Yuval Noah Harari, historian and author of the best-selling book ‘Sapiens,’ joins Nas in discussing everything. From life to their common birthplace of Israel, to why the World’s the way it is today and what we can do to make it better.
Got questions? Reach out to us at [email protected]
NAS: So you’re saying, OK, like you shouldn’t be nationalistic, and yadayada yada
YUVAL: Nationalism itself I’m not against it. Problem is the stories in people’s minds. People fight about stories. If you had to live just on the basis of the creations and inventions of your nation, your life will be extremely miserable. I mean, just think about food—and you think about I don’t know… Italian cuisine. The tomato was actually domesticated in America by Indians. So if you’re a patriotic Italian, you shouldn’t be eating tomatoes. That’s a foreign vegetable. You can’t even have the pizza itself because it wasn’t domesticated in Italy and it’s the same with everybody.
NAS: All right, for the first time ever I’m going to do this podcast while standing. And the reason I’m standing is because I feel like I need to be…. I need to be mentally and physically 100% ready for the next conversation, and I’ve prepared for this for a lifetime. Today’s conversation is with someone I respect a lot and this guy is… I like to give him the title, the world’s smartest man.NAS:
Yuval was a University professor at Tel Aviv University and at some point he wrote a book you may have heard of. His most recent book Sapiens or 21 Lessons For The 21st century or Homo Deus. He’s got a couple of books out, and if you have been to an airport in the last five years, you have definitely seen Yuval’s books on the bookshelf. I see them all the time in every Airport I go to.So now he’s a full-time author, speaker and public intellectual. The conversation with Yuval I would like to center on four or five main problems that I see in the world and I want to get his opinion. How can we make these problems less of a problem?I have personally read Yuval’s books—not one book. I’ve actually read two of his books. I think it takes topics that matter… it doesn’t discuss transient topics. It talks about things that are relevant 1000 years ago, and 1000 years from now. There is another interesting thing about Yuval is that, as I said before, he is from my country.
So I come from the country of Israel. He also comes from the country of Israel. The only difference is that his people and my people don’t necessarily interact that much. My village is 100% Arab and his village was 100% Jewish. The fact that we connected for me is a big deal ’cause for 20 years I’ve been wanting to make those friends and I’ve been unable to for language barriers and for systematic barriers.
NAS: So the conversation with Yuval now is going to go a little bit beyond just “Let’s talk about what you wrote and your career”, more of like let’s talk about us. Why the hell do people like us not interact? What is the problem here and how can we fix it? And so I don’t get to ask people like Yuval this question all the time and I’m very excited to ask him that today. Ladies and gentlemen, please help me welcome Yuval Noah Harari to Nas Talks.
NAS: Yuval, thank you so much for coming to the podcast. I appreciate your time. I know we are 5000 miles away, but I’d love to start a little bit by just having you introduce yourself, like who are you? as a human. Not as an author, not as a career—who are you as a human?
YUVAL: Well, first of all, thank you for inviting me here. It’s a pleasure for me also, and as a human I don’t know. I’m I think I like to ask questions. And I don’t accept the answers easily. I think I’m a suspicious guy.
NAS: OK, but do you like to give answers easily or not?
YUVAL: No, because I’m so suspicious of the kind of answers that people have been giving to the big questions of life. I also, I’m very cautious about when people ask me. I mean, people have this idea that: I know you’re very smart. You studied history, you can solve this question or solve this problem. And I have to disappoint again and again and say that I really don’t know. And you know, there is this temptation to come up with some pet theory or just bring out your own personal opinions. And you know, I have my personal opinion, but as a scientist I have to be very, very careful to differentiate between my personal opinions and what I think is the best scientific answer we have.
NAS: So let’s keep this conversation at personal opinions.(Laughs) Is that OK?
YUVAL: (laughs) OK.
NAS: Right, but who are you? Uh, like where did you grow up?
YUVAL: I grew up in a small industrial suburb of Haifa, which is the big port city of Israel. And also I think the most polluted place in the Middle East. As a kid, I remember that when we were like going to my grandmother and coming back, we could smell when we were approaching home.
NAS: Is that near the Nesher factory?
YUVAL: Near the cement factory and the refineries. But mostly it’s the petrochemical industry. Now these huge petrochemical industries produce I don’t know what.
NAS: And I’m glad you started it because this is the first problem that I care about and it’s actually not the pollution and it’s not the petrochemicals. It’s the fact that you and I grew up one hour away from each other. But we had a close to 0.0001% of actually knowing each other.
NAS: And I’m not talking about the age difference. I think the age difference is probably one of the reasons. But I’m talking about the fact that in the city I live, so I also grew up an hour away from you in a small village called Arraba or in Arabic, Arraba, which is next to Jesus, next to Nazareth. And my village was 100% non-Jew, maybe 99.9%, but 100% non-Jew. OK and the village nearby or the city nearby was almost 100% Jewish and I’d love to know more about the place where you grew up. What was the percentage of Arabs in that place?
YUVAL: I think it was probably 0, except for perhaps for my Doctor Who was Arab. I think he is like the family doctor, but he didn’t live in our city. He would probably lived in one of the villages near you and he came every day to the clinic
NAS: Exactly, and that is not surprising at all because 95% of my graduating class at High School became doctors, because Doctor is the essentially the only profession that is respected in a way in our community and that makes money and also that, you know so many other professions are just blocked.
