21 Lessons for the 21st Century Highlights

by Yuval Noah Harari

According to this liberal panacea – accepted, in slight variations, by George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike – if we just continue to liberalise and globalise our political and economic systems, we will produce peace and prosperity for all.

loc. 176-178

For the first time in history, infectious diseases kill fewer people than old age, famine kills fewer people than obesity, and violence kills fewer people than accidents.

loc. 362-364

It also turned out that the biochemical algorithms of the human brain are far from perfect. They rely on heuristics, shortcuts and outdated circuits adapted to the African savannah rather than to the urban jungle. No wonder that even good drivers, bankers and lawyers sometimes make stupid mistakes.

loc. 425-427

After IBM’s chess program Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997, humans did not stop playing chess. Rather, thanks to AI trainers human chess masters became better than ever, and at least for a while human–AI teams known as ‘centaurs’ outperformed both humans and computers in chess.

loc. 563-565

It is true that for several years after Deep Blue defeated Kasparov, human–computer cooperation flourished in chess. Yet in recent years computers have become so good at playing chess that their human collaborators lost their value, and might soon become utterly irrelevant.

loc. 593-595

On 7 December 2017 a critical milestone was reached, not when a computer defeated a human at chess – that’s old news – but when Google’s AlphaZero program defeated the Stockfish 8 program. Stockfish 8 was the world’s computer chess champion for 2016. It had access to centuries of accumulated human experience in chess, as well as to decades of computer experience. It was able to calculate 70 million chess positions per second. In contrast, AlphaZero performed only 80,000 such calculations per second, and its human creators never taught it any chess strategies – not even standard openings. Rather, AlphaZero used the latest machine-learning principles to self-learn chess by playing against itself. Nevertheless, out of a hundred games the novice AlphaZero played against Stockfish, AlphaZero won twenty-eight and tied seventy-two. It didn’t lose even once. Since AlphaZero learned nothing from any human, many of its winning moves and strategies seemed unconventional to human eyes. They may well be considered creative, if not downright genius.

loc. 595-602

Can you guess how long it took AlphaZero to learn chess from scratch, prepare for the match against Stockfish, and develop its genius instincts? Four hours.

loc. 603-604

The challenge posed to humankind in the twenty-first century by infotech and biotech is arguably much bigger than the challenge posed in the previous era by steam engines, railroads and electricity.

loc. 638-640

(This kind of scheme is currently being pioneered in Scandinavia, where governments follow the motto ‘protect workers, not jobs’.)

loc. 659-659

Indeed, already today computers and algorithms are beginning to function as clients in addition to producers. In the stock exchange, for example, algorithms are becoming the most important buyers of bonds, shares and commodities. Similarly in the advertisement business, the most important customer of all is an algorithm: the Google search algorithm. When people design Web pages, they often cater to the taste of the Google search algorithm rather than to the taste of any human being.

loc. 675-678

the most successful ice-cream vendors in the world are those that the Google algorithm ranks first – not those that produce the tastiest ice cream.

loc. 681-682

It is debatable whether it is better to provide people with universal basic income (the capitalist paradise) or universal basic services (the communist paradise).

loc. 705-706

In January 2017, Finland began a two-year experiment, providing 2,000 unemployed Finns with 560 euros a month, irrespective of whether they find work or not. Similar experiments are under way in the Canadian province of Ontario, in the Italian city of Livorno, and in several Dutch cities.24 (In 2016 Switzerland held a referendum on instituting a national basic income scheme, but voters rejected the idea.25)

loc. 710-714

Referendums and elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality. If democracy were a matter of rational decision-making, there would be absolutely no reason to give all people equal voting rights – or perhaps any voting rights. There is ample evidence that some people are far more knowledgeable and rational than others, certainly when it comes to specific economic and political questions.

loc. 809-811

‘You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land.’

loc. 813-814

We don’t feel the millions of neurons in the brain computing probabilities of survival and reproduction, so we erroneously believe that our fear of snakes, our choice of sexual mates, or our opinions about the European Union are the result of some mysterious ‘free will’.

loc. 846-848

Winston Churchill famously said that democracy is the worst political system in the world, except for all the others.

loc. 933-933

Already today, ‘truth’ is defined by the top results of the Google search.

loc. 945-946

Every day I absorb countless data bits through emails, tweets and articles; process the data; and transmit back new bits through more emails, tweets and articles. I don’t really know where I fit into the great scheme of things, and how my bits of data connect with the bits produced by billions of other humans and computers. I don’t have time to find out, because I am too busy answering all these emails.

loc. 983-986

the massacre of My Lai

loc. 1086-1086

But in reality, there is no reason to assume that artificial intelligence will gain consciousness, because intelligence and consciousness are very different things. Intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love and anger. We tend to confuse the two because in humans and other mammals intelligence goes hand in hand with consciousness. Mammals solve most problems by feeling things.

loc. 1191-1194

He further explained that ‘We started a project to see if we could get better at suggesting groups that will be meaningful to you. We started building artificial intelligence to do this. And it works. In the first six months, we helped 50 per cent more people join meaningful communities.’ His ultimate goal is ‘to help 1 billion people join meaningful communities … If we can do this, it will not only turn around the whole decline in community membership we’ve seen for decades, it will start to strengthen our social fabric and bring the world closer together.’

