May 21 JDN 2460086
A review of Homo Deus
The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology.E.O. Wilson
Homo Deus is a very good read—and despite its length, a quick one; as you can see, I read it cover to cover in a week. Yuval Noah Harari’s central point is surely correct: Our technology is reaching a threshold where it grants us unprecedented power and forces us to ask what it means to be human.
Biotechnology and artificial intelligence are now advancing so rapidly that advancements in other domains, such as aerospace and nuclear energy, seem positively mundane. Who cares about making flight or electricity a bit cleaner when we will soon have the power to modify ourselves or we’ll all be replaced by machines?
Indeed, we already have technology that would have seemed to ancient people like the powers of gods. We can fly; we can witness or even control events thousands of miles away; we can destroy mountains; we can wipeout entire armies in an instant; we can even travel into outer space.
Harari rightly warns us that our not-so-distant descendants are likely to have powers that we would see as godlike: Immortality, superior intelligence, self-modification, the power to create life.
And where it is scary to think about what they might do with that power if they think the way we do—as ignorant and foolish and tribal as we are—Harari points out that it is equally scary to think about what they might do if they don’t think the way we do—for then, how do they think? If their minds are genetically modified or even artificially created, who will they be? What values will they have, if not ours? Could they be better? What if they’re worse?
It is of course difficult to imagine values better than our own—if we thought those values were better, we’d presumably adopt them. But we should seriously consider the possibility, since presumably most of us believe that our values today are better than what most people’s values were 1000 years ago. If moral progress continues, does it not follow that people’s values will be better still 1000 years from now? Or at least that they could be?
I also think Harari overestimates just how difficult it is to anticipate the future. This may be a useful overcorrection; the world is positively infested with people making overprecise predictions about the future, often selling them for exorbitant fees (note that Harari was quite well-compensated for this book as well!). But our values are not so fundamentally alien from those of our forebears, and we have reason to suspect that our descendants’ values will be no more different from ours.
For instance, do you think that medieval people thought suffering and death were good? I assure you they did not. Nor did they believe that the supreme purpose in life is eating cheese. (They didn’t even believe the Earth was flat!) They did not have the concept of GDP, but they could surely appreciate the value of economic prosperity.
Indeed, our world today looks very much like a medieval peasant’s vision of paradise. Boundless food in endless variety. Near-perfect security against violence. Robust health, free from nearly all infectious disease. Freedom of movement. Representation in government! The land of milk and honey is here; there they are, milk and honey on the shelves at Walmart.
Of course, our paradise comes with caveats: Not least, we are by no means free of toil, but instead have invented whole new kinds of toil they could scarcely have imagined. If anything I would have to guess that coding a robot or recording a video lecture probably isn’t substantially more satisfying than harvesting wheat or smithing a sword; and reconciling receivables and formatting spreadsheets is surely less. Our tasks are physically much easier, but mentally much harder, and it’s not obvious which of those is preferable. And we are so very stressed! It’s honestly bizarre just how stressed we are, given the abudance in which we live; there is no reason for our lives to have stakes so high, and yet somehow they do. It is perhaps this stress and economic precarity that prevents us from feeling such joy as the medieval peasants would have imagined for us.
Of course, we don’t agree with our ancestors on everything. The medieval peasants were surely more religious, more ignorant, more misogynistic, more xenophobic, and more racist than we are. But projecting that trend forward mostly means less ignorance, less misogyny, less racism in the future; it means that future generations should see the world world catch up to what the best of us already believe and strive for—hardly something to fear. The values that I believe are surely not what we as a civilization act upon, and I sorely wish they were. Perhaps someday they will be.
I can even imagine something that I myself would recognize as better than me: Me, but less hypocritical. Strictly vegan rather than lacto-ovo-vegetarian, or at least more consistent about only buying free range organic animal products. More committed to ecological sustainability, more willing to sacrifice the conveniences of plastic and gasoline. Able to truly respect and appreciate all life, even humble insects. (Though perhaps still not mosquitoes; this is war. They kill more of us than any other animal, including us.) Not even casually or accidentally racist or sexist. More courageous, less burnt out and apathetic. I don’t always live up to my own ideals. Perhaps someday someone will.
Harari fears something much darker, that we will be forced to give up on humanist values and replace them with a new techno-religion he calls Dataism, in which the supreme value is efficient data processing. I see very little evidence of this. If it feels like data is worshipped these days, it is only because data is profitable. Amazon and Google constantly seek out ever richer datasets and ever faster processing because that is how they make money. The real subject of worship here is wealth, and that is nothing new. Maybe there are some die-hard techno-utopians out there who long for us all to join the unified oversoul of all optimized data processing, but I’ve never met one, and they are clearly not the majority. (Harari also uses the word ‘religion’ in an annoyingly overbroad sense; he refers to communism, liberalism, and fascism as ‘religions’. Ideologies, surely; but religions?)
