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homo deus

Yuval Noah Harari’s ethical dilemma

When I worked in political research, I often came across conservative screeds against the “secular humanist conspiracy,” centered in America’s schools, this nefarious plot was taking God out of the consciousness of a generation, breaking down the bonds of the covenant society envisaged by the founders. It, of course, sounded preposterous, and I used to joke about this conspiracy, that is, until it appeared (much less conspiratorially couched) in Harari’s book. He spends much of a very long book explaining just how pervasive humanism, which is by definition secular, has become. It's probably not a conspiracy, but it’s no less pervasive. In the new context, Harari argues, Religion and humanism are both wrong. Judging by peoples’ past behavior, Harari speculates that what people will do with their godlike status is seek pleasure, profit, power and extended lifespans.

Yuval Noah Harari is one of the most impressive young intellectuals to hit the nonfiction scene recently. Trained at Oxford, the Israeli historian - a professor of history at Hebrew University of Jerusalem - brings an almost staggering grasp of disparate fields to bear on the question: where will humanity go next? He does so without revealing a bias - at first - but then falls solidly on the side of science, while exposing debates over human exceptionalism, animal rights and the question of the consciousness of both. He does this in prose that many would envy. Harari has a definition of modernity that I hadn’t seen before. To him, Modernity = exchanging meaning for power. This simplistic definition has its merits. Traditional religions don’t understand the modern world and therefore have nothing to say about, or contribute to it. This doesn’t mean that millions won’t continue to believe in those doctrines, but while those raised i. The fold of fundamentalist Islam, for example, may find it compelling, it will have little impact outside this context as it fails to adapt to economic and social realities (the same goes for fundamentalist Christianity).

Harari wrote in The Guardian about “the useless class” which will be rendered irrelevant by AI algorithms and whose revolutionary tendencies will be pacified by Virtual reality. (thanks to Serge Avery for pointing out this article to me). In his article on Homo Deus, Ian Sample notes: ”as artificial intelligence gets smarter, more humans are pushed out of the job market. No one knows what to study at college, because no one knows what skills learned at 20 will be relevant at 40. Before you know it, billions of people are useless, not through chance but by definition.” Harari gives the percent likelihood of each career being replaced by algorithms- archaeologists were the lowest at 0.7%, the travel agent was 99%. “If they want to continue to have a job, and to understand the world, and be relevant to what is happening, people will have to reinvent themselves again and again, and faster and faster.”

Harari is aware that, like Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb, catastrophizing has been around a long time and was often much ado about nothing (or little): “I’m aware that these kinds of forecasts have been around for at least 200 years, from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and they never came true so far. It’s basically the boy who cried wolf,” says Harari. “But in the original story of the boy who cried wolf, in the end, the wolf actually comes, and I think that is true this time.”

But a doctrine’s number of followers does not always determine it impacts on history. Small groups have had a disproportionate impact in history: Marxist/socialists, for example.

There's an element of rushing to write a book-length sequel to Sapiens - a much shorter book would have sufficed. Essentially, Harari is describing the countours of the age of the "hackable human" - if we can live longer and better, why wouldn't we? But is this ethical? Like Steven Pinker, Harari shows using through data that humanity is less violent, living longer and generally better. He silences potential critics, noting “Of course, in some areas wars continue unabated. I know this very well; I live in one of these areas.” The question then becomes: should we use this peace and abundance to attain godlike qualities? Even with this term Harari is careful: “think not of a Judeo-Christian God, but more along the lines of a Greek god with foibles and human weakness as well as supernatural powers.”

Harari shows that as societies, and throughout history, people (‘Sapiens’ he calls us, evoking the title of his last book) have dominated the planet because of superior social organization and cooperation. This cooperation is achieved not through the use of force, mainly, but through stories, fictions - a master narrative that gives life meaning and orders human behavior. And because of this superiority we now find ourselves at the verge of a kind of singularity of choice, in which we can attain more life, pleasure and happiness. But like the stories we live by, pleasure and happiness are socially dependent; in the eye of the beholder.

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