By Yuval Noah Harari
The modern world is shaped by the belief that people can die and defeat it. And this is a new revolutionary attitude. For most of history, people have been saddened by death. Until the late modern era, most religions and ideologies saw death not only as our inevitable fate, but also as the main source of meaning in life.
The most important events of human existence occur after you exhale your last breath. Only then will you learn the real secrets of life. Only then will you gain eternal salvation, or suffer eternal damnation.
In a world without death – and therefore without Heaven, Hell or Reincarnation – religions like Christianity, Islam and Hinduism would not make sense. For most of history, the best human minds have been busy dealing with the meaning of death, and not trying to overcome it.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, the myth of Orpheus and Eurysus, the Bible, the Qur’an, the Vedas, and countless other holy books and stories that patiently speak to grieving people, that we die after God, the Cosmos, or the Mother. Nature, and that we would do well to accept this fate with humility and dignity.
Perhaps one day God will eliminate death through a magnificent metaphysical gesture, such as the second coming of Christ. But the orchestration of such catalysts was clearly above the level of people made of flesh and blood. Then came the scientific revolution.
For scientists, death is not a divine will, but simply a technical problem. People die not because God has said so, but because of a technical problem. At some point, our heart stops pumping blood. Cancer destroys our liver.
Viruses multiply in the lungs. And who is responsible for all these technical problems? Other technical problems. The heart stops pumping blood when a small amount of oxygen reaches its muscle. Cancer cells spread to the liver, due to some genetic mutations. Viruses invade the lungs after someone sneezes on the bus.
So there is nothing metaphysical. And science believes that every technical problem has a technical solution. We do not need to wait for the second coming of Christ to overcome death. And this can be done by some scientists in a laboratory.
While the traditional death was the “specialty” of priests and theologians dressed in black, now people with white clothes in the labs deal with it. If the heart suffers from arrhythmia, we can stimulate it with a pacemaker, or even transplant a new heart.
If a tumor appears, we can kill it through radiation. If viruses multiply in the lungs, we can eradicate them with a new drug. It is true that at the moment we cannot solve all the technical problems. But we are working to achieve that.
The best human minds are no longer spending their time trying to make sense of death. Rather, they are very busy prolonging human life. They are examining the microbiological, physiological and genetic system that is responsible for disease and old age, and are developing new treatments and revolutionary treatments.
In their battle to prolong life, people have been extremely successful. Over the last 2 centuries, the average life expectancy has increased from under 40 to 72 years worldwide, and in more than 80 developed countries. Children in particular are more successful at escaping the “claws” of death.
Until the twentieth century, at least a third of children never reached adulthood. Young people were constantly affected by typical diseases of this age such as dysentery, measles and mumps. In seventeenth-century England, about 150 out of every 1,000 newborns died during their first year, and only about 700 of them reached the age of 15.
Today only 5 out of 1,000 babies in England die during their first year of life, and 993 of them manage to celebrate their 15th birthday. Overall in the world, child mortality has dropped to less than 5 percent. People have been so successful in their quest to protect and prolong their lives that our worldview on life has changed so much.
While traditional religions considered the afterlife as the main source of meaning, from the eighteenth century ideology such as liberalism, socialism, and feminism lost all interest in the afterlife. What exactly happens to a communist after he or she dies? What about a capitalist? Or a feminist? It is useless to look for the answer in the writings of Karl Marx, Adam Smith or Simon de Bovua.
The only modern ideology that still gives death a central role is nationalism. In his most poetic and depressing moments, nationalism promises that anyone who dies for the nation will live forever in his collective memory. However, this promise is so vague that most nationalists do not really know what to do with it.
How do you actually “live” in collective memory? If you died, how do you know if people are remembering you or not? Even many traditional religions have changed their approach. Instead of continuing to promise Paradise in the afterlife, they have begun to place much more emphasis on what they can do for you in this life.
Will the current pandemic change people’s attitudes toward death? Certainly not. Rather, Covid-19 will probably encourage us to redouble our efforts to protect people’s lives. The dominant cultural reaction to Covid-19 is not resignation, but a mixture of anger and hope.
When an epidemic broke out in a pre-modern society, such as medieval Europe, people naturally feared for their lives. They were spiritually overwhelmed by the death of their relatives, but the main cultural reaction was that of resignation. Psychologists may call it “learned impotence.”
