Review of Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah Harari: Homo Deus, 2016

Harari asks important questions about the future of humankind and, for this alone, I’d recommend this book. But he brushes away some important issues that may force today’s world to change – notably, injustice, spirituality and environmental crisis – and bases his vision of the future on an ‘End of History’-like smug belief in liberalism where the only factor of change is technology. Therefore his analysis is flawed and, I believe, his predictions far off the mark.

Harari’s central thesis is that the future of humankind, in this unfolding 21st century, will be mainly concerned with lengthening life, increasing human bliss and developing quasi-divine powers. But he acknowledges that these goals are encapsulated in today’s humanistic ideology, which will be undermined as we start achieving these objectives, because they will show how inferior the human being is to Artificial Intelligence (AI). A system increasingly dominated by AI will produce its own values – and new objectives flowing from them – which he sets out to explore.

The problem with this book, as with his previous ‘Sapiens’, is that his grand ideas are based on many ideological assumptions, to which he seems quite blind. Sapiens starts out with an inspiring rebuttal of the traditional, materialistic and positivistic reading of history. The author sets out some important central ideas, such as that humans are biologically still determined by our long and relatively happy hunter-gatherer past and that progress has not necessarily benefitted individual Sapiens, but only led to our species becoming the undisputed masters of the animal kingdom, wiping out most rivals in the process. But then he degenerates into a superficial reading of world history, that any student of history or social sciences recognizes as full of platitudes and lacking knowledge of the field and critical thinking, and that smacks of undiluted American capitalist liberalism.

Although I don’t often miss an academic approach in the books I read, I find it lacking in Harari’s two books. That is surprising for a professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. He replaces it with a jocular, chatty and eclectic style which I assume editors love, but which is quite wearying for the reader wanting to engage in these serious topics. The author seems to get carried away by his own sweeping and boastful style, allowing him to brush over inconsistencies in his reasoning, and sometimes become repetitive.

He hardly wastes a word on social justice. His point of view seems to be: the world is unfair, get used to it sucker! The future he envisions is for rich people only, and he admits that it will deepen the chasm between haves and have-nots so dramatically that it will become a problem: what to do with all these useless people that are less productive than algorithms? This may be a fashionable perspective among the rich, but it is foolish to dismiss all current and foreseeable future resistance against this social injustice as a backward, rear-guard fight, doomed to disappear in the trap of history as ‘terrorism’. If history is anything to go by, it is mass resistance against perceived injustice that is one of the most relentless and unpredictable change factors.

But Harari falls in the ‘End of History’ trap, assuming that the fall of the Soviet Union has permanently invalidated all the ideals that motivated socialism, leaving only liberal values: capitalism, ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’ and free markets. Unfortunately he takes these concepts at face value, instead of interrogating them for inconsistencies (with the partial exception of capitalism. He does make an allowance for the return of ‘evolutionary humanism’, i.e. Nazi and similar attempts to improve the human race.

On the issue of spirituality, also, Harari seems to completely miss the point. He uses studies on the brains of epileptic patients to provide proof that the individual doesn’t exist – he might as well have taken studies on bipolar people, but that might have been too obvious – and dismisses the existence of the soul as a myth, just like nationalism and other grand narratives. Although he points out that true spirituality has always undermined religion in one part of the book, he later, inconsistently, doesn’t give any consideration to such forms of spirituality, flushing them down the toilet with religion.

Although Yuval Noah Harari argues that contemporary liberalism is based on humanist ‘religion’, his own views are clearly not humanistic, but ‘scientistic’. He is an absolute believer in science and technology. When he describes how perfect the soldier can become that wears a transcranial stimulator, allowing him to focus on shooting his enemies without dissenting voices in him confusing him, he fails to take into account that the vast technological superiority of NATO today cannot deliver it a victory against Taliban on flip-flops. When he compares the brain to a computer, he does not take into account expert views that this comparison is as deeply flawed and reductionist as previous (mechanical, alchemical, Manichaean etc.) views of the human brain.

Instead, in the last part of the book Harari reduces the whole human experience to algorithms, which are easier to understand and predict by computers than by human beings. This leads him to proclaim a future ‘dataist’ religion, based on a ‘techno-humanist’ transition phase, in which a few super-humans, impossible to fully comprehend by Artificial Intelligence, will lord it over stupid men and intelligent machines. Harari works himself up to an apotheosis where this über-mensch governs an otherwise perfect world resembling Egger’s ‘The Circle’, and in the process he gives Google a lot of free publicity.

I believe the fundamental flaw in Harari’s vision is that he considers human science to have reached at least the level where AI systems, using self-learning systems, can reach perfection. What if human science is premised on several wrong assumptions, how can machines that are programmed to improve them detect the error? For example, how could computers tackle the environmental crisis if it is included only as a side note in current economic and production models?

To Harari’s vision my response is that the brain may be many things, but it is not just a computer on the threshold of being outperformed by Artificial Intelligence, and that the science and technology Harari admires are only capable of doing what the human envisions it to do. The true and immediate challenge of our future is to increase the scope of our vision, about what humanity is, what it should do and where it should go. That can only be achieved by expressing the profound and ever-enduring spiritual urge in our species.

It seems clear that our vision of who we are and why we exist will only evolve as we grow spiritually. Part of the spiritual urge is a compulsive need for justice, which should allow the global Sapiens society to achieve balance. Harari’s future, where Homo Deus struggles to give meaning to the quickly evolving reality generated by self-learning AI systems, while having to decide what to do with the useless 99% of the world’s population, will undoubtedly result in a bloodbath. What we need is to envision a future where the whole species is on board, that respects justice, nurtures the natural environment and sets itself spiritual, not technological challenges. In this endeavour, I fear Harari will be on the opposing side, impatient to make himself and his ruling class immortal, so that they can decide as Gods over the fate of us common mortals. Non merci!

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