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What are the values that I am basing all this on, and where do they come from? In his book Sapiens, the historian Yuval Noah Harari claims that all value systems are based on equally valid subjective narratives. He denies that there is an objective basis for humanism to support a privileged position for humanity as a species, but here I will try to convince you that he is wrong (Harari, 2011). For not only is the power of knowledge a source of optimism; its very existence provides the basis for humanism. By “humanism” I mean a system of values that centers on human agency and responsibility rather than on the divine or the supernatural, and that embraces the process of critical inquiry as the central enabler of progress.
Knowledge, as I have already defined it, is the externalized information that allows humans to share insights with each other. It includes both scientific and artistic knowledge. Again, we are the only species on Earth that generates this kind of knowledge, with the ability to share it over space and time. I am able to read a book today that someone else wrote a long time ago and in a completely different part of the world.
This matters a great deal, because knowledge enables fundamentally different modes of problem solving and progress. Humans can select and combine knowledge created by other humans, allowing small changes to accrete into large bodies of work over time, which in turn provide the basis for scientific and artistic breakthroughs. Without knowledge, other species have only two methods of sharing things they have learned: communication and evolution. Communication is local and ephemeral, and evolution is extremely slow. As a result, animals and plants routinely encounter problems that they cannot solve, resulting in disease, death and even extinction. Many of these problems today are caused by humans (more on that shortly).
Knowledge has given humanity great power. We can fly in the sky, we can sail the seas, travel fast on land, build large and durable structures, and so on. The power of our knowledge is reshaping the Earth. It often does so in ways that solve one set of problems while creating an entirely new set of problems, not just for humans but for other species. This is why it is crucial that we remember what the story of Spiderman tells us: “With great power comes great responsibility.” It is because of knowledge that humans are responsible for looking after dolphins, rather than the other way round.
Progress and knowledge are inherently linked through critical inquiry: we can only make progress if we are capable of identifying some ideas as better than others. Critical inquiry is by no means linear—new ideas are not always better than old ones. Sometimes we go off in the wrong direction. Still, given enough time, a sorting takes place. For instance, we no longer believe in the geocentric view of our solar system, and only a tiny fraction of the art that has ever been created is still considered important. While this process may take decades or even centuries, it is blindingly fast compared to biological evolution.
My use of the word “better” implies the existence of universal values. All of these flow from the recognition of the power of human knowledge and the responsibility which directly attaches to that power. And the central value is the process of critical inquiry itself. We must be vigilant in pointing out flaws in existing knowledge and proposing alternatives. After all, imagine how impoverished our music would be if we had banned all new compositions after Beethoven.
We should thus seek regulation and self-regulation that supports critical inquiry, in the broad sense of processes that weed out bad ideas and help better ones to propagate. In business this often takes the form of market competition, which is why regulation that supports competitive markets is so important. Individually, critical inquiry requires us to be open to receiving feedback in the face of our deeply rooted tendency toward confirmation bias. In politics and government, critical inquiry is enabled by the democratic process.
Freedom of speech is not a value in and of itself; rather, it is a crucial enabler of critical inquiry. But we can see how some limits on free speech might flow from the same value. If you can use speech to call for violence against individuals or minority groups, you can also use it to suppress critical inquiry.
Digital technology, including a global information network and the general-purpose computing that is bringing machine intelligence, are dramatically accelerating the rate at which humanity can accumulate and share knowledge. However, these same technologies also allow targeted manipulation and propaganda on a global scale, as well as constant distraction, both of which undermine the evaluation and creation of knowledge. Digital technology thus massively increases the importance of critical inquiry, which is central to knowledge-based humanism.
Beyond critical inquiry, optimism and responsibility, other humanist values are also rooted in the existence of knowledge. One of these is solidarity. There are nearly 8 billion human beings living on Earth, which exists in an otherwise inhospitable solar system. The big problems that humanity faces, such as infectious diseases and the climate crisis, require our combined efforts and will impact all of us. We thus need to support each other, irrespective of such differences as gender, race or nationality. Whatever our superficial differences may be, we are much more like each other—because of knowledge—than we are to any other species.
Once we have established a shared commitment to the value of solidarity, we can celebrate diversity as another humanist value. In current political debates we often pit individuality against the collective as if it the two conflicted. However, to modernize John Donne, no human is an island—we are all part of societies, and of humanity at large. By recognizing the importance of our common humanity, we create the basis on which we can unfold as individuals. Solidarity allows us to celebrate, rather than fear, the diversity of the human species.