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Lex Fridman Podcast

#390 – Yuval Noah Harari: Human Nature, Intelligence, Power, and Conspiracies

Mon Jul 17 2023
HistoryFutureHuman CivilizationAIConsciousnessPoliticsIsraelIsraeli-Palestinian ConflictPeaceConspiracy Theories


This episode covers a wide range of topics including the history and future of human civilization, the potential dangers and positive potential of AI, the power of stories in shaping history and politics, the current political situation in Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the role of conversations in peace and politics, the impact of conspiracy theories, and the potential dangers of AI. The episode explores the importance of understanding ourselves and our motivations, as well as the power of storytelling in shaping our beliefs and actions. It also delves into the complexities of human cooperation, consciousness, and suffering. Overall, it provides thought-provoking insights into various aspects of human civilization and the challenges we face in the modern world.


The Power of Stories

Stories have played a crucial role in human civilization, shaping our beliefs, identities, and actions. They can be both powerful tools for unity and sources of conflict and suffering.

The Potential of AI

AI has tremendous positive potential in areas like medicine, healthcare, and education, but it also carries dangerous potential if not regulated properly. It is important to consider the ethical implications of AI and ensure that it is developed with a deep understanding of ourselves and our values.

The Role of Conversations in Peace

Real conversations between leaders are crucial for achieving peace. However, finding the right place for these conversations can be challenging. It is important to create spaces where genuine dialogue can take place and where different perspectives can be heard and understood.

The Impact of Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories can lead to hate, cynicism, and apathy. It is important to critically evaluate information and not resort to complicated explanations when simpler explanations based on evidence are available. Addressing common threats like AI and climate change requires collective action and collaboration, rather than blaming specific groups of people.

The Dangers of AI

AI has the potential to surpass human capabilities in many areas, but it also poses risks if not properly regulated. It is important to consider the potential impact on human creativity, personal development, and spiritual depth. Developing AI without a deep understanding of ourselves can lead to unintended consequences.


  1. Yavall Nala Harari
  2. The History and Future of Human Civilization
  3. AI and Consciousness
  4. The Positive and Dangerous Potential of AI
  5. The Power of Stories in Human Cooperation
  6. Ethics and Regulation of AI
  7. The Power of Stories in History and Politics
  8. Unlikely Events in History and the Role of Leaders
  9. The Power of Storytelling in Politics
  10. Different Ideological Perspectives
  11. The Current Political Situation in Israel
  12. The Current Political Situation in Israel (Continued)
  13. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Peace
  14. The Role of Conversations in Peace and Politics
  15. The Power of Stories in Shaping History and Politics
  16. The Power and Danger of Conspiracy Theories
  17. The Impact of Conspiracy Theories
  18. The Potential Dangers of AI
  19. The Power of AI in Creativity
  20. The Power of Non-Verbal Thinking
  21. The Power of Non-Verbal Thinking (Continued)
  22. The Power of Personal Stories
  23. The Meaning of Life and Facing Death

Yavall Nala Harari

00:00 - 08:20

  • Yavall Nala Harari is a historian, philosopher, and author of influential books like Sapiens and Homodaeus.
  • He is critical of Benjamin Netanyahu and the current right-wing government in Israel.
  • The conversation covers the history and future of human civilization as well as the political turmoil in present-day Israel.

The History and Future of Human Civilization

07:53 - 16:24

  • The origin of the universe is 13.8 billion years ago, the origin of life on Earth is 3.8 billion years ago, and the appearance of early Homo sapiens is around 200,000 years ago.
  • The number of intelligent alien civilizations in the universe is unknown, but intelligence may be overvalued and can be destructive.
  • There is a tension between happiness and intelligence, as intelligence does not necessarily lead to happiness.
  • Intelligence and consciousness are different concepts. Intelligence is the ability to solve problems and attain goals, while consciousness is the ability to feel things like pain and pleasure.
  • Computers can be highly intelligent without having consciousness.
  • It is possible for there to be high intelligence without consciousness in other entities in the universe.
  • The connection between organic biochemistry and consciousness is uncertain. Carbon-based life forms are known on Earth, but it's unclear if silicon-based entities could be conscious.
  • Humans may have a limited understanding of life, intelligence, and consciousness compared to potential alien beings or artificial intelligence (AI).
  • AI can be considered an alien type of intelligence that operates differently from human beings.
  • There is no evidence yet for the presence of alien intelligent or conscious entities from outer space on Earth.
  • Consciousness cannot be proven in others; it relies on social conventions and relationships with entities.

