Reflections on Chapter 5 of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: ‘The Odd Couple’
This chapter explores the complex relationship between science and religion. The author offers his own definition of religion and distinguishes it from spiritual pursuits: “Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimizes human social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.” It differs from ‘spirituality’ because religions are strict and clear-cut. They proscribe goals and rules for groups to adhere to. Spiritual endeavors, on the other hand, are individualistic quests that seek answers to the questions that feel most pertinent to an individual: “Who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is good?”
Science is unable to answer these open-ended questions. It’s an institution designed to weigh-in on matters-of-fact. “Scientists study how the world functions, but there is no scientific method for determining how humans ought to behave. Science tells us that humans cannot survive without oxygen. However, is it okay to execute criminals by asphyxiation? Science doesn’t know how to answer such a question. Only religions provide us with the necessary guidance.”
Conflict is inevitable when either of these domains step into the other’s sphere of influence. Religions are prone to make ethical decisions based on factual claims that aren’t scientifically valid. At the same time, overzealous scientists tend to make moral assertions that sound insane when juxtaposed against religious doctrine. “Science has no ability to refute or corroborate the ethical judgments religions make. But scientists do have a lot to say about religious factual statements.” This is the heart of their conflict.
So what benefit do these two conflicting institutions provide to society? “Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. Through research, it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth.”
I’ve heard people talk in apocalyptic terms about the ‘post-truth era‘ and perhaps that’s not what we’re living through so much as a period of profound moral confusion. Our technological abilities dazzle and leave our ethical reasoning behind:
“Every practical project scientists undertake also relies on religious insights. Take, for instance, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. When the Chinese government decided in 1992 to build the dam, physicists could calculate what pressures the dam would have to withstand, economists could forecast how much money it would probably cost, while electrical engineers could predict how much electricity it would produce. However the government needed to take additional factors into account. Building the dam flooded more than 200 square miles containing many villages and towns, thousands of archaeological sites, and unique landscapes and habitats. More than 1 million people were displaced and hundreds of species were endangered. It seems that the dam directly caused the extinction of the Chinese river dolphin. No matter what you personally think about the Three Gorges Dam, it is clear that its construction was an ethical rather than a purely scientific issue. No physics experiment, no economic model and no mathematical equation can determine whether generating thousands of megawatts and making billions of yuan is more valuable than saving an ancient pagoda or the Chinese river dolphin. Consequently China cannot function on the basis of scientific theories alone. It requires some religion or ideology, too.”
The intractable question of our time may very well be how can a mass of individuals make the tough decisions in a way that people can feel okay about. What should drive the undertakings our society undertakes? Greed? Christianity? The scientific method? Do we swing wildly between all extremes in a desperate attempt to please everyone?
Everyone has their own answer to that question and therein lies the conflict.
“It is often said that God helps those that helps themselves. This is a roundabout way of saying that God doesn’t exist, but if our belief in Him inspires us to do something ourselves–it helps.”
“Modern science certainly changed the rules of the game, yet it did not simply replace myths with facts. Myths continue to dominate humankind, and science only makes these myths stronger. Instead of destroying the intersubjective reality, science will enable it to control the objective and subjective realities more completely than ever before. Thanks to computers and bioengineering, the difference between fiction and reality will blur, as people reshape reality to match their pet fictions.”
“If you tell communists or liberals that they are religious, they think you are accusing them of blindly believing in groundless pipe dreams. In fact, it means only that they believe in some system of mortal laws that wasn’t invented by humans, but that humans must nevertheless obey. As far as we know, all human societies believe in this. Every society tells its members that they must obey some superhuman mortal law, and that breaking this law will result in catastrophe.”
“From a historical perspective, the spiritual journey is always tragic, for it is a lonely path fit only for individuals rather than for entire societies. Human cooperation requires firm answers rather than just questions, and those who fume against stultified religious structures often end up forging new structures in their place. It happened to the dualists, whose spiritual journeys became religious establishments. It happened to Martin Luther, who after challenging the laws, institutions and rituals of the Catholic Church found himself writing new law books, founding new institutions and inventing new ceremonies. It happened even to Buddha and Jesus. In their uncompromising quest for the truth they subverted the laws, rituals, and structures of traditional Hinduism and Judaism. But eventually more laws, more rituals and more structures were created in their names than in the name of any other person in history.”