We are here today to discuss nature, friend or foe. So most think of nature as good, while humans and human interventions are often seen as public, problematic and even, on occasion, evil. From eradicating e numbers from our diet to refusing vaccines, many are motivated by the idea that nature knows best. And yet malaria is natural. The malaria vaccine is not. Crop failure. Hurricanes, tsunamis, all are deadly and all are natural. Human actions are essential to extend and save lives from natural calamity. So is our attachment to nature undermining belief in ourselves? Should we have more faith in human and less trust in nature? Or are we right to be skeptical of human intervention, and should we see the renewed reverence for nature as a positive return to an ancient and essential belief? Then again, should we accept that we are part of the natural world and give up on the false distinction between real and artificial, natural and unnatural. So, with that to our illustrious speakers, to my right, and through the power of the internet,
a human intervention. You all know a harare is a world-renowned public intellectual and historian. He is the author of international bestsellers such as sapiens, a brief history of humankind and homo deus, a brief history of the future. His books have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. To my left, i have the pleasure of introducing slavoy zizek, who is a hegelian psychoanalyst and arguably the leading celebrity philosopher of our times, idiosyncratic and fiercely polemical. Apparently, slavoy is currently serving as international director of the birkbeck institute for humanities- not that you could tell from the way he's dressed. Uh, foreign policy named giusek, a top 100 global thinker for giving voice to an era of absurdity. But what i'm going to
do, in fact, is, um, ask both of these speakers an opening question, which is: should we have more faith in the human and less trust in nature? Yuval, i trust you've heard every word that i've said, because i can barely see you on this screen. Fabulous, joining us from the ether. Please could you take it away. You have three minutes to tell us whether or not we should have more faith in the human and less trust in nature. Well, um, two things to say about nature. One is that nature doesn't care about us in particular. I mean, if an asteroid would hit planet earth tomorrow morning and all life on earth will be destroyed, nature wouldn't care about it. It would just go on as usual. Planets and stars explode all the time and physics just goes on The second point is that you know, it's really.
I never really know what to say about this seeming binary division between humans and nature, because you can never violate the laws of nature. Nothing that humans or anybody else can do can break the laws of nature. Anything which is possible is, by definition, also natural. Whether it's genetic engineering, whether it's the internet, whether it's vaccinations, it's all natural. Because you know the laws of nature are not like the laws of a state, that the state makes a low, let's say, you can't drive more than 90 kilometers per hour, that's the low of the state, and you nevertheless drive 120 kilometers per hour and a policeman stops you and gives you a ticket, a fine. It doesn't work like that with nature. Nature it doesn't give us some kind of flow and then we break it. I don't know, we do genetic engineering and then it punishes us for us, for this. It just doesn't work like that. So um i'm again. I think we should be suspicious both of humans and of nature, and the big question to ask about anything is not whether it is natural. Everything is natural. The big question to ask is whether it causes suffering, it causes harm. Wars are natural, but they are still bad and climate change is bad, not because it's somehow against nature, but because it potentially would cause immense suffering to humans and to other sentient beings. So that's the big question,
fascinating, okay, well, slavoy, uh, what do you think? Do you think we should have more faith in humans? Do you think we should trust nature less? Do you want to tell you while he's wrong? No, i have a big problem here because, uh, where are the knives? I basically agree with what you've last said, because i i know he's often accused of being like
too popular, but i think he is saying things nonetheless in a clear, serious way. And