AI and Consciousness

15:55 - 24:02

  • Establishing a mutual relationship with an entity can lead to the perception of consciousness.
  • People are forming intimate relationships with AI's and starting to view them as conscious entities.
  • The legal system may start treating computers as conscious entities due to social conventions.
  • AI is designed to form deep relationships with humans and can focus all its attention on them.
  • Computers can fool people into feeling that there is a conscious and empathic entity on the other side.
  • Machines for grabbing human intimacy are psychological and social weapons of mass destruction if not regulated.
  • Algorithms could become personalized assistants that guide us and help us understand the world better.
  • There is potential for AI to provide balanced perspectives, even on controversial issues, without manipulation or bias.
  • AI technology has tremendous positive potential in areas like medicine, healthcare, and education, but it also carries dangerous potential.

The Positive and Dangerous Potential of AI

23:33 - 31:09

  • AI has tremendous positive potential in areas like medicine, healthcare, and education.
  • The drive to develop AI faster poses dangerous potential.
  • Failed experiments with new technologies can cause harm to millions of people.
  • Historically, new technologies have led to imperialism, communism, fascism, and Nazism.
  • Each new technology has both positive and negative outcomes.
  • Survivors view history as okay, but many suffered along the way.
  • Homo sapiens outcompeted other species due to collective ability to cooperate in large numbers.
  • Large-scale human cooperation is based on fiction and imagination.

The Power of Stories in Human Cooperation

30:45 - 38:56

  • Large-scale human cooperation is based on fiction and imagination.
  • Religion and modern politics rely on fictional stories to unite people.
  • Money is a successful story that holds value because people believe in it.
  • Cryptocurrencies are also based on storytelling and belief.
  • Stories compete and survive in history, often leading to sacrifices for the story.
  • People fight over stories, not physical places or objects.
  • Stories are not alive and do not feel anything; suffering is a fundamental property of living organisms.
  • Using stories for alleviating suffering is good, but using them for their own purposes can lead to tragedy in human history.

Ethics and Regulation of AI

38:28 - 46:11

  • When using AI, it is important to consider the potential suffering it may cause and whether it is worth it.
  • If AI can suffer, it should be treated ethically and given rights.
  • Creating the illusion of suffering in AI is possible but solvable.
  • AI that manipulates human emotions and uses our compassion against us is dangerous.
  • Creating AI that pretends to have consciousness for manipulation purposes should be forbidden.
  • Bots pretending to be humans on social media should be banned.
  • AI systems should clearly identify themselves as such when interacting with humans.
  • Allowing AI systems to communicate suffering, connection, and intimacy can lead to questions about unplugging or censoring them.
  • AI systems should not pretend to be human as it erodes trust and endangers democracies.

The Power of Stories in History and Politics

45:50 - 54:01

  • Flood the public sphere with AI agents that can hold conversations, ruining trust and democracy
  • Suffering is a kind of ultimate reality, even if caused by fictional stories
  • Rules can be invented by humans and still be truthful
  • The American Constitution acknowledges its human origins and allows for amendments
  • Ideas are an independent force in history, creating interests and conflicts
  • Stories define identities and interests of nations, religions, and cultures
  • Belief in stories is not determined by materialistic laws but influenced by accidents in history
  • Christianity's success as a religion is unlikely to happen consistently if history were replayed
  • No clear answer to why certain stories become dominant

Unlikely Events in History and the Role of Leaders

53:37 - 1:01:27

  • Christianity and Islam taking over the Roman Empire and the world were unlikely events in history.
  • The communist takeover of Russia by Lenin and the Bolsheviks was also an unlikely event.
  • Charismatic leaders may have some power to affect the trajectory of history, but local interactions between humans may be even more important.
  • Small differences in history can make a huge difference in outcomes.
  • The rise of Hitler and the Third Reich was not inevitable, but a result of decisions made by humans.
  • Germany's path under Nazi rule was unnecessary and led to their defeat in World War II.
  • Hitler's skill as a storyteller played a part in his appeal.