People told themselves that this was God’s will – or perhaps divine punishment for the sins of mankind. “God knows best. We wicked people deserve this punishment. and
you will see that in the end everything will turn out well. Don’t worry, good people will get their reward in Heaven. Don’t waste time looking for a cure. This disease was sent by God to punish us. Those who think that people can overcome this epidemic with their ingenuity are simply adding to the sin of vanity among their other crimes. And who are we to destroy God’s plans?
Today’s attitudes are completely opposite. Whenever a disaster kills many people – a train accident, a big fire, or even a hurricane – we tend to see it more as an extraordinary human failure, rather than as a divine punishment, or a natural disaster. inevitable.
If the railway company had invested more in security, if the municipality had adopted better anti-fire rules for buildings, and if the government had sent aid faster – those people could have been saved. In the 21st century, mass death has become an automatic reason for lawsuits and investigations.
This is our approach to epidemics as well. While some religious preachers hastened to describe AIDS as God’s punishment for homosexuals, modern society has ignored and dismissed such views. And today we see the spread of AIDS, Ebola and other recent epidemics as organizational failures.
We assume that humanity possesses the knowledge and tools necessary to curb such epidemics, and if an infectious disease emerges at some point out of control, it is due to human incapacity, and not divine wrath. And Covid-19 makes no exception to this rule.
The crisis is not over, but the game of blame has already begun. Different countries are blaming each other. Rival politicians blame the other side as a hand grenade without security. But in addition to anger, there is hope. Our heroes are not the priests who bury the dead, and explain the misfortune.
Our heroes are the doctors who save lives. And our superheroes are the scientists in the labs. As movie lovers Spider-Man and Wonder Woman will finally be able to defeat the bad guys and save the world, we are also pretty sure that within a few months, maybe 1 year, people in the labs will detect effective treatments for Covid -19, and have even developed a vaccine against the virus.
Then we will show this evil coronavirus who is the dominant organism on this planet! The question everyone asks from the White House, Wall Street, to the balconies of palaces in Italy is: “When will the vaccine be ready?”. So it says “when”, not “if”. What will be the main lesson for humanity when the vaccine is ready and the pandemic is gone?
In all likelihood, it will be that we need to make even more efforts to protect human life. We need to build more hospitals, have more doctors and nurses. We need to have more fans available, more protective equipment, more test buffers.
We need to invest more money in researching unknown pathogens, and developing new treatments. And we must not be caught red-handed again. Some may argue that this is the wrong lesson, and that this crisis should teach us to be humble.
That we should not be so sure of our ability to subdue the forces of nature. Many of these today behave with the mentality of the Middle Ages. They preach humility while being 100 percent sure they know all the right answers. Some fanatics can’t even help themselves.
A pastor leading the weekly Bible study of Donald Trump’s cabinet has argued that the epidemic is also a divine punishment for homosexuality. But even traditional religions believe in science more than the scriptures. The Catholic Church instructs believers to stay away from churches.
Israel has closed its synagogues. The Islamic Republic of Iran is discouraging people from visiting mosques. Temples and sects of all kinds have suspended their public ceremonies. And all this, as scientists have made their calculations, and have recommended the closure of these holy places.
Of course, not all those who warn us about human arrogance dream of behaving like medieval people. Even scientists would agree that we should be realistic in our expectations, that we should not have a blind faith in the power of doctors to protect us from all the misfortunes of life.
As humanity as a whole is becoming more and more powerful, individuals still have to face their fragility. Maybe in 1 or 2 centuries science will prolong people’s lives indefinitely, but we haven’t gotten there yet. With the possible exclusion of a handful of billionaires, all of us others will die one day, and we will all lose our loved ones.
For centuries, people have used religion as a defense mechanism, believing that they would exist forever in the afterlife. Now people are often using science as a defense mechanism, believing that doctors will always be able to save them.
We need a balanced approach. We need to trust the science that fights epidemics, but we still have to face the burden of treating our individual mortality and temporality. The current crisis may make individuals more aware of the temporary nature of human life.
However, our modern civilization as a whole will most likely move in the opposite direction. When the current crisis is over, I do not expect to see any significant increase in budgets for the deparment of philosophy across universities. But I bet we will see a massive increase in budgets for medical schools and health care systems.
And maybe that’s the best we can expect. Governments are not very good at philosophy. It is not their field. They need to really focus on building the best healthcare systems. On the other hand, it is up to individuals to make a better philosophy. Doctors cannot solve for us the enigma of human existence. But they can buy us some more time to live. And what we do with this extra time depends on us. / The Guardian