loc. 1382-1384

algorithms may be good for navigating vehicles and curing diseases, but when it comes to solving social problems, we should still rely on politicians and priests.

loc. 1416-1417

Western attempts to impose democracy and human rights on Muslim nations resulted in a violent Islamic backlash, and a wave of Muslim immigration coupled with Islamic terrorist attacks caused European voters to abandon multicultural dreams in favour of xenophobic local identities.

loc. 1490-1491

The ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis has far-reaching political implications. Its supporters contend that any attempt to reconcile ‘the West’ with ‘the Muslim world’ is doomed to failure. Muslim countries will never adopt Western values, and Western countries could never successfully absorb Muslim minorities.

loc. 1497-1499

In truth, European civilisation is anything Europeans make of it, just as Christianity is anything Christians make of it, Islam is anything Muslims make of it, and Judaism is anything Jews make of it.

loc. 1534-1536

The Islamic State has boasted that it has reverted to the pure and original version of Islam, but in truth, their take on Islam is brand new. Yes, they quote many venerable texts, but they exercise a lot of discretion in choosing which texts to quote and which to ignore, and in how to interpret them. Indeed, their do-it-yourself attitude to interpreting the holy texts is itself very modern.

loc. 1562-1565

The heated argument about the true essence of Islam is simply pointless. Islam has no fixed DNA. Islam is whatever Muslims make of it.9

loc. 1571-1572

Even countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Congo have adopted Western musical conventions for their anthems. Most of them sound like something composed by Beethoven on a rather mediocre day. (You can spend an evening with friends playing the various anthems on YouTube and trying to guess which is which.)

loc. 1632-1634

Though it has no intrinsic value – you cannot eat or drink a dollar bill – trust in the dollar and in the wisdom of the Federal Reserve is so firm that it is shared even by Islamic fundamentalists, Mexican drug lords and North Korean tyrants.

loc. 1696-1698

People still have different religions and national identities. But when it comes to the practical stuff – how to build a state, an economy, a hospital, or a bomb – almost all of us belong to the same civilisation.

loc. 1723-1724

Hitler wasn’t less European than Churchill. Rather, the very struggle between them defined what it meant to be European at that particular juncture in history.

loc. 1731-1732

Humans easily develop loyalty to small intimate groups such as a tribe, an infantry company or a family business, but it is hardly natural for humans to be loyal to millions of utter strangers. Such mass loyalties have appeared only in the last few thousand years – yesterday morning, in evolutionary terms – and they require immense efforts of social construction.

loc. 1756-1758

cannot name the 8 million people who share my Israeli citizenship, I have never met most of them, and I am very unlikely ever to meet them in the future. My ability to nevertheless feel loyal to this nebulous mass is not a legacy from my hunter-gatherer ancestors, but a miracle of recent history.

loc. 1769-1771

Peaceful, prosperous and liberal countries such as Sweden, Germany and Switzerland all enjoy a strong sense of nationalism. The list of countries lacking robust national bonds includes Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo and most other failed states.

loc. 1778-1780

In the 1964 US presidential campaign, Lyndon B. Johnson aired the famous Daisy advertisement, one of the most successful pieces of propaganda in the annals of television. The advertisement opens with a little girl picking and counting the petals of a daisy, but when she reaches ten, a metallic male voice takes over, counting back from ten to zero as in a missile countdown. Upon reaching zero, the bright flash of a nuclear explosion fills the screen, and candidate Johnson addresses the American public and says: ‘These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.’2 We tend to associate the ‘make love, not war’ slogan with the late 1960s counterculture, but in fact, already in 1964 it was accepted wisdom even among hard-nosed politicians such as Johnson.

loc. 1795-1801

In fact, humankind successfully rose to the nuclear challenge. Americans, Soviets, Europeans and Chinese changed the way geopolitics has been conducted for millennia, so that the Cold War ended with little bloodshed, and a new internationalist world order fostered an era of unprecedented peace. Not only was nuclear war averted, but war of all kinds declined. Since 1945 surprisingly few borders have been redrawn through naked aggression, and most countries have ceased using war as a standard political tool. In 2016, despite wars in Syria, Ukraine and several other hot spots, fewer people died from human violence than from obesity, from car accidents, or from suicide.3 This may well have been the greatest political and moral achievement of our times.

loc. 1814-1819

Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, and have survived numerous ice ages and warm spells. However, agriculture, cities and complex societies have existed for no more than 10,000 years.

loc. 1849-1850

Moreover, we are rapidly approaching a number of tipping points, beyond which even a dramatic drop in greenhouse gas emissions will not be enough to reverse the trend and avoid a worldwide tragedy. For example, as global warming melts the polar ice sheets, less sunlight is reflected back from planet Earth to outer space. This means that the planet absorbs more heat, temperatures rise even higher, and the ice melts even faster. Once this feedback loop crosses a critical threshold it will gather an irresistible momentum, and all the ice in the polar regions will melt even if humans stop burning coal, oil and gas. Hence it is not enough that we recognise the danger we face. It is critical that we actually do something about it now.

