Homo Deus | Notes & Critical Reflections

Yuval Noah Harari. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harper, 2017 (449 pages)

1. In vitro fertilisation: mastering creation (KTSDESIGN/Science Photo Library)

1 The New Human Agenda

For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. (2)

Hence even though presidents, CEOs and generals still have their daily schedules full of economic crises and military conflicts, on the cosmic scale of history humankind can lift its eyes up and start looking towards new horizons. If we are indeed bringing famine, plague and war under control, what will replace them at the top of the human agenda? Like firefighters in a world without fire, so humankind in the twenty-first century needs to ask itself an unprecedented question: what are we going to do with ourselves? In a healthy, prosperous and harmonious world, what will demand our attention and ingenuity? (2)

The Biological Poverty Line

There are no longer famines in the world; there are only political famines. (4)

Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030. In 2010 famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million. (6)

Invisible Armadas

2. Medieval people personified the Black Death as a horrific demonic force beyond human control or comprehension. (“The Triumph of Death”, c.1562, Bruegel, Pieter the Elder)

3. The real culprit was the minuscule Yersinia pestis bacterium.

So in the struggle against natural calamities such as AIDS and Ebola, the scales are tipping in humanity’s favour. But what about the dangers inherent in human nature itself? Biotechnology enables us to defeat bacteria and viruses, but it simultaneously turns humans themselves into an unprecedented threat. The same tools that enable doctors to quickly identify and cure new illnesses may also enable armies and terrorists to engineer even more terrible diseases and doomsday pathogens. It is therefore likely that major epidemics will continue to endanger humankind in the future only if humankind itself creates them, in the service of some ruthless ideology. (14)

Breaking the Law of the Jungle

Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder. (15)

Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into a mad act of collective suicide, and therefore force the most powerful nations on earth to find alternative and peaceful ways to resolve conflicts. Simultaneously, the global economy has been transformed from a material-based economy into a knowledge-based economy. … Today the main source of wealth is knowledge. And whereas you can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way. Hence as knowledge became the most important economic resources, the profitability of war declined and wars became increasingly restricted to those parts of the world–such as the Middle East and Central Africa–where the economies are still old-fashioned material-based economies. (15)

Previous generations thought about peace as the temporary absence of war. Today we think about peace as the implausibility of war. (16)

The New Peace is not just a hippie fantasy. Power-hungry governments and greedy corporations also count on it. (16)

Over the last seventy years humankind has broken not only the Law of the Jungle, but also the Chekhov Law. Anton Chekhov famously said that a gun appearing in the first act of a play will inevitably be fired (17) in the third. (18)

4. Nuclear missiles on parade in Moscow. The gun that was always on display but never fired.

For the average American or European, Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Qaeda. (18)

How, then, do terrorists manage to dominate the headlines and change the political situation throughout the world? By provoking their enemies to overreact. In essence, terrorism is a show. (18)

Terrorists are like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot budge even a single teacup. So it finds a bull, gets inside its ear and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with (18) fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened in the Middle East in the last decade. Islamic fundamentalists could never have toppled Saddam Hussein by themselves. Instead they enraged the USA by the 9/11 attacks, and the USA destroyed the Middle Eastern china shop for them. Now they flourish in the wreckage. By themselves, terrorists are too weak to drag us back to the Middle Ages and reestablish the Jungle Law. They may provoke us, but in the end, it all depends on our reactions. If the Jungle Law comes back into force, it will not be the fault of terrorists. (19)

Yet appreciating the magnitude of our achievements carries another message: history does not tolerate a vacuum. If incidences of famine, plague and war are decreasing, something is bound to take their place on the human agenda. We had better think very carefully about what it is going to be. … What are the projects that will replace famine, plague and war at the top of the human agenda in the twenty-first century? | One central project will be to protect humankind and the planet as a whole from the dangers inherent in our own power. (20)

The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more. (20)

Success breeds ambition, and our recent achievements are now pushing humankind to set itself even more daring goals. 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. … And having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus. (21)

The Last Days of Death

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN after the Second World War–which is perhaps the closest thing we have to a global constitution–categorically states that ‘the right to life’ is humanity’s most fundamental value. Since death clearly violates this right, death is a crime against humanity, and we ought to wage total war against it. | Throughout history, religions and ideologies did not sanctify life itself. They always sanctified something above or beyond earthly existence, and were consequently quite tolerant of death. (21)

Just try to imagine Christianity, Islam or Hinduism in a world without death–which is also a world without heaven, hell or reincarnation. (22)

…for modern people death is a technical problem that we can and should solve. (22)

5. Death personified as the Grim Reaper in medieval art. (‘Death and dying’ from 14th-century French manuscript: “Pilgrimage of the Human Life,’ Bodleian Library, Oxford)

And every technical problem has a technical solution. We don’t need to wait for the Second Coming in order to overcome death. A couple of geeks in a lab can do it. If traditionally death was the speciality of priests and theologians, now the engineers are taking over. (23)

Time: “Google vs. Death”

Quartz: “Seeking eternal life, Silicon Valley is solving for death”; “Seeking eternal life, Silicon Valley is solving for death”

The writing is on the wall: equality is out–immortality is in. (25)

The physicist Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at a time. He meant that only when one generation passes away do new theories have a chance to root out old ones. (26)

In truth, so far modern medicine hasn’t extended our natural life span by a single year. Its great achievement has been to save us from premature death, and allow us to enjoy the full measure of our years. (27)

If you think that religious fanatics with burning eyes and flowing beards are ruthless, just wait and see what elderly retail moguls and ageing Hollywood starlets will do when they think the elixir of life is within reach. If and when science makes significant progress int eh war against death, the real battle will shift from the laboratories to the parliaments, courthouses and streets. Once the scientific efforts are crowned with success, they will trigger bitter political conflicts. All the wars and conflicts of history might turn out to be but a pale prelude for the real struggle ahead of us: the struggle for eternal youth. (29)

The Right to Happiness

People increasingly believe that the immense systems established more than a century ago to strengthen the nation should actually serve the happiness and well-being of individual citizens. We are not here to serve the state–it is here to serve us. The right to the pursuit of happiness, originally envisaged as a restraint on state power, has imperceptibly morphed into the right to happiness–as if human beings have a natural right to be happy, and anything which makes us dissatisfied is a violation of our basic human rights, so the state should do something about it. (32)

In the Stone Age, the average human had at his or her disposal about 4,000 calories of energy per day. This included not only food, but also the energy invested in preparing tools, clothing, art and campfires. Today Americans use on average 228,000 calories of energy per person per day, to feed not only their stomachs but also their cars, computers, refrigerators and televisions. The average American thus uses sixty times more energy than the average Stone Age hunter-gatherer. Is the average American sixty times happier? We may well be sceptical about such rosy views. (34)

It appears that our happiness bangs against some mysterious glass ceiling that does not allow it to grow despite all our unprecedented accomplishments. (35)

The glass ceiling of happiness is held in place by two stout pillars, one psychological, the other biological. On the psychological level, happiness depends on expectations rather than objective conditions. We don’t become satisfied by leading a peaceful and prosperous existence. Rather, we become satisfied when reality matches our expectations. The bad news is that as conditions improve, expectations balloon. (35)

On the biological level, both our expectations and our happiness are determined by our biochemistry, rather than by our economic, social or political situation. (35)

We never react to events in the outside world, but only to sensations in our own bodies. … The only thing that makes people miserable is unpleasant sensations in their own bodies. (36)

Conversely, science says that nobody is ever made happy by getting a promotion, winning the lottery or even finding true love. People are made happy by one thing and one thing only–pleasant sensations in their bodies. (36)

For countless generations our biochemical system adapted to increasing our chances of survival and reproduction, not our happiness. The biochemical system rewards actions conducive to survival and reproduction with pleasant sensations. But these are only an ephemeral sales gimmick. (37)

…expectations adapt to conditions, and yesterday’s challenges all too quickly become today’s tedium. Perhaps the key to happiness is neither the race nor the gold medal, but rather combining the right doses of excitement and tranquility. (39)

People have been quarrelling about education methods for thousands of years. Whether in ancient China or Victorian Britain, everybody had his or her pet method, and vehemently opposed all alternatives. Yet hitherto everybody still agreed on one thing: in order to improve education, we need to change the schools. Today, for the first time in history, at least some people think it would be more efficient to change the pupils’ biochemistry. (40)

To attain real happiness, humans need to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate it. (42)

According to Buddha, we can train our minds to observe carefully how all sensations constantly arise and pass. When the mind learns to see our sensations for what they are–ephemeral and meaningless vibrations–we lose interest in pursuing them. For what is the point of running after something that disappears as fast as it arises? | At present, humankind has far greater interest int he biochemical solution. No matter what monks in their Himalayan caves or philosophers in their ivory towers say, for the capitalist juggernaut, happiness is pleasure. Period. (42)

You may debate whether it is good or bad, but it seems that the second great project of the twenty-first century–to ensure global happiness–will involve re-engineering Homo sapiens so that it can enjoy everlasting pleasure. (43)

The Gods of Planet Earth

In seeking bliss and immortality humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods. Not just because these are divine qualities, but because in order to overcome old age and misery human will first have to acquire godlike control of their own biological substratum. If we ever have the power to engineer death and pain out of our system, that same power will probably be sufficient to engineer our system in almost any manner we like, and manipulate our organs, emotions and intelligence in myriad ways. (43)

The upgrading of humans into gods may follow any of three paths: biological engineering, cyborg engineering and the engineering of non-organic beings. (43)

Biological engineering starts with the insight that we are far from realising the full potential of organic bodies. (44)

After 4 billion years of wandering inside the kingdom of organic compounds, life will break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, and will take shapes that we cannot envision even in our wildest dreams. After all, our wildest dreams are still the product of organic chemistry. (45)

For thousands of years history was full of technological, economic, social and political upheavals. yet one thing remained constant: humanity itself. Our tools and institutions are very different from those of biblical times, but the deep structures of the human mind remain the same. This is why we can still find ourselves between the pages of the Bible, in the writings of Confucius or within the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides. (46)

However, once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end and a completely new kind of process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend. Many scholars try to predict ho the world will look in the year 2100 or 2200. This is a waste of time. Any worthwhile prediction must take into account the ability to re-engineer human minds, and this is impossible. (46)

In the twenty-first century, the third big project of humankind will be to acquire for us divine powers of creation and destruction, and upgrade Homo sapiens into Homo deus. (47)

Divinity isn’t a vague metaphysical quality. And it isn’t the same as omnipotence. When speaking of upgrading humans into gods, think more in terms of Greek gods or Hindu devas rather than the omnipotent biblical sky father. (47)

Every day millions of people decide to grant their smartphone a bit more control over their lives or try a new and more effective antidepressant drug. In pursuit of health, happiness and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human. (49)

Can Someone Please Hit the Brakes?

No clear line separates healing from upgrading. (52)

Healing is the initial justification for every upgrade. (55)

This is why it is so vital to think about humanity’s new agenda. Precisely because we have some choice regarding the use of new technologies, we had better understand what is happening and make up our minds about it before it makes up our minds for us. (55)

The Paradox of Knowledge

Firstly, this is not what most individuals will actually do in the twenty-first century. It is what humankind as a collective will do. … One could argue that as long as there is a single child dying from malnutrition or a single adult killed in drug-lord warfare, humankind should focus all its efforts on combating these woes. Only once the last sword is beaten into a ploughshare should we turn our minds to the next big thing. But history doesn’t work like that. Those living in palaces have always had different agendas to those living in shacks, and that is unlikely to change in the twenty-first century. (56)

Secondly, this is a historical prediction, not a political manifesto. … Given our past record and our current values, we are likely to reach out for bliss, divinity and immortality–even if it kills us. (56)

Thirdly, reaching out is not the same as obtaining. (56)

Fourthly, and most importantly, this prediction is less of a prophecy and more a way of discussing our present choices. (57)

Some complex systems, such as the weather, are oblivious to our predictions. The process of human development, in contrast, reacts to them. Indeed, the better our forecasts, the more reactions they engender. Hence paradoxically, as we accumulate more data and increase our computing power, events become wilder and more unexpected. The more we know, the less we can predict. (57)

This is the paradox of historical knowledge. Knowledge that does not change behavior is useless. But knowledge that changes behaviour quickly loses its relevance. The more data we have and the better we understand history, the faster history alters its course, and the faster our knowledge becomes outdated. (58)

A Brief History of Lawns

Science is not just about predicting the future, though. Scholars in all fields often seek to broaden our horizons, thereby opening before us new and unknown futures. …the study of history aims above all to make us aware of possibilities we don’t normally consider. Historians study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it. (59)

Movements seeking to change the world often begin by rewriting history, thereby enabling people to reimagine the future. … This is why Marxists recount the history of capitalism; why feminists study the formation of patriarchal societies; and why African Americans commemorate the horrors of the slave trade. They aim not to perpetuate the past, but rather to be liberated from it. (60)

6. The lawns of Château de Chambord, in the Loire Valley. King François I built it in the early sixteenth century. This is where it all began.

