Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, February 20, 2017

from Disneyism to Onlyism

Yuval Harari:

Recently I went with my nephew to hunt Pokémon. We were walking down the street and a bunch of kids approached us. They were also hunting Pokemon. My nephew and these children got into a bit of a fight because they were trying to capture the same invisible creatures. It seemed strange to me. But these Pokémon were very real to the children.

And then it hit me: This is just like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict! You have two sides fighting over something that I cannot see. I look at the stones of buildings in Jerusalem and I just see stones. But Christians, Jews, and Muslims who look at the same stones see a holy city. It’s their imagination, but they are willing to kill for it.

Now this is a revelation: Just stones! No history, no labor, no culture, no generations of living people. Just stones. Everything is so simple now that Harari has punctured our ideological balloon. A city in which people have lived for thousands and thousands of years, and then some digital Pokemon: same diff.

Harari is a practitioner of Onlyism, which he seems to think is a new religion but in fact is rather venerable, going back at least as far as some of the less sophisticated Epicureans. A twentieth-century devotee was the young Joy Davidman, who wrote in a letter, “In 1929 I believed in nothing but American prosperity; in 1930 I believed in nothing.”

Men, I said, are only apes. Virtue is only custom. Life is only an electrochemical reaction. Love, art, and altruism are only sex. The universe is only matter. Matter is only energy. I forget what I said energy is only.

Similarly, Harari thinks that contemporary neuroscience and Pixar have disproved the existence of the self:

It’s not that you understand your true self better, but you come to realize there is no true self. There is just a complicated connection of biochemical connections, without a core. There is no authentic voice that lives inside you.

Have you seen Inside Out? For me this was the tipping point in popular culture’s understanding of the mind. For decades Disney sold us the liberal individualistic fantasy: Don’t listen to your neighbors or government, just follow your own heart. But then in Inside Out, you go inside this little girl Riley, and you don’t encounter a self or a core identity. What the movie shows to children and their parents is that Riley is a robot being manipulated by chemical processes inside her brain.

I’m pretty sure that the notion that Inside Out “shows” that people are robots would occur only to an Onlyist.

Now, I don't want to take Harari too seriously here. He is clearly a huckster in the Jonah Lehrer mode, a P. T. Barnum of the book trade, and the “robot” line is clearly meant to rattle the cages of the trousered apes whose money he hopes to snatch. (He borrowed it from another idea hustler, though one with considerably more smarts, Richard Dawkins, who in The Selfish Gene wrote, “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”) But it might be worth taking a moment to consider a couple of important points that Harari seems not to be aware of.

Note the concepts that he treats as synonyms: “true self,” “core,” “authentic voice.” It may well be that there is a modern, popular, Disneyfied, largely American model of selfhood for which this is true. But to critique that — talk about low-hanging fruit — and then claim to have demolished the very notion of the self is just silly.

For there are older, more rigorous, more deeply engaged models of selfhood that strenuously deny that selves are unified and authentic — that see the human self as real but constituted by its divisions.

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.... So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

And it is not religious believers alone who see things this way. I’m going to cite myself here describing Rebecca West’s visit to the small town of Struga, where she visited a curious little “biological museum” that contained, among other things, a stuffed two-headed calf in a glass case, an animal “strangely lovely in form,” so that “it was a shock to find that of the two heads which branched like candelabra one was lovely, but one was hideous, like that other seen in a distorting glass.” The museum’s custodian affirmed that the calf lived for two days, “and should be alive today had it not been for its nature.” West’s husband expressed puzzlement at this statement, and the custodian explained that when they fed milk to the calf through its beautiful head, its ugly head spat the milk out, so no food got into its stomach, and it died. This account prompted West to meditation.

To have two heads, one that looks to the right and another that looks to the left, on that is carved by grace and another that is not, the one that wishes to live and the other that does not; this was an experience not wholly unknown to human beings. As we pressed our faces against the case, peering through the green dusk, our reflections were superimposed on the calf, and it would not have been surprising if it had moved nearer the glass to see us better.

In the model of personhood that West shares with St. Paul and St. Augustine, there are selves, but they are never simply unitary, they have no obvious “core,” their territories are always and strongly contested.

