Nature vs. Humanity: Slavoj Žižek and Yuval Noah Harari Debate
Once for the last time, we had to decide whether nature should be regarded as humanity’s friend or foe. That is why, on June 2, 2022, held at the main stage of HowTheLightGetsIn, the world’s major philosophy festival, Yuval Noah Harari and Slavoj Žižek appeared together for the first time. Is it a menace to us, or a fount we can continue using to develop our lives? It is not nature we should be worried about, both debaters agreed. Evil is the one that comes next: a world that is post-nature.
Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher, cultural theorist, and public intellectual. He is the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London, visiting professor at New York University, and a senior researcher at the University of Ljubljana’s Department of Philosophy. He primarily works on continental philosophy, particularly Hegelianism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, as well as film criticism and theology, and has published more than fifty books in multiple languages.
Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian, public intellectual, and professor in the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of the popular bestsellers “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind“, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow“, and “۲۱ Lessons for the 21st Century“. His writings examine free will, consciousness, intelligence, happiness, and suffering.
The host is Güneş Taylor, Current Postdoctoral Training Fellow in the Lovell-Badge Lab at the Francis Crick Institute in London. She studied Human Genetics at the University of Nottingham and also got his Ph.D. in the Sauka-Spengler Lab at the University of Oxford.
Theme one: “Should we have more faith in human and less trust in nature?”
Yuval Noah Harari starts the debate by implying the fact that nature does not care about us. It means if one day one natural disaster such as an earthquake happens or an asteroid hit our planet or kills all of us, nothing would happen in particular, or at least, in essence, nature would not care about it. It would continue its way and physics would function as it was functioning before. Also, he says that he can not understand this binary because he thinks that we, as humans, can not violate the laws of nature and no one can break them. Anything that can happen is natural such as vaccination, the internet, and genetic engineering because it is possible.
Then, he implies the difference between the laws of nature and the laws of the state. We can not break the laws of nature, but we break the laws of the state, and the consequence is a kind of punishment by the state but there is no such thing in nature like that. So, he concluded that we have to be suspicious of concepts like humanity and nature and the question to ask should not be “Is it natural or not?” because everything is natural. The question should be whether it causes suffering or not.
After this fascinating introduction by Yuval, now Slavoj Žižek starts. He first states his agreement with Yuval and regrets that there is no knife here. Slavoj’s classic jokes. But he says something interesting. He says even if we accept all of these statements rationally and cognitively, still we would not believe in them. In psychoanalysis, there is a concept called Fetishist Split. It means when I know how things are but somehow still, I am not conceived. Although, everything is natural, here is a tricky point. He calls this phenomenon an “everyday ideology”. Actually, it happens when we associate a certain regular pattern with nature. He strongly disagrees that there is a natural pattern and then we, as humans, interfere with it and disrupt it. He invites us to think about our main consuming sources: coal and oil and then asks us “do you know what mega catastrophic must have happened then we can consume these sources?” We live off natural disasters. He says he has recently read this vision we have about global warming that it is too optimistic because it implies there is a new pattern coming, just it is a little bit worse. The predictions now are assuming that what if there is not going to be a new pattern and we have to live in a more chaotic world for a while? And his controversial sentence is that if we have a mother nature, it is a dirty bitch and also, he says even though everything is natural, everything is cultural, too and it is related to our conceptualization of the notion of nature. He exemplifies that the concept of nature in medieval is totally different from it, now. It does not mean that nature is a cultural construct. Actually, our perception of nature is always a part of a cultural process. Slavoj implies his ultimate problem that even if we strongly damage the environment and destroy nature, still nothing would happen to it and the problem is about accepting this fact! Accepting the Meaninglessness of Catastrophe. Then, he brings up a story of a minority of Jews who have a rare reading of the Holocaust, claiming That the Holocaust is a punishment because of the secularism of European Jews. He says he understands them, but surely, he does not agrees with them, it is better to assign your terrifying fate as a punishment, then at least, your life has a meaning. The most difficult thing is to accept there is no meaning. You may find some of Slavoj’s responses through this debate irrelevant. One point here to imply is his way of getting answers. He thinks if we directly discuss something, we will deviate but if we look at things awry, we can get to the proper answers. This point of view comes from his book “Looking awry: an introduction to Jacques Lacan” published in 1991. I recommend everyone interested in Slavoj’s work read this fascinating book.
Yuval starts and responds that he completely agrees with Slavoj. He continues that war, murder, and rape are natural and all of these are bad, and we can not get morality and ethics out of nature. Most of the time, nature stars in ethical and political debates. He exemplifies that when people say we should do something because it is natural, in general, they are wrong and they are saying it as a cultural, political, or mythological argument. Finally, he points to the problem that instead of asking whether it is natural or not and then deciding whether it is good or not, we should move on and use other arguments. Yuval says personally, he thinks the discussion should be about whether it is causing suffering for beings or not. He says every ethical debate should be about it. They should not be about obeying the certain laws of nature, God, or the state. Ultimately, it should be about suffering.
