Imagined Orders, Chains of Memories and Biographical Existence: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harrari, Harvill Secker, London 2014

(The following review is also available on-

When people talk about fiction they describe extremely readable fiction as ‘unputdownable’. Dr Harari’s book, though being a non-fiction, is such a unputdownable book. As he says in the acknowledgement, it may be the result of the influence of Diego Olstein who wanted Dr Harari to write a story. Whatever the cause was or whoever the owner of the guiding hand was, reading ‘A Brief History of Humankind’ was a pure pleasure. It was a treasure trove of factual information presented in an absolutely absorbing manner.


Imagined Order

The chapter titled ‘Building Pyramids‘ is one of the most thought provoking chapters in the book. Dr Hararis’ discussion about the imagined order is something I read with great enthusiasm. As he says myths are stronger than anyone could have imagined. As humans we build myths around us; myths about some features marking a territory on the land, myths about heroes who saved the country or the nation and so on. These myths about country, nation, religion and law etcetera are so strong we consider them as causes worthy of even sacrificing our dear lives. The power of imagined order is derived from its inter-subjectivity. Not only an individual believe in the existence of these institutions but also his or her friends and relatives equally believe. Thus, the myths become reality.

I entertain a very similar viewpoint over a long time. Early Indian philosophers of Mahayana Tradition called the world around us ‘Maya’ which is subjective reality or an illusion. They compare it to a dream. At the end of the dream, we are left with a pile of memories, which used to be so real in the dream. I believe each one of us lives in three domains. The essence of Human life is just a chain of memories[1]. Memories are the only factor which runs through the time a person lives. As Heraclitus would say, our physical bodies are in a constant flux. From a person’s point of view, every moment she lives, is a subjective memory. Through these retained memories, the person sees her existence as reality. This is also true in a Cartesian sense. Then, the same person lives in others’ retained memories. These are our objective memories. Thus, objective memories are always an externality. The third aspect is memories about our memories. Here we lose the boundary between objectivity and subjectivity. I may consider an episode from my own dream as a memory. Someone looks at a familiar photograph or recall an incident from the past. That causes a memory of a memory. Dr. Harari’s description of the imagined order is an extension of these memories. We hold the memories about the myths so dear. People around us also do the same. Then, we compare notes through their retained memories and fall in line with the myth. Memories about these memories play havoc in our minds blurring the boundary between reality and myth.

Inverted Pyramid of Memories

Due to these memories, a person lives his or her own life in three different domains. We may call the domain centred on subjective memories autobiographical existence. Then the person lives in other people’s memories or objective memories, which demarcate his or her biographical existence. The third domain is about memories of memories and builds the historical existence. I believe these three domains about our existence build the social order Dr Harari calls “imagined order”. Like genes, in Dr Richard Dawkins’ terms, for our memories the bodies are just vehicles. That is why we inadvertently see history is just the extended existence. Why did I write about the social structures and the structures we build on personal level? What is the relevance? This simply shows that one’s life is an inverted pyramid of memories, which is so fragile and deserves no genuine right to wage war or suppress others on the grounds of the imagined realities. This is not an invitation to a world without war but to a world more introspect and circumspect.

Dr Harai also makes this point very clear in the chapter about Empires – Imperial Visions. He tells us that societies are more complex than what they seem to be. Many a time Empire builders plundered the riches of the subjugated people and laid the land to waste. But then trough the ashes of the old people and culture, another group of people and social structures emerge. Dr Harari provides many examples from the history. But his contribution lies in his argument about reciprocity between the victors and the vanquished. The new orders, which emerge absorb many aspects from both parties. Then after a while the newly emerged societies like the Modern Indians who still adore the remnants of the British Raj, immerse in the new imagined order. New imagined order is not about the forgotten memories. It is all about the retained memories reinforced by the daily experiences. As Dr Harari justifiably points out the modern Indian Nationalists who point fingers towards the havoc caused by the British Occupation, have forgotten that some of the things hold so dear by them are simply the remnants of the old raj. Their fight is about some mixed-up retained memories.

Science and Mathematics

But I regret Dr Harari’s total commitment to the infallibility of Science and Mathematics. However precise these endeavours are they are not infallible. The defence is that science is a learning process based on our acceptance of ignorance. That is very true. But the downside is that science is fast becoming a dogma. We are scared of religion as it prescribes what reality is or should be. We question when a human being from long ago tried to convince that there is a creator God. But no one question us when the physicists insist that the universe resulted from a singularity-destroying Big Bang. Perhaps, as Dr Harari claims, the difference arises from the fact that, we can see no mathematics in the Bible or the Quran. Thus, the religion has no basis to exist. Here, I do not intend to justify religion. But I wonder mathematics is a sufficient and necessary condition to justify a point of view. Wright brothers simply built an aeroplane to prove that man can fly.

I always believe that the languages of Science, namely, Logic and Mathematics, are human inventions and thus, may prove fallible at times. This is not due to the method itself but mainly due to the priories and assumptions on which the method builds on. Thus, there is some likelihood that these too may not be means to absolute truth. On the other hand, there are people who come up with theories with no mathematical arguments. Take Darwin for an example. Apart from Theory of Evolution, he argued that the man had to arise in Africa due to the presence of many big Apes there. As far as modern ideas go, he is right. Another example comes from another biologist. As Prof John Maynard Smith says in ‘Did Darwin get it right?‘, in proposing Selfish Gene Hypothesis, Prof Richard Dawkins didn’t use any mathematics. On the other hand, a very mathematical arguments are not always right. As Prof Roger Penrose points out in the chapter on ‘The quantum particle‘ of ‘The Road to Reality‘ great physicist Schrodinger himself was worried that his equations couldn’t describe the quantum jumps or the state change between particles and waves. Even in case of Statistics, we only see a way of formalising our views of nature. Probability is just an explanation of reality. We only see one realisation of an ensemble of possibilities. We cannot explain why an unbiased coin flip resulted in a Head rather than a Tail at specific point in space and time. We can only talk about the long run outcome. Thus, Mathematics and Logic only can provide a basis to understand the natural world. As we all know, E=mc2 doesn’t tell the universe how the matter and energy should behave. It is just an explanation for the observed behaviour of the matter and energy. But this explanation, for Humankind, opened up a new universe of possibilities.

Thus, in my view, science is just a formalised process to systematically acquire knowledge and mathematics is a universal language to articulate and formalise our views about such knowledge. As Professor Penrose points out with regard to quantum mechanics, the mathematical formalism tells us nothing about an actual quantum reality of the world. Most of us agree that it is wrong and unethical to spread unconfirmed views about the universe and our existence for personal or collective gain; be it religion or science. It is also wrong to subjugate alternative views simply because they do not fall into the accepted fold of ideologies. My view is that it is wrong to subjugate ideas not aligning with my own perspectives by forming schools of thought to exert power and influence. Dr Harari touches upon this point when he talks about research funding. If the ideas are wrong prove them to be so using logic and with same respect and let them die a natural death. Let the science be lit by the spark from the clash of ideas rather than be overshadowed by a gloomy mist of powerful voices and strong prejudices.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding who we are and what we have become as a species.

[1] Buddhists would prefer a train of thoughts to a chain of memories. This fleeting existence is momentarily true. But, in retrospect, we only retain our memories about our thoughts.

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The website aims to show the possible origin of religion through a ‘uniquely’ human process which has links to the seclusion of girls at puberty. It also advocates the view that the Paleolithic Venus figurines are related to these puberty rites and hence, the prehistoric Venus figurines may carry a much larger meaning. Thus, Religion is something more than a throwback from our animal past.
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