Book review: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Modern society is experiencing a huge schism between dataists and humanists, and we should be very concerned, JP O’Malley hears from an Israeli historian.

Yuval Noah Harari

Vintage, €19.99

PICTURE the scene: you’ve decided to travel to the African Savannah for a once-in-a-lifetime holiday hoping to finally get in touch with your inner self.

On your first day out on safari, an elephant rears its head.

Nowadays, according to the Israeli historian,Yuval Noah Harari, there are two options you’re faced with. You can simply look at the elephant and ask: how does this make me feel at this present moment?

Or, you can take out your smart phone, take a picture of the elephant, and then post it on Facebook. Depending on how many likes the photo gets — as it travels through cyberspace — the experience will drastically alter in meaning. 

Thus, you no longer make meaning from your interaction with the elephant. Instead, the network determines the validity of your experience.

In Harari’s opinion, if you take the former option, you are a humanist. If, however, you take the latter option, you are a dataist. 

In our present age of 24-hour-internet connectivity, most people automatically see themselves as dataists.

Sitting in his publishers’ office in central London, Harari explains the difference between the two ideologies.

Author Yuval Noah Harari: Are organisms really just algorithms, he asks.
Author Yuval Noah Harari: Are organisms really just algorithms, he asks.

“Traditionally, the humanist idea is I build my ego, by getting to know myself. And I do this by looking inside myself and listening to my inner voice. But dataism believes my place in the world is defined by my relationship to the external data flow,” he says.

Or, put more directly: dataism collapses the barrier between animals and machines.

Moreover, dataism expects electronic algorithms to eventually decipher and outperform biochemical algorithms.

If humankind is indeed becoming a single data-processing system: what then is its output? According to Harari, it’s an efficient system known as the internet-of-all-things.

Presently, this means connecting any device with an on and off switch to the internet: mobile phones, coffee makers, washing machines, headphones, lamps, wearable devices, and almost anything else you can think of.

However, the possibilities are almost infinite: as long as the technology keeps getting faster and better. Once this mission is fully accomplished, Harari believes homo sapiens will vanish.

“Humans will become almost irrelevant once you have a system that understands them far better than they understand themselves,” says Harari.

“But this is not some Hollywood science-fiction scenario, where the robots will rise up in rebellion, and violently eliminate humans into the network. What we are talking about here is a merger: humans completely merging into the network.”

Harari claims that human beings, over the coming century — through their interaction with technology and data — are going to appear less like the chimpanzees they evolved from through the process of Darwinian natural selection.

Instead — as far as their behaviour patterns go — they’ll more closely resemble ants: becoming single entities that are part of this big network that they simply cannot exist in isolation from.

“I really do mean this on the physical level,” says Harari.

“Millions of nano robots will be constantly connected inside your body protecting you against diseases like cancer. And you will constantly be supervised and helped by this all-knowing system that you cannot disconnect from,” he says

In the future, drastically pulling the plug from this all-knowing network could mean instant death for homo sapiens, Harari believes.

The historian focuses predominately on the future of humanity over our chat, because it’s a subject that dominates his latest book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. 

The 24-hour news cycle may constantly turn our attention to immediate or short- term political and economic problems: such as failed states in the Middle East; US presidential elections; the refugee crisis in Europe; or the possibility of another global financial recession.

However, Harari asks his readers to think big. And, crucially, more long-term. So, he asks questions like: Are organisms really just algorithms? And is life merely an exercise in processing data? 

What’s more valuable: intelligence or consciousness? And what will happen when engineers and tech geeks finally figure out how to overcome the ageing process? Will humans be able to live forever?

Partially, the subject matter of this latest book overlaps with the material Harari covered in a book he published in English two years ago (it was first published in Hebrew in 2011) entitled Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind.

“After four billion years, life evolved by natural selection and it’s all organic,” says Harari.

“But we are moving to a stage when the main driving force of intelligent design is not god, but us. We are breaking out from the organic to the inorganic realm,” he says.