7. A welcoming ceremony in hour of Queen Elizabeth II–on the White House lawn.

8. Mario Götze scores the decisive goal, giving Germany the World Cup in 2014–on the Maracanã lawn.

9 Petit-bourgeois paradise.

A Gun in Act I

The same technologies that can upgrade humans into gods might also make humans irrelevant. (66)

The future described in this chapter is merely the future of the past–i.e., a future based on the ideas and hopes that dominated the world for the last 300 years. The real future–i.e., a future born of the new ideas and hopes of the twenty-first century–might be completely different. (66)

You want to know how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans? Better start by investigating how humans treat their less intelligent animal cousins. (67)

Looking back, many think that the downfall of the pharaohs and the death of God were both positive developments. Maybe the collapse of humanism will also be beneficial. People are usually afraid of change because they fear the unknown. But the single greatest constant of history is that everything changes. (68)

10. King Ashurbanipal of Assyria slaying a lion: mastering the animal kingdom.

PART 1 Homo Sapiens Conquers the World

What is the difference between humans and all other animals?

How did our species conquer the world?

Is Homo sapiens a superior life form, or just the local bully?

2 The Anthropocene

Scientists divide the history of our planet into epochs such as the Pleistocene, the Pliocene and the Miocene. Officially, we live in the Holocene epoch. Yet it may be better to call the last 70,000 years the Anthropocene epoch: the epoch of humanity. For during these millennia Homo sapiens became the single most important agent of change int he global ecology. (72)

11. Pie chart of global biomass of large animals.

The Serpent’s Children

In most Semitic languages, ‘Eve’ means ‘snake’ or even ‘female snake’. (77)

[via: So, the Hebrew ‘Eve’ is (חוה) and ‘snake/serpent’ (נחש). I would like to know Harari’s citation for this claim.]

12. Paradise lost (the Sistine Chapel). The serpent–who sports a human upper body–initiates the entire chain of events. While the first two chapters of Genesis are dominated by divine monologues (‘and God said…and God said…and God said…’), in the third chapter we finally get a dialogue–between Eve and the serpent (‘and the serpent said unto the woman…and the woman said unto the serpent…’). This unique conversation between a human and an animal leads to the fall of humanity and our expulsion from Eden.

Ancestral Needs

Is it better to be devoured by a lion than slaughtered by a man? Are crocodile teeth less deadly than steel blades? (79)

This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped thousands of generations ago continues to be felt subjectively (82) even if it is no longer necessary for survival and reproduction in the present. (83)

13. Sows confined in gestation crates. These highly social and intelligent beings spend most of their lives in this condition, as if they were already sausages.

Organisms are Algorithms

…attributing emotions to pigs doesn’t humanise them. It ‘mammalises’ them. For emotions are not a uniquely human quality–they are common to all mammals (as well as to all birds and probably to some reptiles and even fish). (83)

…emotions are biochemical algorithms that are vital for the survival and reproduction of all mammals. … ‘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. (83)

An algorithm is a methodical set of steps that can be sued to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions. An algorithm isn’t a particular calculation, but the method followed when making the calculation. (83)

What we call sensations and emotions are in fact algorithms. (86)

Natural selection evolved passion and disgust as quick algorithms for evaluating reproduction odds. (86)

14. A peacock and a man. When you look at these images, data on proportions, colours and sizes gets processed by your biochemical algorithms, causing you to feel attraction, repulsion or indifference.

The Agricultural Deal

How did farmers justify their behaviour? Whereas hunter-gatherers were seldom aware of the damage they inflicted on the ecosystem, farmers knew perfectly well what they were doing. They knew they were exploiting domesticated animals and subjugating them to human desires and whims. They justified their actions in the name of new theist religions, which mushroomed and spread in the wake of the Agricultural Revolution. Theist religions maintained that the universe is ruled by a group of great gods – or perhaps by a single capital ‘G’ God. We don’t normally associate this idea with agriculture, but at least in their beginnings theist religions were an agricultural enterprise. The theology, mythology and liturgy of religions such as Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity revolved at first around the relationship between humans, domesticated plants and farm animals. (90)

We normally think that theist religions sanctified the great gods. We tend to forget that they sanctified humans, too. Hitherto Homo sapiens had been just one actor in a cast of thousands. In the new theist drama, Sapiens became the central hero around whom the entire universe revolved. | The gods, meanwhile, were given two related roles to play. Firstly, they explained what is so special about Sapiens and why humans should dominate and exploit all other organisms. (92)

[via: Animism > Polytheism > Henotheism > Monolatry > Monotheism]

This deluge story became a founding myth of the agricultural world. … Yet traditional interpretations saw the deluge as proof of human supremacy and animal worthlessness. According to these interpretations, Noah was instructed to save the whole ecosystem in order to protect the common interests of gods and humans rather than the interests of the animals. Non-human organisms have no intrinsic value; they exist solely for our sake. (93)

The Bible could not imagine a scenario in which God repents having created Homo sapiens, wipes this sinful ape off the face of the earth, and then spends eternity enjoying the antics of ostriches, kangaroos and panda bears. (92)

Humans thus committed themselves to an ‘agricultural deal’. According to this deal, cosmic forces gave humans command over other animals, on condition that humans fulfilled certain obligations towards the gods, towards nature and towards the animals themselves. It was easy to believe in the existence of such a cosmic compact, because it reflected the daily routine of farming life. (95)

The Agricultural Revolution was thus both an economic and a religious revolution. (96)

Depicting the ‘others’ as subhuman beasts was a firs step toward treating them as such. The farm thus became the prototype of new societies, complete with (96) puffed-up masters, inferior races fit for exploitation, wild beasts ripe for extermination and a great God above that gives His blessing to the entire arrangement. (97)

Five Hundred Years of Solitude

In the Garden of Eden myth, humans are punished for their curiosity and for their wish to gain knowledge. God expels them from Paradise. In the Garden of Woolsthorpe myth, nobody punishes Newton – just the opposite. Thanks to his curiosity humankind gains a better understanding of the universe, becomes more powerful and takes another step towards the technological paradise. Untold numbers of teachers throughout the world recount the Newton myth to encourage curiosity, implying that if only we gain enough knowledge, we can create paradise here on earth.

| In fact, God is present even in the Newton myth: Newton himself is God. When biotechnology, nanotechnology and the other fruits of science ripen, Homo sapiens will attain divine powers and come full circle back to the biblical Tree of Knowledge. Archaic hunter-gatherers were just another species of animal. Farmers saw themselves as the apex of creation. Scientists will upgrade us into gods. (98)

Whereas the Agricultural Revolution gave rise to theist religions, the Scientific Revolution gave birth to humanist religions, in which humans replaced gods. While theists worship theos (Greek for ‘god’), humanists worship humans. The founding idea of humanist religions such as liberalism, communism and Nazism is that Homo sapiens has some unique and sacred essence that is the source of all meaning and authority in the universe. Everything that happens (98) in the cosmos is judged to be good or bad according to its impact on Homo sapiens.

| Whereas theism justified traditional agriculture in the name of God, humanism has justified modern industrial farming in the name of Man. (99)

We are suddenly showing unprecedented interest in the fate of so-called lower life forms, perhaps because we are about to become one. (99)

Would it be okay, for example, for an artificial intelligence to exploit humans and even kill them to further its own needs and desires? If it should never be allowed to do that, despite its superior intelligence and power, why is it ethical for humans to exploit and kill pigs? Do humans have some magical spark, in addition to higher intelligence and greater power, which distinguishes them from pigs, chickens, chimpanzees and computer programs alike? If yes, where did that spark come from, and why are we certain that an AI could never acquire it? If there is no such spark, would there be any reason to continue assigning special value to human life even after computers surpass humans in intelligence and power? Indeed, what exactly is it about humans that make us so intelligent and powerful in the first place, and how likely is it that non-human entities will ever rival and surpass us? (100)

3 The Human Spark

The belief that humans have eternal souls whereas animals are just evanescent bodies is a central pillar of our legal, political and economic system. It explains why, for example, it is perfectly okay for humans to kill animals for food, or even just for the fun of it. | However, our latest scientific discoveries flatly contradict this monotheist myth. (203)

Who’s Afraid of Charles Darwin?

If you think it possible to bend space and time, well, be my guest. Go ahead and bend them. Why do I care? In contrast, Darwin has deprived us of our souls. If you really understand the theory of evolution, you understand that there is no soul. (104)

The literal meaning of the word ‘individual’ is ‘something that cannot be divided.’. That I am an ‘in-dividual’ implies that my true self is a holistic entity rather than an assemblage of separate parts. (104)

Unfortunately, the theory of evolution rejects the idea that my true self is some indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal essence. According to the theory of evolution, all biological entities – from elephants and oak trees to cells and DNA molecules – are composed of smaller and simpler parts that ceaselessly combine and separate. (104)

That’s why the theory of evolution cannot accept the idea of souls, at least if by ‘soul’ we mean something indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal. Such an entity cannot possibly result from a step-by-step evolution. Natural selection could produce a human eye, because the eye has parts. But the soul has no parts. If the Sapiens soul evolved step by step from the Erectus soul, what exactly were these steps? Is there some part of the soul that is more developed in Sapiens than in Erectus? But the soul has no parts. (105)

From an evolutionary perspective, the closest thing we have to a human essence is our DNA, and the DNA molecule is the vehicle of mutation rather than the seat of eternity.  (106)

Why the Stock Exchange Has No Consciousness

The soul is a story that some people accept while others reject. The stream of consciousness, in contrast, is the concrete reality we directly witness every moment. It is the surest thing in the world. You cannot doubt its existence. Even when we are consumed by doubt and ask ourselves: ‘Do subjective experiences really exist?’ we can be certain that we are experiencing doubt. (107)

[via: Descartes’ famous quip, “Cogito ergo sum.”]

The best scientists too are a long way from deciphering the enigma of mind and consciousness. One of the wonderful things about science is that when scientists don’t know something, they can try out all kinds of theories and conjunctures, but in the end they can just admit their ignorance. (111)

The Equation of Life

Scientists don’t know how a collection of electric brain signals creates subjective experiences. Even more crucially, they don’t know what could be the evolutionary benefit of such a phenomenon. It is the greatest lacuna in our understanding of life. (111)

The better we understand the brain, the more redundant the mind seems. If the entire system works by electric signals passing from here to there, why the hell do we also need to feel fear? (112)

Philosophers have encapsulated this riddle in a trick question: what happens in the mind that doesn’t happen in the brain? If nothing happens in the mind except what happens in our massive network of neurons – then why do we need the mind? If something does indeed happen in the mind over and above what happens in the neural network – where the hell does it happen? (113)

If we cannot explain the mind, and if we don’t know what function it fulfils, why not just discard it? (115)

15. The Google autonomous car on the road.

However, as we shall see in the following chapters, the whole edifice of modern politics and ethics is built upon subjective experiences, and few ethical dilemmas can be solved by referring strictly to brain activities. (117)

…some scientists concede that consciousness is real and may actually have great moral and political value, but that it fulfils no biological function whatsoever. (117)

When it comes to humans, we are today capable of differentiating between conscious mental experiences and non-conscious brain activities. (119)

According to current scientific dogma, everything I experience is the result of electrical activity in my brain, and it should therefore be theoretically feasible to simulate an entire virtual world that I could not possibly distinguish from the ‘real’ world. (120)

The Turing Test is simply a replication of a mundane test every gay man had to undergo in 1950 Britain: can you pass for a straight man? Turing knew from personal experience that it didn’t matter who you really were – it mattered only what others thought about you. According to Turing, in the future computers would be just like gay men in the 1950s. It won’t matter whether computers will actually be conscious or not. It will matter only what people think about it. (121)

The Depressing Lives of Laboratory Rats

Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness; Animal Welfare Amendment Act (.pdf);

16. Left: A hopeful rat struggling to escape the glass tube. Right: An apathetic rat floating in the glass tube, having lost all hope.