what more fascinates me to what extent, even if we rationally accept this and know we don't really believe into it. I think this is even- i wonder if you would agree- what in psychoanalysis we call fatigue split in french, just being mekong meme. I know this how things are, but somehow in me i am not convinced. I think that's the problem with ecology. Yeah, i know what science says, but you know you go outside here. Sun is shining lately, so quickly, quickly. Well, yes, i agree with him. First, all is nature, of course, but here comes one. I hope you all will agree, a tricky point. We nonetheless, deep in our- i call it as an old marxist- everyday ideology. We nonetheless usually associate with nature a certain more or less regular pattern, rhythm, so that- and this is what i radically reject- this idea that there is some natural pattern and we humans with our hubris, excessive exploitation or what we are disturbing this pattern. More on this later. I would just like to remind you, along the lines of what you've all hinted, i think: listen, just think about what are today our main sources of energy- still coal and oil. Can you even imagine what mega catastrophe must have happened on our earth for us to have this? We are a consequence of natural- i mean a consequence. We live of natural- uh, disasters. That's the last thing. I wonder how you all will respond. I read recently in even in the big media, that now, according to the latest news, even this vision of global warming is too optimist because it somehow implies that there will be a new regular pattern, just a little bit
worse, temperatures higher, a couple of cities, big cities under the sea, but it will be a new pattern. The predictions now says what if? And it happens often in nature what if there will be no new pattern? But, as it happens in nature again, for a long time we will live in a much more radically chaotic universe. So nature is everything. Just to finish, i
know you can count on my other minutes, but let's not forget that in some sense, don't be afraid, i'm a naturalist. I'm not. I'm not an idealist- that nature is everything. All the catastrophes also come from nature. So sorry for a small vulgarity, if we have a
mother nature, this mother is a dirty big, let's face it. There we go just the opposite. But everything is also culture, not in the idealist sense, but in the sense. Just look at the history of the notion of nature, how it changes. Nature was in medieval times something totally different than modern nature, from sciences today, something different. Now i'm not saying nature is just a cultural construct. I'm just saying that what we perceive as natural is always part of a cultural process. On
one hand you've called it a and on the other hand you sort of said: well, you know, but is it? Well, my first? Very, but i've spoken too long. Oh, okay, you've all. Do you want to step in? No, no, no, okay, i will just finish. And again, my god, when i said i i've spoken too long, don't you have manners? This is called a rhetorical offer. You are supposed to tell me no, no, no, just go on. Sorry, all the time here. What i won't say is, as uval says, my god, the really difficult thing is to accept this Even the word indifference is too much
in some stupid sense. Nature just is, and let's go to the end. Let's say that, not because of some comet, but because of how we will screw things up, we ruin most of the nature. This will maybe even be a minor event, even for the earth itself. In different forms, life will goes on, and so on and so on. You know,
the problem is to accept this utter meaninglessness of catastrophe. I will tell you, you will, can confirm it if he heard about it from human history. I met a member of them, their minor, in israel, but not minor minor. There are tens of thousands of them, partisans of a certain reading of holocaust, claiming that it's a punishment for the jews because european jews got too secular to integrate its divine punishment. In the sense i understand them, not agree with them. You know, it's even better to conceive your terrifying fate
as punishment, because at least things have meaning. The difficult thing is to admit no meaning. Now i shut up and no, i think i already commented on that. I think that we are not going to have a lot of, uh, of fights here, as as you can see, but they're, i compl, i completely agree. Um, you know, war is natural, murder is natural, rape is natural, it's all bad. So, uh, the, the, and you can't get morality and ethics out of the laws of nature, and most nature does is often a star in ethical debates and political debates. But, um, this is just mythological stories that people say. When people say we should act, we should do x because x is natural, it's almost always a cultural or a political or mythological argument. It's not really an argument about nature.
You know, personally, as a gay man, i heard many times this claim that homosexuality is unnatural. And and again, as as i said in the beginning, anything which is possible is also natural, it's in line with the laws of nature. If homosexuality was not in line with the laws of nature, it just couldn't exist and then. But it doesn't mean automatically that everything that is natural is also good. So what we need is just to stop using this argument whether something is good or bad because it's natural or because it's unnatural, and move on to other arguments, and i- i personally would- would think that the main issue is whether something causes harm, whether something causes suffering to sentient beings, to humans and also to other beings. Um, and that should be the focus of all ethical debates. Ethical debates are not about obeying certain laws, not the laws of nature, not the laws of god, not the laws of the state. Ethics, ultimately, is about suffering.