Harari in fact seems to think that ideologies are strongly driven by economic structures, so maybe he would even agree that it’s about profit for now, but thinks it will become religion later. But I don’t really see history fitting this pattern all that well. If monotheism is directly tied to the formation of organized bureaucracy and national government, then how did Egypt and Rome last so long with polytheistic pantheons? If atheism is the natural outgrowth of industrialized capitalism, then why are Africa and South America taking so long to get the memo? I do think that economic circumstances can constrain culture and shift what sort of ideas become dominant, including religious ideas; but there clearly isn’t this one-to-one correspondence he imagines. Moreover, there was never Coalism or Oilism aside from the greedy acquisition of these commodities as part of a far more familiar ideology: capitalism.
He also claims that all of science is now, or is close to, following a united paradigm under which everything is a data processing algorithm, which suggests he has not met very many scientists. Our paradigms remain quite varied, thank you; and if they do all have certain features in common, it’s mainly things like rationality, naturalism and empiricism that are more or less inherent to science. It’s not even the case that all cognitive scientists believe in materialism (though it probably should be); there are still dualists out there.
Moreover, when it comes to values, most scientists believe in liberalism. This is especially true if we use Harari’s broad sense (on which mainline conservatives and libertarians are ‘liberal’ because they believe in liberty and human rights), but even in the narrow sense of center-left. We are by no means converging on a paradigm where human life has no value because it’s all just data processing; maybe some scientists believe that, but definitely not most of us. If scientists ran the world, I can’t promise everything would be better, but I can tell you that Bush and Trump would never have been elected and we’d have a much better climate policy in place by now.
I do share many of Harari’s fears of the rise of artificial intelligence. The world is clearly not ready for the massive economic disruption that AI is going to cause all too soon. We still define a person’s worth by their employment, and think of ourselves primarily as collection of skills; but AI is going to make many of those skills obsolete, and may make many of us unemployable. It would behoove us to think in advance about who we truly are and what we truly want before that day comes. I used to think that creative intellectual professions would be relatively secure; ChatGPT and Midjourney changed my mind. Even writers and artists may not be safe much longer.
Harari is so good at sympathetically explaining other views he takes it to a fault. At times it is actually difficult to know whether he himself believes something and wants you to, or if he is just steelmanning someone else’s worldview. There’s a whole section on ‘evolutionary humanism’ where he details a worldview that is at best Nietschean and at worst Nazi, but he makes it sound so seductive. I don’t think it’s what he believes, in part because he has similarly good things to say about liberalism and socialism—but it’s honestly hard to tell.
The weakest part of the book is when Harari talks about free will. Like most people, he just doesn’t get compatibilism. He spends a whole chapter talking about how science ‘proves we have no free will’, and it’s just the same old tired arguments hard determinists have always made.
He talks about how we can make choices based on our desires, but we can’t choose our desires; well of course we can’t! What would that even mean? If you could choose your desires, what would you choose them based on, if not your desires? Your desire-desires? Well, then, can you choose your desire-desires? What about your desire-desire-desires?
What even is this ultimate uncaused freedom that libertarian free will is supposed to consist in? No one seems capable of even defining it. (I’d say Kant got the closest: He defined it as the capacity to act based upon what ought rather than what is. But of course what we believe about ‘ought’ is fundamentally stored in our brains as a particular state, a way things are—so in the end, it’s an ‘is’ we act on after all.)
Maybe before you lament that something doesn’t exist, you should at least be able to describe that thing as a coherent concept? Woe is me, that 2 plus 2 is not equal to 5!
It is true that as our technology advances, manipulating other people’s desires will become more and more feasible. Harari overstates the case on so-called robo-rats; they aren’t really mind-controlled, it’s more like they are rewarded and punished. The rat chooses to go left because she knows you’ll make her feel good if she does; she’s still freely choosing to go left. (Dangling a carrot in front of a horse is fundamentally the same thing—and frankly, paying a wage isn’t all that different.) The day may yet come where stronger forms of control become feasible, and woe betide us when it does. Yet this is no threat to the concept of free will; we already knew that coercion was possible, and mind control is simply a more precise form of coercion.
Harari reports on a lot of interesting findings in neuroscience, which are important for people to know about, but they do not actually show that free will is an illusion. What they do show is that free will is thornier than most people imagine. Our desires are not fully unified; we are often ‘of two minds’ in a surprisingly literal sense. We are often tempted by things we know are wrong. We often aren’t sure what we really want. Every individual is in fact quite divisible; we literally contain multitudes.
We do need a richer account of moral responsibility that can deal with the fact that human beings often feel multiple conflicting desires simultaneously, and often experience events differently than we later go on to remember them. But at the end of the day, human consciousness is mostly unified, our choices are mostly rational, and our basic account of moral responsibility is mostly valid.
I think for now we should perhaps be less worried about what may come in the distant future, what sort of godlike powers our descendants may have—and more worried about what we are doing with the godlike powers we already have. We have the power to feed the world; why aren’t we? We have the power to save millions from disease; why don’t we? I don’t see many people blindly following this ‘Dataism’, but I do see an awful lot blinding following a 19th-century vision of capitalism.
And perhaps if we straighten ourselves out, the future will be in better hands.