Conducting experiments on rats can help corporations develop such a magic pill only if they presuppose that rat behaviour is accompanied by human-like emotions. And indeed, this is a common presupposition in psychiatric laboratories. (125)

The Self-Conscious Chimpanzee

Santino;

The Clever Horse

When I donate money to a beggar, am I not reacting to the unpleasant sensations that the sight of the beggar causes me to feel? Do I really care about the beggar, or do I simply want to feel better myself? (129)

Clever Hans is often given as an example of the way humans erroneously humanise animals, ascribing to them far more amazing abilities than they actually possess. In fact, however, the lesson (130) is just the opposite. The story demonstrates that by humanising animals we usually underestimate animal cognition and ignore the unique abilities of other creatures. As far as maths goes, Hans was hardly a genius. Any eight-year-old kid could do much better. However, in his ability to deduce emotions and intentions from body language, Hans was a true genius. (131)

17. Clever Hans on stage in 1904.

If animals are so clever, why don’t horses harness humans to carts, rats conduct experiments on us, and dolphins make us jump through hoops? Homo sapiens surely has some unique ability that enables it to dominate all the other animals. (131)

…the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another. Humans nowadays completely dominate the planet not because the individual human is far smarter and more nimble-fingered than the individual chimp or wolf, but because Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of co-operating flexibly in large numbers. Intelligence and toolmaking were obviously very important as well. But if humans had not learned to cooperate flexibly in large numbers, our crafty brains and deft hands would still be splitting flint stones rather than uranium atoms. (132)

Long Live the Revolution!

If you want to launch a revolution, don’t ask yourself, ‘How many people support my ideas?’ Instead, ask yourself, ‘How many of my supporters are capable of effective collaboration? (134)

18. The moment a world collapses: a stunned Ceauşescu cannot believe his eyes and ears.

Beyond Sex and Violence

If Sapiens rule the world because we alone can cooperate flexibly in large numbers, then this undermines our belief in the sacredness of human beings. (138)

Yet personal acquaintance–whether it involves fighting or copulating–cannot form the basis for large-scale cooperation. You cannot settle the Greek debt crisis by inviting Greek politicians and German bankers to either a fist fight or an orgy. (140)

The Ultimate Game made a significant contribution to undermining classical economic theories and to establishing the most important economic discovery of the last few decades: Sapiens don’t behave according to a cold mathematical logic, but rather according to a warm social logic. We are ruled by emotions. (141)

All large-scale human cooperation is ultimately based on our belief in imagined orders. These are sets of rules that, despite existing only in our imagination, we believe to be as real and inviolable as gravity. (143)

Sapiens often use visual marks such as a turban, a beard or a business suit to signal ‘you can trust me, I believe in the same story as you’. (144)

The Web of Meaning

People find it difficult to understand the idea of ‘imagined orders’ because they assume that there are only two types of realities: objective realities and subjective realities. (144)

However, there is a third level of reality: the intersubjective level. Intersubjective entities depend on communication among many humans rather than on the beliefs and feelings of individual humans. (145)

[via: an “emergent property” of the universe.]

It is relatively easy to accept that money is an intersubjective reality. Most people are also happy to acknowledge that ancient Greek gods, evil empires and the values of alien cultures exist only in the imagination. Yet we don’t want to accept that our God, our nation or our values are mere fictions, because these are the things that give meaning to our lives. We want to believe that our lives have some objective meaning, and that our sacrifices matter to something beyond the stories in our head. Yet in truth the lives of most people have meaning only within the network of stories they tell one another. | Meaning is created when many people weave together a common network of stories. (146)

19. Signing the Belavezha Accords. Pen touches paper–and abracadabra! The Soviet Union disappears.

That’s how history unfolds. People weave a web of meaning, believe in it with all their heart, but sooner or later the web unravels, and when we look back we cannot understand how anybody could have taken it seriously. (150)

Dreamtime

As well as separating humans from other animals, this ability to create intersubjective entities also separates the humanities from the life sciences. (151)

Maybe someday breakthroughs in neurobiology will enable us to explain communism and the crusades in strictly biochemical terms. Yet we are very far from that point. During the twenty-first century the border between history and biology is likely to blur not because we will discover biological explanations for historical events, but rather because ideological fictions will rewrite DNA strands; political and economic interests will redesign the climate; and the geography of mountains and rivers will give way to cyberspace. As human fictions are translated into genetic and electronic codes, the intersubjective reality will swallow up the objective reality and biology will merge with history. In the twenty-first century fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth, surpassing even wayward asteroids and natural selection. Hence if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must also decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world. (152)

20. The Creator: Jackson Pollock in a moment of inspiration.

PART II Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World

What kind of world did humans create?

How did humans become convinced that they not only control the world, but also give it meaning?

How did humanism–the worship of humankind–become the most important religion of all?

4 The Storytellers

Since new twenty-first-century technologies are likely to make such fictions only more potent, understanding our future requires understanding how stories about Christ, France and Apple have gained so much power. Humans think they make history, but history actually revolves around the web of stories. The basic abilities of individual humans have not changed much since the Stone Age. But the web of stories has grown from strength to strength, thereby pushing history from the Stone Age to the Silicon Age. (155)

This was one of the main reasons why in Sumer, like everywhere else around the world, human cooperation networks could not notably expand even thousands of years after the Agricultural Revolution. There were no huge kingdoms, no extensive trade networks and no universal religions. | This obstacle was finally removed about 5,000 years ago, when the Sumerians invented both writing and money. These Siamese (157) twins–born to the same parents at the same time and int he same place–broke the data-processing limitations of the human brain. Writing and money made it possible to start collecting taxes from hundreds of thousands of people, to organise complex bureaucracies and to establish vast kingdoms. (158)

Yet Elvis was much more than a biological body. Like pharaoh, Elvis was a story, a myth, a brand–and the brand was far more important than the biological body. (159)

21. Brands are not a modern invention. Just like Elvis Presley, pharaoh too was a brand rather than a living organism. For mililons of followers his image counted for far more than his fleshly reality, and they kept worshipping him long after he was dead.

Prior to the invention of writing, stories were confined by the limited capacity of human brains. You couldn’t invent overly complex stories which people couldn’t remember. With writing you could suddenly create extremely long and intricate stories, which were stored on tablets and papyri rather than in human heads. (160)

Writing has thus enabled humans to organise entire societies in an algorithmic fashion. We encountered the term ‘algorithm’ when we tried to understand what emotions are and how brains function, and defined it as a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions. In illiterate societies people make all calculations and decisions in their heads. In literate societies people are organised into networks, so that each person is only a small step in a huge algorithm, and it is the algorithm as a whole that makes the important decisions. This is the essence of bureaucracy. (160)

It may sound strange to credit imaginary entities with building or controlling things. But nowadays we habitually say that the United States built the first nuclear bomb, that China built the Three Gorges Dam or that Google is building an autonomous car. Why not say, then, that pharaoh built a reservoir and Sobek dug a canal? (163)

Living on Paper

Writing thus facilitated the appearance of powerful fictional entities that organised millions of people and reshaped the reality of rivers, swamps and crocodiles. Simultaneously, writing also made it easier for humans to believe in the existence of such fictional entities, because it habituated people to experiencing reality through the mediation of abstract symbols. (163)

22. Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the angel with the rubber stamp.

23. One of the thousands of life-saving visas signed by Sousa Mendes in June 1940 (visa #1902 for Lazare Censor and family, dated 17 June 1940).

Written language may have been conceived as a modest way of describing reality, but it gradually became a powerful way to reshape reality. When official reports collided with objective reality, it was often reality that had to give way. Anyone who has ever dealt with the tax authorities, the educational system or any other complex bureaucracy knows that the truth hardly matters. What’s written on your form is far more important. (167)

Holy Scriptures

As bureaucracies accumulate power, they become immune to their own mistakes. Instead of changing their stories to fit reality, they can change reality to fit their stories. In the end external reality matches their bureaucratic fantasies, but only because they forced reality to do so. (167)

24. A mid-nineteenth century European map of Africa. Europeans knew very little about the African interior, but that did not prevent them from divvying up the continent and drawing its borders. (169)

It was the mass education systems of the industrial age that began using precise marks on a regular basis. After both factories and government ministries became accustomed to thinking in the language of numbers, schools followed suit. (170)

Originally, schools were supposed to focus on enlightening and educating students, and marks were merely a means of measuring success. But naturally enough, schools soon began focusing on getting high marks. As every child, teacher and inspector knows, the skills required to get high marks in an exam are not the same as a true understanding of literature, biology or mathematics. Every child, teacher and inspector also knows that when forced to choose between the two, most schools will go for the marks.

| The power of written records reached its apogee with the appearance of holy scriptures. Priests and scribes in ancient civilisations got used to seeing documents as guidebooks for reality. At first, the texts told them about the reality of taxes, fields and granaries. But as the bureaucracy gained power, so the texts gained authority. Priests wrote down not just the god’s property list, but also the god’s deeds, commandments and secrets. The resulting scriptures purported to describe reality in its entirety, and generations of scholars became accustomed to looking for all the answers in the pages of the Bible, the Qur’an or the Vedas.

| In theory, if some holy book misrepresented reality, its disciples would sooner or later find it out, and the text would lose its authority. Abraham Lincoln said you cannot deceive everybody all the time. Well, that’s wishful thinking. In practice, the power of human cooperation networks rests on a delicate balance between truth and fiction. If you distort reality too much, it will weaken you, and you will not be able to compete against more clear-sighted rivals. On the other hand, you cannot organise masses of people effectively without relying on some fictional myths. So if you stick to pure reality, without mixing any fiction with it, few people would follow you. (170)

Really powerful human organisations – such as pharaonic Egypt, communist China, the European empires and the modern school system – are not necessarily clear-sighted. Much of their power rests on their ability to force their fictional beliefs on a submissive reality. That’s the whole idea of money, for example. The government takes worthless pieces of paper, declares them to be valuable and then uses them to compute the value of everything else. The government has enough power to force citizens to pay taxes using these pieces of paper, so the citizens have no choice but to get their hand on at least some bills. The bills consequently become really valuable, the government officials are vindicated in their beliefs, and since the government controls the issuing of paper money, its power grows. If somebody protests that ‘These are just worthless pieces of paper!’ and behaves as if they are only pieces of paper, he won’t get very far in life. (171)

Such self-absorption characterises all humans in childhood. Children of all religions and cultures think they are the centre of the world, and therefore show little genuine interest int he conditions and feelings of other people. (173)

Most people grow out of this infantile delusion. Monotheists hold on to it till the day they die. Like a child thinking that his parents are fighting because of him, the monotheist is convinced that the Persians are fighting the Babylonians because of him. (173)

Yet even though Herodotus and Thucydides understood reality much better than the authors of the Bible, when the two world views collided, the Bible won by a knockout. The Greeks adopted the Jewish view of history, rather than vice versa. A thousand years after Thucydides, the Greeks became convinced that if some barbarian horde invaded, surely it was divine punishment for their sins. No matter how mistaken the biblical world view was, it provided a better basis for large-scale human cooperation. (174)

But it Works!