YUVAL: You know, I mean in so many of the government services and also private industry which has ties with the Army; you can’t really get there if you are an Arab. So you go become a doctor because that’s what there is.
NAS: Exactly. And so this is for me. I think this is probably the biggest problem in my life that I’d love to talk to you about. Why does it happen, right? You know you have a country like Israel and Israel is not the only country. I think it’s the country that has it extreme. But you see this problem exists in the UK. You see it happen in New York where there’s so much self segregation and institutional segregation right? I just don’t think I don’t think my people want to live with you Yuval, I’m sorry.
YUVAL: Same for us. I’m sure of it. I mean, it’s a… you know. People think that humans fight for the same reason that wolves fight. Now, chimpanzees fight. They fight about food, they fight about territory. So here you have the Palestinians and Israelis fighting about territory. But this is not true. Humans don’t fight for the same reasons as chimpanzees and wolves. There is enough territory. There is enough land between Jordan and the Mediterranean to build houses and clinic, clinics and schools for everybody. And there is definitely enough food. Problem is the stories in peoples minds. People fight about stories. One group has one story in their mind. The other group has a contradictory story and they can’t agree on this story between us and reality, though all these fictional stories that we invent, we impose it on reality. And this is why we can’t agree.
NAS: OK, so the stories exist for Arabs and another story exists for the Jews in Israel. But what are the stories that exist in New York, where Harlem is black and West Village is White? I don’t think there’s any fighting or any belief in different stories because everybody agrees that the American Dream; Freedom, Liberty, pursuit of happiness.
YUVAL: No, but they don’t! I mean, yes, maybe they say the same words: American dream, but they interpret it in a very different way, the same way that Jews and Muslims can use the same words, they can talk about gods and compassion and to be a good person and to be a moral person.
YUVAL: They agree on everything. All these big words and still they fight because they interpret them in a different way. People in the world, yes, have this double sense of: First of all, we are better than everybody else. Secondly, we have been victimized. I travel around the world. I mean everywhere you go, you hear the same type of stories. First of all, we invented everything. like with the Chinese. We invented everything! The Hindus, no no no—we invented mathematics and science and this and that we invented; you go speak with the Jews, no no, we invented everything. You even have this theory among some Jews that the Jews even invented yoga. Not in India actually. It’s the Jews invented yoga and taught it to the Hindus.
YUVAL: And then you have the complimentary story that everybody hates us and they have been doing bad things to us for thousands of years. Because they’re jealous of us and because they don’t like us and, the thing is, you hear this not only from very small people like the Jewish people or the Palestinians. People… you go to India and they will tell you about all the terrible things that have been doing for centuries to the Indians and you go to Russia and the Russians will tell you oh—we’re such poor, miserable people everybody all the time invade us, everybody all the time—and they don’t remember that time when they invaded somebody else. Of course not.
But they do remember all the different times when the Germans or the French or the Mongols, or the Swedes invaded them. So we have this double story which again is not unique to them, it’s almost every nation that on the one hand we are better than everybody. We invented all these wonderful things, all of human culture and civilization. It’s thanks to us and then other people, not just there, not thanking us. They are actually jealous of us and they hate us, so they for centuries have been doing all these terrible things to us.
I think the place to start is to realize that. All these nations are actually very, very new, very young. The oldest nations in the world are maybe 5000 years old? Look at Egypt, you can say with some justification that there is some kind of continuity between ancient Egypt of 5000 years ago in Egypt today, even though it’s a different religion, it’s a different language, it’s different people, but still there is a little continuity. Ao that’s the most: 5000 years. And of course Jews are maybe 3000 years, French and Germans, they’re just a couple of 100 years, that’s all.
YUVAL: Now human beings have been around for at least 2 million years. Most of the big inventions of humankind are much older than 5000 years. You look at agriculture, at cities, at writing, fire, the wheel, it’s all much older. No nation can take credit for all that. And even after the appearance of Nations, everybody depends on the inventions and creations of. Foreigners. If you had to live just on the basis of the creations and inventions of your nation, your life will be extremely miserable. I mean, just think about food, what you like to eat and you think about… I don’t know Italian cuisine. Now, the tomato was actually domesticated in America by Indians. So if you’re a patriotic Italian, you should… you shouldn’t be eating tomatoes. That’s a foreign vegetable!
But you can’t even have the pizza itself. Or the pasta, because wheat wasn’t domesticated in Italy, wheat was domesticated in what is today Turkey and Syria and Iran. So if you’re really a patriotic Italian, you don’t, only you don’t just take away the tomato source, you also throw away the pasta and the pizza and it’s the same with everybody.
I mean, you know, you go to India and you think about Indian cuisine. Now you have to take away chili pepper because chili is actually domesticated in Mexico by the Ancient Native Americans, right?
YUVAL: So, just start by realizing that your life has been made possible in so many ways by foreigners. Yes, your nation contributed something. But, most of the things you value in life. They came from foreigners, so don’t be so uptight and proud about it, like my nation invented everything.
NAS: That’s a good place to start. Great, you know what? And that’s a great segue to the next biggest problems of my existence, your country and my country. OK, so you’re saying, like you shouldn’t be nationalistic, and da da da da, Italy, Italy, Italy is like there’s no such thing.