After a description by the host, Güneş Taylor, Slavoj says you are provoking me to go somewhere that I am afraid of it because of my professional deviation. He asks a reflexive question. “Is good, itself good?” ‘Doesn’t often quite horrible things happen on behalf of some people that genuinely believe that they are doing something well?” He argues that Buddha was an agnostic atheist, and he was not interested in God and Buddhism is the ultimate version of the notion of ending suffering but immediately, after the death of Buddha, when Buddhism was the official religion of some states in India, they had to start to compromise. They had three strategies. The first was the classical European one. We should not kill except when by modest killing, we can prevent more. “Weren’t it what Nazists doing?”. The second one was there no genuine and substantial reality, and the world is just a chaotic confusion of phenomena, and they were using it to justify wars by saying that I am not a subject. I am nobody and only observe what goes on and here, I do not see myself as a person who is hurting another being supported by D. T. Suzuki’s theories. I just observe the dance of phenomena. Slavoj’s point here is even an ideology that dedicated itself in the direction of ending the suffering, again finds itself in a situation to fully justify the suffering. He warns us to be aware of the preachers who exaggeratedly talk about “good”. He means if you see some people who are strongly implying that they are doing something good, it would be better to be careful about them.
Theme two: “Should we treat the earth as a resource for commodities?”
Yuval says we should use it but carefully. Nature is complicated and we do not almost understand it. As a historical fact, if we take an idea and push it far enough we will end up killing millions of people like Buddhism and Christianity. Furthermore, because of the complexity of nature, the true path ethically is moderation. He goes furthermore and says he thinks there is a universal law in history that whenever someone is saying by killing one million people, we prevent five million deaths, it is always propaganda. Then he brings up the things philosophers do when they propound some extreme examples that you have to choose between two options. He says in the real world, these scenarios never happen and always you have more than two rough options. It is an ethical trap and in history, it is never like that. Assume the Ukraine war, when somebody says whether Nato does what he demands or he invades Ukraine. “It is your choice but there are only two available options”. He says, “Let’s not accept this framing!”. The suitable approach to using the resources of the earth is the same. We need a broad approach, and we need to understand the consequences of our actions.
Then, Slavoj’s turn begins. He makes a joke and states it is getting boring because he agrees with his peer. Only one minor point. He brings up an exception. “Intense Sexual love”. In one sense, it is evil. Imagine you have a good quality life and then you fall in love passionately and then it just ruins your beautiful life. Then he starts something more directly relevant, warning about deep ecology as an extremist concept. They say we should be modest and know that we are only one of the many living species on the earth and even they go as far as they start to defend the rights of rivers and mountains. They identify us as the creatures that are responsible for every other’s right behind their modest appearances. Slavoj says I am aware of the situation, and we have to be radical ecologists but also, we have to be aware of its long-term consequences and that is why he is a Hegelian today and we have to get back from Marx to Hegel because Marx had a plan, if we do this, we end up with that, But Hegel does not do this. Hegel state’s philosophy will only understand the present order when the order begins to fall away and about the future, we can not say anything. We have to be really careful about it. It is in line with what Yuval said and he asks you know where Hegel is at his best. When he takes an extreme idea and demonstrates how unexpectedly it turns to its opposite. Hegel’s classic example is the French Revolution. “Did you want freedom? No, no. You get terror. Think about the second half of the 19th century in Europe. Relative period of cultural developments like women’s rights but what you get is World War I or the case of the Soviet Union and October Revolution when actually it was about freedom, but it ends up with Stalinism and last controversial example: Francis Fukuyama and his happy 90s, end of history and so on… in your dreams. Look at where we are. Furthermore, my approach is to be aware of where you are making big plans, somehow it goes wrong in some sense”.
Theme three: “How would other life forms be?”.
Yuval starts again. He says both sides are available. Some systems are moderated, and some are not. but more importantly, he implies that we are at a point in history where we are on the verge of creating a non-organic life form which makes these questions so complicated. In this long history, we have just seen one life form but with so many different shapes. All of them were just organic biochemistry. It is like we are expanding life into new realms. Also, our responsibility and the consequences of our actions come up. For the first time in history, humans have this chance to change the direction of evolution and redirect it into a new path. For the first time in four billion years, political regimes, ideologies, and human mythologies have the potential to shift the evolution of life. He says to take a political ideology like Stalinism in the new modern world and imagine what it can do. Stalin, himself, mostly worked on social engineering but if he could surely, he would also apply for changing human biology. He was dreaming of making a new man or a new type of the Soviet Union, but the only available tool was social engineering. In the end, when the Soviet Union collapsed, human beings still existed like 1917, and then they started again. In the 21st century, a new Stalin would be capable of making a new human by reengineering a human down to its DNA. That is a bit terrifying because mostly they are thinking exaggeratedly, and this new life form can start a new type of evolution that can last for billions of years. Then Yuval starts to point out that he talks a lot with scientists who are working on these types of fields like Artificial Intelligence known as AI or Genetics Engineering about their activities, but the problem is their narrow vision. They think only about their own small project, for example, their project about Parkinson’s disease and how to help people related. The most essential thing here is to use imagination and ponder what would happen if the worst politician on the earth gets his hand on this technology but a person like him, a historian, not a biologist or a scientist, when somebody tells him I am using CRISPR to overcome Parkinson’s disease, the way his mind thinks is what Stalin would do with it.
