Yuval Noah Harari is a thinker of big ideas. An Israeli historian, he wrote Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), about how we got where we are. Where we’re going was addressed in the 2015 sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. The title implies our becoming God. But there’s a catch.
Harari sees us having experienced, in the last few centuries, a humanist revolution, whereby the ideas of the Enlightenment—science trumping superstition, the liberal values of the Declaration of Independence, freedom in both the political and economic spheres—have triumphed over autocracy and feudalism. As the word “humanist” implies, these values exalt the individual human as the ultimate source of meaning. We find meaning not in some deity or cosmic plan but in ourselves and our efforts to make our lives better. We do that by deploying our will and using our rationality to make choices and decisions—both in politics, through democratic voting, and in economics, through consumer choice.
But Harari plays the skunk at this picnic he’s described. The whole thing, he posits, rests upon the assumption that we do make choices and decisions. But what if we actually don’t? This is the age-old argument about free will. Harari recognizes its long antecedents, but asserts that the question has really, finally been settled by science, something he discusses at length. The more science probes into our mental processes, there’s no “there” there. That is, the idea that inside you there’s a master controller, a captain at the helm, is a metaphor with no actual reality. We don’t “make” decisions and choices. It’s more like they happen to us.
As Arthur Schopenhauer said (Harari strangely fails to quote him), “a man can do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”
And if we humans are not, in any genuine sense, making choices and decisions through a conscious thinking process but rather are actuated by deterministic factors we can neither see nor control—in politics, economics, and even in how we live our lives—what does that mean for the humanist construct of valorizing those choices above all else?
There’s a second stink-bomb Harari throws into the humanist picnic. He says humanism has valued the individual human because he or she is, in a very tangible way, valuable. Indeed, indispensable. Everything important in society has rested on human participation. The economy requires people engaged in production. Human agents are required to disseminate the information requisite for progress to occur and spread. A society even needs individual humans to constitute the armies they find so needful.
But what if all that ceases being true? Economic production is increasingly achieved through robots and artificial intelligences. They are also taking care of information dissemination. Even human soldiers are becoming obsolete. Thus Harari sees humans becoming useless irrelevancies.
Or at least most of us will become so. Here’s another stink-bomb: liberal humanist Enlightenment values have also rested fundamentally on the idea of human equality. Not literal equality, of course, in the sense of everyone being the same, or even having the same conditions of life. Rather it is equality in the ineffable sense of value and dignity. Spiritual equality, if you will.
And indeed, the Enlightenment/humanist revolution did go a long way toward that ideal, as a philosophical concept that was increasingly powerful, but also as a practical reality. Despite very real wealth inequality, there has (especially in the advanced nations) actually been a great narrowing of the gap between the rich and the rest in terms of quality of life. Earlier times were in contrast generally characterized by a tiny elite living poshly while the great mass of peasants were immured in squalor.
Harari thinks we’re headed back to that, with most people destined to become useless. We may continue to feed them, but the gap between them and the very few superior beings will become a chasm. Science may even make near-immortality a privilege of the elite, while the mass underclass can’t afford it. What will that do to the putative ideal of human equality?
Having rejected the notion of human beings as autonomous choice-makers, Harari doesn’t seem to think we possess any genuine ultimate value along the lines that humanism posits. Instead, we’re just biological algorithms. To what purpose?
Evolutionary biology (as made clear in Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene) tells us that, at least as far as nature is concerned, life’s only purpose is the replication of genes. But that’s a tricky concept. It isn’t a purpose in any conscious, intentional sense, of course. Rather, it’s simply a consequence of the brute mathematical fact that if a gene (a set of molecules) is better at replicating than some other gene, the former will proliferate more, and the world will be filled with its progeny. No “meaning” to be seen there.
But Harari takes it one further step back. The whole thing is just a system for processing information (or “data”). As I understand it, that’s his take on what “selfish gene” biology really imports. And he applies the same concept to human societies. The most successful are the ones that are best at information processing. Democracy beats tyranny because democracy is better at information processing. Ditto for free market capitalism versus other economic models. At least till now; Harari thinks these things may well cease being true in the future.
This leads him to postulate what the religion of the future will be: “Dataism.” He sees signs of it emerging already. This religion would recognize that the ultimate cosmic value isn’t some imagined deity’s imagined agenda, but information processing. Which Harari thinks has the virtue of being true.
So, the role of human beings would be to serve that ultimate cosmic value. Chips in the great computer that is existence. Hallelujah! But wait—artificial systems will do that far better than we can. Where will that leave us? Let me try to answer.
Enlightenment humanist values have had a tremendous positive effect on the human condition. But Harari writes as though this triumph is complete. Maybe so on New York’s Upper East Side, but in the wider world, not so much. Far from being ready to progress from Harari’s phase two to phase three (embracing Dataism), much of humanity is still trying to get past phase one. The Enlightenment doesn’t reign everywhere. Anti-scientific, religious, and superstitious beliefs remain powerful. Democracy is under assault in many places, and responsible citizenship is crumbling. Look at who a lot of people are voting for.
Maybe this is indeed a reaction to what Harari is talking about, with humans becoming less valuable, and they feel it, lashing out in elections like Italy’s and America’s and in the Brexit vote, while autocrats and demagogues exploit such insecurities. In this respect Harari’s book complements Thomas Friedman’s recent Thank You for Being Late, which argues that the world is now changing faster than people, institutions, and cultures can keep up with and adapt to.
As to free will, neuroscience does seem to show the “captain at the helm” self is an illusion, and Schopenhauer was right that our desires are beyond our control. But our actions aren’t. As legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen has observed, we may not have free will, exactly, but we do have “free won’t.” That is, the capability to countermand impulses and control our behavior. Thus, while the behavior of lighting up is, for a smoker, determinism par excellence, smokers can and do quit.
You might reply that quitting too is driven by deterministic factors, but I think this denies the reality of human life. The truth is that our thought and behavior is far too complex to be reduced to simplistic Skinnerian determinism.
The limits of a deterministic view are spotlighted by an example Harari himself cites: the two Koreas. Their deterministic antecedents were extremely similar, yet today the two societies could not be more different. Accidents of history—perhaps a sort of butterfly effect—made all the difference. Such effects also come into play when one looks at an individual human from the standpoint of determinism.
Harari’s arguments about humans losing value, and that anyway we’re nothing but souped-up information processors, both overlook that the only thing in the cosmos that can matter and have meaning is the feelings of beings capable of feeling. The true essence of humanist philosophy is that individual people matter not because of what we produce but because of what we are: beings capable of feeling. Nothing else matters, or can matter.
The idea of existence as some vast computer-like data processor may be a useful metaphor for understanding its clockwork. But it’s so abstract a concept I’m not really sure. In any case, it isn’t really relevant to human life as it’s actually lived. We most certainly do not live it as akin to chips in a cosmic computer. Instead we live it through feelings experienced individually that, whatever one can say about how the brain works, are very real when felt. Feelings like love, excitement, pain, anticipation, regret, disgust, awe, hatred, sorrow, joy. Once again, nothing can matter except insofar as it affects such feelings.
I cannot conceive of a future wherein that ceases being true.