Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari (New York: Harper, 2017 [first English edition], ISBN 978-0062464316). 464 pp. Hardcover, $35.00.
If you think a lot has happened in the past few centuries, then, to echo Bachman Turner Overdrive, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari echoes the increasingly popular refrain that humans are on the brink of becoming superhuman. Harari, an Israeli history professor and author of the best-seller Sapiens, uses his scholarly worldview to take an unflinching look at a range of possible futures, most of them dystopian.
His intriguing scenarios make Homo Deus a good read even if you disagree (as I do) with some of his key positions. The hardest pill to swallow, until you learn Harari-speak, may be his claim that humanism is a religion.
Harari starts off by claiming humanity has largely conquered “famine, plague, and war,” its primary “agenda” from time immemorial. How did Homo sapiens manage to finish that agenda? Until recently, “humans blamed diseases on bad air, malicious demons and angry gods.” Basic hygiene and evidence-based medicine replaced all that. Global commerce increasingly renders wars counterproductive: “You can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way.” And agricultural productivity continues to outstrip population growth. “The global trade network turns droughts and floods into business opportunities, and makes it possible to overcome food shortages quickly and cheaply. Even when wars, earthquakes or tsunamis devastate entire countries, international efforts usually succeed in preventing famine.”
Harari backs up his claims. For instance: “Black Death began in the 1330s, between 75 million and 200 million people died—more than a quarter of the population of Eurasia. . . . In 2010 famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.”
What’s humanity’s new agenda? “Having secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, health and harmony, and given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity.” Immortality comes first because “‘the right to life’ is humanity’s most fundamental value,” enshrined in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Since death clearly violates this right, death is a crime against humanity, and we ought to wage total war against it.”
Harari is less sanguine about happiness. Not only do feelings of bliss subside quickly, but “dramatic improvements in conditions … translate into greater expectations rather than greater contentment. If we don’t do something about this, our future achievements too might leave us as dissatisfied as ever.”
In Harari-speak, divinity merely entails possessing superhuman powers. “In seeking bliss and immortality humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods … to acquire godlike control of their own biological substratum….Bioengineers will take the old Sapiens body, and intentionally rewrite its genetic code, rewire its brain circuits, alter its biochemical balance, and even grow entirely new limbs. They will thereby create new godlings, who might be as different from us Sapiens as we are different from Homo erectus.”
Harari knows he is serving an unpalatable dish to many readers, yet much of what he envisions is already happening. He repeatedly softens his predictions to “a way of discussing our present choices. If the discussion makes us choose differently, so that the prediction is proven wrong, all the better…. Yet when they start thinking about it, most people realise that it actually makes a lot of sense. Despite the technological hubris of these dreams, ideologically they are old news. For 300 years the world has been dominated by humanism, which sanctifies the life, happiness and power of Homo sapiens.”
An important issue that Harari seems unwilling to face lies just below the surface. Is Homo sapiens incrementally cleverer than other animals? Or are we on two sides of a discontinuity, like ice and water? Yes, we evolved from a common ancestor, and we are organically identical, just like ice and water are both H2O. But water flows, dissolves, and reacts in ways that ice can’t. While animals possess many traits that were once thought to be unique to humans (language, tools, sociality, abstraction, planning, and so on), no other species on Earth uses fire. Crossing that discontinuity enabled everything from cooking to space travel. Will Sapiens be to superhumans as water is to steam?
Homo Deus loses its coherence unless Harari persuades you that humanism is a religion,1 the latest in a succession of religions originating with animism. “While animists saw humans as just another kind of animal, the Bible argues that humans are a unique creation, and any attempt to acknowledge the animal within us denies God’s power and authority. Indeed, when modern humans discovered that they actually evolved from reptiles, they rebelled against God and stopped listening to Him—or even believing in His existence.” The steady increase of Nones allows me to forgive Harari for conflating “modern humans” with atheists.
With the rise of agriculture, animism gave way to theist religions. And “according to Christianity, God gave an eternal soul only to humans.” Then Harari demolishes the concept. “There is zero scientific evidence that in contrast to pigs, Sapiens have souls” and “The very idea of soul contradicts the most fundamental principles of evolution. This contradiction is responsible for the unbridled hatred that the theory of evolution inspires among devout monotheists [and many others who cling to the oxymoronic ‘life after death’].”
Harari proceeds from theism to atheism: “The Scientific Revolution gave birth to humanist religions, in which humans replaced gods.” To get your head around this jarring remark, again you need to know Harari-speak: “Religion is anything that confers superhuman legitimacy on human social structures. It legitimises human norms and values by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.” Weakening the supernatural to the merely superhuman allows Harari to include humanism as another religion. To strengthen his position, he is careful to excise spirituality. “For religions, spirituality is a dangerous threat. Religions typically strive to rein in the spiritual quests of their followers, and many religious systems were challenged not by laypeople preoccupied with food, sex and power, but rather by spiritual truth-seekers who wanted more than platitudes [and dogmas]. Thus the Protestant revolt. . . .”