loc. 1862-1867

Nationalist isolationism is probably even more dangerous in the context of climate change than of nuclear war. An all-out nuclear war threatens to destroy all nations, so all nations have an equal stake in preventing it. Global warming, in contrast, will probably have a different impact on different nations. Some countries, most notably Russia, might actually benefit from it. Russia has relatively few coastline assets, hence it is far less worried than China or Kiribati about rising sea levels. And whereas higher temperatures are likely to turn Chad into a desert, they might simultaneously turn Siberia into the breadbasket of the world. Moreover, as the ice melts in the far north, the Russian-dominated Arctic sea lanes might become the artery of global commerce, and Kamchatka might replace Singapore as the crossroads of the world.

loc. 1898-1904

An atom bomb is such an obvious and immediate threat that nobody can ignore it. Global warming, in contrast, is a more vague and protracted menace. Hence whenever long-term environmental considerations demand some painful short-term sacrifice, nationalists might be tempted to put immediate national interests first, and reassure themselves that they can worry about the environment later, or just leave it to people elsewhere. Alternatively, they may simply deny the problem. It isn’t a coincidence that scepticism about climate change tends to be the preserve of the nationalist right. You rarely see left-wing socialists tweet that ‘climate change is a Chinese hoax’.

loc. 1913-1918

inorganic life shaped by intelligent design. In the process, Homo sapiens itself will likely disappear. Today we are still apes of the hominid family. We still share with Neanderthals and chimpanzees most of our bodily structures, physical abilities and mental faculties. Not only are our hands, eyes and brains distinctly hominid, but so are our lust, our love, anger and social bonds. Within a century or two, the combination of biotechnology and AI might result in bodily, physical and mental traits that completely break free of the hominid mould. Some believe that consciousness might even be severed from any organic structure, and could surf cyberspace free of all biological and physical constraints. On the other hand, we might witness the complete decoupling of intelligence from consciousness, and the development of AI might result in a world dominated by super-intelligent but completely non-conscious entities.

loc. 1937-1944

A much better path is the one outlined in the European Union’s Constitution, which says that ‘while remaining proud of their own national identities and history, the peoples of Europe are determined to transcend their former divisions and, united ever more closely, to forge a common destiny’.16 That does not mean abolishing all national identities, abandoning all local traditions, and turning humanity into homogeneous grey goo. Nor does it mean vilifying all expressions of patriotism. Indeed, by providing a continental military and economic protective shell, the European Union arguably fostered local patriotism in places such as Flanders, Lombardy, Catalonia and Scotland. The idea of establishing an independent Scotland or Catalonia looks more attractive when you don’t have to fear a German invasion and when you can count on a common European front against global warming and global corporations.

loc. 1975-1982

Yet it is precisely their genius for interpretation that puts religious leaders at a disadvantage when they compete against scientists. Scientists too know how to cut corners and twist the evidence, but in the end, the mark of science is the willingness to admit failure and try a different tack. That’s why scientists gradually learn how to grow better crops and make better medicines, whereas priests and gurus learn only how to make better excuses. Over the centuries, even the true believers have noticed the difference, which is why religious authority has been dwindling in more and more technical fields. This is also why the entire world has increasingly become a single civilisation. When things really work, everybody adopts them.

loc. 2043-2048

So in the twenty-first century religions don’t bring rain, they don’t cure illnesses, they don’t build bombs – but they do get to determine who are ‘us’ and who are ‘them’, who we should cure and who we should bomb. As noted earlier, in practical terms there are surprisingly few differences between Shiite Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Jewish Israel. All are bureaucratic nation states, all pursue more or less capitalist policies, all vaccinate kids against polio, and all rely on chemists and physicists to make bombs. There is no such thing as Shiite bureaucracy, Sunni capitalism, or Jewish physics. So how to make people feel unique, and feel loyal to one human tribe and hostile to another?

loc. 2114-2119

The role of State Shinto in Japan is fulfilled to a lesser or greater degree by Orthodox Christianity in Russia, Catholicism in Poland, Shiite Islam in Iran, Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, and Judaism in Israel.

loc. 2159-2160

Anti-immigrationists stress that one of the most basic rights of every human collective is to defend itself against invasion, whether in the form of armies or migrants. The Swedes have worked very hard and made numerous sacrifices in order to build a prosperous liberal democracy, and if the Syrians have failed to do the same, this is not the Swedes’ fault. If Swedish voters don’t want more Syrian immigrants in – for whatever reason – it is their right to refuse them entry. And if they do accept some immigrants, it should be absolutely clear that this is a favour Sweden extends rather than an obligation it fulfils. Which means that immigrants who are allowed into Sweden should feel extremely grateful for whatever they get, instead of coming with a list of demands as if they own the place.

loc. 2223-2229

Numerous countries turn a blind eye to illegal immigration, or even accept foreign workers on a temporary basis, because they want to benefit from the foreigners’ energy, talents and cheap labour. However, the countries then refuse to legalise the status of these people, saying that they don’t want immigration. In the long run, this could create hierarchical societies in which an upper class of full citizens exploits an underclass of powerless foreigners, as happens today in Qatar and several other Gulf States.

loc. 2233-2237

It’s as if you take a seed of a eucalyptus tree from Australia, and plant it in France. From an ecological perspective, eucalyptus trees are an invading species, and it will take generations before botanists reclassify them as native European plants. Yet from the viewpoint of the individual tree, it is French. If you don’t water it with French water, it will wither. If you try to uproot it, you will discover it has struck its roots deep in the French soil, just like the local oaks and pines.