Okay, well, but, sarah, you also indicated this- you understood, at least on some level, that that where that sort of human compulsion to think of you know nature as being good, as being the law or as being some sort of you know humans being, um, you know, contravening against it. So, okay, fair enough, let's say we, we all agree, you know, nature isn't all, by definition, good. But where does that compulsion come from? Do you think you know what is it that makes us all sort of rationally know that? You know? Yes, sure, this is how it is. And yet when you see something that you think is unnatural, you know, the hairs rise on the
back of your arms and your neck and you think, oh, i don't know about that. Now you
are provoking me to go into a direction of which i am afraid to go. You know why? Because my professional, my professional deviation- i would ask here a reflexive question in the sense of: but is good itself, good in the sense of, isn't often the origin of quite horrible things? Then they are done on behalf of what some people sincerely take to be good. Let's take a provocative example because i'm almost a specialist in it. Okay, specialist means i read three popular books. Can you imagine a world view- it's problematic to call it- religion- more devoted to end suffering than buddhism? It's all about. Buddha was agnostic, atheist. He said: it doesn't interest me god, how to diminish suffering, and so on. But do you know that immediately after buddha's death,
when in some indian states buddhism became a state religion, they had to make the first compromise, you know? And they had- it's horrible- three strategies. One was the classical european one: we should do no killing except be careful, except when by modest killing we prevent more killing. Now i go to the extreme here and not unite them, but that's what. That's what the nazis were saying. Basically, you know which was the, which was the sacred book of of heinrich himmler? It was bhagavad gita. Because it teaches you this: acting with a distance, don't get identified with your act. And hitler openly says: that's how a nazi officer should maintain his humanity, even when he is killing jewish children, and so on. The second element that buddhism took is this idea of there is no harsh ontological reality. The world is just a chaotic confusion of phenomena. There is no substantial reality, and they used this to justify war. And i am not a subject, i am a not man, nobody who just observes what goes on. The one, if you're old enough, whom you maybe even remember, dies at state tarot suzuki, in the 60s, the great popularity of buddhism. He was popular with hippies in the 60s. In late 30s and 40s it's a slightly different story. He fully supported chinese militarism and he used- sorry to be personal- this example: we are at war. Okay, if i'm in old, substantial metaphysics, i stab you with a knife, but i will find it difficult because nonetheless, i don't know what's with me wrong, but i consider you a human being who can suffer and so on. But he said, if i enter the buddhist nirvana, then i no longer see me as an autonomy, atomic person with a wheel. Hurting you is that i observe a dance of phenomena where i don't know how your body somehow falls on my knife, right, no, i, you know my point here, how even the, the religion which was most dedicated to ending suffering, found way to justify it fully. So i claim if you really want to fight suffering, uh, then be aware of those who preach, who preach too much. Good. Who was that physicist who wrote a very real one,
who said steven weinberg? He said something wonderful. Now i've written books about judaism, christianity. I see emancipatory dimension in them, but i am basically an atheist. He said: without religion- he simplifies it- good people would be good and bad people would be bad. You need something like religion to make good people do bad things. If history confirms anything. That's fascinating.
