We ignorant, incompetent gods

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.

Hypocrisy is underrated

Sep 12 JDN 2459470

Hypocrisy isn’t a good thing, but it isn’t nearly as bad as most people seem to think. Often accusing someone of hypocrisy is taken as a knock-down argument for everything they are saying, and this is just utterly wrong. Someone can be a hypocrite and still be mostly right.

Often people are accused of hypocrisy when they are not being hypocritical; for instance the right wing seems to think that “They want higher taxes on the rich, but they are rich!” is hypocrisy, when in fact it’s simply altruism. (If they had wanted the rich guillotined, that would be hypocrisy. Maybe the problem is that the right wing can’t tell the difference?) Even worse, “They live under capitalism but they want to overthrow capitalism!” is not even close to hypocrisy—let alone why, how would someone overthrow a system they weren’t living under? (There are many things wrong with Marxists, but that is not one of them.)

But in fact I intend something stronger: Hypocrisy itself just isn’t that bad.

There are currently two classes of Republican politicians with regard to the COVID vaccines: Those who are consistent in their principles and don’t get the vaccines, and those who are hypocrites and get the vaccines while telling their constituents not to. Of the two, who is better? The hypocrites. At least they are doing the right thing even as they say things that are very, very wrong.

There are really four cases to consider. The principles you believe in could be right, or they could be wrong. And you could follow those principles, or you could be a hypocrite. Each of these two factors is independent.

If your principles are right and you are consistent, that’s the best case; if your principles are right and you are a hypocrite, that’s worse.

But if your principles are wrong and you are consistent, that’s the worst case; if your principles are wrong and you are a hypocrite, that’s better.

In fact I think for most things the ordering goes like this: Consistent Right > Hypocritical Wrong > Hypocritical Right > Consistent Wrong. Your behavior counts for more than your principles—so if you’re going to be a hypocrite, it’s better for your good actions to not match your bad principles.

Obviously if we could get people to believe good moral principles and then follow them, that would be best. And we should in fact be working to achieve that.

But if you know that someone’s moral principles are wrong, it doesn’t accomplish anything to accuse them of being a hypocrite. If it’s true, that’s a good thing.

Here’s a pretty clear example for you: Anyone who says that the Bible is infallible but doesn’t want gay people stoned to death is a hypocrite. The Bible is quite clear on this matter; Leviticus 20:13 really doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. By this standard, most Christians are hypocrites—and thank goodness for that. I owe my life to the hypocrisy of millions.

Of course if I could convince them that the Bible isn’t infallible—perhaps by pointing out all the things it says that contradict their most deeply-held moral and factual beliefs—that would be even better. But the last thing I want to do is make their behavior more consistent with their belief that the Bible is infallible; that would turn them into fanatical monsters. The Spanish Inquisition was very consistent in behaving according to the belief that the Bible is infallible.

Here’s another example: Anyone who thinks that cruelty to cats and dogs is wrong but is willing to buy factory-farmed beef and ham is a hypocrite. Any principle that would tell you that it’s wrong to kick a dog or cat would tell you that the way cows and pigs are treated in CAFOs is utterly unconscionable. But if you are really unwilling to give up eating meat and you can’t find or afford free-range beef, it still would be bad for you to start kicking dogs in a display of your moral consistency.

And one more example for good measure: The leaders of any country who resist human rights violations abroad but tolerate them at home are hypocrites. Obviously the best thing to do would be to fight human rights violations everywhere. But perhaps for whatever reason you are unwilling or unable to do this—one disturbing truth is that many human rights violations at home (such as draconian border policies) are often popular with your local constituents. Human-rights violations abroad are also often more severe—detaining children at the border is one thing, a full-scale genocide is quite another. So, for good reasons or bad, you may decide to focus your efforts on resisting human rights violations abroad rather than at home; this would make you a hypocrite. But it would still make you much better than a more consistent leader who simply ignores all human rights violations wherever they may occur.

