society with its myriad fictions. When you escape the matrix the only thing you discover is a bigger matrix.
But in truth, everything you will ever experience in life is within your own body and your own mind.
No. Whatever you can feel in Fiji, you can feel anywhere in the world; even inside the matrix.
Perhaps we are all living inside a giant computer simulation, Matrix-style. That would contradict all our national, religious and ideological stories. But our mental experiences would still be real.
Even if the gas chambers were just electric signals in silicon chips, the experience of pain, fear and despair were not one iota less excruciating for that.
Pain is pain, fear is fear, and love is love – even in the matrix.
The fear is still real.
P 249 – But the truth is that humans gained control of the world not so much by inventing knives and killing mammoths as much as by manipulating human minds.
According to the best scientific theories and the most up-to-date technological tools, the mind is never free of manipulation. There is no authentic self waiting to be liberated from the manipulative shell.
P 251 – The same cannot be said about the most prophetic science-fiction book of the twentieth century.
Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931.
The underlying assumption of the book is that humans are biochemical algorithms, that science can hack the human algorithm, and that technology can then be used to manipulate it.
P 252 – Huxley’s genius consists in showing that you could control people far more securely through love and pleasure than through fear and violence.
P 253 – And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering.
Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now.
P 255 – Escaping the narrow definition of self might well become a necessary survival skill in the twenty-first century.
P 261 – If this generation lacks a comprehensive view of the cosmos, the future of life will be decided at random.
P 262 – So what should we be teaching?
Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things, and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations.
… you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again.
By 2048, physical and cognitive structures will also melt into air, or into a cloud of data bits.
P 263 – By 2048, people might have to cope with migration to cyberspace, with fluid gender identities, and with new sensory experiences generated by computer implants.
We cannot be sure of the specifics, but change itself is the only certainty.
P 264 – ‘Who am I?’ will be a more urgent and complicated question than ever before.
This is likely to involve immense levels of stress. For change is almost always stressful, and after a certain age most people just don’t like to change.
The harder you’ve worked on building something, the more difficult it is to let go of it and make room for something new.
To stay relevant – not just economically, but above all socially – you will need the ability to constantly learn and to reinvent yourself, certainly at a young age like fifty.
How to live in a world where profound uncertainty is not a bug, but a feature?
You cannot learn resilience by reading a book or listening to a lecture.
P 266 -- … don’t rely on the adults too much. Most of them mean well, but they just don’t understand the world.
Due to the growing pace of change you can never be certain whether what the adults are telling you is timeless wisdom or outdated bias.
P 267 – Technology isn’t bad. If you know what you want in life, technology can help you get it. But if you don’t know what you want in life, it will be all too easy for technology to shape your aims for you and take control of your life.
The voice we hear inside our heads was never trustworthy, because it always reflected state propaganda, ideological brainwashing and commercial advertisement, not to mention biochemical bugs.
P 268 – The algorithms are watching you right now.
P 269 – Every generation needs a new answer, because what we know and don’t know keeps changing.
What kind of an answer do people expect?
Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal.
When we look for the meaning of life, we want a story that will explain what reality is all about and what is my particular role in the cosmic drama. This role defines who I am, and gives meaning to all of my experiences and choices.
To understand the meaning of life means to understand your unique function, and to live a good life means to accomplish that function.
P 270 – It makes no difference what your particular path is, as long as you follow it.
P 271 – The eternal repetition gives power to the story.
Other religions and ideologies believe in a linear cosmic drama, which has a definitive beginning, a not-too-long middle, and a once-and-for-all ending.
P 272 – Nationalism too upholds a linear story.
P 274 – Eternity is at the very least 13.8 billion years – the current age of the universe. Planet Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, and humans have existed for at least 2 million years.
As for the future, physics tells us that planet Earth will be absorbed by an expanding sun about 7.5 billion years from now, and that our universe will continue to exist for at least 13 billion years more.
P 276 – All stories are incomplete.
Like movie stars, humans like only those scripts that reserve an important role for them.
P 277 – A crucial law of storytelling is that once a story manages to extend beyond the audience’s horizon, its ultimate scope matters little.