loc. 2289-2292

This fourth debate cannot be resolved before clarifying the exact definition of the three terms. As long as we don’t know whether absorption is a duty or a favour; what level of assimilation is required from immigrants; and how quickly host countries should treat them as equal citizens – we cannot judge whether the two sides are fulfilling their obligations.

loc. 2303-2305

Life scientists, and in particular geneticists, have produced very strong scientific evidence that the biological differences between Europeans, Africans, Chinese and Native Americans are negligible. At the same time, however, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, behavioural economists and even brain scientists have accumulated a wealth of data for the existence of significant differences between human cultures. Indeed, if all human cultures were essentially the same, why would we even need anthropologists and historians? Why invest resources in studying trivial differences?

loc. 2315-2320

Traditional racism was firmly grounded in biological theories. In the 1890s or 1930s it was widely believed in countries such as Britain, Australia and the USA that some heritable biological trait makes Africans and Chinese people innately less intelligent, less enterprising and less moral than Europeans. The problem was in their blood. Such views enjoyed political respectability as well as widespread scientific backing. Today, in contrast, while many individuals still make such racist assertions, they have lost all their scientific backing and most of their political respectability – unless they are rephrased in cultural terms. Saying that black people tend to commit crimes because they have substandard genes is out; saying that they tend to commit crimes because they come from dysfunctional subcultures is very much in.

loc. 2363-2368

However, the terrorists hope that even though they can barely dent the enemy’s material power, fear and confusion will cause the enemy to misuse his intact strength and overreact. Terrorists calculate that when the enraged enemy uses his massive power against them, he will raise a much more violent military and political storm than the terrorists themselves could ever create. During every storm, many unforeseen things happen. Mistakes are made, atrocities are committed, public opinion wavers, neutrals change their stance, and the balance of power shifts.

loc. 2475-2479

Above all, if we want to combat terrorism effectively we must realise that nothing the terrorists do can defeat us. We are the only ones who can defeat ourselves, if we overreact in a misguided way to the terrorist provocations.

loc. 2510-2512

Consequently, even sporadic acts of political violence that kill a few dozen people are seen as a deadly threat to the legitimacy and even survival of the state. A small coin in a big empty jar makes a lot of noise.

loc. 2551-2552

The less political violence in a particular state, the greater the public shock at an act of terrorism. Killing a few people in Belgium draws far more attention than killing hundreds in Nigeria or Iraq. Paradoxically, then, the very success of modern states in preventing political violence makes them particularly vulnerable to terrorism.

loc. 2554-2556

First, governments should focus on clandestine actions against the terror networks. Second, the media should keep things in perspective and avoid hysteria. The theatre of terror cannot succeed without publicity. Unfortunately, the media all too often provides this publicity for free. It obsessively reports terror attacks and greatly inflates their danger, because reports on terrorism sell newspapers much better than reports on diabetes or air pollution. The third front is the imagination of each and every one of us.

loc. 2566-2570

We accuse leaders of failing to prevent the catastrophes that happened, while remaining blissfully unaware of the disasters that never materialised.

loc. 2599-2600

Whereas in early agricultural societies human violence caused up to 15 per cent of all human deaths, and in the twentieth century it caused 5 per cent, today it is responsible for only 1 per cent.1

loc. 2624-2626

bad vibes, perhaps our best guarantee of peace is that

loc. 2748-2749

Human stupidity is one of the most important forces in history, yet we often discount it. Politicians, generals and scholars treat the world as a great chess game, where every move follows careful rational calculations. This is correct up to a point. Few leaders in history have been mad in the narrow sense of the word, moving pawns and knights at random. General Tojo, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il had rational reasons for every move they played. The problem is that the world is far more complicated than a chessboard, and human rationality is not up to the task of really understanding it. Hence even rational leaders frequently end up doing very stupid things.

loc. 2763-2767

This is a baseless and insolent idea, which ignores many of the world’s most important ethical traditions. Stone Age hunter-gatherer tribes had moral codes tens of thousands of years before Abraham. When the first European settlers reached Australia in the late eighteenth century, they encountered Aboriginal tribes that had a well-developed ethical world view despite being totally ignorant of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. It would be difficult to argue that the Christian colonists who violently dispossessed

loc. 2869-2873

This is a baseless and insolent idea, which ignores many of the world’s most important ethical traditions. Stone Age hunter-gatherer tribes had moral codes tens of thousands of years before Abraham. When the first European settlers reached Australia in the late eighteenth century, they encountered Aboriginal tribes that had a well-developed ethical world view despite being totally ignorant of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. It would be difficult to argue that the Christian colonists who violently dispossessed the natives exhibited superior moral standards.

