Part historical survey of human belief systems, part philosophical/scientific examination of consciousness and the soul, part modern treatise on yet another “ism,” Homo Deus is a well-written, wide ranging masterpiece that will make you realize that you live in the future which the science fiction books of old predicted from the safety of the past. If nothing else, it will certainly make you think, and perhaps re-evaluate your own perspectives about the future and the present.
Yuval Noah Harari, author of the bestselling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, envisions a not-too-distant world in which we face a new set of challenges. In Homo Deus, he examines our future with his trademark blend of science, history, philosophy and every discipline in between.
Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century – from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.
A HISTORY OF HUMANKIND’S PURPOSE
As the source of meaning and authority relocated from the sky to human feelings, the nature of the entire cosmos changed. The exterior universe—hitherto teeming with gods, muses, fairies and ghouls—became empty space. The interior world—hitherto an insignificant enclave of crude passions—became deep and rich beyond measure.
Liberalism. Humanism. Religion. Capitalism. Next, Data-ism. Harari has many gifts, one of which is the ability to name what it is we experience. Ideas that have percolated in the world around us, growing and decaying, are in this novel given precise, distinct names. In the true manner of a historian, Harari seems to take the reader through the different ways humanity has, on the whole, defined its purpose—first with the common myths of religion, and then, when God died, with humanism, and finally, in the future, dataism.
It is almost soothing to read the history of humanity defined in this way. First this was how we found our purpose. Then, this. And in the future, it will probably be this. Sure, it is smartly qualified with valid examples, but Harari justifies his generalizations with example after example, particularly when he comes to his freshest idea—that we are poised to move past the humanist age into the data-ist age.
Dataism is a helpful tool with which to explain some phenomena in the world today. It is also helpful when thinking about the future and the potential power humans will have. I admit I was surprised at how fresh Harari implied such ruminations are, however, given the entire genre of Science-Fiction has long thought very seriously about all of the philosophical and practical questions that face humanity in the future. Yes, we will be able to use science to make ourselves better in myriad ways. It’s not shocking, and it’s not particularly scary at this point.
IMMORTALITY AND CYBORGS
Greater inequality than the world has ever seen, Harari declares, will come as a result of our ability to upgrade ourselves from Homo Sapiens to Homo Deus. For the record, the moniker Homo Deus reminds me of the upper-dimensional beings in 2001 Space Odyssey or Interstellar.
Recently, Elon Musk ran a poll on his twitter asking if he should sell 10% of his stock to solve world hunger. Which it theoretically could. Because that’s how much 10% of his stock is worth.
Does there come a point when more inequality hardly matters? The Elon Musk example is silly, but also—how is that not power that’s actually reminiscent of a god? So what if we wind up creating the matrix—excuse me, the metaverse—and plugging ourselves in, ignoring a reality only hospitable to the super-humans? Half the young people I meet today joke that we live in a simulation already.
Maybe some people become immortal, like Harari says they will. See the Netflix show Altered Carbon, or any vampire movie or TV show ever. Even if we learn to manipulate our own desires, I’m not convinced it would transform the race as much as Harari believes. Free will might not exist under deterministic science, but that doesn’t make anyone like the words control and desires next to one another. However, I do think that this idea—that we master the human body to such an extent that we can completely control our urges, our attention, and our dreams—one of the most compelling and interesting subjects of the book.
THE SOUL VERSUS THE DATA
If the complex algorithmic AI of the future is not ever conscious, what happens? Does meaning leak out of the universe? What about if we become able to control our own deepest desires through ~science~?
Harari spends a lot of the book proving to his readers that the human soul doesn’t exist—that humans are just complex scientific algorithms that have such a powerful consciousness (that is, neurons firing between one another in our brains) that we become convinced of mystical things like souls, selves, and love.
For the most part, science says this is true. There is a section where Harari seems to imply that according to science, some animals have just as much consciousness as human beings, thus…equating them? My humanist side admittedly took that section with a bit of a side-eye.
It will definitely make a lot of sense to trust algorithms and machines with many decisions regarding our lives. We already do. So? The natural next question is whether we lose something fundamental, and Harari says no, because, remember, we don’t have souls. The fixation on the idea that future complex algorithms and AI will not be conscious doesn’t make much sense to me. When Harari spins this idea out to this end, he arrives at “once authority shifts from humans to algorithms, the humans projects may become irrelevant…humans might be reduced from engineers to chips, then to data, and eventually we might dissolve within the torrent of data like a clump of earth within a gushing river.” And we’re back to the Matrix.
My other quibble with this final destination is: following the kind of science-first-and-above-all philosophy/religion of Harari, humans don’t matter in the first place. Indeed, he seems like the sort to remind you that you are but a speck in this vast universe, a collection of cells and energy that by a combination of chance and DNA gained a consciousness which then had the audacity to construct a self.
Which is a process that has its own god-like audacity, if you ask me.