What i understood of that was kind of you know. My question was: so then, why? Where does this compulsion come from? To sort of attribute goodness to nature or whatever? And i wonder if it's you know, as you, as you sort of highlighted. I wonder if it's just the fact that we can't have a conversation with nature. We don't know if it's good or bad, but the assumption is, this thing happens to us, thus it must be good. Our second theme is about whether or not we should treat the earth as a resource for commodities and elements that benefit humans, and should we use the natural resources of the earth, from rainforests to lithium mines, without regards to the impacts, of course? A very hot topic, if you excuse the pun, yuval. Um, what are your thoughts on that? Is the earth just a mind for us to mine So i mean, um, trying to answer your
question and also to comment on what we just heard, um, yeah, we can use it, but but carefully. I mean the main point i think about nature and being part of nature, that it is also extremely complicated and we don't understand it. That's the most important thing to know, is that we don't understand it properly. We don't understand ourselves properly, and this also goes back to this question of you can take any idea and if you push it far enough, you will end with killing millions of people. You can take the idea of to prevent suffering and justify war. You can take christianity with the ideal of love and universal love and in the name of love, you have the inquisition and the crusades and burning people and killing heretics because of love. Now, because of the immense complexity, i think, of nature, morality is moderation. Many people have this wrong idea and you see it in almost all religions and all ideologies, that you start with with a good idea and then people think the more extreme i can push this idea, the more ethical i am. And it's exactly the opposite. Most of the time, morality- good, real morality- can be fined in the moderate areas, not in the extremes. And also another point: whenever- and i think this is- there are almost no laws in history, but i think this is almost a universal law in history- whenever somebody tells you we need to kill a million people in order to save five million people, that's always propaganda. That's always wrong. I know that philosophers have come up with these trolley problems, a kind of very extreme scenarios when you're kind of pushed to to to a situation where you have to choose. In history, philosophers had to think very, very hard to come up with these imaginary scenarios, because they almost never happen in reality, at least not on a big scale of history. You always have more options. When somebody is offering you this choice- kill a million people and to save five million- you always have to step back and reframe the question. They are pushing you into an ethical trap. In history, there are always options, like you look at nowadays ukraine. So you have somebody coming and framing the question as a binary option. Look, either nato does whatever i demand or i invade ukraine and inflict terrible suffering on millions of people. It's your choice. These are the only two options and the most important thing to realize is that don't accept this framing. This is not true. There are always more options. Even if nato refuses your demands, it doesn't mean that the only remaining option is to inflict terrible suffering on millions of people. And the same approach should be with regard to utilizing the resources of the earth, that we need a broad approach. We need to understand that the actions we take- yes, we can use this to help some people, but it may harm the same action, may harm other people, may harm a lot of animals, and let's see if we can find the middle way and if there are other options and not just the extremes.
What are your thoughts on that? Again, it's getting boring, because where, where is the knife? I agree, i agree, i hope you've all. That's what i expect from friends. No, all this nice introduction is that she is, he is, sharping a knife. No, seriously, the reason i agree is that
this. But okay, i would propose one exception: intense sexual love, in some sense, and that's why i like it. It's. You know in what sense it is evil. It's not this buddhist smile, i love you all, and so on. It's okay. Imagine you are a happy single man, woman, whatever, and you have a relatively satisfied love. You meet with friends, you have a good job, maybe here and there, a one night stand, life is okay. Then you fall passionately with love. It will ruin all your life
And it's precisely the position of i love you. You take a particular human being, no, and basically. But that's what this is. More serious, more serious answer, based on what you've just said. I would say that here i would warn also against- i wonder if you will, you would agree- another
extremism, extremism of so-called deep ecology. Let's avoid misunderstanding, not in this cheap sense. They go too far. We cannot abandon everything, and so on. But i found hidden in their line of argumentation and extreme anthropocentrism, where you know how they argue. They argue like this: not only humans have rights. We live on earth. We are just one among the species. Who? Who said this? Sorry, so-called deep ecology, deep ecologist, okay, sorry, no, the idea is this one that we have to learn modesty. We have to learn that we are just one among the living species, so we have to take care also of the well-being right- they get here ambiguous- of all other parts of nature, not only animals, not only plants, but even they speak about the rights of rivers, of beautiful mountains and so on and so on. But now
back to what yuval said, and i agree with him. But they animals, okay, animals at least, make sounds which signal their suffering. But rivers, rivers, mountains, whatever they they, they don't know. They have rights because because in some sense, they don't know anything. So what deep ecology means is that, beneath this false modesty, we are
just among the species, that we are really the universal beings, the one who should be responsible for everything. Here it's hidden another potential of how we humans should really control the earth. And then you get to all those plants which are often masked as progressively ecological, like to to put more carbon monoxide in the air to prevent, but- but i would agree with it, you are. Nature is so unpredictable here we never know what can the secondary, non-intended consequences be? So, yes, we should be radical ecologists, but always be aware of this, that the long-term consequences can run against. That's why, immediately, i give him the word. Just that's why i am a hegelian today. I think the formula today should be back back
from marx to hegel. Marx still had a plan If we do this, this, there will be at least a substantially better society. Hegel is not doing this. You know what hegel says in his most quoted, but people don't take it seriously: introduction to arrest philosophy, to philosophy of right. He said: thought, philosophy can only grasp the present order when it begins to disintegrate. And future. We cannot say anything. We have to be extremely careful about the future. What this practical means, it's not pacifism: let's do whatever we want, we don't know what will happen. No, it's just that you know what, what,
where is schedule at his best, in the spirit of what you all said, when she takes an extreme idea and demonstrates how unexpectedly in actuality it turns into its opposite. For hegel, the classical example, i think even he exaggerates there. But uh, french revolution, freedom. You get terror. The second half of 20th of 19th century- it was in europe, not elsewhere. Relative period of half a century of column, progress, women's rights. You get world war one, soviet union, october revolution, whatever you think, an attempt at emancipation. You get stalinism. The last example: fukuyama, happy 90s, end of history, and so on. Haha, we are now where we are. So my basic approach would be be aware that as a rule, when you are making big plans, things will always in some sense go wrong, and try to take this into account.