loc. 2869-2873

Stone Age hunter-gatherer tribes had moral codes tens of thousands of years before Abraham. When the first European settlers reached Australia in the late eighteenth century, they encountered Aboriginal tribes that had a well-developed ethical world view

loc. 2870-2872

Apes not only avoid taking advantage of weak group members, but sometimes actively help them. A pygmy chimpanzee male called Kidogo, who lived in the Milwaukee County Zoo, suffered from a serious heart condition that made him feeble and confused. When he was first moved to the zoo, he could neither orient himself nor understand the instructions of the human caretakers. When the other chimpanzees understood his predicament, they intervened. They often took Kidogo by the hand, and led him wherever he needed to go. If Kidogo became lost, he would utter loud distress signals, and some ape would rush to help. One of Kidogo’s main helpers was the highest-ranking male in the band, Lody, who not only guided Kidogo, but also protected him. While almost all group members treated Kidogo with kindness, one juvenile male called Murph would often tease him mercilessly. When Lody noticed such behaviour, he often chased the bully away, or alternatively put a protective arm around Kidogo.

loc. 2880-2887

Einstein was Jewish, but the theory of relativity wasn’t ‘Jewish physics’. What does faith in the sacredness of the Torah have to do with the insight that energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared? For the sake of comparison, Darwin was a Christian and even began his studies at Cambridge intending to become an Anglican priest. Does it imply that the theory of evolution is a Christian theory? It would be ridiculous to list the theory of relativity as a Jewish contribution to humankind, just as it would be ridiculous to credit Christianity with the theory of evolution.

loc. 2988-2992

Why is there something rather than nothing? What shaped the fundamental laws of physics? What is consciousness, and where does it come from? We do not know the answers to these questions, and we give our ignorance the grand name of God.

loc. 3024-3025

Yet like a magician fooling an audience by imperceptibly replacing one card with another, the faithful quickly replace the cosmic mystery with the worldly lawgiver. After giving the name of ‘God’ to the unknown secrets of the cosmos, they then use this to somehow condemn bikinis and divorces. ‘We do not understand the Big Bang – therefore you must cover your hair in public and vote against gay marriage.’ Not only is there no logical connection between the two, but they are in fact contradictory. The deeper the mysteries of the universe, the less likely it is that whatever is responsible for them gives a damn about female dress codes or human sexual behaviour.

loc. 3036-3041

In the following years CRH activities ranged from organising costume parties to taking legal actions against unjust discrimination and persecution. The CRH became the seed of the gay rights movement in California. Reverend McIlvenna and the other men of God who joined him were well aware of the biblical injunctions against homosexuality. But they thought that it was more important to be true to the compassionate spirit of Christ than to the strict word of the Bible.

loc. 3069-3072

The idea that we need a supernatural being to make us act morally assumes that there is something unnatural about morality.

loc. 3074-3075

When secular people encounter such dilemmas, they do not ask ‘What does God command?’ Rather, they weigh carefully the feelings of all concerned parties, examine a wide range of observations and possibilities, and search for a middle path that will cause as little harm as possible.

loc. 3150-3152

Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.

loc. 3187-3188

If they are loyal to scientific truth, to compassion, to equality and to freedom, they are full members of the secular world, and there is absolutely no reason to demand that they take off their yarmulkes, crosses, hijabs or tilakas.

loc. 3203-3205

Stalinism is not an isolated example. On the other side of the political spectrum, capitalism too began as a very open-minded scientific theory, but gradually solidified into a dogma. Many capitalists keep repeating the mantra of free markets and economic growth, irrespective of realities on the ground. No matter what awful consequences occasionally result from modernisation, industrialisation or privatisation, capitalist true-believers dismiss them as mere ‘growing pains’, and promise that everything will be made good through a bit more growth.

loc. 3225-3229

As we come to make the most important decisions in the history of life, I personally would trust more in those who admit ignorance than in those who claim infallibility.

loc. 3280-3281

If you feel overwhelmed and confused by the global predicament, you are on the right track. Global processes have become too complicated for any single person to understand. How then can you know the truth about the world, and avoid falling victim to propaganda and misinformation?

loc. 3285-3287

In the last few centuries, liberal thought developed immense trust in the rational individual. It depicted individual humans as independent rational agents, and has made these mythical creatures the basis of modern society. Democracy is founded on the idea that the voter knows best, free-market capitalism believes that the customer is always right, and liberal education teaches students to think for themselves.

loc. 3291-3294

As noted earlier, behavioural economists and evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that most human decisions are based on emotional reactions and heuristic shortcuts rather than on rational analysis, and that while our emotions and heuristics were perhaps suitable for dealing with life in the Stone Age, they are woefully inadequate in the Silicon Age.

loc. 3296-3299

This is what Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach have termed ‘the knowledge illusion’. We think we know a lot, even though individually we know very little, because we treat knowledge in the minds of others as if it were our own.

loc. 3309-3311

Most of the injustices in the contemporary world result from large-scale structural biases rather than from individual prejudices, and our hunter-gatherer brains did not evolve to detect structural biases.