One might think also of the ancestor of the theory of mind at work in Inside Out, the theory of humors. People held to this theory for many centuries, believing that our temperaments and thoughts are largely the products of the proportion within our bodies of phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile — and yet also believed in personhood and perhaps even in selfhood. How was this possible? If you really want to know, there are books that can help you.

The moral of this story: When you set yourself the task of refuting simplistic ideas that no serious thinker has ever held, it becomes tempting to replace those ideas with their mirror images — notions just as simplistic, but in the opposite way. The replacement of Disneyism by Onlyism is not intellectual progress. Take that route and you can end up looking upon Jerusalem and seeing nothing but stones.


  • Hear, hear! Harari is indeed working with faulty assumptions and one-dimensional caricatures in his notions of selfhood. It's so tiring when these "illusions of self" pieces keep popping up. Also, "onlyism" is a great moniker for this reductionist spirit.

    I will say, though, that a unitary element is probably involved in the self, inasmuch as human-beings adjudicate between these competing impulses. (Granted, I believe in a free-will by which people can consciously have done otherwise, and that may not be a shared assumption). What that element is, though, I cannot say; beyond the fact that it cannot be reduced to either arbitrary chance or deterministic mechanism, it's a mystery.

  • Having just read Becker’s Escape From Evil, I can’t help but find Mr. Harari’s work steeped in irony.

    Like Becker he professes that mankind’s great societal projects are collective fantasies. Becker considers these as vast immortality projects and draws from anthropology and psychoanalysis to make his case, but unlike Harari, Becker recognizes that science and even his own theories fall under this same critical lens.

    The irony of course is that Harari has transfered his faith to yet another immortality project, one built on the modern sciences of neurobiology and information technology.

  • Harari's career has got to be punishment for some sort of sin our people committed, it's the only explanation.

  • oh, also, I'm pretty sure that Israel-Palestine line is indicative of literal solipsism

  • I’ve been puzzling over Harari for a couple years already. His confidence in explaining away immensely complicated subjects is astonishing. I’m in agreement that the self, like the body, is not subject to claims of having truth, authenticity, or core. Rather, they’re remarkably porous and fluid, with ideas and matter moving in and out constantly. And since we’re clearly large mammals, and further, form up into societies (clans, packs, tribes, etc.) at all sorts of overlapping levels, the tension between individual vs. society is also rather porous and fluid.

    Minor note: in the modern psychological literature, “theory of mind” has a fairly specific meaning different from general theories of self or consciousness.

  • It seems Harari's been sharing the same bong with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

  • Maybe this isn't the right place to say the following, but the quote from Paul drew me in:

    I have been pondering your S&Ls post on "Reading Calvin" since I saw it last month. (I am also venturing to read Calvin again, never having gotten very far into the Institutes.) Also your more recent one on "resourceful Christianity". The two seemed related, in that the latter clarified the former in my mind. If, from one perspective at least, Calvin seems nuanced and his successors disturbingly crude, I think it is not only because of his superior intellect or erudition or even a greater endowment of grace. The later Calvinists are writing and speaking from within a tradition. Calvin was not. He was, in fact, at the end of his rope, in the sense of your later post, and desperate for the living water. The following, from Book I, Ch 5.7 struck me so poignantly that I thought it must come from Calvin's own experience:

    "What great occasion he gives us to contemplate his mercy when he often pursues miserable sinners with unwearied kindness, until he shatters their wickedness by imparting benefits and by recalling them to him with more than fatherly kindness."

    I immediately think of Jonah (who is maybe a comic parody of a proper prophet) pursued by God. But I also think of the many self-deprecating passages in Paul and his shattering experiences. Paul, Augustine and Calvin can seem insufferable at times, but not if we understand them as miserable sinners who know that they escaped captivity within themselves only because they were pursued with unwearied kindness. Their experience of grace is a process of pursuit, shattering, redemption, and tears of astonishment and gratitude -- signified by "shouting" in the old camp meetings. To me this is what the gospel is about (though I'm not claiming that the camp meetings were the optimal format). The community of the called-out are wandering stunned through the wasteland of this world, and greet each other with amazement. I think somehow Calvin was necessary to make this kind of direct encounter with God possible in a larger cultural context. [I realize I am getting imprecise and perhaps speaking nonsense at this point.] From this perspective I can love Paul and Augustine and Calvin, and greet them with amazement.

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