Again, it is Slavoj’s turn, and he claims now it is getting interesting because we are moving on from cliches and he thinks these are crucial questions. Then he brings his golden example as he contends whether we know Stalin has already tried to make a new man, He says in the last years of the 20th century a stupid biologist convinced Stalin that he can create a new type of man who can be a great worker. This man can read and write on a basic level, but he is more stupid than being able to organize socially and rebel. This perfect human can be made by sexual intercourse between normal human beings and apes. They even sent some agents to DR Congo, and they imported about thirty female gorillas and then selected four strong Russian farmers and made them have sexual intercourse with them. Then Stalin found out that this scientist was an English spy, and you can guess what happened in the end. The important point is Stalin has already forgotten about egalitarianism- which means everyone is equal- of socialism. Stalin was the first person in human history to really try to create a new race of human beings. The human beings who only work and eat basic foods without any kind of protest.
Then Slavoj claims that he wants to present his extreme thesis. If these progressions in biogenetics or brain sciences will go on, not only we are entering an era of posthumanism but also an era of postnaturalism, referring to what Heidegger claimed, nature is related to this thick ground known as the earth. Slavoj now brings up one movie which he says about it, after this claim we would hate him. Moonfall by Roland Emmerich which he says is a bad movie. The idea of the movie is the moon is coming close to the earth, so an astronaut goes there and finds a deep hole and goes in and discovers the moon is being made by AI to control us. He says it demonstrates that if a new type of life is created, it would also change the essence of the previous life form in our vision, not in reality because life becomes a combination of transparent algorithms, and here is his problem with liberal conservatives like Jürgen Habermas, his solution for the phenomenon that brain scientists start to explore the brain and manipulate our DNA, is limiting the science because it is a threat to our ethical self-understanding. A great example is “Enough” by Bill McKibben, published in 2003 which implies it is enough for now. Slavoj points out that if I change someone’s brain with chemical techniques or surgeries to function in a new way that makes him more brutal and smarter, it means even before my intervention, his brain was functioning like this but on a different level with other chemical processes. He says in the posthumanism era, nature in some sense would be no longer nature and it will become a new mechanism. Slavoj now asks Yuval a question about his solution for posthuman. He says with these new tools as we know we can change people’s thoughts and we can make people think about what we want, it is not like before that even if we threw someone in jail, still we could not change their thoughts. Slavoj lastly brings his controversial questions as if it is the end of freedom, what freedom is, freedom is the user’s illusions, and so on! In the end, he claims I have so much faith in Yuval to answer them.
Yuval claims there are so many questions and that I might not have proper answers for them. He says one of my concerns is through the path of upgrading humans, what if we actually downgrade ourselves? Now Slavoj intervenes and says, “In what sense do you mean?” and Yuval exemplifies that if you give this technology to armies or corporations to start messing with our brains, they would like to amplify certain human qualities that they need like discipline or intelligence but they do not need other human characteristics like compassion, autistic sensitivity, or spirituality because these qualities would be problematic for them. Even if they do not want to destroy these human qualities, at least, they would be pushed to the side and it is a historic fact that always manipulating a system is way easier to anticipate the consequences of our interventions for example when humans build a dam on a river, they know what they want to achieve but they do not know what it would also cause, like its impacts on other animals, plants, and atmosphere. The point is even if we want to understand it, it is too complicated. Back to our main issue, it would also happen if we changed our inner biochemistry system, we want to be smarter but would it be the only impact of it? We can not find out them because we do not understand the human mind. We have some initial beginnings of understanding which is the fruit of psychology, psychoanalysis, brain science, etc. but as he said, we are in the beginning, and we do not understand it and it is extremely dangerous to manipulate something so precious before we really understand what we are doing.
Slavoj says both of them, Yuval and Slavoj, are lovers of Stalin ironically because he was clearly an oppressor, and meanwhile all of them including Yuval, Slavoj, the host, and the audience laugh. He goes on and says when he asked that question, he did not mean we will be the slavers of the machines. He meant it would end with a new form of strict divisions between humans. A new form that would divide people into two different classes, one including the ones who are controlling these machines and the other one including the ones who are being controlled, the victims. He says this situation reminds him of his favorite joke which is related to the Stalin era. In the early 30s, they debated whether there will be money in the Soviet Union or not. On one side, right-wingers said in a complex society, there had to be money. You need it. On the other side, life-wingers said money is bourgeois alienation. There had to be no money. Then Stalin intervened and said: “No! Both of these ideas are bad. The truth is in the middle. There has to be a dialectical synthesis of opposites”. Then, one of the comrades said what a genius solution and asked Stalin to please describe it and then Stalin said: “So simple. Some will have money, and Some will not!”. Slavoj says the case here is the same. Some people are going to control, and some are going to be controlled. What a fascinating debate by Slavoj Žižek and Yuval Noah Harari, hosted by Güneş Taylor, on June 2, 2022, held at the main stage of HowTheLightGetsIn.