In most cases, it takes surprisingly little to exhaust our imagination.
P 278 – If I am reborn in a new body after the death of my present body, then death is not the end. It is merely the space between two chapters.
P 279 – The meaning of life is thus a bit like playing with a live hand grenade. Once you pass it on to somebody else, you are safe.
P 280 – A wise old man was asked what he learned about the meaning of life. ‘Well,’ he answered, ‘I have learned that I am here on Earth in order to help other people. What I still haven’t figured out is why the other people are here.’
P 281 -- … to the best of our scientific understanding, none of the thousands of stories that different cultures, religions and tribes have invented throughout history is true. They are all just human inventions.
Any story is wrong, simply for being a story. The universe just does not work like a story.
P 282/3 – Second, not only our personal identities but also our collective institutions are built on the story. Consequently, it is extremely frightening to doubt the story. In many societies, anyone who tries to do so is ostracized or persecuted.
Once personal identities and entire social systems are built on top of a story, it becomes unthinkable to doubt it, not because of the evidence supporting it, but because its collapse will trigger a personal and social cataclysm. In history, the roof is sometimes more important than the foundations.
P 283 – A ritual is a magical act that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real.
P 285 – If you want to know the ultimate truth of life, rites and rituals are a huge obstacle. But if you are interested – like Confucius – in social stability and harmony, truth is often a liability, whereas rites and rituals are among your best allies.
So by waving a colourful flag and singing an anthem you transform the nation from an abstract story into a tangible reality.
P 286/7 – Of all rituals, sacrifice is the most potent because of all the things in the world, suffering is the most real. You can never ignore it or doubt it. If you want to make people really believe in some fiction, entice them to make a sacrifice on its behalf. Once you suffer for a story, it is usually enough to convince you that the story is real.
This is of course a logical fallacy. If you suffer because of your belief in God or in the nation, that does not prove that your beliefs are true. Maybe you are just paying the price of your gullibility?
However, most people don’t like to admit that they are fools. Consequently, the more they sacrifice for a particular belief, the stronger their faith becomes. This is the mysterious alchemy of sacrifice.
Once he convinces us to make some painful sacrifice, we are trapped.
The sacrifice is not just a way to convince your lover that you are serious – it is also a way to convince yourself that you are really in love.
Once the lover makes such a huge financial sacrifice, he must convince himself that it was for a worthy cause.
Self-sacrifice is extremely persuasive not just for the martyrs themselves, but also for the bystanders.
P 289 – When you inflict suffering on yourself in the name of some story, it gives you a choice. ‘Either the story is true, or I am a gullible fool.’ When you inflict suffering on others, you are also given a choice. ‘Either the story is true, or I am a cruel villain.’ And just as we don’t want to admit we are fools, we also don’t want to admit we are villains, so we prefer to believe that the story is true.
In fact, monotheists practiced human sacrifice on a much larger scale than most polytheistic cults.
At a time when the Spanish conquistadores stopped all human sacrifices to the Aztec and Inca gods, back home in Spain the Inquisition was burning heretics by the cartload.
P 291 – Just as in ancient times, so also in the twenty-first century, the human quest for meaning all too often ends with a succession of sacrifices.
Such cognitive dissonances are inherent in almost all societies and movements.
P 292 -- … but the human brain has a lot of drawers and compartments, and some neurons just don’t talk to one another.
Fascism insisted that people should not believe any story except the nationalist story, and should have no identity except their national identity.
Sometimes several of my identities pull me in different directions, and some of my obligations come into conflict with one another. But well, who said life was easy?
People call almost anyone they don’t like ‘a fascist’. The term is in danger of degenerating into an all-purpose term of abuse. So what does it really mean? In brief, while nationalism teaches me that my nation is unique and that I have special obligations towards it, fascism says my nation is supreme, and that I owe my nation exclusive obligations.
The horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust indicate the terrible consequences of this line of thinking.
This is why today people sometimes adopt fascist ideas without realizing it.
P 294 – The problem with evil is that in real life, it is not necessarily ugly. It can look very beautiful.