Fictions enable us to cooperate better. The price we pay is that the same fictions also determine the goals of our cooperation. (174)

History isn’t a single narrative, but thousands of alternative narratives. Whenever we choose to tell one, we are also choosing to silence others. (176)

Human cooperative networks usually judge themselves by yardsticks of their own invention and, not surprisingly, they often give themselves high marks. (177)

How do you know if an entity is real? Very simple–just ask yourself, ‘Can it suffer?’ When people burn down the temple of Zeus, Zeus doesn’t suffer. When the euro loses its value, the euro doesn’t suffer. When a bank goes bankrupt, the bank doesn’t suffer. When a country suffers a defeat in war, the country doesn’t really suffer. It’s just a metaphor. In contrast, when a soldier is wounded in battle, he really does suffer. When a famished peasant has nothing to eat, she suffers. When a cow is separated from her newborn calf, she suffers. This is reality.

| Of course suffering might well be caused by our belief in fictions. For example, belief in national and religious myths might cause the outbreak of war, in which millions lose their homes, their limbs and even their lives. The cause of war is fictional, but the suffering is 100 per cent real. This is exactly why we should strive to distinguish fiction from reality. (177)

In the twenty-first century we will create more powerful fictions and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era. With the help of biotechnology and computer algorithms these religions will not only control our minute-by-minute existence, but will be able to shape our bodies, brains and minds, and to create entire virtual worlds complete with hells and heavens. Being able to distinguish fiction from reality and religion from science will therefore become more difficult but more vital than ever before. (178)

5 The Odd Couple

Stories serve as the foundations and pillars of human societies. … Unfortunately, blind faith in these stories meant that human efforts frequently focused on increasing the glory of fictional entities such as gods and nations, instead of bettering the lives of real sentient beings. (179)

As technology enables us to upgrade humans, overcome old age and find the key to happiness, won’t people care less about fictional gods, nations and corporations, and focus instead on deciphering the physical and biological reality?

| It might seem so, but in fact things are far more complicated. Modern science certainly changed the rules of the game, yet it did not simply replace myths with facts. Myths continue to dominate humankind, and science only makes these myths stronger. Instead of destroying the intersubjective reality, science will enable it to control the objective and subjective realities more completely than ever before. (180)

Consequently the rise of science will make at least some myths and religions mightier than ever. To understand why, and to face the challenges of the twenty-first century, we should therefore revisit one of the most nagging questions of all: how does modern science relate to religion? It seems that people have already said a million times everything there is to say about this question. Yet in practice, science and religion are like a husband and wife who after 500 years of marriage counselling still don’t know each other. He still dreams about Cinderella and she keeps pining for Prince Charming, while they argue about whose turn it is to take out the rubbish. (181)

Germs and Demons

Most of the misunderstandings regarding science and religion result from faulty definitions of religion. (181)

Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimises human social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws. | Religion asserts that we humans are subject to a system of moral laws that we did not invent and that we cannot change. (182)

Liberals, communists and followers of other modern creeds dislike describing their own system as a ‘religion’, because they identify religion with superstitions and supernatural powers. If you tell communists or liberals that they are religious, they think you accuse them of blindly believing in groundless pipe dreams. In fact, it means only that they believe in some system of moral laws that wasn’t invented by humans, but which humans must nevertheless obey. As far as we know, all human societies believe in this. Every society tells its members that they must obey some superhuman moral law, and that breaking this law will result in catastrophe. (183)

If You Meet the Buddha

…just as the gap between religion and science is narrower than we commonly (184) think, so the gap between religion and spirituality is much wider. Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey. (185)

…religions seek to cement the worldly order whereas spirituality seeks to escape it. Often enough, one of the most important obligations for spiritual wanderers is to challenge the beliefs and conventions of dominant religions. (186)

For religions, spirituality is a dangerous threat. Religions typically strive to rein in the spiritual quests of their followers, and many religious systems have been challenged not by laypeople preoccupied with food, sex and power, but rather by spiritual truth-seekers who expected more than platitudes. (186)

25. The Pope selling indulgences for money (from a Protestant pamphlet).

From a historical perspective, the spiritual journey is always tragic, for it is a lonely path fit only for individuals rather than for entire societies. Human cooperation requires firm answers rather than just questions, and those who fume against stultified religious structures often end up forging new structures in their place. (188)

Counterfeiting God

…science always needs religious assistance in order to create viable human institutions. Scientists study how the world functions, but there is no scientific method for determining how humans ought to behave. Science tells us that humans cannot survive without oxygen. However, is it okay to execute criminals by asphyxiation? Science doesn’t know how to answer such a question. Only religions provide us with the necessary guidance. | Hence every practical project scientists undertake also relies on religious insights. (189)

This approach may sound sensible, but it misunderstands religion. Though science indeed deals only with facts, religion never confines itself to ethical judgements. Religion cannot provide us with any practical guidance unless it makes some factual claims too, and here it may well collide with science. The most important segments of many religious dogmas are not their ethical principles, but rather factual statements such as ‘God exists’, ‘the soul is punished for its sins in the afterlife’, ‘the Bible was written by a deity rather than by humans’, ‘the Pope is never wrong’. These are all factual claims. (190)

When religions advertise themselves, they tend to emphasise their beautiful values. But God often hides in the small print of factual statements. The Catholic religion markets itself as the religion of universal love and compassion. How wonderful! Who can object to that? Why, then, are not all humans Catholic? Because when you read the small print, you discover that Catholicism also demands blind obedience to a pope ‘who never makes mistakes’ even when he orders us to go on crusades and burn heretics at the stake. Such practical instructions are not deduced solely from ethical judgements. Rather, they result from conflating ethical judgements with factual statements.

| When we leave the ethereal sphere of philosophy and observe historical realities, we find that religious stories almost always include three parts:

  1. Ethical judgements, such as ‘human life is sacred’.
  2. Factual statements, such as ‘human life begins at the moment of conception’.
  3. A conflation of the ethical judgements with the factual statements, resulting in practical guidelines such as ‘you should never allow abortion, even a single day after conception’.

| Science has no authority or ability to refute or corroborate the ethical judgements religions make. But scientists do have a lot to say about religious factual statements. For example, biologists are more qualified than priests to answer factual questions such as ‘Do human fetuses have a nervous system one week after conception? Can they feel pain?’ (191)

1441, Lorenzo Valla

To cut a long story short, most peer-reviewed scientific studies agree that the Bible is a collection of numerous different texts composed by different people in different times, and that these texts were not assembled into a single holy book until long after biblical times. For example, whereas King David probably lived around 1000 BC, it is commonly accepted that the book of Deuteronomy was composed in the court of King Josiah of Judah, sometime around 620 BC, as part of a propaganda campaign aimed to strengthen Josiah’s authority. Leviticus was compiled at an even later date, no earlier than 500 BC. (195)

Rabbinical authority rested on individual intellectual abilities rather than on birth. The clash between the new literate elite and the old priestly families was inevitable. Fortunately for the rabbis, the Romans torched Jerusalem and its temple in 70 AD while while suppressing the Great Jewish Revolt. With the temple in ruins, the priestly families lost their religious authority, their economic power base and their very(195) raison d’être. Traditional Judaism – a Judaism of temples, priests and head-splitting warriors – disappeared. Its place was taken by a new Judaism of books, rabbis and hair-splitting scholars. (196)

Hence according to our best scientific knowledge, the Leviticus injunctions against homosexuality reflect nothing grander than the biases of a few priests and scholars in ancient Jerusalem. Thou science cannot decide whether people ought to obey God’s commands, it has many relevant things to say about the provenance of the Bible. If Ugandan politicians think that the power that created the cosmos, the galaxies and the black holes becomes terribly upset whenever two Homo sapiens males have a bit of fun together, then science can help disabuse them of this rather bizarre notion. (196)

[via: But so could “religions” therefore. And “science” is not a very effective means of persuasion. Harari seems a bit dismissive and snarky here.]

Holy Dogma

As long as we haven’t deciphered the mysteries of consciousness, we cannot develop a universal measurement for happiness and suffering, and we don’t know how to compare the happiness and suffering of different individuals, let alone different species. (197)

Consequently, although science has much more to contribute to ethical debates than we commonly think, there is a line it cannot cross, at least not yet. Without the guiding hand of some religion, it is impossible to maintain large-scale social orders. Even universities and laboratories need religious backing. Religion provides the ethical justification for scientific research, and in exchange gets to influence the scientific agenda and the uses of scientific discoveries. Hence you cannot understand the history of science without taking religious beliefs into account. Scientists seldom dwell on this fact, but the Scientific Revolution itself began in one of the most dogmatic, intolerant and religious societies in history. (198)

The Witch Hunt

It is customary to tell the history of modernity as a struggle between science and religion. In theory, both science and religion are interested above all in the truth, and because each upholds a different truth, they are doomed to clash. In fact, neither science nor religion cares that much about the truth, hence they can easily compromise, coexist and even cooperate.

Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. It aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth. They can therefore make good bedfellows. The uncompromising quest for truth is a spiritual journey, which can seldom remain within the confines of either religious or scientific establishments.

It would accordingly be far more correct to view modern history as the process of formulating a deal between science and one particular religion – namely, humanism. (199)

6 The Modern Covenant

Modernity is a deal. …a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power. (200)

The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens’. (201)

| On the other hand, if shit just happens, without any binding script or purpose, then humans too are not confined to any predetermined role. We can do anything we want–provided we can (201) find a way. We are constrained by nothing except our own ignorance. (202)

The modern deal thus offers humans an enormous temptation, coupled with a colossal threat. Omnipotence is in front of us, almost within our reach, but below us yawns the abyss of complete nothingness. On the practical level modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning. Modern culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, inventing, discovering and growing. At the same time, it is plagued by more existential angst than any previous culture. (202)

Why Bankers are Different from Vampires

The modern pursuit of power is fuelled by the alliance between scientific progress and economic growth. (202)

Credit is the economic manifestation of trust. (204)

For thousands of years people had little faith in future growth not because they were stupid, but because it contradicts our gut feelings, our evolutionary heritage and the way the world works. Most natural systems exist in equilibrium, and most survival struggles are a zero-sum game in which one can prosper only at the expense of another. (204)

The Miracle Pie

Evolutionary pressures have accustomed humans to see the world as a static pie. (206)

Modernity, in contrast, is based on the firm belief that economic growth is not only possible, but absolutely essential. … This fundamental dogma can be summarised in one simple idea: ‘If you have a problem, you probably need more stuff, and in order to have more stuff, you must produce more of it.’

| Modern politicians and economists insist that growth is vital for three principal reasons. Firstly, when we produce more, we can consume more, raise our standard of living and allegedly enjoy a happier life. Secondly, as long as humankind multiplies, economic growth is needed merely to stay where we are. … Thirdly, even if Indians stop multiplying, and even if the Indian middle class can be satisfied with its current standard of living, what should India do about its hundreds of millions of poverty-stricken citizens? If the economy doesn’t grow, and the pie therefore remains the same size, you can give more to the poor only by taking something from the rich. That will (206) force you to make some very hard choices, and will probably cause a lot of resentment and violence, you need a bigger pie. (207)

Indeed, it may not be wrong to call the believe in economic growth a religion, because it now purports to solve many, if not most, of our ethical dilemmas. Since economic growth is allegedly the source of all good things, it encourages people to bury their ethical disagreements and adopt whichever course of action maximises long-term growth. (208)

Most capitalists would probably dislike the label of religion, but as religions go, capitalism can at least hold its head high. Unlike other religions that promise us pie in the sky, capitalism promises miracles here on earth–and sometimes even delivers. Much of the credit for overcoming famine and plague belongs to the ardent capitalist faith in growth. Capitalism even deserves some kudos for reducing human violence and increasing tolerance and cooperation. … This mutual-benefit approach has probably helped global harmony far more than centuries of Christian preaching about loving your neighbour and turning the other cheek. (210)

The Ark Syndrome

The traditional view of the world as a pie of a fixed size presupposes that there are only two kinds o resources in the world: (212) raw materials and energy. But in truth there are three kinds of resources: raw materials, energy and knowledge. (213)

[via: Perhaps, according to Einsteinian physics, raw materials is energy (and vice versa), which reduces the number to two, energy, and knowledge.]

The real nemesis of the modern economy is ecological collapse. (214)

Humankind finds itself locked into a double race. On the one hand, we feel compelled to speed up the pace of scientific progress and economic growth. … On the other hand, we must stay at least one step ahead of ecological Armageddon. Managing this double race becomes more difficult by the year, because every stride that brings the Delhi slum-dwellers closer to the American Dream also brings the planet closer to the brink. (215)

There is no justice in history. When disaster strikes, the poor almost always suffer far more than the rich, even if the rich caused the tragedy in the first place. Global warming is already affecting the lives of poor people in arid African countries more than the (215) lives of affluent Westerners. Paradoxically, the very power of science may increase the danger, because it makes the rich complacent. (216)

Source: Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR), European Commission.

All the talk about global warming, and all the conferences, summits and protocols, have so far failed to curb global greenhouse emissions. If you look closely at the graph you see that emissions go down only during periods of economic crises and stagnation. Thus the small downturn in greenhouse emissions in 2008–9 was due not to the signing of the Copenhagen Accord, but to the global financial crisis.