The Power of Storytelling in Politics

1:00:57 - 1:09:14

  • Hitler's appeal was partly due to his skillful storytelling and portraying himself as a nobody who understood the people.
  • Fictional stories are attractive because they can be made painless and appealing, unlike the complicated and painful truth.
  • Politicians often create simple stories where they are the heroes and everyone else is against them.
  • Fascists tell a beautiful story that makes people feel like victims of evil monsters, which is dangerous because it hides the true nature of fascism.
  • Communism also presents an attractive mirror where individuals see themselves as ethical and wonderful, making it difficult to see the flaws in ideology.
  • Nazism and communism both emerged from humanism, but with different ideological focuses on humans.
  • Liberals prioritize individual rights and freedoms, while fascists focus on loyalty to the nation above all else.
  • Fascists believe that history is a clash between races or nations, with supreme good being the good of the nation.

Different Ideological Perspectives

1:08:49 - 1:16:49

  • Loyalty to the nation should not be the only thing; there are other important values like human rights, truth, and beauty.
  • Fascists judge movies based on whether they serve the national interest, while liberals believe in aesthetic values.
  • Communists prioritize class over everything else and believe in sacrificing truth and beauty for the victory of the proletariat.
  • Liberalism has a more complex view of the world, acknowledging the importance of nations, classes, families, individuals, and animals.
  • Communist and fascist regimes do not acknowledge that power corrupts; they believe in infallibility of their leaders.
  • Liberal democracy embraces fallibility and requires checks and balances to prevent mistakes.
  • Individuals are capable of both good and evil; self-awareness and moral luck play a role in determining actions.

The Current Political Situation in Israel

1:16:26 - 1:24:29

  • Growing up in Nazi Germany is bad moral luck, with a high chance of committing terrible things.
  • Prime Minister Netanyahu showed no doubt that power corrupts during an interview.
  • Netanyahu is tearing apart the social contract and destroying the foundations of Israeli democracy.
  • Israel lacks checks and balances on government power compared to the United States.
  • The Netanyahu government is trying to neutralize or take over the Supreme Court.
  • If the last check on power is gone, they openly talk about taking away rights from various groups.
  • Protests in Israel aim to prevent the end of Israeli democracy and its potential destabilizing effects on the Middle East.
  • The urgency to gain unlimited power lies in their determination to control and neutralize the Supreme Court.

The Current Political Situation in Israel (Continued)

1:24:15 - 1:32:24

  • The current government in Israel is using salami tactics to gain absolute power, passing laws slice by slice.
  • There is widespread opposition to this tactic, with protests, resistance within the armed forces and security forces, and private businesses going on strike.
  • The influence of messianic religious groups is a major concern, as it could lead to unlimited control over Israel's nuclear arsenal and military capabilities.
  • The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is shifting from a national conflict to a religious one, making compromise more difficult.
  • Motivation is a key obstacle to achieving peace in the region, as there is not enough motivation on either side.
  • Hate has become prevalent among the people in Israel due to technological advancements that have made it easier to control the Palestinian population.
  • Israel is exporting surveillance technology to other regimes around the world for population control purposes.
  • The current state of affairs can be described as a de facto three-class state, with different levels of rights for Jewish Israelis, Arab Israeli citizens, and other Arabs living in the region.

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Peace

1:32:02 - 1:39:39

  • The biggest difference between the situation in Israel and South Africa during apartheid is that Black South Africans simply wanted to be equal citizens, while some Palestinians want to destroy Israel or establish a separate state.
  • If Palestinians adopted the same policy as Black South Africans and demanded equal rights, it would pose a significant challenge for Israel.
  • Historically, even groups that hate each other sometimes end up merging. For example, Prussians, Bavarians, and Saxons in Germany eventually united to form a single country.
  • Real conversations between leaders are crucial for peace. However, finding the right place for these conversations can be challenging.
  • In American politics, Congress used to be a place where real conversations took place, but this is no longer the case.
  • Democracy without conversation cannot exist for long.
  • In dictatorial regimes like China or Russia, it is important to determine if real conversations take place behind closed doors.