loc. 3433-3434

In trying to comprehend and judge moral dilemmas of this scale, people often resort to one of four methods. The first is to downsize the issue: to understand the Syrian civil war as though it were occurring between two foragers; to imagine the Assad regime as a lone person and the rebels as another person, one bad and one good. The historical complexity of the conflict is replaced by a simple, clear plot.4 The second is to focus on a touching human story, which ostensibly stands for the whole conflict. When you try to explain to people the true complexity of the conflict by means of statistics and precise data, you lose them; but a personal story about the fate of one child activates the tear ducts, makes the blood boil, and generates false moral certainty.5 This is something that many charities have understood for a long time. In one noteworthy experiment, people were asked to donate money to help a poor seven-year-old girl from Mali named Rokia. Many were moved by her story, and opened their hearts and purses. However, when in addition to Rokia’s personal story the researchers also presented people with statistics about the broader problem of poverty in Africa, respondents suddenly became less willing to help. In another study, scholars solicited donations to help either one sick child or eight sick children. People gave more money to the single child than to the group of eight.6 The third method to deal with large-scale moral dilemmas is to weave conspiracy theories. How does the global economy function, and is it good or bad? That is too complicated to grasp. It is far easier to imagine that twenty multibillionaires are pulling the strings behind the scenes, controlling the media and fomenting wars in order to enrich themselves. This is almost always a baseless fantasy. The contemporary world is too complicated, not only for our sense of justice but also for our managerial abilities. No one – including the multibillionaires, the CIA, the Freemasons and the Elders of Zion – really understands what is going on in the world. So no one is capable of pulling the strings effectively.7 These three methods try to deny the true complexity of the world. The fourth and ultimate method is to create a dogma, put our trust in some allegedly all-knowing theory, institution or chief, and follow them wherever they lead us. Religious and ideological dogmas are still highly attractive in our scientific age precisely because they offer us a safe haven from the frustrating complexity of reality. As noted earlier, secular movements have not been exempt from this danger. Even if you start with a rejection of all religious dogmas and with a firm commitment to scientific truth, sooner or later the complexity of reality becomes so vexing that one is driven to fashion a doctrine that shouldn’t be questioned. While such doctrines provide people with intellectual comfort and moral certainty, it is debatable whether they provide justice.

loc. 3460-3483

So if you blame Facebook, Trump or Putin for ushering in a new and frightening era of post-truth, remind yourself that centuries ago millions of Christians locked themselves inside a self-reinforcing mythological bubble, never daring to question the factual veracity of the Bible, while millions of Muslims put their unquestioning faith in the Quran. For millennia, much of what passed for ‘news’ and ‘facts’ in human social networks were stories about miracles, angels, demons and witches, with bold reporters giving live coverage straight from the deepest pits of the underworld. We have zero scientific evidence that Eve was tempted by the Serpent, that the souls of all infidels burn in hell after they die, or that the creator of the universe doesn’t like it when a Brahmin marries an Untouchable – yet billions of people have believed in these stories for thousands of years. Some fake news lasts for ever.

loc. 3533-3540

When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month – that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years – that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it ‘fake news’ in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath).

loc. 3541-3543

people are ambiguous or forgetful about this division. To give another example, if you sit down and have a deep philosophical discussion about it, almost everybody would agree that corporations are fictional stories created by human beings. Microsoft isn’t the buildings it owns, the people it employs or the shareholders it serves – rather, it is an intricate legal fiction woven by lawmakers and lawyers.

loc. 3649-3652

To give another example, if you sit down and have a deep philosophical discussion about it, almost everybody would agree that corporations are fictional stories created by human beings. Microsoft isn’t the buildings it owns, the people it employs or the shareholders it serves – rather, it is an intricate legal fiction woven by lawmakers and lawyers.

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First, if you want reliable information – pay good money for it. If you get your news for free, you might well be the product. Suppose a shady billionaire offered you the following deal: ‘I will pay you $30 a month, and in exchange, you will allow me to brainwash you for an hour every day, installing in your mind whichever political and commercial biases I want.’ Would you take the deal? Few sane people would. So the shady billionaire offers a slightly different deal: ‘You will allow me to brainwash you for one hour every day, and in exchange, I will not charge you anything for this service.’ Now the deal suddenly sounds tempting to hundreds of millions of people. Don’t follow their example. The second rule of thumb is that if some issue seems exceptionally important to you, make the effort to read the relevant scientific literature. And by scientific literature I mean peer-reviewed articles, books published by well-known academic publishers, and the writings of professors from reputable institutions. Science obviously has its limitations, and it has got many things wrong in the past. Nevertheless, the scientific community has been our most reliable source of knowledge for centuries. If you think that the scientific community is wrong about something, that’s certainly possible, but at least know the scientific theories you are rejecting, and provide some empirical evidence to support your claim.

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You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears – that’s what soma

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In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.

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By the time you are fifty, you don’t want change, and most people have given up on conquering the world. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. You much prefer stability. You have invested so much in your skills, your career, your identity and your world view that you don’t want to start all over again. The harder you’ve worked on building something, the more difficult it is to let go of it and make room for something new. You

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When Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu or the government knows how to pull the strings of your heart and press the buttons of your brain, could you still tell the difference between your self and their marketing experts?

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To succeed in such a daunting task, you will need to work very hard on getting to know your operating system better. To know what you are, and what you want from life. This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself. For thousands of years philosophers and prophets have urged people to know themselves. But this advice was never more urgent than in the twenty-first century, because unlike in the days of Laozi or Socrates, now you have serious competition. Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu and the government are all racing to hack you. Not your smartphone, not your computer, and not your bank account – they are in a race to hack you and your organic operating system. You might have heard that we are living in the era of hacking computers, but that’s hardly half the truth. In fact, we are living in the era of hacking humans.