Too many politicians and voters believe that as long as the economy grows, scientists and engineers could always save us from doomsday. When it comes to climate change, many growth true-believers do not just hope for miracles – they take it for granted that the miracles will happen.

| How rational is it to risk the future of humankind on the assumption that future scientists will make some unknown discoveries? Most of the presidents, ministers and CEOs who run the world are very rational people. Why are they willing to take such a gamble? Maybe because they don’t think they are gambling on their own personal future. Even if bad comes to worse and science cannot hold off the deluge, engineers could still build a hi-tech Noah’s Ark for the upper caste, while leaving billions of others to drown. The belief in this hi-tech Ark is currently one of the biggest threats to the future of humankind and of the entire ecosystem. People who believe in the hi-tech Ark should not be put in charge of the global ecology, for the same reason that people who believe in a heavenly afterlife should not be given nuclear weapons. (217)

The Rat Race

It wasn’t very hard to convince individuals to want more. Greed comes easily to humans. The big problem was to convince collective institutions such as states and churches to go along with the new ideal. For millennia, societies strove to curb individual desires and bring them into some kind of balance. It was well known that people wanted more and more for themselves, but when the pie was of a fixed size, social harmony depended on restraint. Avarice was bad. Modernity turned the world upside down. It convinced human collectives that equilibrium is far more frightening than chaos, and because avarice fuels growth, it is a force for good. Modernity accordingly inspired people to want more, and dismantled the age-old disciplines that curbed greed. (219)

7 The Humanist Revolution

The modern deal offers us power, on condition that we renounce our belief in a great cosmic plan that gives meaning to life. Yet when you examine the deal closely, you find a cunning escape clause. If humans somehow manage to find meaning without deriving it from a great cosmic plan, this is not considered a breach of contract. | This escape clause has been the salvation of modern society, for it is impossible to sustain order without meaning.  (222)

As of 2016, humankind indeed manages to hold the stick at both ends. Not only do we possess far more power than ever before, but against all expectations, God’s death did not lead to social collapse. Throughout history prophets and philosophers have argued that if humans stopped believing in a great cosmic plan, all law and order would vanish. Yet today, those who pose the greatest threat to global law and order are precisely those people who continue to believe in God and His all-encompassing plans. God-fearing Syria is a far more violent place than the atheist Netherlands. (222)

Look Inside

The antidote to a meaningless and lawless existence was provided by humanism, a revolutionary new creed that conquered the world during the last few centuries. The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhism and Daoism. Whereas traditionally the great cosmic plan gave meaning to the life of humans, humanism reverses the roles, and expects the experiences of humans to give meaning to the great cosmos. According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe. This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world. (223)

Meaning and authority always go hand in hand. Whoever determines the meaning of our actions–whether they are good or evil, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly–also gains the authority to tell us what to think and how to behave. (224)

In the Middle Ages this would have been considered the height of foolishness. The fleeting feelings of ignorant commoners were hardly a sound basis for important political decisions. (229)


© Bibliothèque nationale de France, RC-A-02764, Grandes Chroniques de France de Charles V, folio 12v.

The Holy Spirit, in the guise of a dove, delivers an ampulla full of sacred oil for the baptism of King Clovis, founder of the Frankish kingdom (illustration from the Grandes Chroniques de France, c.1380). According to the founding myth of France, this ampulla was henceforth kept in Rheims Cathedral, and all subsequent French kings were anointed with the divine oil at their coronation. Each coronation thus involved a miracle, as the empty ampulla spontaneously refilled with oil. This indicated that God himself chose the king and gave him His blessing. If God had not wished Louis IX or Louis XIV or Louis XVI to be king, the ampulla would not have refilled.

Medieval scholars clung to a classical Greek theory, according to which the movements of the stars across the sky create heavenly (230) music that permeates the entire universe. (231)

Such views are no longer in vogue. Today humanists believe that the only source for artistic creation and aesthetic value is human feelings. … In ethics, the humanist motto is ‘if it feels good–do it’. In politics, humanism instructs us that ‘the voter knows best’. In aesthetics, humanism says that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ (231)

 ‘Everything comes back to the individual customer and to the question how much the customer is willing to pay for meat . . . we must remember that it would be impossible to maintain current levels of global meat consumption without the [enhanced] modern chicken . . . if customers ask us only for the cheapest meat possible – that’s what the customers will get . . . Customers need to decide what is most important to them – price, or something else.’ – Leif Andersson

Finally, the rise of humanist ideas has revolutionised education systems too. (233)

29. Humanist Politics: the voter knows best.

30. Humanist Economics: the customer is always right.

31. Humanist Aesthetics: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder (Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain in a special exhibition of modern art at the National Gallery of Scotland.)

Humanist Ethics: if it feels good–do it!

Humanist Education: think for yourself!

Ask a teacher–whether in kindergarten, school or college–what she is trying to teach. ‘Well,’ she will answer, ‘I teach the kids history, or quantum physics, or art–but above all I try to teach them to think for themselves.’ It may not always succeed, but that is what humanist education seeks to do. (236)

As the source of meaning and authority was relocated from the sky to human feelings, the nature of the entire cosmos changed. The exterior universe – hitherto teeming with gods, muses, fairies and ghouls – became empty space. The interior world – hitherto an insignificant enclave of crude passions – became deep and rich beyond measure. (236)

When Nietzsche declared that God is dead, this is what he meant. At least in the West, God has become an abstract idea that some accept and others reject, but it makes little difference either way. (236)

If I believe in God at all, it is my choice to believe. If my inner self tells me to believe in God – then I believe. I believe because I feel God’s presence, and my heart tells me He is there. But if I no longer feel God’s presence, and if my heart suddenly tells me that there is no God – I will cease believing. Either way, the real source of authority is my own feelings. So even while saying that I believe in God, the truth is I have a much stronger belief in my own inner voice. (237)

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Like every other source of authority, feelings have their shortcomings. Humanism assumes that each human has a single authentic inner self, but when I try to listen to it, I often encounter either silence or a cacophony of contending voices. In order to overcome this problem, humanism has upheld not just a new source of authority, but also a new method for getting in touch with authority and gaining true knowledge.

| In medieval Europe, the chief formula for knowledge was: Knowledge = Scriptures × Logic. {footnote: The formula takes a multiplication symbol because the elements work one on the other. At least according to medieval scholastics, you cannot understand the Bible without logic. If your logic value is zero, then even if you read every page of the Bible, the sum of your knowledge would still be zero. Conversely, if your scripture value is zero, then no amount of logic can help you. If the formula used the addition symbol, the implication would be that somebody with lots of logic and no scriptures would still have a lot of knowledge–which you and I may find reasonable, but medieval scholastics did not} (237)

The Scientific Revolution proposed a very different formula for knowledge: Knowledge = Empirical Data x Mathematics. (238)

As humans gained confidence in themselves, a new formula for acquiring ethical knowledge appeared: Knowledge = Experiences x Sensitivity. If we wish to know the answer to any ethical question, we need to connect to our inner experiences, and observe them with the utmost sensitivity. In practice, this means that we seek knowledge by spending years collecting experiences, and sharpening our sensitivity so we can understand these experiences correctly. (239)

…an experience is a subjective phenomenon made up of three main ingredients: sensations, emotions and thoughts. (239)

And what is ‘sensitivity’? It means two things. Firstly, paying attention to my sensations, emotions and thoughts. Secondly, allowing these sensations, emotions and thoughts to influence me. (239)

Humanism thus sees life as 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 wide variety of intellectual, emotional and physical experiences. In the early nineteenth century Wilhelm von Humboldt–one of the chief architects of the modern education system–said that the aim of existence is ‘a distillation of the widest possible experience of life into wisdom.’ He also wrote that ‘there is only one summit in life–to have taken the measure in feeling of everything human’. (240)

The Truth About War

34. Jean-Jacques Walter, Gustav Adolph of Sweden at the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631).

35. Pieter Snayers, The Battle of White Mountain.

36. Otto Dix, The War (1929-32).

37. Tom Lea, That 2,000 Yard Stare (1944).

If you want to understand war, don’t look up at the general on the hilltop, or at angels in the sky. Instead, look straight into the eyes of the common soldiers.

The Humanist Schism

Humanism split into three main branches. The orthodox branch holds that each human being is a unique individual possessing a distinctive inner voice and a never-to-be-repeated series of experiences. … The more liberty individuals enjoy, the more beautiful, rich and meaningful is the world. Due to this emphasis on liberty, the orthodox branch of humanism is known as ‘liberal humanism’ or simply as ‘liberalism.’ {footnote: In American politics, liberalism is often interpreted far more narrowly, and contrasted with ‘conservatism’. In the broad sense of the term, however, most American conservatives are also liberal.} (249)

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as humanism gained increasing social credibility and political power, it sprouted two very different offshoots: socialist humanism, which encompassed a plethora of socialist and communist movements, and evolutionary humanism, whose most famous advocates were the Nazis. (249)

Whereas liberalism turns my gaze inwards, emphasizing my uniqueness and the uniqueness of my nation, socialism demands that I stop obsessing about me and my feelings and instead focus on what others are feeling and how my actions influence their experiences. (253)

Whereas in liberal politics the voter knows best, and in liberal economics the customer is always right, in socialist politics the party knows best, and in socialist economics the trade union is always right. Authority and meaning still come from human experience – both the party and the trade union are composed of people and work to alleviate human misery – yet individuals must listen to the party and the trade union rather than to their personal feelings. (254)

Evolutionary humanism has a different solution to the problem of conflicting human experiences. Rooting itself in the firm ground of Darwinian evolutionary theory, it says that conflict is something to applaud rather than lament. Conflict is the raw material of natural selection, which pushes evolution forward. Some humans are simply superior to others, and when human experiences collide, the fittest humans should steamroll everyone else. (254)

Nietzsche summed it up by saying that war is ‘the school of life’ and that ‘what does not kill me makes me stronger’. (256)

Evolutionary humanism played an important part in the shaping of modern culture, and is likely to play an even greater role in the shaping of the twenty-first century. (259)

Is Beethoven Better than Chuck Berry?

Yet humankind itself is not exempt from the forces of evolution. Just as humans are superior to wolves, so some human cultures are more advanced than others. There is an unambiguous hierarchy of human experiences, and we shouldn’t be apologetic about it. The Taj Mahal is more beautiful than a straw hut, Michelangelo’s David is superior to my five-year-old niece’s latest clay figurine, and Beethoven composed far better music than Chuck Berry or the Congolese pygmies. There, we’ve said it!

| According to evolutionary humanists, anyone arguing that all human experiences are equally valuable is either an imbecile or a coward. Such vulgarity and timidity will lead only to the degeneration and extinction of humankind, as human progress is impeded (262) in the name of cultural relativism or social equality. (263)

The Humanist Wars of Religion

As long as we all agree that God is dead and that only the human experience gives meaning to the universe, does it really matter whether we think that all human experiences are equal or that some are superior to others? Yet as humanism conquered the world, these internal schisms widened, and eventually flared up into the deadliest war of religion in history. (263)

Under liberalism, went a famous quip, everyone is free to starve. Even worse, by encouraging people to view themselves as isolated individuals, liberalism separates them from their other class members, and prevents them from uniting against the system that oppresses them. Liberalism thereby perpetuates inequality, condemning the masses to poverty and the elite to alienation. (264)

38. The evacuation of the American Embassy in Saigon.

Back in the spring of 1914 humankind was speeding on the liberal highway when it took a wrong turn and entered a cul-de-sac. It then required eight decades and three horrendous global wars to find its way back to the highway. Of course, these decades were not a total waste, as they did give us antibiotics, nuclear energy and computers, as well as feminism, de-colonialism and free sex. In addition, liberalism itself smarted from the experience, and is less conceited than it was a century ago. It has adopted various ideas and institutions from its socialist and fascist rivals, in particular a commitment to provide the general public with education, health and welfare services. Yet the core liberal package has changed surprisingly little. Liberalism still sanctifies individual liberties above all, (268) and still has a firm belief in the voter and the customer. In the early twenty-first century, this is the only show in town. (269)

Electricity, Genetics and Radical Islam

Whereas the Chinese don’t know what they believe, religious fundamentalists know only too well. More than a century after Nietzsche pronounced Him dead, God seems to be making a comeback. But this is a mirage. God is dead–it’s just taking a while to get rid of the body. (270)

