Much analysis of Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant new book, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” focuses on the harrowing dystopia he anticipates. In this vision, a small, geeky elite gains the ability to use biological and cyborg engineering to become something beyond human. It may “upgrade itself step by step, merging with robots and computers in the process, until our descendants will look back and realize that they are no longer the kind of animal that wrote the Bible [or] built the Great Wall of China.” This would necessarily involve the concentration of data, wealth and power, creating “unprecedented social inequality.”
“In the early 21st century,” argues Harari, “the train of progress is again pulling out of the station — and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens.”
Few of us Homo sapiens are eager to take such a trip, apart from some “dataists” who pant for the apocalypse. But, as Harari repeatedly insists, the prophet’s job is really an impossible one. Someone living in the 12th century would know most of what the 13th century might have to offer. Given the pace of change in our time, the 22nd century is almost unimaginable.
Yet the predictions are not the most interesting bits of the book. It is important primarily for what it says about the present. For the past few hundred years, in Harari’s telling, there has been a successful alliance between scientific thought and humanism — a philosophy placing human feelings, happiness and choice at the center of the ethical universe. With the death of God and the denial of transcendent rules, some predicted social chaos and collapse. Instead, science and humanism (with an assist from capitalism) delivered unprecedented health and comfort. And now they promise immortality and bliss.
This progress has involved an implicit agreement, “In exchange for power,” says Harari, “the modern deal expects us to give up meaning.” Many (at least in the West) have been willing to choose antibiotics and flat-screen TVs over the mysticism and morality behind door No. 2.
It is Harari’s thesis, however, that the alliance of science and humanism is breaking down, with the former consuming the latter. The reason is reductionism in various forms. Science, argues Harari, revealed humans as animals on the mental spectrum, then as biochemical processes and now as outdated organic algorithms. We have “opened up the Sapiens black box” and “discovered there neither soul, nor free will, nor ‘self’ — but only genes, hormones and neurons.”
This rather depressing argument is well presented, with a few caveats. Harari’s breezy style is sometimes in tension with his utter nihilism. Here is a moral rule: You can either be cheery or you can describe the universe as an empty, echoing void where human beings have no inherent value. But you can’t do both.
And Harari’s treatment of religion is, charitably put, superficial. He seems to think that the absence of an immortal soul can be proved by dissection. Scientists have “looked into every nook in our hearts and every cranny in our brains. But they have so far discovered no magic spark.” For future reference, religious believers don’t generally view the liver or the pineal gland as the seat of the soul. And when Harari claims that religion is “no longer a source of creativity” and “makes little difference,” it is tempting to shout “Martin Luther King Jr.” at your e-reader.
But Harari has one great virtue: intellectual honesty. Unlike some of the new atheists, he recognizes that science is incapable of providing values, including the humanistic values of Locke, Rousseau and Jefferson. “Even Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and the other champions of the new scientific worldview refuse to abandon liberalism,” Harari observes. “After dedicating hundreds of erudite pages to deconstructing the self and the freedom of will, they perform breathtaking intellectual somersaults that miraculously land them back in the 18th century.”
Harari relentlessly follows the logic of reductionism as it sweeps away individualism, equality, justice, democracy and human rights — even human imagination. “Yes, God is a product of the human imagination, but human imagination in turn is the product of biochemical algorithms.”
This is the paradox and trial of modernity. As humans reach for godhood, they are devaluing what is human. “Omnipotence is in front of us, almost within our reach,” Harari says, “but below us yawns the abyss of complete nothingness.” A humane future will require someone to offer a bridge across the chasm.