Book Review: Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (2016)

There isn’t much extra I want to say about this book I haven’t said in many other essays. The review itself (see below) says what needs to be said about his projections for humanity. The issue for me here is his contention that (1) physics is all there is, (2) we have no free will, and (3) personality and mind are illusions. None of his projections for a human future depend on these assertions. If God is real, human religious institutions might be substantially wrong about his nature. Like almost everyone else, Harari fails to distinguish between religion (and what God is) and religious institutions (what the churches say about God). If we are mostly wrong about God (should he exist), we might still pursue the course Harari lays out in his book. The same is true of free will and personality (distinct from character). In the review, I’ve already pointed out the absurdity of denying free will. If Harari was right, he would no more deserve credit for his book than my printer deserves for an essay I print on it. Indeed, the obviousness of free will, along with its impossibility under a purely deterministic/random universe (quantum phenomena aren’t random, by the way, they are indeterminate. There is a difference). In fact (I contend), the manifest obviousness of free will is the evidence that physics is incomplete!

For more on this, see my other essays on the subject:

The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism

Arguing with Automatons

Mental Cause

Response to Criticisms of Agent-Causal Libertarianism

From What Comes Mind

Why Personality

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (2016)

God-Man is what this title means, but the content isn’t quite so literal. There are no themes in this book that haven’t been dealt with by numerous science fiction novels. But this isn’t supposed to be fiction, instead a sober look at where the history of humans, coupled with the technology of the twenty-first century, is taking us.

So where is that? The author cites three overall goals motivating humanity since its inception, and, according to Harari, now nascent and imbedded in modern technology. They are: (1) to be ageless, literally to live forever (beginning with living much longer than we do now) provided that we are not killed in accidents or murdered, (2) to be happy always, and (3) to acquire god-like (small ‘g’) powers of mind and body through mechanics, genetics, and cybernetics,

All of these are, he thinks, possible in the next 50 or so years despite the first’s violating the second law of thermodynamics, the second being a mental state that appears to demand an occasional (at least) lapse into something else to reset itself, leaving the third as the only one understood well enough to be achievable in some measure. Interestingly, achieving the third goal would have the most predictable negative impact on our present value systems and ways of life–illustrated to chilling effect in his last chapter. Putting it bluntly, post-sapiens humans take over the world, enslaving (or just eliminating, there being no further need for human labor) the rest of us. In a further twist, cybernetic intelligence eventually eliminates even those quasi-sapiens for its own sake, there being no further need for humans of any sort.

Concerning these specific prognostications, Harari gives himself an out. This is only speculation. The future is open, and there are many ways our technology might develop, and not everything we want may be possible. He also understands that perhaps time is not on our side. Some near future events (global nuclear war or civilizational collapse due to climate or ecological disaster) might derail our progress. Concerning the foundational assumptions of his projections, what makes them reasonable (and possible), he leaves himself no wiggle room.

Three things he assures us must be true: (1) the universe is entirely physical (no God, no extra-physical mind). As a consequence (2), free will is an illusion, and (3) so is the self. This leads him down a path of epistemic nihilism. Our brains react to every sensory input and make every decision some seconds (or fractions of seconds) before we are even aware of them. Our experiential arena is subjectively real (how this is given there is no subject) but has no impact whatsoever on what we think, feel, or do–there being no individual “us” anyway. The absurd consequences of these assumptions (he is not alone in believing these and cites long-challenged experiments purporting to prove them), for example, that there is no “he,” no Yuval Harari to whom we might give credit for this book, escape him.

Homo Deus is rich with philosophical implications, but the author is writing from a historical perspective and a forecast of “future history.” He is not trying to do philosophy, so I leave explorations of these implications for a blog essay. The book is well-written and entertaining. His take on human history from the paleolithic to the Enlightenment, the book’s part one, is novel. He credits literal religion (among other things) with pushing mankind forward until our own discoveries dethroned it, installing a new [metaphorical] religion, Humanism, the book’s part two, which brought us to the edge of the present age. Humanism is to be dethroned now, part three, and yet another [metaphorical] religion Harari calls Dataism is emerging. This overall thesis is coherent given his assumptions and gracefully presented with considerable humor, so four stars, even if it is more than a bit presumptuous!

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