Religion and technology always dance a delicate tango. They push one another, depend on one another and cannot stray too far away from one another. Technology depends on religion because every invention has many potential applications, and the engineers need some prophet to make the crucial choices and point towards the required destination. Thus in the nineteenth century engineers invented locomotives, radios and internal combustion engines. But as the twentieth century proved, you can use these very same tools to create fascist societies, communist dictatorships and liberal democracies. Without religious convictions, the locomotives cannot decide which way to go. (270)

New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. (270)

…religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day forfeit their ability even to understand the questions being asked. What will happen to the job market once artificial intelligence outperforms humans in most cognitive tasks? What will be the political impact of a massive new class of economically useless people? What will happen to relationships, families and pension funds when nanotechnology and regenerative medicine turn eighty into the new fifty? What will happen to human society when biotechnology enables us to have designer babies, and to open unprecedented gaps between rich and poor? (271)

True, hundreds of millions may nevertheless go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism. But numbers alone don’t count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by the backward-looking masses. (271)

Why did Marx and Lenin succeed where Hong and the Mahdi failed? not because socialist humanism was philosophically more sophisticated than Islamic and Christian theology, but rather because Marx and Lenin devoted more attention to understanding the technological and economic realities of their time than to scrutinising ancient texts and prophetic dreams. Steam engines, railroads, telegraphs and electricity created unheard-of problems (273) as well as unprecedented opportunities. (274)

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. These powers are far more potent than steam and the telegraph, and they will not be used merely for the production of food, textiles, vehicles and weapons. The main products of the twenty-first century will be bodies, brains and minds, and the gap between those who know how to engineer bodies and brains and those who do not will be far bigger than the gap between Dickens’s Britain and the Mahdi’s Sudan. Indeed, it will be bigger than the gap between Sapiens and Neanderthals. 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. (275)

If Marx came back to life today, he would probably urge his few remaining disciples to devote less time to reading Das Kapital and more time to studying the Internet and the human genome. (276)

Islam, Christianity and other traditional religions are still important players in the world. Yet their role is now largely reactive. In the past, they were a creative force. Christianity, for example, spread the hitherto heretical notion that all humans are equal before God, thereby changing human political structures, social hierarchies and even gender relations. in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus went further, insisting that the meek and oppressed are God’s favourite people, thus turning the pyramid of power on its head, and providing ammunition for generations of revolutionaries. (276)

Yet it and the other theist religions have long since turned from creative into reactive forces. They are busy with rearguarding holding operations more than with pioneering novel technologies, innovative economic (276) methods or groundbreaking social ideas. They now mostly agonise over the technologies, methods and ideas propagated by other movements. (277)

As yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the twentieth century? (277)

Now ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of traditional religions such as Islam and Christianity in the twentieth century? (277)

Billions of people, including many scientists, continue to use religious scriptures as a source of authority, but these texts are no longer a source of creativity. (277)

[via: Harvey Cox, Rob Bell, Tim Mackie, etc.]

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. (278)

PART III Homo Sapiens Loses Control

39. Brains as computers — computers as brains. Artificial intelligence is now poised to surpass human intelligence.

Can humans go on running the world and giving it meaning?

How do biotechnology and artificial intelligence threaten humanism?

Who might inherit humankind, and what new religion might replace humanism?

8 The Time Bomb in the Laboratory

Attributing free will to humans is not an ethical judgement–it purports to be a factual description of the world. … The contradiction between free will and contemporary science is the elephant in the laboratory, whom many prefer not to see as they peer into their microscopes and fMRI scanners. (284)

The electrochemical brain processes that result in murder are either deterministic or random or a combination of both – but they are never free. For example, when a neuron fires an electric charge, this may either be a deterministic reaction to external stimuli, or it might be the outcome of a random event such as the spontaneous decomposition of a radioactive atom. Neither option leaves any room for free will. Decisions reached through a chain reaction of biochemical events, each determined by a previous event, are certainly not free. Decisions resulting from random subatomic accidents aren’t free either; they are just random. And when random accidents combine with deterministic processes, (284) we get probabilistic outcomes, but this too doesn’t amount to freedom. (285)

When confronted with such scientific explanations people often brush them aside, pointing out that they feel free and that they act according to their own wishes and decisions. This is true. Humans act according to their desires. If by ‘free will’ we mean the ability to act according to our desires–then yes, humans have free (285) will, and so do chimpanzees, dogs and parrots. … But the million-dollar question is not whether parrots and human can act upon their inner desires–the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place. … I don’t choose any of these wishes. I feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in my brain. These processes might be deterministic or random, but not free. (286)

Today we can use brain scanners to predict people’s desires and decisions well before they are aware of them. … Neural events in the brain indicating the person’s decision begin from a few hundred milliseconds to a few seconds before the person is aware of this choice. (286)

However, once we accept that there is no soul and that humans have no inner essence called ‘the self’, it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘How does the self choose its desires?’ It’s like asking a bachelor, ‘How does your wife choose her clothes?’ In reality, there is only a stream of consciousness, and desires arise and pass away within this stream, but there is no permanent self that owns the desires, hence it is meaningless to ask whether I choose my desires deterministically, randomly or freely. (287)

Next time a thought pops into your mind, stop and ask yourself: ‘Why did I think this particular thought? Did I decide (287) a minute ago to think this thought, and only then think it? Or did it just arise, without any direction or permission from me? If I am indeed the master of my thoughts and decisions, can I decide not to think about anything at all for the next sixty seconds?’ Try that, and see what happens. (288)

Doubting free will is not just a philosophical exercise. It has practical implications. If organisms indeed lack free will, it implies that we can manipulate and even control their desires using drugs, genetic engineering or direct brain stimulation. (288)

Experiments performed on Homo sapiens indicate that like rats humans too can be manipulated, and that it is possible to create or annihilate even complex feelings such as love, anger, fear and depression by stimulating the right spots in the human brain. (289)

Who Are I?

Science undermines not only the liberal belief in free will, but also the belief in individualism. (292)

…over the last few decades the life sciences have reached the conclusion that this liberal story is pure mythology. The single authentic self is as real as the eternal soul, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. If I look really deep within myself, the seeming unity that I take for granted dissolves into a cacophony of conflicting voices, none of which is ‘my true self’. Humans aren’t individuals. They’re ‘dividuals’. (293)

…the experiencing self and the narrating self. The experiencing self is our moment-to-moment consciousness. For the experiencing self, it’s obvious that the ‘long’ part of the cold-water experiment was worse. First you experience (296) water at 14°C for sixty seconds, which is every bit as bad as what you experience in the ‘short’ part, and then you must endure another thirty seconds of water at 15°C, which is not quite as bad, but still far from pleasant. For the experiencing self, it is impossible that adding a slightly unpleasant experience to a very unpleasant experience will make the entire episode more appealing.

| However, the experiencing self remembers nothing. It tells no stories, and is seldom consulted when it comes to big decisions. Retrieving memories, telling stories and making big decisions are all the monopoly of a very different entity inside us: the narrating self. (297)

Every time the narrating self evaluates our experiences, it discounts their duration and adopts the ‘peak-end rule’–it remembers only the peak moment and the end moment, and assesses the whole experience according to their average. (297)

The narrating self doesn’t aggregate experiences–it averages them. (298)

40. An iconic image of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. In most cultures, childbirth is portrayed as a wonderful experience rather than as a trauma.

The narrating self goes over our experiences with a sharp pair of scissors and a thick black marker. It censors at least some moments of horror, and files in the archive a story with a happy ending. (300)

Truth be told, the experiencing self and the narrating self are not completely separate entities but are closely intertwined. The narrating self uses our experiences as important (but not exclusive) raw materials for its stories. These stories, in turn, shape what the experiencing self actually feels. We experience hunger differently (300 when we fast during Ramadan, when we fast in preparation for a medical examination, and when we don’t eat because we have no money. The different meanings ascribed to our hunger by the narrating self create very different actual experiences.

| Furthermore, the experiencing self is often strong enough to sabotage the best-laid plans of the narrating self. I might, for instance, make a New Year’s resolution to start a diet and go to the gym every day. Such grand decisions are the monopoly of the narrating self. But the following week when it’s gym time, the experiencing self takes over. I don’t feel like going to the gym, and instead I order pizza, sit on the sofa and turn on the TV.

| Nevertheless, most people identify with their narrating self. When they say ‘I’, they mean the story in their head, not the stream of experiences they undergo. We identify with the inner system that takes the crazy chaos of life and spins out of it seemingly logical and consistent yarns. It doesn’t matter that the plot is full of lies and lacunas, and that it is rewritten again and again, so that today’s story flatly contradicts yesterday’s. The important thing is that we always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death (and perhaps even beyond). This gives rise to the questionable liberal belief that I am an individual, and that I possess a clear and consistent inner voice that provides meaning for the entire universe. [via: See Whose In Charge? by Michael Gazzaniga]

The Meaning of Life

Paradoxically, the more sacrifices we make for an imaginary story, the more tenaciously we hold on to it, because we desperately want to give meaning to these sacrifices and to the suffering we have caused. (302)

41. A few of the victims of the Isonzo battles. Was their sacrifice in vain?

If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable. The more painful the sacrifice, the more convinced they will be of the existence of the imaginary recipient. A poor peasant sacrificing a valuable bull to Jupiter will become convinced that Jupiter really exists, otherwise how can he excuse his stupidity? The peasant will sacrifice another bull, and another, and another, just so he won’t have to admit that all the previous bulls were wasted. (304)

42. The Scottish Parliament building. Our sterling did not die in vain.

Our narrating self would much prefer to continue suffering in the future, just so it won’t have to admit that our past suffering was devoid of all meaning. (306)

..once the heretical scientific insights are translated into everyday technology, routine activities and economic structures, it will become increasingly difficult to sustain this double-game, and we–or our heirs–will probably require a brand-new package of religious beliefs and political institutions. At the beginning of the third millennium liberalism is threatened not by the philosophical (307) idea that ‘there are no free individuals’, but rather by concrete technologies. We are about to face a flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans. Will democracy, the free market and human rights survive this flood? (308)

9 The Great Decoupling

Liberals uphold free markets and democratic elections because they believe that every human is a uniquely valuable individual, whose free choices are the ultimate source of authority. In the twenty-first century three practical developments might make this belief obsolete:

  1. Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, hence the economic and political system will stop attaching much value to them.
  2. The system will continue to find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals.
  3. The system will still find value in some unique individuals, but these will constitute a new elite of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population. (309)

Though scholars may quibble about the exact relations between them, in the following two centuries a common argument in defence of democracy explained that giving citizens political rights is good, because the soldiers and workers of democratic countries perform better than those of dictatorships. Allegedly, granting political rights to people increases their motivation in their initiative, which is useful both on the battlefield and in the factory. (310)

However, in the twenty-first century the majority of both men and women might lose their military and economic value. Gone is the mass conscription of the two world wars. The most advanced armies of the twenty-first century rely far more on cutting-edge technology. (311)

Aside from their unpredictability and their susceptibility to fear, hunger and fatigue, flesh-and-blood soldiers think and move on an increasingly irrelevant timescale. (311)

43. Left: Soldiers in action at the Battle of the Somme, 1916. Right: A pilotless drone.

Even if you care more about justice than victory, you should probably opt to replace your soldiers and pilots with autonomous robots and drones. Human soldiers murder, rape and pillage, and even when they try to behave themselves, they all too often kill civilians by mistake. Computers programmed with ethical algorithms could far more easily conform to the latest rulings of the international criminal court. (313)

…we are on the brink of a momentous revolution. Humans are in danger of losing their economic value because intelligence is decoupling from consciousness. (314)

Science fiction movies generally assume that in order to match and surpass human intelligence, computers will have to develop consciousness. But real science tells a different story. There might be several alternative ways leading to super-intelligence, only some of which pass through the straits of consciousness. (314)

This raises a novel question: which of the two is really important, intelligence or consciousness? As long as they went hand in hand, debating their relative value was just an amusing pastime for philosophers. But in the twenty-first century this is becoming an urgent political and economic issue. And it is sobering to realise that, at least for armies and corporations, the answer is straightforward: intelligence is mandatory but consciousness is optional. (314)

44. IBM’s Watson defeating its two humans opponents in Jeopardy! in 2011.

The Useless Class

The most important question in twenty-first-century economics may well be what to do with all the superfluous people. What will conscious humans do, once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better? (322)

Humans have two basic types (322) of abilities: physical and cognitive. As long as machines competed with humans merely in physical abilities, there were countless cognitive tasks that humans performed better. So as machines took over purely manual jobs, humans focused on jobs requiring at least some cognitive skills. Yet what will happen once algorithms outperform us in remembering, analysing and recognising patterns? (33)

  1. Organisms are algorithms. Every animal–including Homo sapiens–is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.
  2. Algorithmic calculations are not affected by the materials from which the calculator is built. Whether an abacus is made of wood, iron or plastic, two beads plus two beads equals four beads.
  3. Hence there is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that non-organic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass. As long as the calculations remain valid, what does it matter whether the algorithms are manifested in carbon or silicon?

