Book Review of “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” by Yuval Noah Harari

This book is a sequel to Harari’s Sapiens (see my reviewIn Homo Deus, Harari walks the reader through detailed analyses, punctuated with a plethora of historic examples, to a number of amazing conclusions. He persuasively argues that humanism is the primary religion on the planet and that our species has solved our historically “big three” problems: disease, famine and war. With these problems solved, he presents three other projects that, he argues, we will be focused on in the coming decades: immortality, happiness, and divinity. I find these second set of arguments less convincing. In this review, I will first summarize his arguments regarding religion, humanism and the “big three” problems and secondly, consider his ideas about the future of our species.

Disease, famine and war

Harari explains how in the pre-science days of our species, god-based religions had answers to the “big three” problems. If we consider the attitudes common in the middle ages, religion provided meaning but significantly reduced individual human power and agency. There was little or no opportunity for growth in the economy or in scientific discovery. Why? Because religion taught that answers to various problems were already determined by divine agency. So if my village was devastated by war, famine or disease, which was certain to happen every so often, the reasons for this suffering were divine in origin. My villagers were remiss in their offerings to the gods, or have sinned in some way as to make the gods angry. I could not call up the local priest, doctor or shaman and suggest that she do some experiments to discover the cause of the pestilence. I could not even have such a thought because I already knew that the cause was other-worldly. I could perhaps have some effect by more focused or relevant prayers or sacrifices, but it was in fact too late for this to be effective. My son would have to go to war; half my family members would have to die of the illness; or most of the village would starve do to lack of rain. If the pope ordered all able bodied men in the village to go off and fight a crusade to reclaim the Holy Land, it would not occur to me to question the value of such a quest or to consider the ethical implications of murdering Muslims.

Science then is born out of ignorance. As soon as humans acknowledged that they did not know why the rains did not come this season but the destructive locusts did, then they could begin an exploration to try to find out why. In the pre-modern view there was no need to attempt to discover the forces of nature or the structure of the universe, the temperature of stars, or what natural causes may contribute to illnesses, because they did not believe that they were ignorant of these things. Rather they believed that they already knew what caused these problems and there was nothing much they could do about it, so they accepted it. Oh, they perhaps grumbled at times. They may have gotten angry when their sons died in war or two thirds of their offspring did not survive infancy. But they could always go to their priest who would tell them that these sufferings were God’s will and that if they stayed the course, they would be rewarded after death in everlasting joy in heaven.

When Nietzsche declared that god to be dead in 1882, he was announcing a profound change in the way modern humans think. That new way of thinking is simply that the gods do not determine what happens day to day in our lives. The death of god does not, of course, mean the death of god-based religion. There are 2.2 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims who might disagree with this statement, but it is de facto true. For most, their world view is in fact humanistic. For example, from birth in this country and in the western world, we are taught to trust our individual feelings, sensations and experiences. We are told that our free will is the highest authority. We are encouraged to listen to ourselves, trust ourselves, and do what feels good. We are expected to look within ourselves when faced with an ethical dilemma, and scrutinize our individual feelings and sensations, and from such authority make free will choices.

This seems natural to us, but this is not the way of pre-modern life. Human thoughts, feelings and experiences were mostly irrelevant in those times as authority and behavioral rules were provided by God or human-appointed representatives of the gods. Pre-modern humans may have used priests or theologians to interpret God’s wishes, but until the modern age, god always had the last say in everything. When we perceive a violation or disrespect of individual sensations, experiences, and free will choices, and are outraged by that, we are expressing the belief system of liberal humanism, not pre-modern religious fervor. We become upset not when we think God’s commandments have been broken, but when we believe that individual freedom or free will choices have been violated. These are humanistic ways of understanding humanity and our place in the world.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Pastor John Hagee  told NPR’s Terry Gross that “Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans,” and “New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God,” Hagee said, because “there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came.” However, this god-based religious view is not a mainstream view among religious folks in the United States. It is outdated, condemned and laughed at by most modern humans. This illustrates a major departure from the pre-modern view that human sins and God’s actions account for war, pestilence, and famine, the three major problems facing humans throughout our history.

God-based religions no longer offer any real alternative to liberalism. Right-wing Christian views as described above or radical Islam in fact pose no serious threat to liberal humanism because they do not understand the 21st century. They attempt to offer an anchor in a increasingly complicated world, but they offer no rudder. Technology depends on religion, and liberal humanism suits. New technology kills old gods and give room for new gods.

For example, When the Charlie Hebdo building in Rue Nicolas-Appert, France was attacked in 2015, several Muslim organizations were quick to condemn the violence, but they added their concern of the behavior of the newspaper for depicting images of Mohammed. They however did not say that they were upset because the newspaper disobeyed Allah. Rather they said that they were concerned because these images hurt the feelings of Muslims throughout the world. This is a humanistic argument, not a god-based religious one.

Science cannot function by itself in society. It must align with some sort of religion or ethical system. For example, science can instruct us on how to split the atom, but it cannot tell us if it is OK to drop an atomic bomb. Science can instruct us in building a tall building but cannot tell us how much profit is reasonable in order to set a rental charge for an apartment in that building. Science cannot exist within the traditional religious system that looked to gods for information as to when the rains will come or why the locusts are killing my crop. Why? Because with such a world view science is not only unnecessary but is unthinkable.