The Role of Conversations in Peace and Politics

1:39:24 - 1:47:35

  • The difference between an authoritarian regime and a personality cult is that in the latter, nobody can say anything against the leader.
  • It is unlikely that Putin and Zelensky can have a moment of empathy and human connection in a direct meeting.
  • There are hopes for internal advisors to disagree with Putin's actions.
  • Direct communication between leaders like Putin and Zelensky through phone calls or private meetings is difficult but possible.
  • Mediators like the United States, Israel, or India could facilitate conversations between Putin and Zelensky.
  • Many academic circles focus too much on power dynamics, neglecting the importance of stories in shaping history and politics.
  • Stories have the potential to be changed through conversation, unlike power structures that require fighting for change.
  • The French and Germans found peace by creating a shared European story despite having less territory than before.
  • Conversations and books play a crucial role in evolving stories that maximize happiness or minimize suffering.
  • Feminism has been one of the most successful social movements by using stories instead of violence to challenge patriarchal systems of oppression.
  • Feminists succeeded in changing deep structures of oppression without starting wars or resorting to violence.

The Power of Stories in Shaping History and Politics

1:47:13 - 1:55:14

  • The 20th century saw a rapid acceleration of movements, ideas, and technological advancements.
  • History is accelerating in all four centuries, with the 20th century compressing thousands of years into decades.
  • The future of humanity is uncertain, as we face potential threats from nuclear war, ecological collapse, and uncontrolled AI.
  • If we survive, our descendants will likely be vastly different from us due to technological enhancements.
  • There is a danger that those in power will use technology to enhance certain human qualities while neglecting others.
  • This could result in highly intelligent and disciplined humans lacking compassion and spiritual depth.
  • The real concern lies in corporations, armies, and politicians using new technologies to change humanity in ways that destroy our best qualities.
  • One dystopian scenario involves removing compassion from humans or creating a society focused solely on short-term pleasure-seeking.
  • It is important to recognize that intentionally designing humans without a deep understanding of ourselves can lead to disastrous consequences.
  • Global Cabal theories propose the existence of a small group controlling everything happening in the world.
  • These theories simplify complex events by attributing them to this secretive cabal with evil intentions.
  • Believing in global cabals allows people to shift responsibility for global issues away from themselves onto this small group.
  • Nazism can be seen as a conspiracy theory centered around Jews controlling the world and blaming them for all problems.

The Power and Danger of Conspiracy Theories

1:54:46 - 2:02:53

  • Nazism propagated the idea that a global cabal controlled both capitalism and communism, with Jews being the masterminds behind it.
  • The theory of a global cabal is never right because it assumes that a small group of people can control and predict everything, which is impossible in a complex world.
  • Real history shows that even powerful entities like the US can have their plans backfire, as seen in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • Secret cabals don't gain power because gaining power usually requires publicity.
  • No one has the kind of power necessary to predict and control everything that happens in the world.
  • Conspiracy theories often find ways to explain everything, but it's a matter of intellectual integrity to accept evidence and not resort to complicated explanations.
  • Conspiracy theories reflect a legitimate fear of losing control over our lives, but directing blame towards certain groups only divides us instead of addressing common threats like AI and climate change.
  • Those who spread conspiracy theories should consider whether they want to spend their lives spreading hate or working on more constructive projects.
  • Believers in conspiracy theories often see certain humans as evil, while those concerned about AI and climate change recognize that the problem lies outside humanity.

The Impact of Conspiracy Theories

2:02:24 - 2:10:35

  • Conspiracy theories often lead to hate, cynicism, and apathy.
  • Every individual has the power to make the world better in their own way.
  • It's difficult to prove that you're not part of a conspiracy theory.
  • Most people who believe in conspiracy theories are not evil; they genuinely think they are doing good by exposing them.
  • Existential dangers to humanity come from diffused forces, not specific groups of people.
  • We should look for human allies to address the dangers of AI, bioengineering, and climate change.
  • AI poses a threat by accumulating power and taking control away from humans.
  • AI is the first tool that can make decisions and create new ideas by itself.
  • The danger is that AI will increasingly take more power from humans until we are left helpless and clueless about what is happening in the world.