…it turns out that ‘for ever’ often means no more than a decade or two. (323)

45. Deep Blue defeating Garry Kasparov.

As I have repeatedly stressed, AI is nowhere near human-like existence. But 99 per cent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs. For AI to squeeze humans out of the job market it needs only outperform us in the specific abilities a particular profession demands. (326)

VITAL, Deep Knowledge Ventures

The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms.

| Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, already today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are forty. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Many if not most humans may be unable to do so.

| The coming technological bonanza will probably make it feasible to feed and support these useless masses even without any effort from their side. But what will keep them occupied and content? People must do something, or they go crazy. (331)

A Probability of 87 Per Cent

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the belief in individualism nevertheless made good practical sense, because there were no external algorithms that could actually monitor me effectively. (334)

However, twenty-first century technology may enable external algorithms to ‘hack humanity’ and know me far better than I know myself. Once this happens, the belief in individualism will collapse and authority will shift from individual humans to networked algorithms. People will no longer see themselves as autonomous beings running their lives according to their wishes, but instead will become accustomed to seeing themselves as a collection of biochemical mechanisms that is constantly monitored and guided by a network of electronic algorithms. (334)

When faced by difficult dilemmas and decisions, I may stop searching for my inner voice and instead consult my inner genetic parliament. (337)

Algorithms won’t revolt and enslave us. Rather, they will be so good at making decisions for us that it would be madness not to follow their advice.(339)

Google Flu Trends; Baseline Study; Fit.

Humans will no longer be autonomous entities directed by the stories their narrating self invents. Instead, they will be integral parts of a huge global network. (343)

In the twenty-first century our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos. (346)

From Oracle to Sovereign

Microsoft Cortana.

Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. (349)

Eventually, we may reach a point when it will be impossible to disconnect from this all-knowing network even for a moment. Disconnection will mean death. If medical hopes are realised, future people will incorporate into their bodies a host of biometric devices, bionic organs and nano-robots, which will monitor our health and defend us from infections, illnesses and damage. Yet these devices will have to be online 24/7, both in order to be updated with the latest medical developments, and to protect them from the new plagues of cyberspace. Just as my home computer is constantly attacked by viruses, worms and Trojan horses, so will be my pacemaker, hearing aid and nanotech immune system. If I don’t update my body’s anti-virus program regularly, I will wake up one day to discover that the millions of nano-robots coursing through my veins are now controlled by a North Korean hacker. (349)

Some people are indeed horrified by this development, but the fact is that millions willingly embrace it. Already today many of us give us our privacy and our individuality by conducting much of our lives online, recording our every action and becoming hysterical if connection to the net is interrupted even for a few minutes. The shifting of authority from humans to algorithms is happening all around us, not as a result of some momentous governmental decision, but due to a flood of mundane personal choices. (350)

In the twenty-first century the individual is more likely to disintegrate gently from within than to be brutally crushed from without. (350)

Upgrading Inequality

As of 2016, the sixty-two richest people in the world were worth as much as the poorest 3.6 billion people! Since the world’s population is about 7.2 billion, it means that these sixty-two billionaires together hold as much wealth as the entire bottom half of humankind. (352)

Twentieth-century medicine aimed to heal the sick. Twenty-first-century medicine is increasingly aiming to upgrade the healthy. (353)

The great human projects of the twentieth century–overcoming famine, plague and war–aimed to safeguard a universal norm of abundance, health and peace for everyone without exception. The new projects of the twenty-first century–gaining immortality, bliss and divinity–also hope to serve the whole of humankind. However, because these projects aim at surpassing rather than safeguarding the norm, they may well result in the creation of a new superhuman caste that will abandon its liberal roots and treat normal humans no better than nineteenth-century Europeans treated Africans.

| If scientific discoveries and technological developments split humankind into a mass of useless humans and a small elite of upgraded superhumans, or if authority shifts altogether away from human beings into the hands of highly intelligent algorithms, then liberalism will collapse. What new religions or ideologies might fill the resulting vacuum and guide the subsequent evolution of our godlike descendants? (355)

10 The Ocean of Consciousness

The new religions are unlikely to emerge from the caves of Afghanistan or from the madrasas of the Middle East. Rather, they will emerge from research laboratories. Just as socialism took over the world by promising salvation through steam and electricity, so in the coming decades new techno-religions may conquer the world by promising salvation through algorithms and genes.

| Despite all the talk of radical Islam and Christian fundamentalism, the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not the Islamic State or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley. (356)

These new techno-religions can be divided into two main types: techno-humanism and data religion. Data religion aruges that humans have completed their cosmic task and should now pass the torch on to entirely new kinds of entities. We will discuss the dreams and nightmares of data religion in the next chapter. This chapter i dedicated to the more conservative creed of (356) techno-humanism, which still sees humans as the apex of creation and clings to many traditional humanist values. Techno-humanism agrees that Homo sapiens as we know it has run its historical course and will no longer be relevant in the future, but concludes that we should therefore use tehcnology in order to create Homo deus–a much superior human model. Homo deus will retain some essential human features, but will also enjoy upgraded physical and mental abilities that will enable it to hold its own even against the most sophisticated non-conscious algorithms. Since intelligence is decoupling from consciousness, and since non-conscious intelligence is developing at breakneck speed, humans must actively upgrade their minds if they want to stay in the game. (357)

The mental renovations of the first Cognitive Revolution gave Homo sapiens access to the inter-subjective realm and turned them into the rulers of the planet; a second cognitive revolution might give Homo deus access to unimaginable new realms and make them lords of the galaxy. (357)

Gap the Mind

Through trial and error we are learning how to engineer mental states, but we seldom comprehend the full implications of such manipulations. Worse still, since we are unfamiliar with the full spectrum of mental states, we don’t know what mental aims to set ourselves. (358)

Just as the spectrums of light and sound are far broader than what we humans can see and hear, so the spectrum of mental states is far larger than what the average human perceives. (358)

The study of the human mind has so far assumed that Homo sapiens is Homer Simpson. (359)

46. Humans can see only a minuscule part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The spectrum in its entirety is about 10 trillion times larger than that of visible light. Might the mental spectrum be equally vast?

The humanist revolution caused modern Western culture to lose faith and interest in superior mental states, and to sanctify the mundane experiences of the average Joe. Modern Western culture is therefore unique in lacking a specialised class of people who seek to experience extraordinary mental states. It believes anyone attempting to do so is a drug addict, mental patient or charlatan. Consequently, though we have a detailed map of the mental landscape of Harvard psychology students, we know far less about the mental landscapes of Native American shamans, Buddhist monks or Sufi mystics. (361)

47. A spectrogram of a bowhead whale song. How does a whale experience this song? The Voyager record included a whale song in addition to Beethoven, Bach and Chuck Berry. We can only hope it is a good one.

48. The spectrum of consciousness.

I Smell Fear

…archaic humans probably made extensive use of their sense of smell. Hunter-gatherers are able to smell from a distance the difference between various animal species, various humans and even various emotions. Fear, for example, smells different to courage. When a man is afraid he secretes different chemicals compared to when he is full of courage. If you sat among an archaic band debating whether to start a war against the neighbours, you could literary smell public opinion. (365)

Modern humanity is sick with FOMO–Fear Of Missing Out–and though we have more choice than ever before, we have lost the ability to really pay attention to whatever we choose. (366)

In addition to smelling and paying attention, we have also been losing our ability to dream. (366)

The attention helmet works a bit like the impatient friend. … If we start using the attention helmet in more and more situations, (367) we may end up losing our ability to tolerate confusion, doubts and contradictions, just as we have lost our ability to smell, dream and pay attention. The system may push us in that direction, because it usually rewards us for the decisions we make rather than for our doubts. Yet a life of resolute decisions and quick fixes may be poorer and shallower than one of doubts and contradictions.

| When we mix a practical ability to engineer minds with our ignorance of the mental spectrum and with the narrow interests of governments, armies and corporations, we get a recipe for trouble. We may successfully upgrade our bodies and our brains, while losing our minds in the process. Indeed, techno-humanism may end up downgrading humans. The system may prefer downgraded humans not because they would possess any superhuman knacks, but because they would lack some really disturbing human qualities that hamper the system and slow it down. … For millions of years we were enhanced chimpanzees. In the future, we may become oversized ants. (358)

The Nail on Which the Universe Hangs

Techno-humanism faces another dire threat. Like all humanist sects, techno-humanism too sanctifies the human will, seeing it as the nail on which the entire universe hangs. Techno-humanism expects our desires to choose which mental abilities to develop and thereby determine the shape of future minds. Yet what will happen once technological progress makes it possible to reshape and engineer those desires? (368)

…humanism demands that we show some guts, listen to the inner messages even if they scare us, identify our authentic voice and then follow its instructions regardless of the difficulties. (369)

Technological progress has a very different agenda. It doesn’t want to listen to our inner voices. It wants to control them. (369)

Humanists are often appalled by this approach, but we had better not pass judgement on it too quickly. The humanist recommendation to listen to ourselves has ruined the lives of many a person, whereas the right dosage of the right chemical has greatly improved the well-being and relationships of millions. (369)

Silencing annoying noises inside my head seems like a wonderful idea, provided it enables me to finally hear my deep authentic self. But if there is no authentic self, how do I decide which voices to silence and which to amplify? (370)

Once we can design and redesign our will, we could no longer see it as the ultimate source of all meaning and authority. For no matter what our will says, we can always make it say something else. (370)

Techno-humanism faces an impossible dilemma here. It considers the human will to be the most important thing in the universe, hence it pushes humankind to develop technologies that can control and redesign the will. After all, it’s tempting to gain control over the most important thing in the world. Yet should we ever achieve such control, techno-humanism would not know what to do with it, because the sacred human will would become just another designer product. We can never deal with such technologies as long as we believe that the human will and the human experience are the supreme source of authority and meaning.

Hence a bolder techno-religion seeks to sever the humanist umbilical cord altogether. It foresees a world which does not revolve around the desires and experiences of any humanlike beings. What might replace desires and experiences as the source of all meaning and authority? As of 2016, only one candidate is sitting in history’s reception room waiting for the job interview. This candidate is information. The most interesting emerging religion is Dataism, which venerates neither gods nor man – it worships data.

11 The Data Religion

[via: I’m having a surreal experience, as I’m waiting to get my hair cut, and John Lennon’s “Imagine” is playing on the sound system, while I’m reading this chapter.]

Dataism declares that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing. … Dataism thereby collapses the barrier between animals and machines, and expects electronic algorithms to eventually decipher and outperform biochemical algorithms. (372)

Dataism is most firmly entrenched in its two mother disciplines: computer science and biology. Of the two, biology is the more important. It was biology’s embrace of Dataism that turned a limited breakthrough in computer science into a world-shattering cataclysm that may completely transform the very nature of life. You may not agree with the idea that organisms are algorithms, and that giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data. But you should know that this is current scientific dogma, and that it is changing our world beyond recognition.| Not only individual organisms are seen today as data-processing systems, but also entire societies such as beehives, bacteria colonies, forests and human cities. (373)

This extreme situation, in which all data is processed and all decisions are made by a single central processor, is called (375) communism. (376)

49. The Soviet leadership in Moscow, 1963: centralised data processing.

50. Commotion on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade: distributed data processing.

Capitalism did not defeat communism because capitalism was more ethical, because individual liberties are sacred or because God was angry with the heathen communists. Rather, capitalism won the Cold War because distributed data processing works better than centralised data processing, at least in periods of accelerating technological change. (377)

Where Has All the Power Gone?