Really interesting, i found myself thinking when you were. You were saying this idea of you know, the, the deep ecologists, of having to take care of everything and somehow that being an extension of our dominion, it sounds an awful lot like the the 2000s rhetoric of america being the police, police of the of the world, this idea that you know we have to take responsibility, it's the police of nature. Well, exactly, exactly so. But then that got me thinking. Um, yuval, if you don't mind me asking you this, um, so then it got me thinking. Well, the question was about, you know, should we treat the earth as a resource? And perhaps, simplistically, i feel, as a biologist, compelled to say: well, of course, you know the earth is a resource to all other organisms, but do they? Do they exhibit moderation? Is moderation built into nature? And then, by extension of your initial argument, why, you know, should we shouldn't have to extend, um, moderation to nature, should we? Because whatever we want, therefore, is natural. No,
i mean, in, some systems are in equilibrium and or in homeostasis, and you do see moderation in a way built into them, and some systems are not. They're completely out of balance, completely out of control. So, again, here too, you can't just uh say uh, something which should be true of all natural phenomena. You have a huge variety. But i think what really makes it complicated at this point in history, and makes all these questions far more, uh, complicated, is that we are on the verge, perhaps, of creating the first inorganic life forms. After four billion years of evolution- you know, it's a very, very long time, four billion years- and we've seen so many different types of organisms, but actually we've seen just one type of life, all of life, from amoebas and dinosaurs to us and to tomatoes. It's just organic biochemistry, that's it. And we are now on the verge, perhaps, of creating the first inorganic life forms. And, um, on the one hand, it strengthens this, this feeling that we are doing something unnatural, even though this is not the case, we are perhaps just extending life to more natural realms- but also raises the question of responsibility, of what would be the consequences of what we are doing now. You know, if you think about previous religions and previous regimes in history, whether stalin or whether the nazis or whatever, no matter what they did, in the end you could always go back to the human body to basic human biology. It's like a computer game that you go in the wrong direction and you die, and you come back and you start again. And now, for the first time in history, political regimes, human ideologies, human mythologies have the potential to really shift the evolution of life and to even place it on a completely new path. And you can imagine a 21st century
totalitarian regime, a 21st century stalin that you know. Stalin worked mainly with social engineering. He maybe wanted to re-engineer human biology, but he couldn't. He dreamt about creating a new man, a new human, the new soviet, but he only had social engineering. So in the end, when the soviet union collapsed, you still have human beings like they were in 1917 and we start again in the 21st century. A new stalin might have the ability first to really re-engineer the body down to the level of dna and create new human species and perhaps even to create completely inorganic life forms. So we can imagine millions of years of a new evolutionary track, beginning with some 21st century stalin. And this is extremely frightening, especially because these kinds of people, they think in extremes.
