Yuval Noah Harari “Homo Deus” – book review

I listened to this book over a protracted period of time – which means, sadly, that I had forgotten most of the first half by the time I was listening to the second.

I was sceptical about this book initially. My least favourite part of Sapiens were Harari’s predictions about the future: and here was a book that consisted solely of his predictions of the future. In the different scenarios Harari explores, he reminds me a little of Max Tegmark exploring the various ways in which AI could take over the world (or not). Indeed, it is tempting to consider Harari’s book more in comparison with the science fiction genre- it reminded me a great deal of the central thesis of Brave New World – except, well, that it was a little drier.

Despite the fact that I tend to be suspicious of grand historical theories, which Harari is very fond of making: “democracy is the product of the fact that the state needed population for its armies”, or “no important new religious trend will come of the existing religions”, I found there were nevertheless many interesting ideas in this book.

The first is Harari’s clear belief that one can analyse liberalism, socialism, and fascism as religious systems. This is something I have often thought of instinctively of both socialism and fascism, but I had hitherto negligently omitted liberalism from the list.

Second, I was fascinated by the section, which discussed both brain enhancement techniques employed by the US army , as well as experiments on controlling the brains of the rats. Though I didn’t necessarily agree with the tendency of Harari’s argument.

He denounces the liberal ideology’s tendency to think of human as individuals with a free will. Instead, he posits that the latest discoveries in the biological sciences make more sense of humans as “dividuals” – and here he mentions the differences between the experiencing and the remembering self highlighted by Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. (Incidentally, I should really reread that book, as I remember little of it apart from thinking it was awesome).However, the idea of a human being simply being a flow of thoughts in consciousness united through its passage through time, is hardly new: any literary modernist work in the beginning of the 20th century – think Virginia Woolf’s The Waves or more famously Joyce’s Ulysses highlights the fragmentary and self-contradicting nature of human thought.

He also talks about humans who had, for one reason or another, experienced the separation between the right and left half of the brain. These sides of the brain often give contradictory answers – Harari relates the mid-20th century scientific experiments that discovered this.

These theoretical ideas are indeed fascinating – but to Harari’s argument of ‘dividuals’, one is tempted to say – well, there are many systems that compose “me” – however, there is only one body that I can move around or perceive the world through. Hence selfhood is simply constituted by the bodily-contained self. So far it has been impossible for us to transfer a human brain onto another substance or even to transplant it (though people have been tempted to do it – see this article in Wired). Therefore the self could be quite simply be limited to the body.

This is not a very sophisticated counterargument on my part – it reminds me a little of this bit of the biography of Johnson

we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”

It’s a fairly common sense and deliberately inexact rebuttal. Of course, it is entirely possible that someone will finally work out that they can fit the contents of brain onto a chip – but given the fact, that as Harari suggested, our body and its “systems” play a crucial role in our perception of reality – will that chip be recognizably “me”?

These are big questions.

An example of disturbing experiments on the subject are those being made on rats. Scientists can control the rats’ movements remotely and artificially through wiring to the rats’ brains. The military have already expressed an interest in these controllable rats, which could be useful for instance in disarming bombs. The scientists who conduct the experiments claim that the rats do not feel they are being controlled. They simply experience an impulse to do a certain thing.

This claim unnerved me somewhat. Surely, as humans (and Harari makes a similar point later on in this book regarding bats) we have no idea what the rats are experiencing. We don’t know what it feels like to have someone controlling your brain. Perhaps the scientist is right and the rats feel nothing. But it seems highly unlikely that we know that for sure?

Since Harari’s book has been published, the rat experiments have gone further – and creepier if you like. You can now control rats remotely using your brain (see here) .

Whenever we are experimenting on rats, you can bet that experiments on humans are not far off, and this is the case here. Already the US army is experimenting with electrical brain stimulation to enhance focus. Harari reports that a journalist who got to test a helmet which was supposed to help her focus thoroughly enjoyed the experience. She said that she craved it afterwards : the only thing that struck her as eerie was a slightly metallic taste in her mouth. Harari points out that there is nothing theoretically stopping humans in the future from constantly using such helmets- even though they seem to have an adverse effect on recognising human emotions. He suspects that to make ourselves efficient, we would be willing to become more like robots. Perhaps this is true.

The brain is just one of Harari’s many area of focus- and I dwell on it here because I find it so intriguing. He also talks about possible directions the future might take. He identifies a new religion that is already taking hold in our society – something he calls data-ism. This ideology focuses is on experiences as data gathering – its central tenant is the free exchange of information.

According to dataism, liberalism and socialism are simply different weightings of certain data inputs and data processing systems. Liberals favour individualism and distributive data processing. Socialists favour the group and centralised data processing. What distinguishes dataism from its predecessors, is its obsession with creating an “objective” portrait of human existence through data collected about us. In fact, it is entirely possible that the data will know us better than we know ourselves. Harari cites some Facebook experiments that apparently prove this point – though he omits to mention that Facebook might have an interest in claiming that they can control behaviour.

What Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, Harari might call dataism. Only instead of placing the blame for the obsession with data on a few Silicon Valley companies, Harari notes that the whole world is invested in dataism through willing participation.

Here, the reminiscence to Huxley’s Brave New World is overwhelming – Harari envisages a society in which the choice is between taking the advantages that technology offers or retaining our sense of selfhood and privacy.

As a parting reflection, Harari leaves us with three questions:

  • Are all organisms algorithms, as the biological sciences tell us?
  • In the face of consciousness decoupling from intelligence – what value does consciousness have?
  • How will we live in a world where the algorithms are better than ourselves? Is there more to life than algorithms and decision-making?

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