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Eternity is at the very least 13.8 billion years – the current age of the universe. Planet Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, and humans have existed for at least 2 million years. In contrast, the city of Jerusalem was established just 5,000 years ago and the Jewish people are at most 3,000 years old. This hardly qualifies as eternity.

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As for the future, physics tells us that planet Earth will be absorbed by an expanding sun about 7.5 billion years from now,4 and that our universe will continue to exist for at least 13 billion years more. Does anyone seriously believe that the Jewish people, the state of Israel, or the city of Jerusalem will still exist 13,000 years from now, let alone 13 billion years? Looking to the future, Zionism has a horizon of no more than a few centuries, yet it is enough to exhaust the imagination of most Israelis and somehow qualify as ‘eternity’. And people are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of ‘the eternal city’, which they would probably refuse to make for an ephemeral collection of houses. As a teenager in Israel, I too was initially captivated by the nationalist promise to become part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to believe that if I gave my life to the nation, I would live for ever in the nation. But I couldn’t fathom what it meant ‘to live for ever in the nation’. The phrase sounded very profound, but what did it actually mean? I remember one particular Memorial Day ceremony when I was about thirteen or fourteen. Whereas in the USA Memorial Day is marked mainly by shopping sales, in Israel Memorial Day is an extremely solemn and important event. On this day the schools hold ceremonies to remember the soldiers who have fallen in Israel’s many wars. The kids dress in white, recite poems, sing songs, place wreaths and wave flags. So there I was, dressed in white, during our school’s ceremony, and in between flag waving and poem recitations, I naturally thought to myself that when I grow up I too would like to be a fallen soldier. After all, if I were a heroic fallen soldier who sacrificed his life for Israel, then I would have all these kids reciting poems and waving flags in my honour. But then I thought, ‘Wait a minute. If I am dead, how would I know these kids were really reciting poems in my honour?’ So I tried to imagine myself dead. And I imagined myself lying under some white tombstone in a neat military cemetery, listening to the poems coming from above the ground. But then I thought, ‘If I am dead, then I cannot hear any poems, because I don’t have ears, and I don’t have a brain, and I cannot hear or feel anything. So what’s the point?’ Even worse, by the time I was thirteen I knew that the universe is a couple of billion years old, and will probably go on existing for billions of years more. Could I realistically expect Israel to exist for such a long time? Will Homo sapiens kids dressed in white still recite poems in my honour after 200 million years? There was something fishy about the whole business. If you happen to be Palestinian, don’t feel smug. It is just as unlikely that there will be any Palestinians around 200 million years from now. Indeed, in all probability by then there won’t be any mammals whatsoever. Other national movements are just as narrow-minded. Serbian nationalism cares little about events in the Jurassic era, whereas Korean nationalists believe that a small peninsula on the east coast of Asia is the only part of the cosmos that really matters in the grand scheme of things. Of course even Simba – for all his devotion to the everlasting Circle of Life – never contemplates the fact that lions, antelopes and grass aren’t really eternal. Simba does not consider what the universe was like before the evolution of mammals, nor what would be the fate of his beloved African savannah once humans kill all the lions and cover the grasslands with asphalt and concrete. Would this render Simba’s life utterly meaningless? All stories are incomplete. Yet in order to construct a viable identity for myself and give meaning to my life, I don’t really need a complete story devoid of blind spots and internal contradictions. To give meaning to my life, a story needs to satisfy just two conditions: first, it must give me some role to play. A New Guinean tribesman is unlikely to believe in Zionism or in Serbian nationalism, because these stories don’t care at all about New Guinea and its people. Like movie stars, humans like only those scripts that reserve an important role for them. Second, whereas a good story need not extend to infinity, it must extend beyond my horizons. The story provides me with an identity and gives meaning to my life by embedding me within something bigger than myself. But there is always a danger that I might start wondering what gives meaning to that ‘something bigger’. If the meaning of my life is to help the proletariat or the Polish nation, what exactly gives meaning to the proletariat or to the Polish nation? There is a story of a man who claimed that the world is kept in place by resting on the back of a huge elephant. When asked what the elephant stands on, he replied that it stands on the back of a large turtle.

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A wise old man was asked what he learned about the meaning of life. ‘Well,’ he answered, ‘I have learned that I am here on earth in order to help other people. What I still haven’t figured out is why the other people are here.’

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So what does it really mean? In brief, while nationalism teaches me that my nation is unique and that I have special obligations towards it, fascism says that my nation is supreme, and that I owe my nation exclusive obligations. My nation is the only important thing in the world, and I should never prefer the interests of any group or individual over the interests of my nation, no matter what the circumstances are. Even if my nation stands to make but a paltry profit from inflicting much misery on millions of strangers in a far-off land, I should have no qualms supporting my nation. Otherwise, I am a despicable traitor.

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Something here doesn’t make sense. If indeed the martyrs killed by the French air force are now in heaven, why should anyone seek revenge for it? Revenge for what, exactly? For sending people to heaven? If you just heard that your beloved brother won a million dollars in the lottery, would you start blowing up lottery stalls in revenge? So why go rampaging in Paris just because the French air force gave a few of your brothers a one-way ticket to paradise? It would be even worse if you indeed managed to deter the French from carrying out further bombings in Syria. For in that case, fewer Muslims would get to heaven.