In fact, there are cases in which it may be optimal for you to knowingly be a hypocrite. If you have two sets of competing moral beliefs, and you don’t know which is true but you know that as a whole they are inconsistent, your best option is to apply each set of beliefs in the domain for which you are most confident that it is correct, while searching for more information that might allow you to correct your beliefs and reconcile the inconsistency. If you are self-aware about this, you will know that you are behaving in a hypocritical way—but you will still behave better than you would if you picked the wrong beliefs and stuck to them dogmatically. In fact, given a reasonable level of risk aversion, you’ll be better off being a hypocrite than you would by picking one set of beliefs arbitrarily (say, at the flip of a coin). At least then you avoid the worst-case scenario of being the most wrong.

There is yet another factor to take into consideration. Sometimes following your own principles is hard.

Considerable ink has been spilled on the concept of akrasia, or “weakness of will”, in which we judge that A is better than B yet still find ourselves doing B. Philosophers continue to debate to this day whether this really happens. As a behavioral economist, I observe it routinely, perhaps even daily. In fact, I observe it in myself.

I think the philosophers’ mistake is to presume that there is one simple, well-defined “you” that makes all observations and judgments and takes actions. Our brains are much more complicated than that. There are many “you”s inside your brain, each with its own capacities, desires, and judgments. Yes, there is some important sense in which they are all somehow unified into a single consciousness—by a mechanism which still eludes our understanding. But it doesn’t take esoteric cognitive science to see that there are many minds inside you: Haven’t you ever felt an urge to do something you knew you shouldn’t do? Haven’t you ever succumbed to such an urge—drank the drink, eaten the dessert, bought the shoes, slept with the stranger—when it seemed so enticing but you knew it wasn’t really the right choice?

We even speak of being “of two minds” when we are ambivalent about something, and I think there is literal truth in this. The neural networks in your brain are forming coalitions, and arguing between them over which course of action you ought to take. Eventually one coalition will prevail, and your action will be taken; but afterward your reflective mind need not always agree that the coalition which won the vote was the one that deserved to.

The evolutionary reason for this is simple: We’re a kludge. We weren’t designed from the top down for optimal efficiency. We were the product of hundreds of millions of years of subtle tinkering, adding a bit here, removing a bit there, layering the mammalian, reflective cerebral cortex over the reptilian, emotional limbic system over the ancient, involuntary autonomic system. Combine this with the fact that we are built in pairs, with left and right halves of each kind of brain (and yes, they are independently functional when their connection is severed), and the wonder is that we ever agree with our own decisions.

Thus, there is a kind of hypocrisy that is not a moral indictment at all: You may genuinely and honestly agree that it is morally better to do something and still not be able to bring yourself to do it. You may know full well that it would be better to donate that money to malaria treatment rather than buy yourself that tub of ice cream—you may be on a diet and full well know that the ice cream won’t even benefit you in the long run—and still not be able to stop yourself from buying the ice cream.

Sometimes your feeling of hesitation at an altruistic act may be a useful insight; I certainly don’t think we should feel obliged to give all our income, or even all of our discretionary income, to high-impact charities. (For most people I encourage 5%. I personally try to aim for 10%. If all the middle-class and above in the First World gave even 1% we could definitely end world hunger.) But other times it may lead you astray, make you unable to resist the temptation of a delicious treat or a shiny new toy when even you know the world would be better off if you did otherwise.

Yet when following our own principles is so difficult, it’s not really much of a criticism to point out that someone has failed to do so, particularly when they themselves already recognize that they failed. The inconsistency between behavior and belief indicates that something is wrong, but it may not be any dishonesty or even anything wrong with their beliefs.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say you should stop ever calling out hypocrisy. Sometimes it is clearly useful to do so. But while hypocrisy is often the sign of a moral failing, it isn’t always—and even when it is, often as not the problem is the bad principles, not the behavior inconsistent with them.