YUVAL: No, Nationalism itself, I’m not against it. I think that nationalism, when it’s understood in the right way, it’s a good thing. The problem with nationalism is when people think that nationalism is about hating foreigners. But nationalism is not about hating foreigners, it’s about loving your compatriots. And nationalism is what drives you to connect and to help the people around.
NAS: Got it. In fact, I have a quote from you right here on my monitor. The difference between nationalism and fascism is that while nationalism tells you the nation is unique, fascism tells you the nation is Supreme. And in real life evil doesn’t look ugly, it’s beautiful. Now, OK, I agree with you, but my biggest issue with the idea of a country is that one: It’s a story that we tell ourselves that is obviously fake too. You know, it can lead to danger. I don’t know if it leads to more… I think someone should really weigh the benefits and risks or the cost. Of a country to see if a country is actually a net positive or a net negative. And this is—I think if anyone can speak about this—it’s you because you come from Israel, right? And it was, the nationalism is why can we say comfortably that nationalism is how Israel managed to succeed.
YUVAL: Not only Israel, but you know all countries. Again, nationalism is not just about hating other people and fighting wars. The core thing about nationalism is you feel connected to people you don’t know, which is very strange and not necessarily bad.
NAS: So are you a believer in nationalism? You like you, subscribe to that notion. You believe in Israel or in the concept of Israel and the concept of the UK, and the concept of Germany, so you for you personally, right knowing very well that this is needed because we’re humans, do you? Are you comfortable being under that system?
YUVAL: Provided I remember that this is just a story we invented to help us and we shouldn’t be enslaved by it. Now when I say it is a story, I mean it. It exists only in the imagination. Nations like Israel, like Iran, like France, like the United States, the only place they exist in is the imagination of people. It’s not like a chicken, that you can see a chicken. You can touch it, you can hear it squeak. You can even taste it if you make Schnitzel out of it or something. You can’t do that with Israel or the US. You can’t see it. You can’t touch it. So where does it exist? Only in the stories we invent and tell one another. And of course we create symbols like the flag, but you know the flag is just a piece of colorful cloth that we give meaning to and this is something that people find very, very difficult to understand, because people think there are just two kinds of things in the world. Just two realities. There are things that exist in the mind. Like pain or a dream. I dream I can see what’s happening in the dream nobody else can see it. It’s in my mind and then there are objective realities like trees and rivers and stones and planets.
YUVAL: Yes, they don’t exist in my mind they exist outside now, when people think about something like a nation or like money, they say: Well, obviously Israel is not just a dream in my mind. Lots of other people also know about it and believe in it. So it’s not subjective—then it must be objective, just like a mountain or a tree garden.
But it’s not like this because there is a third category of things in the world, not objective or subjective, but intersubjective, which means things that exist in the stories that people tell one another. If only one person believes in it, it doesn’t work. But if a million people believe in it, it works. Again, it’s not just nations. If you think what money is in, it’s worthless. You know you take a dollar bill: you can’t eat it, you can’t drink it, you can’t do anything with it. If only you believe in it, it’s worthless. But if a billion people believe that this piece of paper is worth a banana, then it suddenly becomes an extremely powerful force in the world.
NAS: OK, so do you believe you are an Israeli?
NAS: OK, do you believe—you said this quote in 200 years, I can pretty much assure you that there will not be any more Israelis. Yes, you believe in it right now, but you know then it’ll change. Maybe in 200 years there will not be any Palestinians or any Germans or any Americans. Well, that’s probably more true. So if you believe in it now, why do you think it will change?
YUVAL: I don’t believe in it as a kind of absolute truth or reality. It’s um, I just know that it’s like a game we play like. Let’s say we play football.
NAS: OK, yeah.
YUVAL: If the ball passes between the two poles of the goalpost, that’s a goal. That’s one for my team.
YUVAL: And we play and we score a goal and then you ask me what’s the score and I tell you, 10. Do you really believe it?
YUVAL: I really believe that we scored the goal. It’s one-zero, but of course it’s just a story we invented. We decided that this will be the laws of football and this is how you score a goal. And it’s the same with nations. We invented these rules. These are laws of what does it mean to have a nation. And you have a flag and you have a currency and you have borders and things like that but it’s really just all a giant game that people play. The fact that it’s a game doesn’t mean it’s not important or serious. The most important things in the world are sometimes games. You just ask football fans. They will tell you the same way that some football fans are willing to kill, or at least to fight over football. So, also in the case of countries and nations. People are willing to kill and to fight over these games.
Now I don’t intend to mean that nothing is real objectively real. The most real thing in the world is suffering. And very often the stories we invent, even though the stories are imaginary; they are only in our imagination, they still can cause an immense amount of very real suffering in the world.
So when two people fight about, say, the Holy City of Jerusalem. The holiness of Jerusalem is just in their own minds: they imagine it. You go to Jerusalem, you see, it’s just stones and earthen buildings. But you believe that there is something holy there, and therefore you’re willing to fight about it. But the suffering which is caused by the belief this is absolutely real.
YUVAL: So I would say that we need to judge the stories in which we believe in terms of how much suffering they cause or prevent.