Harari must classify humanism as a religion so it can be seen as just another mythology, one that contains the seeds of its own demise and is getting ripe for replacement. What are the humanist myths? To explain the transition from human to superhuman, Harari fittingly focuses on the notion of “algorithm.” I know that many will balk when told “‘Algorithm’ is arguably the single most important concept in our world. If we want to understand our life and our future, we should make every effort to understand what an algorithm is, and how algorithms are connected with emotions.” He is right, but his definition of an algorithm—a method, a series of steps that do something—is so simplistic that one cannot help but balk.
An algorithm must have an agent to perform its commands, else it’s just data. All physical systems—atoms, computers, organisms, galaxies—are agents being animated by algorithms. Each algorithm can be performed by many kinds of agents, and conversely. Unlike conventional computers, neural networks learn, think, and emote using algoritms that are self-modifying.
Whether made of meat or silicon, no agent can do anything without performing algorithms. Physicists who study these matters are increasingly convinced that the entire universe—from so-called empty space to quarks to living beings to galactic clusters—is an embodiment of algorithmic information, a computer that performs itself.
Beyond the vital importance of algorithms to the pictures Harari wants to paint about the future, there are problems with several of his subsequent claims:
1. He tries to argue that, unlike humans, “robots and computers have no consciousness because despite their myriad abilities they feel nothing and crave nothing.” But algorithms underpin everything; so if brains can feel and crave, in principle robots can too. It’s just a matter of time.
2. Harari seems genuinely perplexed by the nature of and need for minds. He asks himself “What happens in the mind that doesn’t happen in the brain?” If nothing, then “Why do we need a mind?” If something, then “Where does it happen?” Answer: “In the brain.”
The notion of emergence resolves his paradox. A system that contains a memory (such as organisms and computers) can usually internalize environmental information in a manner that produces behaviors that are novel—that is, not embodied in the original system. Such behaviors, called “epiphenomena,” are said to emerge from the system, and they underlie the adage: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Indeed, laptops internalize apps incessantly, giving rise to countless “emergent” behaviors.
From his accounts of the behaviors of stock markets, traffic jams, and self-driving cars, it’s clear that Harari is aware of emergence. But he can’t see that minds are the sine qua non of emergent epiphenomena. His paradox evaporates when you realize that what happens in the mind emerges from ever-changing synaptic connection patterns that are not embodied in the original brain.
3. Harari questions what it means to be conscious, to have subjective but real feelings such as pleasure, pain, and anger. He proffers that a mind is conscious if it is self-aware, then rejects this idea because a self-driving car is unconscious and unemotional but must be self-aware to avoid collisions. But this misses the obvious point that consciousness can range from minimal to highly self-aware.2 Even human consciousness is far less than it might be, as almost all our brain functions are subconscious. All autonomous agents must be conscious—self-aware—to some degree, even self-driving cars.
4. Harari suggests that intelligence could have evolved without emotions, so why do we have them? A self-driving car has no need of them. But that’s true because it has one purpose: to get from A to B safely. Humans are multipurpose agents; we not only drive cars but routinely solve a diversity of problems. In a dangerous and unpredictable world, we must react and prioritize, often in a split second. Emotions help us make “gut decisions” under pressure. Without “juicing” our thoughts, differences among choices wouldn’t be as glaring. Moreover, we need to cope with other multipurpose agents who also exhibit emotions.
5. For Harari (and many others these days), free will is a misleading illusion. “For centuries humanism has been convincing us that we are the ultimate source of meaning, and that our free will is therefore the highest authority of all. . . . To the best of our scientific understanding, determinism and randomness have divided the entire cake between them, leaving not even a crumb for ‘freedom.’ The sacred word ‘freedom’ turns out to be, just like ‘soul,’ an empty term that carries no discernible meaning.”
It is generally accepted that organisms are deterministic. But that is insufficient to rule out free will. Harari would do well to learn about a modern insight into complex systems: they can be completely deterministic yet at the same time inherently unpredictable in the chaos theory sense. Edward Lorenz of “butterfly effect” fame summed up the now well-developed mathematical theory of “Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”
Human minds are archetypal examples of completely determined yet essentially unpredictable systems. Indeed, the simple fact of having a subconscious forever robs us of the perfect self-knowledge needed to accurately predict future behavior. The appropriate name for our black hole of essential self-ignorance is “free will.” It spans the gap between the precise determinants of our actions and our (often self-serving) rationales. It also leaves us responsible for our actions because the many causal chains to precise external antecedents cannot be established in real time.
How do people derive meaning for their lives? Harari suggests it’s a third kind of reality, called the “intersubjective,” which exists between objective and subjective realities and reflects the beliefs shared among the members of a group, also known as “groupthink.” The intersubjective is ubiquitous: money, gods, corporations, political ideologies, viral memes, and so one. Indeed, intersubjective beliefs are so entrenched that “the lives of most people have meaning only within the network of stories they tell one another.”
