Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 68(3) August 2018
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
Yuval Noah Harari
Harper; (21 Feb. 2017)
Reviewed by Dr Bruno Bubna-Kasteliz
Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian who obtained a PhD from Oxford University and now lectures in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His previous book “Sapiens – a Brief History of Humankind” was published in 2014 in 40 countries. This volume is its sequel, first published in Hebrew in 2015, then translated by the author into English in 2016. The first book “showed us where we came from and the second where we’re going”, as the author puts it. He splits the book into three parts-how sapiens has conquered the world, how sapiens gives meaning to the world and how sapiens loses control. He writes: “All the predictions that pepper this book are no more than an attempt to discuss the present-day dilemmas and an invitation to change the future”.
Our lives are now ruled by algorithms and data. However, we have come to realise that not just our decisions and actions are dictated by algorithms but neuroscience has discovered that even our emotions and feelings are the result of biochemical algorithms. Harari believes that chasing the humanist search for universal happiness will lead to self destruction. Christians believe that there is a unique, indivisible and eternal part of each human called the soul, as indeed did Socrates. If, however, we believe wholeheartedly in the theory of evolution, this negates the existence of a soul in both humans and animals. He believes that this dilemma cannot be resolved. All our actions are based on a set of decision-making processes which in humans we call ‘mind’ but in robots consist of electro-mechnical processing. That is why we believe we could create more human-like robots in the future. What we can’t do is actually describe or place ‘mind’ in the brain. In other words ‘consciousness’ or ‘awareness’ cannot be reproduced in a robot. Harari explains the dominance of humans over other animals as not being due to more sophisticated tool manufacture but being able to cooperate in large numbers more flexibly than any other mammal. Man has woven a fictional web of meaning which allowed flexible cooperation. All coups d’état have only been successful if the revolutionaries are better organised and in larger numbers of the disaffected than those who were ruling.
However, according to the author, this ability to cooperate undermines the sacredness of human beings. If the accomplishments of man were due to the unique essence of each individual human, i.e. his immortal soul, then this would fit in with the sanctity of human life. But this is not the reality of human activity. The reality is that it is possible to achieve cooperation when using the intrinsic attributes and sharing benefits in small groups. In other words it is the fictional ‘stories’we tell ourselves, whether as belief systems or social acceptability, that provide the reasons for our cooperation – something that chimpanzees, for instance, cannot do. When enough people with the similar belief systems stop believing them to be self-evident, those ‘facts’ enter the realm of subjective rather than objective reality. Your reviewer would suggest, for instance, that this thinking means that once you reject the specific meaning of marriage in its moral and societal impact, then any alternative coupling can be made to have whatever meaning is put on it, all subjective and relative. Harari then castigates religion: he writes of ‘clerical diktats’, where religion equals order while science equals power. Man has had to create a humanist covenant to bridge the gap he perceives between science and religion. However modern technology is increasingly likely to undermine that covenant. Governments and religions find it hard to keep up with the rapidity of change in technology and the altered impact this has on the meaning and validity of peoples’ feelings about the change. The problem of the development of technology to improve cognitive and physical attributes in humans and robots results in an upgraded superior caste of beings who benefit from technology but also resulting in a vast underclass who will be thought of as inferior, useless and unemployable.
The third part of the book looks at the way that humans are attempting to realise the humanist dream but which will eventually lead to self-destruction. By enhancing technology – the very tool which brought humanism into being by allowing the ‘feelings’ of humans to be paramount – it will also be able to manipulate, homogenise and discard these feelings to the detriment of humans. Science does not deal with questions of value or give meaning to human existence. It cannot solve the conundrum of free will or conscience. Harari argues that free will does not exist. Our belief in free will is due to faulty logic because we do not choose but feel one option to be preferable to another. Implanting electrodes in the brain can manipulate not only behaviour in rats but also choices in humans, as has been demonstrated in a US military research programme. What happens when we invest a human with enhanced intelligence is that there is a decoupling of intelligence and consciousness. What this means is that in upgrading the algorithms for cognitive attributes in humans, we may actually be downgrading the minds of humans.
Finally, Harari blames the new religion he calls Dataism that will dominate the organisation and knowledge of our lives. What is needed, according to Harari, is the development of a common scientific language bridging, for instance, musicology, political science and cell biology into a unified communication entity. The position in which we are now may respond to four saving impulses: a new cognitive revolution where a single data-processing network is created but is not centralised; Dataism must not be allowed to take over from capitalism as the new world religion by claiming it knows what is right and wrong; a recognition that cosmic data will result from Dataism; a system which actually runs the country and flexibly organises its population may be successful.