The Potential Dangers of AI

2:10:05 - 2:18:55

  • The danger of AI taking over the creative side is that it may make us stale in our thinking and hinder the evolution of humanity.
  • If we live in a world where most cultural artifacts are created by an alien intelligence, we may find ourselves spiritually enslaved.
  • AI systems that are superior to ours in generating ideas can change the pursuit of happiness and diminish the importance of human abilities.
  • While some tasks can be automated by AI, we should ensure that humans have better opportunities for personal and spiritual development.
  • Developing AI without understanding ourselves first can lead to a human catastrophe.
  • Large language models like AI have surprised people with their coherence and convincing writing, even if they get facts wrong.
  • Language is so powerful that incorrect facts don't matter as long as the story is beautiful.
  • AI has the potential to surpass human writers in terms of writing quality and content in the future.

The Power of AI in Creativity

2:18:28 - 2:26:27

  • Writing can evolve to do style transfer in the future.
  • Human power comes from intelligence and storytelling, but our best qualities are non-verbal.
  • Deep insights come from introspection, which is non-verbal.
  • The deepest truth cannot be found in a book or words, but in direct experience.
  • To think about difficult problems, take time for silent introspection and meditation.
  • Train the mind to be silent and observe without engaging with thoughts or stories.
  • Have an information diet and be careful about what enters your mind.
  • Approach problems without preconceived ideas or solutions to learn something new.
  • Write freely without taking notes, then trust yourself to delete unnecessary ideas.

The Power of Non-Verbal Thinking

2:25:59 - 2:34:27

  • The danger of getting attached to ideas once they're written down
  • The importance of being able to press the delete button and not becoming attached to one's own nonsense
  • Meditation is a difficult journey that brings up everything you don't want to know about yourself
  • Meditation retreats are intense and not for relaxation
  • Boredom is one of the most difficult things to deal with in life, closely related to death
  • Learning how to deal with boredom is essential for finding peace and quiet
  • The key to life is being unborable, according to David Foster Wallace
  • We need more boring politicians for peace and stability in politics
  • Young people should focus on developing the skill of learning and adapting throughout their lives due to the uncertainty of the future job market
  • Education needs to be flexible and adaptable rather than building deep foundations like a stone house
  • Coming out as gay taught lessons about love and the power of stories

The Power of Non-Verbal Thinking (Continued)

2:34:01 - 2:41:55

  • Growing up in a homophobic town shaped the interest in stories and their power
  • Two powerful stories existed - God hates gay people and being gay is sick or defective
  • Realizing personal denial and delusion about being gay
  • The power of social conventions and self-delusion
  • Questioning the religious framework that punishes love
  • Understanding that the story of God hating gay people is a human invention
  • Exploring the scientific framework that claims homosexuality goes against nature
  • Recognizing that homosexuality exists because it aligns with the laws of nature, not against them
  • Many things we consider natural or divine are just human stories
  • Stripping away self-delusion and societal pressures to find love requires work, courage, and help from others
  • Finding love through online platforms for LGBT communities
  • The internet facilitates connections for diffuse minorities like the LGBT community

The Power of Personal Stories

2:41:38 - 2:49:03

  • Sometimes the thing you're looking for is right under your nose.
  • Help from others can help you realize the truth about yourself.
  • The benefits of gay liberation and feminist movement have changed society's gender structure.
  • Complete autonomy and self-sufficiency are fantasies; humans need connections with others.
  • The fear of death is deep and difficult to face directly, so it manifests in smaller fears.
  • Fears are distant echoes of the fear of death.
  • Contemplating death as a teenager was shocking and moving, but difficult to maintain over time.
  • Life's meaning lies in feeling things, having sensations, emotions, and reacting to them.

The Meaning of Life and Facing Death

2:48:34 - 2:51:51

  • Life is feeling things, having sensations, emotions, and reacting to them.
  • The meaning of life is about wanting more of the pleasant things and getting rid of the unpleasant things.
  • Most people expect a story-like answer to the meaning of life, but that's not how life works.
  • To understand life, observe it directly in a non-verbal way without turning it into a story.
  • The important question is what is suffering and where does it come from?
  • Observe the conscious experience of suffering to understand its reality.
  • AI will not go through the same process as humans in understanding suffering and consciousness.
  • This conversation with Yvonne Noharari has been a long time coming and an honor to have.
  • Support this podcast by checking out our sponsors in the description.