This implies that as data-processing conditions change again in the twenty-first century, democracy might decline and even disappear. As both the volume and speed of data increase, venerable institutions like elections, political parties and parliaments might become obsolete–not because they are unethical, but because they can’t process data efficiently enough. (378)

The governmental tortoise cannot keep up with the technological hare. It is overwhelmed by data. (379)

The sad truth is that nobody knows where all the power has gone. Power will definitely not shift back to ordinary voters if Britain leaves the EU nor if Trump takes over the White House. (380)

Precisely because technology is now moving so fast, and parliaments and dictators alike are overwhelmed by data they cannot process quickly enough, present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago. Consequently, in the early twenty-first century, politics is consequently bereft of grand visions. Government has become mere administration. It manages the country, but it no longer leads it. Government ensures that teachers are paid on time and sewage systems don’t overflow, but it has no idea where the country will be in twenty years.

| To a certain extent, this is a very good thing. Given that some of the big political visions of the twentieth century led us to Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the Great Leap Forward, maybe we are better off in the hands of petty-minded bureaucrats. Mixing godlike technology with megalomaniac politics is a recipe for disaster. (381)

If in the twenty-first century traditional political structures can no longer process the data fast enough to produce meaningful visions, then new and more efficient structures will evolve to take their place. These new structures may be very different from any previous political institutions, whether democratic or authoritarian. The only question is who will build and control these structures. If humankind is no longer up to the task, perhaps it might give somebody else a try. (382)

History in a Nutshell

  1. Increasing the number of processors. A city of 100,000 people has more computing power than a village of 1,000 people.
  2. Increasing the variety of processors. Different processors may use diverse ways to calculate and analyse data. Using several kinds of processors in a single system may therefore increase its dynamism and creativity. A conversation between a peasant, a priest and a physician may produce novel ideas that would never emerge from a conversation between three hunter-gatherers.
  3. Increasing the number of connections between processors. There is little point in increasing the mere number and variety of processors if they are poorly connected to each other. A trade network linking ten cities is likely to result in many more economic, technological and social innovations than ten isolated cities.
  4. Increasing the freedom of movement along existing connections. Connecting processors is hardly useful if data cannot flow freely. Just building roads between ten cities won’t be very useful if they are plagued by robbers, or if some paranoid despot doesn’t allow merchants and travellers to move as they wish. (383)

If humankind is indeed a single data-processing system, what is its output? Dataists would say that its output will be the creation of a new and even more efficient data-processing system, called the Internet-of-All-Things. Once this mission is accomplished, Homo sapiens will vanish. (386)

Information Wants to Be Free

According to Dataism, human experiences are not sacred and Homo sapiens isn’t the apex of creation or a precursor of some future Homo deus. Humans are merely tools for creating the Internet-of-All-Things, which may eventually spread out from planet Earth to pervade the whole galaxy and even the whole universe. This cosmic data-processing system would be like God. It will be everywhere and will control everything, and humans are destined to merge into it. (386)

First and foremost a Dataist ought to maximise data flow by connecting to more and more media, and producing and consuming more and more information. Like other successful religions, Dataism is also missionary. Its second commandment is to link everything to the system, including heretics who don’t want to be plugged in. And ‘everything’ means more than just humans. It means every thing. (387)

Record, Upload, Share!

The individual is becoming a tiny chip inside a giant system that nobody really understands. (390)

Humanism holds that experiences occur inside us, and that we ought to find within ourselves the meaning of all that happens, thereby infusing the universe with meaning. Dataists believe (391) that experiences are valueless if they are not shared, and that we need not–indeed cannot–find meaning within ourselves. … Why write anything if nobody else can read it? The new motto says: ‘If you experience something–record it. If you record something–upload it. If you upload something–share it.’ (392)

Throughout this book we have repeatedly asked what makes humans superior to other animals. Dataism has a new and simple answer. In themselves, human experiences are not superior at all to the experiences of wolves or elephants. One bit of data is as good as another. However, humans can write poems and blogs about their experiences and post them online, thereby enriching the global data-processing system. That makes their bits count. Wolves cannot do this. Hence all the experiences of wolves – as deep and complex as they may be – are worthless. No wonder we are so busy converting our experiences into data. It isn’t a question of trendiness. It is a question of survival. We must prove to ourselves and to the system that we still have value. And value lies not in having experiences, but in turning these experiences into free-flowing data. (392)

Know Thyself

By equating the human experience with data patterns, Dataism undermines our primary source of authority and meaning and heralds a tremendous religious revolution, the like of which has not been seen since the eighteenth century. In the days of Locke, Hume and Voltaire humanists argued that ‘God is a product of the human imagination’. Dataism now gives humanists a taste of their own medicine, and tells them: ‘Yes, God is a product of the human imagination, but human imagination in turn is just the product of biochemical algorithms.’ In the eighteenth century, humanism sidelined God by shifting from a deo-centric to a homo-centric world view. In the twenty-first century, Dataism may sideline humans by shifting from a homo-centric to a data-centric view. (395)

For millions upon millions of years, feelings were the best algorithms in the world. (397)

Yet in the twenty-first century, feelings are no longer the best algorithms in the world. … The Google and Facebook algorithms not only know exactly how you feel, they also know myriad other things about you that you hardly suspect. Consequently you should stop listening to your feelings and start listening to these external algorithms instead. (397)

But where do these great algorithms come from? This is the mystery of Dataism. Just as according to Christianity we humans cannot understand God and His plan, so Dataism declares that the human brain cannot fathom the new master algorithms. (398)

A Ripple in the Data Flow

A critical examination of Dataist dogma is likely to be not only the greatest scientific challenge of the twenty-first century, but also the most urgent political and economic project. … Is there perhaps something in the universe that cannot be reduced to data? (399)

Of course, even if Dataism is wrong and organisms aren’t just algorithms, it won’t necessarily prevent Dataism from taking over the world. (399)

We are striving to engineer the Internet-of-All-Things in the hope that it will make us healthy, happy and powerful. Yet once theInternet-of-All-Things is up and running, humans might be reduced from engineers to chips, then to data, and eventually we might dissolve within the torrent of data like a clump of earth within a gushing river. | Dataism thereby threatens to do to Homo sapiens what Homo sapiens has done to all other animals. (400)

We cannot really predict the future, because technology is not deterministic. (401)

The rise of AI and biotechnology will certainly transform the world, but it does not mandate a single deterministic outcome. All the scenarios outlined in this book should be understood as possibilities rather than prophecies. If you don’t like some of these possibilities you are welcome to think and behave in new ways that will prevent these particular possibilities from materializing. | However, it is not easy to think and behave in new ways, because our thoughts and actions are usually constrained by present-day ideologies and social systems. (401)

…if we take the really grand view of life, all other problems and developments are overshadowed by three interlinked processes:

  1. Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing.
  2. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
  3. Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.

These three processes raise three key questions, which I hope will stick in your mind long after you have finished this book:

  1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing?
  2. What’s more valuable–intelligence or consciousness?
  3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves? (402)

— critical reflections —

Reading Harari is an incredibly stimulating activity. His distillation of vast swaths of historical movements into accessible summations are really powerful. His propositions are extremely though-provoking (and provocative), and ought to be considered carefully. His conclusions are, however, quite dissatisfying, though not without merit, and his statements on religion–arguably the most powerful force on earth–are misrepresentative, and at times a bit demeaning. This makes Homo Deus one of my favorite reads (along with Sapiens) and worthy of critical reflections.

On page 21, Harari writes,

Throughout history, religions and ideologies did not sanctify life itself. They always sanctified something above or beyond earthly existence, and were consequently quite tolerant of death.

First, this statement is patently false. Regardless of whether or not a religion is one of a deity (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) or one of human enlightenment (Buddhism, Jainism), they all are teaching about the sanctity of life, the value of life, and how to experience the most out of life. True, there are teachings that provide meaning for death–whether martyrism, or escapism–but those teachings are primarily for explaining how death fits into the greater focus, which is the purpose and meaning of life. Second, it could very well be argued, that the reason why religion emerged in the first place is to try and make sense of death (rather than become more tolerant of it), and to transform humanity’s relationship with evil and violence, phenomena fraught with death.

On page 78, Harari writes,

The snake is not our progenitor: he seduces us to rebel against our heavenly Father. 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.

While this is a viable interpretation, as so many have written before, the complicated and possible layers of interpretation of Genesis must temper any certitude we have about our understanding of what the author was attempting to communicate through this archaic teaching. For example, the Genesis narrative could be affirming the commonality that humanity has with the snake, for they are both “arum” (ארום) naked/cunning/clever. ADAM (אדם)(humanity) becomes aware that they hide their true selves as much as the snake.

About American officials being sworn in on the Bible, Harari writes on page 174,

It’s ironic that they swear to tell the truth on a book brimming with so many fictions, myths and errors.

To give the benefit of the doubt, there is no tone and authorial nuance when reading words on a page, so I may be missing some of what Harari intended here. With that said, it feels unfortunate that a learned person such as Harari would make a statement like this that is feels snarky, and is unacademic. Not to mention that the entirety of Harari’s thesis is that everything is a fiction, as he writes on page 177,

Fiction isn’t bad. It is vital. Without commonly accepted stories about things like money, states or corporations, no complex human society can function. We can’t play football unless everyone believes in the same made-up rules, and we can’t enjoy the benefits of markets and courts without similar make-believe stories. But the stories are just tools. They should not become our goals or our yardsticks. When we forget that they are mere fiction, we lose touch with reality. Then we begin entire wars ‘to make a lot of money for the corporation’ or ‘to protect the national interest’. Corporations, money and nations exist only in our imagination. We invented them to serve us; how come we find ourselves sacrificing our lives in their service? (177)

One of the purposes of a fiction is that it must be believed in. What are the implications of no longer believing in these “fictions” while still operating within them? Is that even possible? And even if it eliminated “wars” of various sorts, what other problems–existential–would arise in that vacuum?

There’s another layer that Harari proposes, that they are “fictions” because they don’t “suffer.” But is it not possible that they then become real as those who have created those fictions believe in them? And as such, those who believe in them will suffer if their fictions are dismantled or damaged? Are not fictions merely extensions of our selves in some ways, and thus, about as “real” as can be? Or am I simply parsing the semantics way too far?

Harari mentions that there are questions that simply cannot be answered by religions. On page 271,

You will not find the answers to any of these questions in the Qur’an or sharia law, nor in the Bible or in the Confucian Analects, because nobody in the medieval Middle East or in ancient China knew much about computers, genetics or nanotehcnology.

I think it important to note that they did know about iron, books, chariots and baked bricks. In other words, they had their advanced technologies, and the Bible–at least–fully understood their presence, and crafted a narrative around their existence.

On page 277, Harari mentions the great influential discoveries of the twentieth century and asks what “invention or creation of traditional religions” are in that list? He writes,

Billions of people, including many scientists, continue to use religious scriptures as a source of authority, but these texts are no longer a source of creativity.

First, the purpose of religion may not be to be inventive. So to criticize it for such would be non sensical. Second, this does not mean that religion has not been influential, which, given the socio-political journey that we’ve have been on for decades, and centuries, it is perhaps very reasonable to say that religion has had a profound influence on the shaping of human experience (yes, both for good and for evil. For more on this, see Not In God’s Name) Last, Harari has been arguing that we actually need these narratives be they religions or other “fictions” to make sense of ourselves, and to provide a story by which we live. So, it’s a little perplexing why there is so much castigating of religion in his writing.

Then, on page 278,

They read page after page and story after story with the utmost attention, until they find what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that if interpreted creatively enough means that God blesses gay marriages and that women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault. The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration. (278)

Very simply, I opine this is a bit of an overreach. This is not my experience at all with the diverse ways in which scriptures are venerated and inspirational.

Last, on page 396 he writes,

Scriptural religions such as Judaism and Christianity told a different story: ‘The stars are lying. God, who created the stars, revealed the entire truth in the Bible. So stop observing the stars – read the Bible instead!’ (396)

This felt to me like the last of the dismissive and deprecating statements that are both unacademic and unrepresentative of the rich cultures of religious traditions. It actually brings into question Harari’s entire thesis. If he sees religion in this way, then it makes sense that he sees them as mere fictions. However, if his analysis of what religions really are in our anthropological and evolutionary history, then there may be more reality and “truth” to them for which Harari gives credit.

Now it’s off to wrestle with Harari’s final three questions.

A Few Reading Graphics

About VIA

www.kevinneuner.com

3 comments

  1. Pingback: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century | Reflections & Critical Notes | vialogue

  2. Pingback: The Passion of the Western Mind | Notes & Reflections | vialogue

  3. Pingback: The Age of AI | Critical Review & Notes | vialogue

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