DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Epistemology

Written by: on November 10, 2016

Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion: it considers the nature of “knowing.” Dr. Yuval Harari would have done us a favor if he had begun Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind with this definition.

How do we know? Anything to which we are not an eye witness we “know” and “believe” by faith. The more I thought about this book, particularly the “history” up through about 12,000 years ago, the more I concluded that Sapiens is as much a statement of faith as is the Bible’s record of creation.

As I looked at Harari’s timeline and read early chapters, I tried to overlay Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, and his sense of how civilization developed and spread. I would love to hear Drs. Harari and Frankopan discuss the beginnings of civilisation and the beginnings of humankind. In Sapiens Harari traces human (homo) “history” back at least 2.5 million years. In The Silk Roads Peter Frankopan opens his book stating, “From the beginning of time, the centre of Asia was where empires were made.” [1] Without completely retracing steps along the Silk Road, it would seem that Dr. Frankopan’s “beginning of time” drops into Dr. Harari’s time line where Harari sees the first kingdoms, money, and polytheistic religion. [2]

Does the comparison challenge lie in reading a history of civilization along side a history of anthropology? Perhaps the two volumes may be allowed to exist side-by-side as different populations of the same species. [3] Frankopan’s history is more palatable since he restates actual recorded history, as opposed to Harari’s record of the speculations regarding the biological history of homo sapiens that would often be considered “prehistoric.”

Further curiosity wonders why Harari seems to dismiss religion as fantasy, offering no credence to the Bible’s answer to many of his questions. And yet he names Chapters 2, 3, and 4 after Biblical themes. Is this his condescending way of saying to Bible-believers, “Here’s the real background to your myths?”

Globalization has been in process for two million years, according to Harari. At that time humans spread from Africa to Eurasia. [4] Is that why we are reading Sapiens? Reading this book stretched my brain…trying to figure out why we are reading this book.

Part of my issue reading books like Sapiens is the dogmatic way in which theorized history is recorded as concrete fact. Archaeologists find the bone of a finger or a little animal dung and extrapolate details of an entire civilization. I do not doubt that there are literally tons of archaeological evidence about past people groups, and that many of the extrapolations are accurate. DSC_0283I would simply think that the “scholarship” would be swallowed more easily with display of a little more humility with frequent phrases like, “we think,” or “our theory is…”

My engagement with Sapiens is affected by watching a video of an interview with Dr. Harari regarding his newer book entitled Homo Deus. He stresses the achievements of humankind in the last century. “Humans have prayed to every conceivable god…and it didn’t work. Over the last century or so thanks largely to human ingenuity and scientific development we have managed to reign in, to gain control of famine, plague, and war.” [5]

If we have achieved all of that, why doesn’t Harari’s world view allow for the possibility that our ability to accomplish these things is, in fact, the answer to prayers? Part of God’s design and plan is “agency” whereby we are given the privilege to be His workers for the good of humankind.

In the video he continues, “If we are…solving these problems…what’s next? The next big problems of humankind will be to overcome old age and death…and to basically upgrade humans into gods… For thousands of years humans have imagined gods in a particular way. We are now seriously in the business of acquiring these traditional divine abilities and qualities to ourselves.” [6]

I admit that I am in danger of misunderstanding and misjudging Dr. Harari. But based on what I have read and heard, I have rarely encountered such arrogance, bordering on blasphemy.

I did find the book fascinating at points. Harari writes, “Our language evolved as a way of gossiping. According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction…It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.” [7]

We may fast-forward a few thousand years and encounter social media. Language is still a way sapiens gossip and continue as a social animal. Now everyone can know who is sleeping with whom, and to an extent know who is honest, and who is cheat (because if it’s on the internet it has to be true).

Harari asks, “…how did humans organize themselves in mass-cooperation networks…? The short answer is that humans created imagined orders and devised scripts…The imagined orders sustaining these networks were neither neutral nor fair. They divided people into make-believe groups, arranged in a hierarchy.” [8] America’s founding fathers believed in equality for all persons, yet categorized slaves differently.

“All societies are based on imagined hierarchies, but not necessarily on the same hierarchies.” [9] He claims that societies “created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture.’”[10]

Ironically, Harari’s definitions regarding religion are less offensive than his dogmatic explanations of societal beginnings that make no room for the validity of religions. Also ironic is his discussion of the development of “intelligent design” within humans [11] with no notion that these creatively intelligent beings came about because of intelligent design by a Creator.

In conclusion this book motivates me to do high quality research, with well documented reporting. I would like to produce scholarly work that would stand up in a court of law, based on solid evidence, and that would stand before reason.

Further speculation makes me wonder if these musings and rantings qualify as “reflective reading?”

[1] Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads, (New York, NY: Knopf/Penguin/Random House, 2015),1.
[2] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2015), Timeline of History.
[3] Ibid., 16.
[4] Ibid., Timeline of History.
[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJ1yS9JIJKs Accessed 11/9/16.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Harari, 22-23.
[8] Ibid., 133.
[9] Ibid., 138.
[10] Ibid., 163.
[11] Ibid., 397.