NAS: But why do you think the story of your nationality will change, because you said in 200 years it will change? What do you think will make it change?
YUVAL: I think, in 200 years there simply won’t to be any human beings anymore, so obviously…
NAS: There you go.
YUVAL: …there won’t be any Israelis or Palestinians. I don’t think that the world will be completely destroyed. I think that the new technologies we are developing today, especially things like artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, will enable people to upgrade themselves or to create new kinds of entities which will be more different from us then we are different from chimpanzees. Or from Neanderthals. Homo sapiens, Jewish homo sapiens and Muslim homo sapiens—and they are fighting about the Holy City of Jerusalem—in 200 years, you would have these bionic cyberregs or something. They won’t care at all. Not about the Holy City of Jerusalem.
NAS: Interesting, OK? I agree with you. I mean obviously you know, no one knows what will happen in the future. I agree that what exists now will drastically change. I would love to talk to you about my third problem. So now I have the first problem is that we’re not neighbors and we should be neighbors. The second problem is our country, your country, my country, every country in the world. The third problem is democracy. You know, so you say that democracy is not based on human rationality, but human feelings, and I think you make the argument in your book. They’re saying that with the rise of technology and data processing and what not. The control will be kind of, sort of more centralized, and that’ll be more powerful, and it literally seems to be, especially with Covid-19; it seems to be the trend that many countries are following in the sense that China is becoming more powerful.
NAS: You know, authoritative states like the rise of North Korea’s, there will be a lot more North Korea’s in the world in the future. That seems to be your opinion. Now, Winston Churchill has a different opinion. He says democracy is the worst system, except for all the other systems. So you know, there’s two opinions here.
Obviously Churchill didn’t live with AI and machine learning and technology. Who do you think is right?
YUVAL: I try not to present the first opinion as a kind of prophecy or inevitability. I don’t think that democracy is doomed, that it’s bound to disappear and be replaced by all kinds of dictatorships. I just point out the dangers you know in recent decades people have had this kind of complacent feeling that democracy has won. Then there was this big ideological battle in the 20th century between fascism and communism and liberal democracy and democracies has won. Everybody knows it’s the best system to spread around, and that’s it. And in many of my writings, I say: wait a minute. There are dangers ahead. Yes, democracy has won the Battle of the 20th century, but now mainly because of technological changes. The field of battle is changing and I agree with Churchill that it’s the best system in ethical terms, but I’m not so sure that it it will be easy to win the battles of the 21st century. be kind of sort of more centralized, and that’ll be more powerful, and it seems to be the literally seems to be, especially with cover 19. It seems to be the trend that many countries are following in the sense that China is becoming more powerful. You know, authoritative states like the rise of North Korea’s there will be a lot more North Korea’s in the world in the future. That seems to be your opinion. Now and then, Winston Churchill has a different opinion. He says democracy is the war system, except for all the other systems. So you know, there’s two opinions here. Obviously Churchill didn’t live with AI and machine learning and technology. You think is right. I don’t I I try not to present the first opinion as a kind of prophecy or inevitability. OK, I don’t think that democracy is is doomed that it’s bound to disappear and be replaced by all kinds of dictatorships. I just point out the dangers you know in recent decades people had this kind of complacent feeling that democracy has won. Then there was this big ideological battle in the 20th century between fascism and communism and liberal democracy and democracies has won. Everybody knows it’s the best system to spread around, and that’s it. And in many of my writings, I say wait a minute. There are dangers ahead. Yes, democracy has won the Battle of the 20th century, but now mainly because of technological changes. The field of battle is changing and I agree with Churchill that it’s the best system in ethical terms, but I’m not so sure that it it will be easy to win the battles of the 21st
YUVAL: The reemergence of authoritarian regimes, including in countries which you thought that this is it, they are now democracies forever.
NAS: OK, so how… how can we now—I don’t want to point this out. I don’t want to say what is the solution. No one knows what the solution is, but how can we make the democracy problem less of a problem?
YUVAL: I think the biggest issue is again, is technology and the concentration of information and power in one place. We’re very close to the point that, for the first time in history, a government can follow all the citizens all the time, 24 hours a day, and know you better than you know yourself. This is a completely new situation than in the Soviet Union.
For example, in the communist times the KGB couldn’t follow everybody all the time. You couldn’t put a KGB agent to follow you for 24 hours. There are not enough agents, and even if you follow everybody around you just you know all the information is written on paper. Somebody needs to read all these papers and make sense of what’s happening and nobody could do it. Now you can follow everybody all the time because you don’t need human agents. You have all these cameras and smartphones and sensors and they don’t produce paper reports that people need to read. They produce digital data that artificial intelligence and machine learning can process better than anybody. So it’s possible now to build the kind of the perfect dictatorship that follows each and every citizen 24 hours a day. And what’s more, it can know what’s happening inside your body, not only where you go, but also how you feel.
YUVAL: This leads to the moment that for the first time in history, an outside system can know me better than I know myself can know my political views. My food preferences. My sexual orientation. You know, I often give the example that I realized about myself that I was gay only when I was 21, but if but a computer algorithm that would have followed me in back in the 1980s, yeah, could have realized it easily when I was 13 or 14.
