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Book Review: Homo Deus

By (February 20, 2017) One Comment

Homo Deus:

A Brief History of Tomorrow

by Yuval Noah Harari

Harper, 2017

Yuval Noah Harari’s previous book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, was published in English in 2014 to rapturous applause from readers ranging from Publishers’Weekly to President Obama. The book purported to be a semi-visionary deep history of humanity, and like virtually all such books (Harari’s, for instance, is endlessly compared with Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel), its enormous appeal arose through a cannily-negotiated marriage of the author’s mendacity and his readers’ gullibility. The current term for this in scientific circles is “woo woo” – which is what you get when an element of wonder is baked into a scientific presentation rather than allowed to arise from it naturally. Sapiens mixed large sections of the author’s genuinely thought-provoking insights on the nature of humanity with carefully-modulated amounts of woo woo to produce a readable work of fluff science (the hosannas of hysterical praise it drew from all quarters of the reading world was hardly the book’s fault, after all).

Harari’s new book, 2015’s The History of Tomorrow cannily retitled as Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, sketchily looks forward into humanity’s future rather than backward into its past. In these pages, the author indulges in some informed extrapolation of the future of such things as infectious disease, interactive technology, and the late stages of radical climate change, always stressing the central role of “man the god,” a social and technological innovator who’s typically heedless of the long-term ramifications of those innovations.

In other words, Homo Deus is a lot like Sapiens, only with a lot more woo woo.

As in the case of most public intellectuals who begin to believe their own press clippings, Harari makes his most crippling stumbles on the definitional level – this is almost a structural necessity in books like Homo Deus, since it’s only by mangling definitions that you can do the cross-discipline mental wandering that tends to give these books their sales appeal. For example, the very term “homo deus” seems to point to the Enlightenment, which launches our author on a bit of nonsense about humanism:

The antidote to a meaningless and lawless existence was provided by humanism, a revolutionary new creed that conquered the world during the last few centuries. The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhism and Daoism. Whereas traditionally the great cosmic plan gave meaning to the life of humans, humanism reverses the roles and expects the experiences of humans to give meaning to the cosmos. According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe.

Every single part of that is not only wrong but insulting, a nearly-exact reversal of reality done, it seems, solely for the purpose of branding every system of human thought a religion. And what would be the appeal of doing that, you ask? The appeal is that such a lie appears to level the playing field; the founding essence of religions is that they all make factual claims they cannot factually prove – brand some non-religious thought system (humanism, science, rationalism) a religion and you back-foot that system into a position where it has to waste its time explaining how it’s not a religion to the very people who’d like to abolish it in any case. But calling something like humanism a religion has a deeper and more pervasive negative effect: it relativizes knowledge by making everything a subset of belief. This is an odd place to find a trained historian, but it’s a place downright crowded with pseudo-historical pundits of the type Harari seems to aspire to be. What on Earth is a passage like this one, for instance, other than pseudo-history?

If a liberal had fallen asleep in June 1914 and awakened in June 2014, he or she would have felt very much at home. Once again people believe that if you just give individuals more freedom, the world will enjoy peace and prosperity. The entire twentieth century looks like a big mistake. Back in the spring of 1914 humankind was speeding on the liberal highway when it took a wrong turn and entered a cul-de-sac. In then required eight decades and three horrendous global wars to find its way back to the highway.

It’s inevitable that Homo Deus will please most of the same readers who liked Sapiens. But it shouldn’t, and Harari shouldn’t be trying to please such readers. This is a smart, articulate author who can, when he exerts himself, be an exciting thinker (book-blurbs from President Obama aren’t to be taken lightly). Homo Deus is a prime example of him not exerting himself.

One Comment »

  • Dennis Sutherland says:

    I have just read Homo Deus by Yuval Harari, a fascinating work, focusing on the possible future of humanity, and the questions he raises seem to be more troubling than those we have
    ever faced before.

    If the life sciences and computer science are reaching the conclusions outlined in his book then I believe it is important that there should be public forums set up where discussions can
    take place with Silicon Valley concerning the direction the sciences are taking us.

    I do not consider myself a Luddite when facing technological change but as in this case their far reaching implications should be given deeper and more widespread attention and clarification,as far as reasonably possible.

    Let us for a moment look at what appears to have excited Silicon Valley. It is that the life sciences and computer science are converging on the belief that organisms are algorithms. We are algorithms.Not only can we interpret ourselves as an algorithmic process but we can be converted into a process,a program which can be run on a computer. The meaning of us can be incorporated within the computer.

    This is the possible vision of man’s future, but this being said let us return to the present. The above scenario of organisms being algorithms has not been proved. It is the dogma of science at the moment.

    The fact that science has not yet arrived at proof of its vision indicates the complexity of the argument it puts forward.

    It would be in the interest of some clarity to know what research may have revealed, with the simpler forms of organic life, and what success if any in the translation, the imitation of the biochemical into the electronic of the computer.

    If we assume organisms are algorithms then this means that in some way they are similar. The similarity must be in the way they function and this points to the fact that the instructions within the algorithms must imitate the instructions within the organisms in order for them to carry out their task. Is the likeness of the instructions within the organisms identifiable and can it be converted into the algorithmic process?

    If artificial intelligence in computers is superior to human intelligence it is curious that the rise of intelligent awareness did not appear on earth before, during or even after the origins of organisms. The possibility must exist that the nature of the construction inherent in the organism must be capable of conversion to the characters of the algorithmic process. Perhaps the intrinsic nature of inorganic matter does not allow for the malleability, the sensitivity of organic matter and if this is the case the possibilities for a computer to acquire artificial intelligence may well be impossible.

    Dennis Sutherland.

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