P 297 – Faith looked increasingly like mental slavery, while doubt came to be seen as a precondition for freedom.
The modern human is free to sample them all, choosing and combining whatever fits his or her taste.
P 298 – The meaning of life isn’t a ready-made product. There is no divine script, and nothing outside me can give meaning to my life. It is I who imbue everything with meaning through my free choices and through my own feelings.
In itself, the universe is only a meaningless hodge-podge of atoms.
Take away human feelings, and you are left with a bunch of molecules.
The universe does not give me meaning. I give meaning to the universe.
P 299/300 -- I am free to create my own dharma.
What then is the aim of my life? To create meaning by feeling, by thinking, by desiring, and by inventing. Anything that limits the human liberty to feel, to think, to desire and to invent, limits the meaning of the universe. Hence liberty from such limitations is the supreme ideal.
In practical terms, those who believe in the liberal story live by the light of two commandments: create, and fight for liberty.
This sounds extremely exciting and profound in theory.
To the best of our scientific understanding, there is no magic behind our choices and creations.
The liberal story instructs me to seek freedom to express and realise myself.
Humans obviously have a will, they have desires, and they are sometimes free to fulfil their desires. If by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to do what you desire – then yes, humans have free will. But if by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to choose what to desire – then no, humans have no free will.
… why does one person aspire to be more religious, while another is perfectly happy to remain an atheist? This may result from any number of cultural and genetic dispositions, but it is never the result of ‘free will’.
The process of self-exploration begins with simple things, and becomes progressively harder.
Ultimately we should realize that we do not control our desires, or even our reactions to these desires.
Realising this can help us become less obsessive about our opinions, about our feelings, and about our desires. We don’t have free will, but we can be a bit more free from the tyranny of our will.
P 301 – And in order to understand ourselves, a crucial step is to acknowledge that the ‘self’ is a fictional story that the intricate mechanisms of our mind constantly manufacture, update and rewrite.
P 302 -- … the universe has no plot, so it is up to us humans to create a plot, and this is our vocation and the meaning of our life.
The universe has no meaning, and human feelings too are not part of a great cosmic tale.
They are just vibrations in the body.
The Buddha taught that the three basic realities of the universe are that everything is constantly changing, nothing has any enduring essence, and nothing is completely satisfying.
Suffering emerges because people fail to appreciate this.
The eternal essence is sometimes called God, sometimes the nation, sometimes the soul, sometimes the authentic self, and sometimes true love – and the more people are attached to it, the more disappointed and miserable they become due to the failure to find it.
According to the Buddha, then, life has no meaning, and people don’t need to create any meaning.
P 304 – Having accepted that life has no meaning, I find meaning in explaining this truth to others, …
‘No story’ can all too easily become just another story.
P 306 – There is very little chance that world peace and global harmony will come once 8 billon humans start meditating regularly.
The big question facing humans isn’t ‘what is the meaning of life?’ but rather, ‘how do we get out of suffering?’
P 307 – Because the most real thing in the world is suffering.
P 308 – So if you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is. The answer isn’t a story.
P 311 – Yet the real enigma of life is not what happens after you die, but what happens before you die. If you want to understand death, you need to understand life.
The closer you observe yourself, the more obvious it becomes that nothing endures even from one moment to the next. So what holds together an entire life?
The first thing I learned by observing my breath was that notwithstanding all the books I had read and all the classes I had attended at university, I knew almost nothing about my mind, and I had very little control over it.
P 313 – Suffering is not an objective condition in the outside world. It is a mental reaction generated by my own mind. Learning this is the first step towards ceasing to generate more suffering.
Many people, including many scientists, tend to confuse the mind with the brain, but they are really very different things.
P 314 – But we cannot see the mind through a microscope or a brain scanner.
As of 2018, the only mind I can access directly is my own.
To become trustworthy anthropologists, we must learn how to observe human cultures in a methodical and objective manner, free from preconceptions and prejudices.
P 315 – It is even harder to observe my own mind objectively.
The methods they developed are bunched together under the generic term ‘meditation’.
… but in principle meditation is any method for direct observation of one’s own mind.
P 318 – And we had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us.