On the other hand, the new religion of humanism has formed a strong alliance with science due primarily because it has become essential to the current social order. Current modern institutions encourage economic growth, democracy, and human rights, which are consistent with liberal humanism and not with god-based religions. This alliance has in large part conquered famine, plague, and war. Although it is true that all three still exist, Harari makes a strong argument that when they do appear, human institutions and assistance rush in to help, often not quick enough, but when we are unsuccessful in stopping these events, we blame governments and institutions, not the gods. In fact there is a general consensus that as humans we should do everything possible to minimize and if possible eliminate these events. This is a humanistic/scientific approach, not a god-religion based approach.

Harari defines three forms of humanism: liberal humanism or liberalism – the prominent religion of today; evolutionary humanism; and socialistic humanism. Socialistic humanism basically died when the Berlin Wall fell on 11-09-89, although it should be noted that the best ideas of this form of humanism had already been embraced and operationalized by liberal humanism. Look to the fact that Western countries by and large have accepted the need for a viable socialistic-based  safety net in order for capitalistic enterprises to succeed. Evolutionary humanism, like liberalism, holds that humans are in fact the most important living thing and have the right to dominate the planet, but that “some humans are more equal than others” and that it is imperative to breed out the inferiorities. This form of humanism was basically defeated when the Nazis and the Japanese were defeated in WW II, although it seems to be having a strange reemergence in today’s White House and certain segments of some Western European countries.

Despite the strong alliance between liberal humanism and science, there are of course some conflicts. The biological sciences tell us that mammals have desires and intense impulses to behave in certain ways and when they are prevented from doing so, they experience deeply internal painful sensations. For example, pigs desire to move around and explore their environment, hunting for roots and grubs. They desire to interact with others of their species, creating highly social connections. They desire to have sexual contact with others. Females strongly desire to reproduce, nurture and care for their young. It is not anthropomorphizing to note these strong internal impulses because they are clearly present due to a long history of natural selection where these impulses resulted in specific behaviors that led to survival of the species.Today humans routinely deny pigs the opportunity to engage in these behaviors. We have substituted other processes to ensure their ability to stay relatively healthy and to successfully reproduce without needing to engage in these behaviors. We feed them so they do not have to forage. We artificially inseminate the females so they do not have to engage in sexual activity. We snatch their young away at an age where those piglets would die if they were living in the wild, but we keep them alive.

Currently in Iowa we have approximately 3 million humans and 22 million hogs and 55 million chickens.  Many of those hogs live in small gestation crates where they cannot turn around much less snort around or roll in the mud to cool off. The females are artificially inseminated and their young are prematurely snatched away after 3 weeks. The sows are again artificially inseminated and the process continues. If anything close to this was done to a human being it would be labelled as torture. If we did this to a dog or a cat, we could be arrested for animal cruelty. Hogs are at least as intelligent and self-aware as dogs, probably more so. Even those who strongly and consciously support humanistic ideas and acknowledge the crucially important role that science plays remain blind to these realities. They tolerate vegans and restrain themselves from making fun of them, but if given a choice of bacon or being ethically consistent, they choose the bacon.

Immortality, happiness, and divinity

Harari essentially argues that we are on the dawn of the extinction of Homo Sapiens and the birth of a new species he calls Homo Deus. He believes that we are on the way of becoming gods, or at least some of us. He gives numerous examples of current research in life-advancing breakthroughs in medicine and notes that many rich people are obsessed with extending their own life spans, and spending millions on such research. He doesn’t argue for immortality per se, but that life spans could be extended so much that death would only likely occur through some sort of accident rather than by sickness or old age. He then uses advances in psychoactive drugs to argue for chemically-induced blissful contentment. These advances will not be for everyone of course, and so those who can afford it will become the super elite, leaving the rest of us behind.

He presents two possibilities for what will happen in the future due to increased sophistication of computers or robotic devices. He defines these devices as non-biological algorithms and compares them with humans whom he considers biological algorithms. The first possibility he describes as a new form of individualism called techno-individualism. In this framework, humans are still more important than computers and robots, but since the non-biological algorithms will certainly become smarter than humans and will “know me better than I know myself,” then the only way to survive as a species will be to integrate with them. So humans will become gods by adding non-biological components to these frail bodies. I have seen too many episodes of Star Trek devoted to the practices and experiences of the insect-like Borg who go about assimilating random humanoid species, to have any interest in this scenario. The second possibility is perhaps even worse, what he calls Dadaism. In this view, free will is a myth and all of realty can be explained as a flow of information. Since human beings are simply biological algorithms and will soon be clearly inferior to computer algorithms, there is no need for us. At best we will somehow (not clear how from his book) blend into this flow of data and cease to be as individual humans, and our species will cease to be.

Besides my distaste for either of these developments, I also believe that he is exaggerating the developments of psychopharmacology and of artificial intelligence and ignoring the advances in attachment theory, interpersonal neurobiology and social neuroscience. Consciousness, for example, was a taboo subject for scientific research a few short decades ago, and now we are finding ways to at least approach the subject. In my view, we are making inroads into these explorations, and these disciplines have have added significantly to our understanding of how the human brain and nervous system work. I would have to agree with Harari that there is no scientific proof that humans have free will or, for that matter, that we possess something called consciousness. That being said, in my opinion, Harari’s conclusion that we are no more than biological algorithms without free will is not tenable.

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