Now this is the greatest threat to democracy. If we allow so much data in power to be concentrated in one place, whether it’s the government or a Corporation, that’s the end of democracy, but it doesn’t have to be easier than giving is easier than taking away—the minute the government has this data—that’s it. They’re going to have this data. It’s hard to go back to the old days when they didn’t have this data.
NAS: So from your description, it seems like we’re doomed.
YUVAL: No, not necessarily, because the technology can be used for many different purposes. I mean, you mentioned North Korea. Now if you compare North Korea and South Korea, they have exactly the same technology. But they use it in different ways. If you compare Nazi Germany and United States, they use the same technology for different things. So it also is AI and smartphones and all that. We can use them in different ways. So one important thing is we should not only limit the ability of the government to follow us. We should use the technology to follow them.
YUVAL: When people talk about surveillance monitoring, they constantly think about the government. But you can do the opposite thing, like to fight corruption. You can use technology to follow all the government officials all the time and make sure that they are not corrupt, like you can have an application on your smartphone that you click, and the name of a government minister (shows up) and it immediately shows you all the family members and friends of that minister who were given a job in his or her ministry. Can be done easily.
NAS: Right, right, right.
YUVAL: And this is a way for the citizens to supervise the government. And if we do that, it strengthens democracy. It doesn’t weaken it.
NAS: Great. I love it. It’s a two way street rather than a one way street now, yeah. My one last question on this: You know this is a political topic; now I kind of roughly know if you were to build a country right now from scratch. If Yuval’s coming and saying I’m going to build a country—and this is, by the way, this is a tangent question—I’m going to build a country and I kind of know the role of technology, I cannot know the stories I’m going to tell, but I have one question about this. How much would you pay the Prime Minister every month? in that context of yours? Because I’ll tell you the reason why I ask that question as we start about democracy. The People’s Republic and all that study, this belongs to the people were public servants that added up.
At some point I was sitting with an ambassador; an Israeli ambassador. I’m not going to say the name of the country and they were complaining about not having enough money to pay their students, their kids’ tuition. They were complaining about not having enough money to like, retire, and needing to continuously work. They were handling 100 million dollar deals or 1 billion dollar deals for their country, right? Literally, if they do their job right, they could help their country with a billion dollars. ANd yet they’re seeing 0.000001% of that as income, and so you know, there’s a lot of different opinions about this.
NAS: In your opinion, what is the right money we should give to public servants?
Well, I think it should be quite a lot. I don’t think that public servants should be given very little money for two reasons: First of all, if you give them too little money, the temptation of corruption increases. And secondly, it means that only rich people, yes, can really go into politics.
You know, in the past if you go to Britain in the 19th century. The members of Parliament didn’t receive any salary—and this sounds very Democratic and nice, but it actually meant that if you are a simple worker, you can’t go into politics because you can’t pay anything, so only the aristocrats and the rich people (only) they could be members of parliament, because they don’t need the salary. So I think that public servants should be given a good, of course not, you know, like CEOs of a private company that can take millions, but they should get a good salary. So they don’t have these problems in temptations,
NAS: So that’s an interesting point, you said, because this is one of the reasons I am a big fan of Singapore is because, they’ve realized this was a problem because they said, OK, you know, I’m the government. I want to hire this talent and this talent has two options. One is to work at Goldman Sachs or two to work for the government. And if you work at Goldman Sachs, you’ll make $1,000,000 a year and you will have the best life possible. No public scrutiny. You can do whatever you want and you’ll be rich. And if you work for the government sector, I mean your struggle to pay your sons bills, and so what they did is they actually made…
NAS: Some of the highest paid politicians in the world are actually in Singapore. So the ministers and prime ministers make $1,000,000 a year each year. And I thought you know, I thought that was a fascinating system. But the problem is the story that you just said of why they should be paid a lot of money is too complicated for the average voter. So you get the other opposing story of the average voter. No government is for the people by the people. We cannot put rich people in these positions, right? That’s the simplistic story of it, and that’s why there’s a lot of pushback in Singapore. And I’m guessing if it happens in another country, there will be some pushback. So the things you’re proposing, right? I think, are great. They’re great for intellectuals, and if you actually put time and effort into explaining your reasons, they work. But the average voter doesn’t care about your answer and doesn’t care about the details. How do we make them care?
YUVAL: You know that’s the battle of ideas. I mean, there is no simple way to do it. You just have to keep talking and writing and explaining. And also you have to keep things simple. I mean, and I don’t think it’s bad. I don’t think that’s the kind of necessity; to tell simple stories so that average people can understand easily, it’s actually an advantage from my experience in the University. When you’re forced to tell a simple story, you need to think really, really hard about what you’re saying because you cannot hide behind complicated words and all kinds of jargon that nobody understands. So there are areas, like, I don’t know, quantum mechanics or nuclear physics that you can’t help it. I mean, there is no way to explain it easily, because the human brain really didn’t evolve to deal with such things.
YUVAL: But other issues like politics or like ethics, morality, they should be simple. They shouldn’t be these extremely complicated stories that nobody but professors can understand.
NAS: Yeah, and I think that’s exactly what you do with your books. That’s why the average person can understand them. That’s actually what I try to do with my one minute videos. I know you haven’t seen my one minute videos. It’s OK. You’re the only person in the world I forgive for not seeing my videos.