About the Author

mm

Marc Andresen

I have a B. A. in Music from San Diego State University and received an M. Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1977. July 1 2015 I retired after 38 years in pastoral ministry. The passion and calling that developed in the last 20 years is leadership training in cross-cultural contexts, as my wife and I have had many opportunities to teach in Eastern Europe and Africa. I have been married for 38 years and have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and a beautiful granddaughter. My hobbies are photography and British sports cars.

14 responses to “Epistemology”

  1. Marc

    Great synthesis of the book. I too am trying to wrap my mind around why we are reading a lengthy novel. The hodgepodge of thoughts and random takes left me thinking I have spent all this time reading someones opinion. What was your thought on his straight forward attack on Christianity? Thanks

    Kevin

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Kevin,

      Actually, although Harari does attack Christianity, the language I would use would more be condescending dismissal. I guess the attack is in the form of his arrogant disregard and assumption that religion is fable and has no credibility. As much as anyone I’ve ever heard or read he places his own intellect and opinion above everyone, including the Lord.

      Of course he wouldn’t see it this way, since he doesn’t appear to believe in a god of any kind.

      I actually fear for him. He reminds me of the Old Testament king that died because he failed to give God the glory.

  2. Hi Marc. You conclude, “In conclusion this book motivates me to do high quality research, with well documented reporting. I would like to produce scholarly work that would stand up in a court of law, based on solid evidence, and that would stand before reason.”
    Yes
    Yes
    Yes
    Do you think he wrote the book with the same motivation? Why do you think he wrote this? What do you think he wanted to gain?

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Aaron,

      Why did he write? Of course I don’t know, but I would guess it’s because he believes his theories regarding the development of humankind and cultures/civilizations is THE correct view, and that the world needs the benefit of his superior analysis. The gain for him would be to feed his ego and reputation.

      This is very judgmental on my part, I admit. I just can’t abide writing theory as if it were fact.

      My biggest beef with evolution is calling it “science” and not “theory.” Evolution FAILS the test of science because there is no control, no experiment for comparison, and no eye witness.

      • Loren Kerns says:

        Hi Marc,

        I’ve noted that most of your cohort has reacted quite negatively to Harari. Yes, he sets forth his own narrative synthesis in a manner that does an exemplary job of outlining in broad strokes the basic myth the contemporary global elite (science, academia, technologists, etc.) believe – rooted above all in contemporary evolutionary biology and big bang cosmology.

        I’m curious, what strategy you might suggest for communicating the Christian story in a way that would make sense as true or even coherent to someone inhabiting Harari’s universe?

        As Hunter points out, these folk set the agenda for the conversation among sapiens.

        Note: I likewise asked this to Pablo and others in the cohort – http://dminlgp.com/the-power-of-shared-stories/#comment-41231)

        • mm Marc Andresen says:

          Loren,

          My objection to this book may be captured in your statement, “…he sets forth his own narrative synthesis in a manner that does an exemplary job of outlining in broad strokes the basic myth the contemporary global elite…”

          The operative phrases are “his own narrative…broad strokes…basic myth…” My objections, from a research and documentation perspective, is the absolute and concrete ways in which he writes of theories with no possibility of substantiation.

          I must say, however, that I don’t object to reading such things as a mental exercise and as a part of learning. I do not want to be a student at “Head-In-The-Sand University.” I don’t believe anyone ever tied from terminal thinking.

          As to strategies for communicating the Christian story in ways that make sense: My first response (not being flippant) is that there are probably several books to be written in order to be thorough. In addition, frankly, with my understanding of human nature, I think it’s virtually impossible to present acceptable argument to anyone who’s will and decisions are so firmly set. Therefore this task is a formidable one.

          It might be helpful to begin a conversation with Dr. Harari by asking him what it would take for him to give serious consideration to the validity of the Christian story. Building relationship in order to diffuse tensions might also help.

          One part of the approach would to be to have someone who has expertise in matters of creation and evolution to show the flaws in the thinking of Harari. I think Pablo’s blog is pretty good. (I think his theories of obesity in modern sapiens is even flawed because he does not take into account that obesity is on the rise in our time and that nutritionists have pointed out the problem to be the significant increase in the amount of sugar put in our food by food manufacturers.) Perhaps the strategy would be to take point by point from his book that has gaps in the reasoning or documentation, and to discuss those.

          I think another approach would be to present the credibility or validity of the Bible’s explanation for why life and the world are the way they are. It has long been my personal testimony that the Bible offers the best explanation for the nature and state of the world. I don’t know how much credence he would give to “personal story,” but that is another approach.

          These thoughts seem feeble and inadequate, but they are what come to mind.

  3. Claire Appiah says:

    Marc,
    Thanks for your thought-provoking blog.
    I believe most of us would agree that much of what Harari writes is scientifically untenable. But, he does make a valid point regarding slavery and America’s founding fathers. Harari writes, “Despite its proclamation of the equality of all men, the imagined order established by the Americans in 1776 also established a hierarchy. It created a hierarchy between whites, who enjoyed liberty, and blacks and American Indians, who were considered humans of a lesser type and therefore did not share in the equal rights of men. Many of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders.” (p133).
    It may not be fair to ask you this question, but it’s something that has puzzled me for a long time. The question is how does one reconcile one’s position as a Christian (many were Deists) with one’s position as a slaveholder? And if the slaves transported from Africa or elsewhere, were considered as an inferior type of human being or another species of humans altogether, then why did they mate with them and produce children with them?