Harari’s work is predominantly fixated with one question: what makes homo sapiens so special from other species on planet earth?

In order to understand human nature and predict its future Harari believes it’s necessary to figure out how homo sapiens came to believe that the entire universe resolves around them and nobody else.

The historian claims studying history, paradoxically, actually allows humans to lose their grip on the past. However, history also tries to imagine possibilities that our ancestors did not think were possible. 

Humans may think that they actually create history themselves. However, according to Harari, history really just revolves around a web of narratives and fictional mythologies.

That narrative can be the promise of, say, a Marxist revolution, the coming of Christ, or advancements in science and technology that will deliver human progress. Either way, though, all stories serve the same purpose, Harari believes.

“Without some kind of mythology — or some unifying fictional story — you cannot organise masses of people to co-operate effectively,” he posits.

“So religion is very important to human society,” he says. 

“Now it’s not true of course. The stories that stand at the bases of great world religions like Christianity and Islam are all just fictions invented by human beings. And in terms of actual truth, they are on the same level with Harry Potter,” he says.

Even though mythologies are essential for humanity to work, Harari contends that they no longer need to focus on the concept of deities or gods.

“Today, we have secular mythologies like humanism: which is the dominant religion or mythology of our day,” says Harari.

However, if secular humanism and science are two bedfellows that have gone hand in glove since the 19th century, Harari claims that cosy relationship has now come to an end. 

Twenty-first-century science is now undermining the fundamental principles of the liberal world order.

Primarily because without believing that humans have free will, individual liberty will become a redundant concept. 

The contradiction between liberalism’s idea of free will, and contemporary science’s idea of free will, is what Harari refers to as “the elephant in the laboratory”.

Most mainstream scientists, when it comes to the subject of free will, believe humans do not posses anything even closely resembling an inner essence, or what one can definitively call the self.

Sure, there is a stream of consciousness, and desires that rise and fall within that stream.

However, best-selling science authors — like Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett — all believe there is no actual self who owns these desires. 

“Traditionally the story was that each individual human being had these sacred entities called ‘my true self’ or ‘my authentic self’,” says Harari.

“And we are told, my mission in life is to understand and listen to my true self. But now science is just saying: this is all a myth. There is no such thing as an authentic self. And there is no such things as an individual.

“Science says humans are just a combination of different biochemical processes and systems which make up our brain, DNA, and bodies.” That’s the current view of mainstream western science. But what does Harari himself actually believe?

“Well as long as we don’t understand consciousness, then this story here is incomplete,” he says.

“But we should be very careful not to retreat back to traditional religious mythologies, just because of our inability to understand consciousness,” he says.

I mention to Harari that I interviewed the American philosopher, Daniel Dennett three years ago.

Dennett has made an entire career claiming to understand the basic premise of consciousness.

In brief, it draws from Darwin’s theory. If natural selection can create life through an algorithmic process, Dennett asks: why then shouldn’t the brain be able to create consciousness?

Harari, however, is not entirely convinced of this hypothesis. 

“I don’t think [Dennett’s] view on consciousness is quite there yet. What we are able to do at present is find correlations of consciousness. This means you can look at a brain through an FMRI scanner and say: when this pattern appears in the brain then on the mental level there is a subjective experience of anger, love, and so forth.

“However, if we ask for an explanation of why millions of neurons are firing in a particular pattern to then create the subjective experience of love or anger, we are not even close to having a satisfactory explanation,” he says.

The main riddle of consciousness that concerns Harari is we still don’t know what could be the evolutionary use of it. The better we understand the working of the brain, he says, the less clear it is why we also need a mind.

Thus, two unanswered questions remain, says Harari.

Why can’t [thinking] just happen without subjective experience? And what is the role of the subjective feeling of love, anger and fear, over and above the electro-chemical reactions in the brain?

“ I’ve read quite extensively on this subject, and so far, I’m not happy with the answers that science provides us with,” says Harari.

“I’m far less satisfied with the answers that religion provides us with. But I think scientists need to keep on researching this issue.”


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