YUVAL: Actually I’ve seen quite a few! (laughs)
NAS: But no one at the company works here without watching my videos, they have to know the videos. Anyway, speaking of that, OK, I want to get to the next point, which you’ve alluded in the whole talk. The fact that everything is fake or made up or fiction, you like to call it fiction.
YUVAL: Fake has a kind of negative connotation that it’s a lie. Fiction: It’s something that we invent. I mean Harry Potter is fiction. It’s not bad. The laws of football, our fictional laws we invented them. Football is still very good, very nice and not everything is fiction. As I said, there is at least one thing in the world which isn’t fiction and that is suffering. And this is how we judge the different stories we invent.
NAS: So are you culturally Jewish? Maybe you don’t go to synagogue, but are you culturally Jewish to some little extent?
YUVAL: I am. I mean my mother tongue is Hebrew and I know a lot of the Jewish traditions and so forth, but I hardly keep any of the unique traditions of Judaism. I mean, you know, OK, I don’t care. So OK, you have it in the Bible, but you have it in so many other places. But the really more unique parts of the Jewish tradition, I don’t find myself giving them a lot of importance; of them playing an important part in my life, so it’s a big statement, right to say that religion is fiction.
YUVAL: And you know, I’m not. I don’t necessarily. Even if you ask religious people, they will tell me that all the religions in the world, except one, are fiction—except mine. Of course you ask the Jew, he will tell you, yeah, easily that Christianity is fiction. Islam is fiction. Hinduism is fiction. So I’m just going one little step ahead and saying this one too is also fiction. I mean, so it’s a very small step.
NAS: You are right. OK, so, so the biggest thing in our lives right there, there’s 7 billion people. I’m assuming 5 billion people believe in some sort of a story, so some could argue that everything in life is fiction, right? Money is fiction, religion everything? I know that you are a vegetarian or vegan or vegetarian.
YUVAL: Veganish. I mean, I try not to make this into a religion and be extremely upset if somebody put some cheese in whatever; I try to limit my involvement with the meat and dairy industry.
NAS: So I’ve recently become vegetarian as well. OK and I’m a believer in that type of fiction as well. And you know what? I find really ironic about humans, is that every day I go out throughout my day and I say no to chicken, I say no to salmon no to be fan. I only eat vegetables because I care about the world, and because I care about life and suffering, and then I go home to my cats and I open a can of tuna and I feed them and I say: You’re welcome. I’m a great benevolent Cat lover and so… do you have any cats or dogs?
NAS: Oh great, they love meat, you know, as you can see, there’s a lot of contradictions. In the stories we choose to believe in the stories, we don’t choose to believe. How do you sleep well at night Yuval, knowing that you’ve killed so many damn chickens to feed your damn dog? And I’ve seen your dog. It’s a very cute dog, but you’ve killed stuff for it.
YUVAL: Well, first of all, we need to understand what morality is. What ethics is. I don’t, I mean, a lot of moral codes are fiction, but I don’t think that morality is a fiction. There are two ways to understand morality. One way is that morality is obedience to some laws; the laws of some religion or the laws of some ideology. These laws I think are usually fictions that people invented themselves. They didn’t come from the creator of the universe, but there is a different way to understand morality.
Morality is not about obeying laws. Morality is about not causing suffering and trying to reduce it. I think morality; you don’t kill, not because some God said so, or some book said so, (it is) because it causes enormous amounts of suffering. Very simple, and when it comes to feeding my dog meat based food, then yeah, reality’s of course complicated. This is why I said I don’t define myself as kind of a strict vegan because the chains of cause and effect in the world are so complicated that you are always involved in something. Even if you don’t… even if you just eat fruits. So the farmer who grew the fruits sprayed insecticide to kill the insects, (when you) eat the fruit so you’re somehow involved with that. So the thing is, people are obsessed with purity. And purity is an extremely dangerous concept becauses it’s unrealistic and it causes people to do extreme things. It unbalances the mind. People have this ideal of being completely pure. And you see it with religious people that they can be obsessed about being kosher or something, about the impurity of some other people.
YUVAL: So one of the reasons you ask in the beginning why people don’t live together: You go and look at it very often, it comes down to purity that people have this notion that they are impure. They eat impure food and therefore we don’t want to live next to them. And you know, purity is an abstract concept. I want to be pure, but I’m not.
NAS: I’m not the only one obsessed with purity to be true, my girlfriend is. She wants me to be pure and never cheat on her, right? That’s purity so, Isn’t that the reason marriage works?
YUVAL: Um… that’s… that’s a big question.
YUVAL: I mean, I would say that people… again we should separate, when you do something you should be aware of the consequences of what you do, and if it causes suffering and harm to other beings, then you try your best to reduce these consequences. And that’s a balanced way of approaching food and sex and everything in life.
But they have this idea that I can achieve 100% purity if I observe a certain ritual, those ceremonial rules, and it’s almost impossible, so they become obsessed about it and they forget about everything else in the world. They want to be pure in a certain sense, and they can cause immense suffering to others in other ways because they’re just obsessed with this one rule. They think: I’ll do that I’ll be perfectly pure—
NAS: So I am guilty of that, and so, and I feel like I need purity in my life. For example, when I was making 1000 videos in 1000 days, the purity in that journey of Nas Daily was never to miss a day, no matter what happens. If you miss one day, you’ve broken the chain, it is no longer a pure endeavor. And similarly I said. never have, you know, outside sex because that will mess up with the purity of my relationship and so, you know, I feel like I am guilty of that in the sense I cannot live my life if it doesn’t include purity, because if it, if it doesn’t, if it’s all like murky in the middle. Then where is that… where is that line? It seems like it’s a line in the sand.