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Claire,

      I share your quandary over people who claim to be Christians and own slaves. In my mind this is unthinkable. I think in the early days of America our forefathers were blinded by unawareness of their own culture. In other words, culture (which accepted slavery) ruled their thinking rather than good theology when it came to such life choices.

      I think the rationalization is that in books like Philemon Paul does not condemn slavery, but sends Onesimus back to Philemon. I’m convinced that books like Philemon are the way they are because of the Biblical principle of mutual submission and the importance of leading and following. Without this at work anarchy is the result. Also at play was personal ethics, and Paul thought that by running away Onesimus stole from Philemon. It was important for Onesimus, as a new believer to learn Biblical ethics.

      I cannot believe that Paul would ever condone or justify slavery, but was dealing with what was a principle of such importance and priority that it needed to be addressed first. But people have wrongly interpreted that silence on the reality of slavery is tacit approval. This is a wrong interpretation.

      It seems to me that any informed and thinking Christian would be ruled by the principle of regarding others as more important than ourselves. Practicing that would be hard to do while owning slaves.

      The mating of slave owners with their slaves is an even uglier issue. In my view men who did that were despicable, no matter what their contribution to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. It’s not only fornication, but also hypocritical. These were men who were slaves to their bodily pleasures.

  4. mm Phil Goldsberry says:

    Marc:

    Harari did make me think also about the presentation of the Gospel….how it is presented, the facts that are presented, and the vehicle that delivers it. I too picked up the arrogance, but your term “blasphemy” was fitting too.

    I appreciate the fact that you articulated your view, with credibility, as Harari did. Why do you think the world we live in will lean to Harari before it would lean to you/me/or other articulate Christians?

    Phil

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Phil,

      I think the reason is the falleness of human nature. Humans want to justify their lives, and to make their way in life without any obligation to God. People like Harari appeal to the ego connected with intellect. If I can understand what he’s saying, I must be pretty smart. I can give allegiance to his credo and have no need to admit my sin.

      For people to listen to you and me they have to admit they’re sinners and that they need God. Harari provides a way for people to make sense of life with no need of acknowledging their Creator.

      That may be simplistic, but I think it’s core to humanity.

  5. Pablo Morales says:

    Marc,
    Great blog. I have only read from another author as arrogant as Harari: Richard Dawkins. What I find astonishing is the blindness to their own assumptions. They claim to believe in objective science and reject religion as unscientific, but end up upholding views from science-fiction instead. Epistemology, as you pointed out, is the fundamental issue here.

    I have enjoyed reading a mathematician from Oxford named John Lennox. He wrote the book “Gunning for God: Why the new atheists are missing the target.” He has debated Dawkins a few times too, and he does an excellent job in addressing the foundational issues with true scholarship.

    Why were we required to read this book? Maybe because Harari represents the worldview of a growing number of people around the world who are rejecting religion altogether or mixing Christian thought with Darwinian dogma. If we are to lead in the emerging world, we might as well have to become familiar with the epistemological framework of a growing segment of our society.
    Thank you for a great blog!
    Pablo

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Pablo,

      Yes, as I wrote – Sapiens is as much a faith-document as is the Bible.

      While I was working on my blog I e mailed a friend who is a history prof at Oregon State U. His response named Richard Dawkins as being in the same ilk as Harari. I’ll paste in part of Gary Ferngren’s response:

      “I’m not familiar with Harari’s work, and certainly not with the book you’re reading. I hate to judge a bk without reading it, but I looked up Humankind on Amazon and read the reviews. I think it belongs to a class of bks of the kind written by Richard Dawkins, from an atheistic and philosophically materialistic point of view. It is full of myths and unprovable theories. Atheists are often very romantic about the Neolithic Period, in which (they think) mankind lived in a mythical paradise without war and without the modern problems of civilisation. The problem is that there is no proof of their theories; they are created out of whole cloth. I wouldn’t put any credence in it at all. We know pretty well how civilisation developed from prehistoric villages to cities and civilisation (I teach a course in ancient Near East and cover this period briefly). There is much speculation about the development of early civilisation in the ANE, but it is based on empirical evidence and books like those of Harari are not; they simply feed the appetite for alternative histories for those who reject any kind of conventional history and esp. Christian assumptions.

      Is he a reliable scholar? Maybe in his own field, but not in this one! I suspect his arrogance is a pose to prevent people from questioning his authority. Like Richard Dawkins and some of the atheists I have met!”

      Why did we read this book? I really want to ask Jase that question. My thought is because Harari does talk about the evolution of societies and cultures, and that some of what he writes is parallel to “Imagined Communities” and “Social Geographies.”

      And, yes, I think we do need NOT to put our heads in the sand and to remain current with what is intellectually attractive to the world.

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