Very interesting alternative perspective on life from a historian. Anti-religion, anti-humanism, pro-animal. Seems detached, but is quite opinionated. Much to think about, regardless. My notes here give a taste. A lot to think about.
More people die today from eating too much than from eating too little.
More people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.
There are no longer natural famines in the world; there are only political famines. If people in Syria, Sudan or Somalia starve to death, it is because some politician wants them to.
Today the main source of wealth is knowledge. And whereas you can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way. Hence as knowledge became the most important economic resource, the profitability of war declined and wars became increasingly restricted to those parts of the world – such as the Middle East and Central Africa – where the economies are still old-fashioned material-based economies.
Terrorists provoke their enemies to overreact. Terrorism is a show. Terrorists stage a terrifying spectacle of violence that captures our imagination and makes us feel as if we are sliding back into medieval chaos. Consequently states often feel obliged to react to the theatre of terrorism with a show of security, orchestrating immense displays of force, such as the persecution of entire populations or the invasion of foreign countries. In most cases, this overreaction to terrorism poses a far greater threat to our security than the terrorists themselves. Terrorists are like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. Islamic fundamentalists could never have toppled Saddam Hussein by themselves. Instead they enraged the USA by the 9/11 attacks, and the USA destroyed the Middle Eastern china shop for them. Now they flourish in the wreckage. By themselves, terrorists are weak.
Because religions insisted that the meaning of our existence depended on our fate in the afterlife, they were consequently quite tolerant of death. Just try to imagine them in a world without death – which is also a world without heaven, hell or reincarnation.
It is hard to believe in immortality and be proven wrong.
Modern medicine hasn’t extended our natural life span. Its great achievement has been to save us from premature death, and allow us to enjoy the full measure of our years.
Artistic creativity, is fuelled by the fear of death.
Happiness is nothing but pleasure and freedom from pain.
Beyond pleasure and pain there is no good and no evil.
We never react to events in the outside world, but only to sensations in our own bodies.
Nobody suffers because she lost her job. The only thing that makes people miserable is unpleasant sensations in their own bodies.
Nobody is ever made happy by getting a promotion, winning the lottery or even finding true love. People are made happy by one thing and one thing only – pleasant sensations in their bodies.
When an animal is looking for something that increases its chances of survival and reproduction (e.g., food, partners or social status), the brain produces sensations of alertness and excitement, which drive the animal to make even greater efforts because they are so very agreeable.
Nobody would have wanted to climb mountains, play video games or go on blind dates if such activities were accompanied solely by unpleasant sensations.
We can train our minds to observe carefully how all sensations constantly arise and pass.
When the mind learns to see our sensations for what they are – ephemeral and meaningless vibrations – we lose interest in pursuing them. For what is the point of running after something that disappears as fast as it arises?
Knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless.
The study of history aims above all to make us aware of possibilities we don’t normally consider.
We take our reality for granted, thinking it is natural, inevitable and immutable.
We seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.
Studying history aims to loosen the grip of the past.
Movements seeking to change the world often begin by rewriting history, thereby enabling people to reimagine the future.
The new history will explain that ‘our present situation is neither natural nor eternal. Things were different once. Only a string of chance events created the unjust world we know today. If we act wisely, we can change that world, and create a much better one.’
The relationship between humans and animals is the best model we have for future relations between superhumans and humans.
Attributing emotions to pigs doesn’t humanise them. It ‘mammalises’ them. For emotions are not a uniquely human quality.
The twenty-first century will be dominated by algorithms.
An algorithm is a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions.
How exactly does a baboon calculate probabilities?
The baboon’s entire body is the calculator. What we call sensations and emotions are in fact algorithms. The baboon feels hunger, he feels fear and trembling at the sight of the lion, and he feels his mouth watering at the sight of the bananas. Within a split second, he experiences a storm of sensations, emotions and desires, which is nothing but the process of calculation. The result will appear as a feeling: the baboon will suddenly feel his spirit rising, his hairs standing on end, his muscles tensing, his chest expanding, and he will inhale a big breath, and ‘Forward!’
99 per cent of our decisions are made by the highly refined algorithms we call sensations, emotions and desires.
The word ‘mammal’ comes from the Latin mamma, meaning breast.
We are suddenly showing unprecedented interest in the fate of so-called lower life forms, perhaps because we are about to become one.
If you really understand the theory of evolution, you understand that there is no soul.
The literal meaning of the word ‘individual’ is ‘something that cannot be divided’.
Alan Turing : The Turing Test is simply a replication of a mundane test every gay man had to undergo in 1950s : can you pass for a straight man?
In May 2015 New Zealand became the first country in the world to legally recognise animals as sentient beings.
By humanising animals we usually underestimate animal cognition and ignore their unique abilities.
Rome conquered Greece not because the Romans had larger brains or better tool-making techniques, but because they were able to cooperate more effectively.
Sapiens don’t behave according to a cold mathematical logic, but rather according to a warm social logic. We are ruled by emotions. These emotions are in fact sophisticated algorithms that reflect the social mechanisms of ancient hunter-gatherer bands.
Large numbers of people behave in a fundamentally different way than do small numbers.
Visual marks such as a turban, a beard or a business suit to signal ‘you can trust me, I believe in the same story as you’.
The intersubjective depend on communication among many humans rather than on the beliefs and feelings of individual humans.
To study history means to watch the spinning and unravelling of these webs, and to realise that what seems to people in one age the most important thing in life becomes utterly meaningless to their descendants.
