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Humankind: the post-truth species

LiveMint logoLiveMint 17-04-2017 Uval Noah Harari

We are told that we are living in a new and frightening era of “post-truth”. So when, exactly, was the halcyon age of truth? In the 1980s? The 1930s? The 18th century?

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. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. Just try cramming 50,000 chimps into Yankee Stadium, Wall Street or the Vatican. Yet if you put 50,000 humans in Yankee Stadium, Wall Street or the Vatican, you will get extremely sophisticated networks of cooperation, provided all these humans happen to believe in the same stories about baseball, stock markets or Christianity.

You can never convince a group of chimpanzees to attack a distant chimpanzee group by promising them that if they die, they will go to Chimpanzee Heaven and enjoy countless bananas forever . No chimp will believe this story. Humans, in contrast, develop deep and abiding faith in such myths even in the absence of any confirming empirical evidence. That is why we rule the world rather than the faithless chimps.

So if you blame Facebook or Vladimir Putin for ushering a new and frightening era of post-truth, remind yourself that centuries ago Christians locked themselves inside a self-reinforcing mythological bubble, while Muslims put their unquestioning faith in the Quran. We have zero scientific evidence that Eve was tempted by the Serpent or that the creator of the universe dislikes homosexuality—yet billions of people have believed in these stories for thousands of years. Some fake news apparently lasts forever. Many people might be upset by my equating religion with fake news, but that’s exactly the point.

In more recent times, each nation has created its own national mythology, while movements such as communism, fascism and liberalism fashioned elaborate self-reinforcing credos. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda maestro and perhaps the most accomplished media-wizard of the modern age, allegedly explained his method by stating that “a lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”.

The truth is that truth was never high on the agenda of Homo sapiens. Many people believe that if a particular religion or ideology misrepresents reality, its adherents are bound to discover it sooner or later, because they will not be able to compete with more clear-sighted rivals. In practice, the power of human cooperation depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction. If you distort reality too much, it will indeed weaken you by making you act in counterproductive ways. For example, when the Soviet Union adopted the bogus evolutionary theories of Trofim Lysenko and punished any deviation from his mistaken dogmas, it crippled Soviet agriculture and contributed to the economic collapse of communism. On the other hand, you cannot organize masses of people effectively without relying on some mythology. If you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you.

Consider that when President Donald Trump took his oath of office on 20 January, he did so on a Bible, just as Barack Obama, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln did. Similarly, in many countries around the world, including the US and UK, witnesses in courts still put their hand on a Bible when swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Isn’t it ironic that they swear to tell the truth on a book brimming with fictions, myths and errors? They might as well swear to tell the truth on a copy of Harry Potter. (Some people may be offended by my comparison of the Bible with Harry Potter. Devoted Jews and Christians may explain that the Bible was never meant to be read as a factual account, but rather as a metaphorical story containing deep wisdom. But isn’t that true of Harry Potter too?)

Of course, 2017 is different in some respects. First, fictions and myths are reinforced today not through strict censorship, but through flooding people with irrelevant information. Inundated by funny cat videos, we just don’t know what to pay attention to, and often spend our time investigating and debating side issues. In ancient times, having power meant having access to information. Today, having power means knowing what to ignore.

Secondly, technology makes human fantasies more powerful than ever before. In ancient Egypt, the pharaohs dreamed of living forever in paradise, so they built pyramids and had their bodies mummified. In the 21st century, tech moguls who dream of living forever in paradise are investing in genetic engineering, Artificial Intelligence and virtual realities. Within a few decades perhaps they could really extend human lifespans and create paradise by rewriting our DNA code or by directly connecting brains to computers.

People expect reality to eventually burst the bubble of fiction—but in our century, the bubble might end up engulfing reality. As technology makes humans more powerful than before, it also makes our fantasies and myths more potent than ever. If you dream of a society in which truth reigns supreme and myths are ignored, you have little to expect from Homo sapiens. Better try your luck with chimps. Bloomberg

Uval Noah Harari is a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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