Like the control of fire, the intersubjective is unique to Homo sapiens. And with the advent of the Internet, it promises to swell in importance far beyond anything yet seen. While a primary inducer of cooperative behavior, intersubjective reality is also ephemeral: “Laws, gods and even entire empires. One moment they are busy shaping the world, and the next moment they no longer exist.” And this is Harari’s key point: Intersubjective realities drive both objective and subjective realities. And as superhumanity takes over, human intersubjectivity will cease shaping the world.
In Harari’s large-tent view of humanism, “life [is] a gradual process of inner change, leading from ignorance to enlightenment by means of experiences. The highest aim of humanist life is to fully develop your knowledge through a large variety of intellectual, emotional and physical experiences. . . . Every scientific yang contains within it a humanist yin, and vice versa. The yang provides us with power, while the yin provides us with meaning and ethical judgements. . . . The humanist view of life as a string of experiences has become the founding myth of numerous modern industries, from tourism to art.”
As all religions do, “as it spread and evolved, it fragmented into three conflicting sects.” The main branch, liberal humanism (or simply ‘liberalism’) holds that “each human being is a unique individual possessing a distinctive inner voice.” In socialist humanism, the collective overrides the individual. Evolutionary humanism, infamously advocated by the Nazis, holds that some individuals count for more than others. (Harari and others caution that evolutionary humanism may rise again in the post-human era.)
Then the Great War happened. “From 1914 to 1989 a murderous war of religion raged between the three humanist sects. . . . After decades of defeats and setbacks, liberalism won a decisive victory in the Cold War. And no serious alternative has emerged since to the liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy and a free market.” It’s interesting that in Harari-speak, conservative Republicans are also liberal humanists.
So what does Harari say is coming down the pike? His clarion call speaks for itself:
In the early twenty-first century the train of progress is again pulling out of the station—and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. In order to get a seat on it, you need to understand twenty-first-century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms…. In the twenty-first century, those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction.
Yet what the scientists are discovering and what the engineers are developing may unwittingly expose both the inherent flaws in the liberal world view and the blindness of customers and voters. When genetic engineering and artificial intelligence reveal their full potential, liberalism, democracy and free markets might become as obsolete as flint knives, tape cassettes, Islam and communism.
I credit Harari here for raising key questions that too few of us are pondering.
Humanism will give way to either dataism or techno-humanism. “Data religion argues that humans have completed their cosmic task, and they should now pass the torch on to entirely new kinds of entities.” In techno-humanism, changes to our genome, including rewiring our brain, will achieve the water-to-steam phase change. This “second cognitive revolution might give homo deus access to unimaginable new realms and turn us into the lords of the galaxy.” Harari explains the possible reasons liberal humanism may die out:
1. “A small and privileged elite of upgraded humans . . . will enjoy unheard-of abilities and unprecedented creativity, [and make] many of the most important decisions in the world.” Harari says we won’t know what goals to set when upgrading our brains. I can think of many: more and better memory and recall, both scratch pad and long term; faster pattern recognition; better analytic thinking; integration of our senses with new ones (such as the capacity to sense electric and magnetic fields); automated fact learning, the ability to forget at will; and so on.
2. The rest of humanity will become the “useless class,” having no economic or military value. While technologies can feed and divert the useless class (say, with virtual realities tailored to their fantasies), an existential crisis is brewing. When people have no meaningful work to do, what happens to their sense of personal worth? What happens to society? Why would the elites, within their hyper-secure enclaves, fund the useless class? Will evolutionary humanism come roaring back?
3. The rise of dataism: in Harari-speak, “dataism is a religion that worships information flows.” Big Data, Deep Learning, the Internet-of-All-Things, and of course social media such as Facebook and Twitter—all of these advances, and much more, are already thrusting dataism on us. Humans will become subservient to the information networks in which they are connected. The post-human intersubjective will dominate all other realities.
“What’s the use of having democratic elections when the algorithms know how each person is going to vote, and when they also know the exact neurological reasons why? Whereas humanism commanded: ‘Listen to your feelings!’ Dataism now commands: ‘Listen to the algorithms! They know how you feel.’” While this rhetoric is hyperbolic, some Internet algorithms already know more about aspects of us than we do. Thankfully, chaos theory tells us that we will remain about as predictable as the weather.
While dataism is a serious prospect, the existence of free will should allow us to withstand this siren. For me, humanism’s faith in the worth of (enhanced) individuals and their ability to control their own destinies remains intact.
Harari has a gift for saying things well. Whether you agree or not, you owe it to yourself to look where he is pointing.
- See “Smearing Humanism” in the June/ July 2017 issue of Free Inquiry for Tom Flynn’s response to Harari’s views on this.
- Even human consciousness is far less than it might be, as almost all our brain functions are subconscious.