They had difficulty remembering which estates, orchards and fields belonged to the goddess Inanna, which of Inanna’s employees had already received their salaries, which of the goddess’s tenants had failed to pay their rents and what interest rate the goddess charged her debtors.
This obstacle was finally removed about 5,000 years ago, when the Sumerians invented both writing and money.
In literate societies people are organised into networks, so that each person is only a small step in a huge algorithm, and it is the algorithm as a whole that makes the important decisions.
Aristides de Sousa Mendes, armed with little more than a rubber stamp, was responsible for the largest rescue operation by a single individual during the Holocaust.
Anyone who has ever dealt with bureaucracy knows that the truth hardly matters. What’s written on your form is far more important.
Written language gradually became a powerful way to reshape reality.
Many of the difficulties faced by present-day African countries stem from the fact that their borders make little sense.
The borders disregard river lines, mountain ranges and trade routes, split historical and economic zones unnecessarily, and ignore local ethnic and religious identities.
The same tribe may find itself riven among several countries, whereas one country may incorporate splinters of numerous rival clans.
African borders don’t reflect the wishes and struggles of local nations. They were drawn by European bureaucrats who never set foot in Africa.
Priests and scribes in ancient civilisations became accustomed to seeing documents as guidebooks for reality. At first, the texts told them about the reality of taxes, fields and granaries. But as the bureaucracy gained power, so the texts gained authority. Priests recorded not only lists of the god’s property, but also the god’s deeds, commandments and secrets. The resulting scriptures purported to describe reality in its entirety, and generations of scholars became accustomed to looking for all the answers in the pages of the Bible, the Qur’an or the Vedas.
A five-year-old cannot understand that something important is happening for reasons unrelated to him. He is convinced that everything happens because of him.
Most people grow out of this infantile delusion. Monotheists hold on to it till the day they die.
Human cooperative networks usually judge themselves by yardsticks of their own invention and, not surprisingly, they often give themselves high marks.
Human networks built in the name of imaginary entities such as gods, nations and corporations normally judge their success from the viewpoint of the imaginary entity.
God helps those who help 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.
Antibiotics, unlike God, help even those who don’t help themselves. They cure infections whether you believe in them or not.
Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values.
Liberals, communists and followers of other modern creeds dislike describing their own system as a ‘religion’, because they identify religion with superstitions and supernatural powers.
In fact, it means only that they believe in some system of moral laws that wasn’t invented by humans, but that humans must nevertheless obey.
In theory, both science and religion are interested above all in the truth, and because each upholds a different truth, they are doomed to clash.
In fact, neither science nor religion cares that much about the truth, hence they can easily compromise, coexist and even cooperate.
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. They therefore make good bedfellows.
Modern society believes in humanist dogmas, and uses science not in order to question these dogmas, but rather in order to implement them.
The entire modernity contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.
Most capitalists would probably dislike the label of religion, but as religions go, capitalism can at least hold its head high. Unlike other religions that promise us pie in the sky, capitalism promises miracles here on earth – and sometimes even delivers. Much of the credit for overcoming famine and plague belongs to the ardent capitalist faith in growth. Capitalism even deserves some kudos for reducing human violence and increasing tolerance and cooperation. There are additional factors at play here, but capitalism did make an important contribution to global harmony by encouraging people to stop viewing the economy as a zero-sum game, in which your profit is my loss, and instead see it as a win–win situation, in which your profit is also my profit. This mutual-benefit approach has probably helped global harmony far more than centuries of Christian preaching about loving your neighbour and turning the other cheek.
A human culture that believed it already knew everything worth knowing would not bother searching for new knowledge. This was the position of most premodern human civilisations. However, the Scientific Revolution freed humankind from this naïve conviction. The greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance.
If bad comes to worse and science cannot hold off the deluge, engineers could still build a hi-tech Noah’s Ark for the upper caste, while leaving billions of others to drown. The belief in this hi-tech Ark is currently one of the biggest threats to the future of humankind and of the entire ecosystem. People who believe in the hi-tech Ark should not be put in charge of the global ecology, for the same reason that people who believe in a heavenly afterlife should not be given nuclear weapons.
Capitalism has not only managed to prevail, but also to overcome famine, plague and war. For thousands of years priests, rabbis and muftis explained that humans cannot overcome famine, plague and war by their own efforts. Then along came the bankers, investors and industrialists, and within 200 years managed to do exactly that.
The modern deal offers us power, on condition that we renounce our belief in a great cosmic plan that gives meaning to life.
God-fearing Syria is a far more violent place than the secular Netherlands.
The antidote to a meaningless and lawless existence was provided by humanism, a revolutionary new creed that conquered the world during the last few centuries. The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhism and Daoism.
Fundamentalists may repeat the mantra that ‘Islam is the answer’, but religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day forfeit their ability even to understand the questions being asked.
Marx and Lenin devoted more attention to understanding the technological and economic realities of their time than to scrutinising ancient texts.
Numbers alone don’t count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by the backward-looking masses.
Within myself, the seeming unity that I take for granted dissolves into a cacophony of conflicting voices, none of which is ‘my true self’.
The new religions will emerge from research laboratories. Promising salvation through algorithms and genes.
The idea that organisms are algorithms - that giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data - is current scientific dogma, and it is changing our world beyond recognition.
Experts see the economy as a mechanism for gathering data about desires and abilities, and turning this data into decisions.
The stock exchange is the fastest and most efficient data-processing system humankind has so far created.