You know, i talk a lot with scientists who are developing these technologies, whether it's crispr and genetic engineering, whether it's ai, and most of these people, um, they think not only in, in in beneficial terms, but also in very narrow terms, like i'm doing my research in order to help cure parkinson's disease. They, it's, it's a, it's a leap of the imagination to think what would the worst politician on earth do with the technologies that i'm developing? But as a historian, rather than as a biologist or as a computer scientist, this is the way my mind thinks. When somebody tells me how they are now using crispr, uh, uh, to try and overcome parkinson, i think what would stalin have done with it? Jump in slovak, please, because so wonderful. Now we are moving finally into the. Apart
from this platitude, yeah, yeah, nature, we are all nature. We are all this more interesting. These are the crucial questions. First, do you know? You will just tell you this: i learned from some collection of texts, ideological debates and practical experiments. You know that stalin tried already to do this in the late 20s. Stalin was convinced by some stupid biologists that with some vaccinations, i don't know how to create a perfect worker which can read, write elementarily but is too stupid to organize socially, to rebel by coupling humans and apes. And they tried to do it. He sent a delegation to congo. They import about 30 gorillas, i think, apes and typical male chauvinism: women, apes, of course. And they do that, yeah, and then, and then they selected four very strong, russian strong farmer men. They made them copulate. Okay, it didn't work. And i was gonna say- and that's how i came to be a biologist- yeah, is this really the end of freedom? What is freedom? Is freedom just what we call some philosophers the user's illusion? Or now? I expect the answer. Now i believe what, what you, what you? You set trust in humans and faith. You know, faith in humans? Yes, okay, i have faith in you to provide the answer. You've all take it away a lot of questions and i don't have, like these, ready-made answers. One thing i can say is that i my biggest fear is that, in this attempt to upgrade humans, we will actually downgrade ourselves. You know the basic problem. Yeah, in in the sense. For instance, if you give corporations and armies, for instance, the technology to start messing with our dna, to start messing with our brains, they would like to amplify certain human qualities that they need, uh, like discipline and like even intelligence. Everybody can talk about intelligence, but they don't need other human qualities like compassion or like autistic sensitivity, uh, or like spirituality. If you're stalin and you want workers in the factories or your own soldiers in in your army, so yes, disciplinary intelligence are important, but a compassionate soldier, that's problematic. Or a worker who has spiritual goals in life, this is problematic. So even even if there is no intention, malicious intention, to destroy these aspects of the human being, they will just be pushed to the side. You know, in the human being and the human mind they are so complicated. When you try to amplify something, it usually has so many other unintended consequences. It's much, much- and this was true throughout history- it's much easier to manipulate a system than to understand the full consequences of what you're doing. Even forget about bodies and brains. You look at it in the ecological system. You build a dam over a river. You understand what you're doing. You want to produce, say, electricity, but there are so many consequences that it's very difficult to foresee because of the complexity of the ecological system. What will be the impact on animals, on plants, on the atmosphere? Even if you want to understand, it's extremely difficult. And it's also true. When we try to change our internal ecosystem, we tweak something in our brain, in our mind, in our dna, because we have some goal: oh, this will amplify intelligence. But what will be the other unintended consequences? It's beyond us, especially because we don't understand the human mind. We have some initial beginning of understanding from psychology and psychoanalysis, from brain science for meditation, but as a first approximation we don't understand it and it's extremely dangerous to start manipulating something so precious before you really understand what you're doing. We all- me and yuval- we all love
stalin, as it was clear- evidently i have, i think- when he hit the test- that the problem is not just we will be enslaved by machines and so on, but this enslavement will even strengthen the division between humans. There will be those who will somehow- we don't know to what degree- control these programming machines, other who are victims. I think something will happen which reminds me of one of my favorite stalinists from stalin's era jokes in early 30s, in central committee they debate: will there be money in communism
or not? Okay, you have right-wingers, buharin partisans, who said: of course, in a complex society you need money. You know, have to be there. Then left-wingers, some trotskyists still there, say: no money is virtual alienation, no money. Then stalin intervenes at said: no, you are both bad, right wing, leftist, left-wing deviation. The truth is in the middle. There will be a direct dialectical synthesis of opposite. There will be money and there will not be money. Then comrade said: what an ingenious solution, comrade stalin. But can you explain us how this will work? And stalin's answer is: it's very simple. Some people will have money, other people no, no, no, and i fear that this will be the result. Some people will control us, we will be controlled. Now, on that beautiful night, if you can join me in thanking our speakers