YUVAL: It’s not that it’s OK to break all rules sometimes, just don’t do it all the time—no, that’s not the point. The point is that you should approach, ideally, everything you do not from the perspective of some big rule, but being aware, being mindful of…
YUVAL: Being aware, being, mindful of if I do this now, what will actually be, the impact on my state of mind and on other people and other animals. And sometimes there are things like, I don’t know, murder, that yes, every day‚all your life—you shouldn’t do it. But there are other things again, because the world is so complicated and there are so many tradeoffs, if all your people sometimes have this kind of obsessive compulsive compulsive behavior of not stepping on cracks in the sidewalk, yes, it’s one of the most common kinds of OCD, I also sometimes do it now, (laughs). Just imagine what happens if you’re so focused not to step on any crack in the sidewalk that say, you bumped into somebody and pushed them to the street and they get overrun by a truck, or they drop their bag and all their groceries fall down and get spoiled. This is what happens when you’re so focused on just this one thing, so it’s the same when people can become obsessed about sexual purity.
You have, like I just heard in Egypt, that somebody was sentenced to three years in prison because she put up some YouTube clip that was supposed to encourage sexual licentiousness. And even if you don’t like it, is this the biggest problem that Egypt is now facing? I mean, is this what you should be focusing on? This is like the cracks in the sidewalk. I mean there are much more important things going around than this.
NAS: So I cannot help but stay focused on that meal your dog eats and my cat eats. I know, you’re telling me not to focus on the small things and focus on the… I’m focusing on that crack. And I feel like that crack is fixable right? I shouldn’t have a cat if I’m a true vegetarian, you shouldn’t have a dog. If you’re a true vegan, i just feel like it becomes like, selective empathy, right?
NAS: We have empathy for a salmon at a restaurant, but we have no empathy for tuna at my cat’s plate, so it becomes a problem.
YUVAL: Well, turn it around. Don’t focus on what you don’t do. Focus on what you do. I mean, it’s like somebody comes to me and says look, it’s very difficult for me to stop eating meat completely. I now eat meat only on Sundays and Tuesdays, so one way is to stop, kind of blaming this person, you’re a bad person, oh what? So are you doing (this only) on Sunday? It’s OK to kill poor animals (on Sunday)? This is counterproductive. Somebody took a step in the right direction and they stopped eating meat on five days a week. So compliment them.
I mean the expectation again of perfection and purity, this is what ruins so many good movements in history. I mean, in history you see again and again that people come up with good ideas, and end up sometimes with guillotines and concentration camps and gulags. Like you have the French Revolution: People coming and saying Freedom, Equality, Liberty. Three years later, it’s the guillotine.. You have Marxists and the Socialists coming in saying we don’t want the Tzar and Kings, we want equality. Everybody is equal, it’s not good that the peasants would work so hard and then not get anything to eat—sounds wonderful! 10 years later you have the gulags. What happened? And what happened is this obsession with the purity. To avoid reaching these extremes, you need to keep a balance and also to realize that there is a limit to what you can do, what other people can do. If they take a step in the right direction, then compliment them! Don’t blame them for not yet being perfect.
NAS: So how have you become so not extreme Yuval. I mean, I know exactly where you come from and you know exactly where I come from most people where we come from are Goddamn extreme, right. They oscillate in such high frequency it’s like, you know, Judaism is right or Palestinian should exist. So how did you, personally, not as an author, but as a human—how have you been able to remain so calmly in the middle? Is it? Is it what it is called Vipassana Is It? What do you think is the main thing that helped you become so grounded?
YUVAL: There are two things, I mean, one of which is my research as a Historian, and that is when where you see these stories come from, you are, less, um, caught up in them. You understand, you know all these dead people are trying to control us from their graves. Don’t let them. It’s just stories invented by dead people. The other side is what you said: Vipassana; personal meditation. I meditate every day for two hours. I go every year for a long retreat of 30 days or 60 days, or how much time I have and what you do in meditation, at least in Vipassana, it’s really a very simple rule. Just observe what’s really happening—right now. You sit with closed eyes. You don’t do anything intentionally, you just observe what’s happening and you see all these thoughts and emotions and sensations coming up in your mind, changing and all these stories, a lot of anger comes up and you remember something and you see really, how much garbage you have inside. It’s you.
YUVAL: I mean inside of you are all these things and you sit there…
NAS: Thanks Yuval.
YUVAL: … day after day, hour after hour, just observing. You don’t react to them. You just listen to the stories. You just see the images and the movies in your mind and this makes you, I think, not only far more humble about your own opinions and views and habits, but in a way also more compassionate to other people because we realize this is happening inside the mind of every single person on Earth. The people I don’t like—I don’t know, Donald Trump—that’s what’s happening in his mind. All these movies and stories, like with every minute of the day, and you understand better where people come from when you do it.