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It is our own human fingers that wrote the Bible, the Quran and the Vedas, and it is our minds that give these stories power.

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In itself, the universe is only a meaningless hodge-podge of atoms. Nothing is beautiful, sacred or sexy – but human feelings make it so.

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If I am sexually attracted to men, I may be free to realise my fantasies, but I am not free to feel an attraction to women instead. In some cases I might decide to restrain my sexual urges or even try a ‘sexual conversion’ therapy, but the very desire to change my sexual orientation is something forced upon me by my neurons, egged on perhaps by cultural and religious biases. Why does one person feel ashamed of his sexuality and strives to alter it, while another person celebrates the same sexual desires without a trace of guilt? You can say that the former might have stronger religious feelings than the latter. But do people freely choose whether to have strong or weak religious feelings? Again, a person may decide to go to church every Sunday in a conscious effort to strengthen his weak religious feelings – but why does one person aspire to be more religious, while another is perfectly happy to remain an atheist? This may result from any number of cultural and genetic dispositions, but it is never the result of ‘free will’.

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And just as you are not the winds, so also you are not the jumble of thoughts, emotions and desires you experience, and you are certainly not the sanitised story you tell about them with hindsight. You experience all of them, but you don’t control them, you don’t own them, and you are not them. People ask ‘Who am I?’ and expect to be told a story. The first thing you need to know about yourself, is that you are not a story.

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So if you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is. The answer isn’t a story.

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Having criticised so many stories, religions and ideologies, it is only fair that I put myself in the firing line too, and explain how somebody so sceptical can still manage to wake up cheerful in the morning. I hesitate to do so partly for fear of self-indulgence, and partly because I don’t want to give the wrong impression, as if what works for me will work for everybody. I am very aware that the quirks of my genes, neurons, personal history and dharma are not shared by everyone. But it is perhaps good that readers should at least know which hues colour the glasses through which I see the world, thereby distorting my vision and my writing. When I was a teenager I was a troubled and restless person. The world made no sense to me, and I got no answers to the big questions I had about life. In particular, I didn’t understand why there was so much suffering in the world and in my own life, and what could be done about it. All I got from the people around me and from the books I read were elaborate fictions: religious myths about gods and heavens, nationalist myths about the motherland and its historical mission, romantic myths about love and adventure, or capitalist myths about economic growth and how buying and consuming stuff will make me happy. I had enough sense to realise that these were probably all fictions, but I had no idea how to find truth. When I began studying at university, I thought it would be the ideal place to find answers. But I was disappointed. The academic world provided me with powerful tools to deconstruct all the myths humans ever create, but it didn’t offer satisfying answers to the big questions of life. On the contrary, it encouraged me to focus on narrower and narrower questions. I eventually found myself writing a doctorate at the University of Oxford about autobiographical texts of medieval soldiers. As a side hobby I kept reading a lot of philosophy books and having lots of philosophical debates, but though this provided endless intellectual entertainment, it hardly provided real insight. It was extremely frustrating. Eventually

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Previously I knew very little about meditation, and presumed it must involve all kinds of complicated mystical theories. I was therefore amazed by how practical the teaching turned out to be. The teacher at the course, S. N. Goenka, instructed the students to sit with crossed legs and closed eyes, and to focus all their attention on the breath coming in and out of their nostrils. ‘Don’t do anything,’ he kept saying. ‘Don’t try to control the breath or to breathe in any particular way. Just observe the reality of the present moment, whatever it may be. When the breath comes in, you are just aware – now the breath is coming in. When the breath goes out, you are just aware – now the breath is going out. And when you lose your focus and your mind starts wandering in memories and fantasies, you are just aware – now my mind has wandered away from the breath.’ It was the most important thing anybody ever told me.

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Between me and the world there are always body sensations. I never react to events in the outside world; I always react to the sensations in my own body. When the sensation is unpleasant, I react with aversion. When the sensation is pleasant, I react with cravings for more. Even when we think we react to what another person has done, to President Trump’s latest tweet, or to a distant childhood memory, the truth is we always react to our immediate bodily sensations. If we are outraged that somebody insulted our nation or our god, what makes the insult unbearable is the burning sensations in the pit of our stomach and the band of pain that grips our heart. Our nation feels nothing, but our body really hurts. You want to know what anger is? Well, just observe the sensations that arise and pass in your body while you are angry. I was twenty-four years old when I went to this retreat, and had experienced anger probably 10,000 times previously, yet I had never bothered to observe how anger actually feels. Whenever I had been angry, I focused on the object of my anger – something somebody did or said – rather than on the sensory reality of the anger.

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However, so far we have absolutely no explanation for how the mind emerges from the brain. How come when billions of neurons are firing electrical signals in a particular pattern, I feel pain, and when the neurons fire in a different pattern, I feel love? We haven’t got a clue. Hence even if the mind indeed emerges from the brain, at least for now studying the mind is a different undertaking than studying the brain. Brain

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As of 2018, the only mind I can access directly is my own. If I want to know what other sentient beings are experiencing, I can do so only on the basis of second-hand reports, which naturally suffer from numerous distortions and limitations.

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Yet in truth, consciousness is the greatest mystery in the universe, and mundane feelings of heat and itching are every bit as mysterious as feelings of rapture or cosmic oneness. Vipassana

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