NAS: I wish I had that. I mean, you know it’s easier said than done, right? It takes you a lot of work. You’ve done this for many years, three months at a time. My last point and we gotta go, this has been a very interesting long conversation. You know, there’s something about technology today that is making me unable to sit down for more than 30 seconds without taking a piece of information, like we’ve become cyborgs right, where you want to take a lot of information.
And so, as I’m just looking at you now, I want to intake… OK, what is the time? How long has it been? What are my slides? Is my (can of) Coke cold or warm? I need to look at my phone. There’s 10 pieces of information I want to willfully intake as I engage in this conversation with you so. And you out of all people—and this is quite shocking to me—you don’t have a smartphone, which is the biggest piece of information intake in human history. Why did you avoid smartphones and how can you not want to be interested in all these silly information intakes?
YUVAL: Because I value my peace of mind, I notice that in many cases when people have a smartphone, they don’t control the smartphone, the smartphone controls them. And it controls (your) timetable and floods them with irrelevant information. And you’re trying to have a conversation with somebody and you can’t because they are all that I’m checking their smartphones for irrelevant things. And I find that not having a smartphone really protects my peace of mind and my ability to decide for myself what would be my agenda, what I want to focus on. The people who designed the smartphones and applications on them.
YUVAL: They are really the smartest people in the world. They understand psychology, they understand how the brain works. They designed the smartphone and all these applications like TikTok and whatever to take over your brain. Now, this is not a conspiracy theory. This is their job. This is the job description. Like, you go to a big meeting in TikTok or YouTube or Facebook and the CEO tells the employees: Look, according to our statistics, the average person is spending 40 minutes on our platform every day. Your job this year is to make it an hour.
YUVAL: And how do you keep people on the smartphone? You basically hack their brains. Hack the brain to know how to grab the attention of people, and you find out the easiest way to grab people’s attention is to press their emotional buttons: The fear button, the hatred button, the greed button. And then you start producing more and more content that simply presses these buttons.
Just think again in terms of food. In many cases when you spend an hour on these things, you are basically dedicating an hour every day to feeding your anger and your fear and your hatred and your greed. It’s like a meal for all these. Emotions in you and this destroys the peace of mind.
NAS: Does this podcast do that too?
YUVAL: I don’t think the technology itself is evil, or that every kind of podcast or whatever is evil. It can be, like I said before, with North Korea and South Korea, every technology can be used for good purposes or for bad purposes. The technology itself… you know it’s like a knife. You can use a knife to kill somebody to cut salad, or to save their lives if you’re a surgeon. The knife isn’t bad, so again, smartphones are not bad in themselves, but the kind of information ecosystem that has been created with this technology, in many cases, is really exploitative and destructive to us.
YUVAL: So I don’t think we should get rid of it. We should just change the way it’s being used. If you produce podcasts that don’t just grab people’s attention by pressing the hate button or the fear button, just frightening them with more and more conspiracy theories—if instead you try to bring them a more balanced view of the world, if you try to make them think instead of reacting blindly and to encourage compassion and to encourage tolerance, then that’s wonderful.
NAS: And on that bombshell Yuval, I think we’re running out of time. This has been fascinating. I don’t think we’ve ever talked so long uninterrupted. Usually my girlfriend interrupts or your husband interrupts. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this with me. I told you this before, but I’ll try it again. I think the one thing that you’ve been able to do so incredibly well, among many things, is to take complicated, boring topics and simplify them for the average person to care. And that is what I appreciate about you, and I know a lot of people may say: Oh that’s too simplistic. I don’t think so. I think it’s exactly getting to the heart of the point without all the academic fluff, you know long words that not many people are accustomed to or care about. So I really appreciate what you do. I’m very proud to come from the same fake country or social concept that we both agree with.
NAS: By the way, I’m not against Israel. Just to be clear, I’m a supporter of both states, both Palestine and Israel, and I will dedicate my life to advocating that idea. But I hope one day that your family, and my family, can be neighbors. Maybe 200 years from now.
YUVAL: I hope so too, so thank you again for inviting me.
NAS: Dear listeners, I feel like, I feel like I just came out of the gym. And I’m like sweating profusely. I’m like standing, not sitting, and I’m like God that felt like I was working out and there’s a reason for that. I felt the conversation was stimulating to the mind rather than to the body, and I hope you enjoyed it as well.
I think my biggest takeaway from this, you know, honestly, I don’t call Yuval the world’s smartest man for nothing. The reason I called that is like this, because he’s been able to just get to the heart of something and make you listen into topics that are generally extremely boring. You know, like the building of a nation or the fakeness of money. Not many people think about this stuff, but they use it.
And he’s been able to make us use money, use nationalism, but also think about it. And that’s my biggest takeaway. Now, we have to think about everything and now I feel like I’m more motivated than ever to go tell a better story—a more nuanced story that reduces suffering and makes the world better. And I think we have a long way to go.
CREDITS: Nas Talks is a Spotify Original podcast produced by Nas Studios. Our Producer is Ashraf Azhar, and our Executive Producer is Nuseir Yassin! Yes sire, no sire. That’s me! And over at Spotify, we have Producer Esmee Joseph, and Executive Producer Carl Zuzarte. If you would like to watch the videos that inspired the stories in this podcast, you can find me on Facebook at NAS Daily. That’s almost one hour, see you next week.