Talking to a millennial the other day he happened to mention that he’d just finished reading “Sapiens” a book written by the young Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari, which gallops through human history in 400 pages, relating how homo sapiens had come to dominate the earth. It is masterfully done in a rather hip flip kind of way, blowing away the residues of myth and magic that still manage to survive into the third milleniun AD.
“I enjoyed it, though it required a lot of concentration. I found I wanted to re-read passages quite a lot”, he said.“Did you read his second book “Homo Deus?”, I asked.
He hadn’t. He planned to though, but thought he’d take a break with some lighter reading first. It’s not that Yuval Harari is a hard read exactly. More that, for anyone who hasn’t already done the work there is a lot to take aboard that can be either liberating or alarming, depending on your cultural baggage.
With Homo Deus Harari reprises his first outing in Sapiens but goes on to do a massive deconstruction job on the Age of Enlightement and Humanism in general, as we head into a new world where immortality is seriously sought and mankind has been reduced to an algorithm. In short our post-human future, if we have one. It makes for disturbing reading.
Many scientists from Dawkins to Hawking warn us of the potential dangers of artificial intelligence (AI) and while science informs us AI can never actually achieve human consciousness it can certainly become a lot smarter than us, and could decide to replace us.
But the most immediate danger and very possible, given the way the world is headed, is that such a world will belong to a very small elite, comprising the very rich and hi-tech super brains who will have no use for what is already being called in these circles, the “useless classes”.
History is quite clear what happens to a redundant species, become inconvenient to a superior species. One way or another, they disappear.
Yuval Noah Harari and his books are extremely well received among the callow and newly-minted billionaires of Silicon Valley, as he is among ageing corporate titans. They reckon they’re going to do OK in this new world. AI will not only keep the masses at bay until they’ve been sorted out, but they can live the Life of Reilly for 500 years, marbles and mobility intact. With the useless classes out of the way ecological clean-up of the world will be a technological doddle.
Such a brave new future is no longer science fiction, we are already in its opening stages.
The reason Homo Deus is such a disturbing read is that Harari seems to see a post-human age as inevitable. He likens the Humanistic Age of the past 400 years, that brought unprecedented wealth, knowledge and social progress to the world after 1,500 years of stagnation, as a failed religion with nothing further to offer us. Moreover he blames Humanists for all the convulsions and evils of the 20th Century, holding it responsible for everything from religious wars, slave trading, colonialism, genocide, Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism and the ecological trashing of the planet.
That… to say the least, is quite a semantic stretch. Stalin and Hitler may have professed certain humanistic principles but they certainly never practiced them and in reality, opposed the essence of what humanism stand for. Most humanists would agree that the world view Harari describes has been responsible for many of humanity’s greatest errors. What they disagree with is that such a worldview is humanism by any conventional understanding of the word.
In short Harari’s view of humanism is an odd one, quite at variance with the reality.
What Yuval Noah Harari (YNH) says about humanism: It involves the belief that “homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature that is fundamentally different from the nature of all other beings and phenomena”.
What humanists say about humanism Not so, it does not hold man is uniquely sacred; it recognises that human beings have certain capacities and capabilities that are not shared in the same depth by other living creatures, but acknowledge that any differences between us and other animals is one of degree rather than of kind.
Harari: Humanism is a family of religions that ‘worship humanity, or more correctly, homo sapiens.’
Humanists: No, humanism is not a religion. It rejects the worship of anything, including human beings (human beings should seek to take down the pedestal they say, not climb up on it). It holds that everything is open to question and that to worship something puts it beyond enquiry and criticism. While rejecting the worship of human beings, humanism says all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity.
Harari: Humanism seeks to perfect humanity or sees the perfection of humanity as ‘the supreme good’.
Humanists: No, it recognises that perfection is an unrealistic goal, acknowledges the flaws in human nature, and seeks to work within such parameters to improve the wellbeing of human beings in the here and now.
Harari: claims Humanism sees ‘the rest of the world and all other beings exist solely for the benefit of [our] species.’ and believes that the environment should be controlled and manipulated for human needs.
Humanists: No, it does not. It recognises that the natural environment nourishes and sustains not only us, but all other life. Encourages us to extend our circle of moral concern to all sentient creatures capable of suffering.
Harari: says Humanism can be divided into three groups: ‘liberal humanism’, ‘socialist humanism’, and ‘evolutionary humanism’, each with its ‘supreme commandment’ (freedom of the individual, equality within the species, encouragement of our evolution into superhumans).
Humanists: Humanism often shares liberal or socialist aspirations such as freedom and equality of opportunity; however, it acknowledges that no single political goal is of ‘supreme’ importance and that human wellbeing involves compromise between conflicting values.It has never sought the evolution of human beings into superhumans.
Harari: asserts the crimes of Nazism, Stalinism, and environmental destruction all find their origins in the central tenets of humanism. Humanism is responsible for ‘an age of intense religious fervor, unparalleled missionary efforts, and the bloodiest wars of religion in history (the conflicts of the 20th century).’
Humanists: Totalitarian ideologies are antithetical to humanism. Humanists reject all forms of ideological rigidity that do not open themselves to question and criticism. Humanists have consistently opposed totalitarian ideologies as such doctrines have dismissed human rights and reduced individual human beings to tools in the pursuit of some ‘greater’ goal.
Harari: states Humanism is founded on monotheistic beliefs.’
Humanists: Humanism has evolved in parallel to the world’s great religions, with humanist ideas dating back to ancient China, India, and Greece. Both humanist and religious beliefs have influenced each other during their long history.
Worldviews and ideologies covered by Harari’s definition of humanism include: Communism, capitalism, nationalism, Nazism, utopianism, human-sanctification, transhumanism. Moreover, since Harari’s humanism also does not deny the existence of a god it is therefore inclusive of various religious worldviews.
Humanist worldview: Humanism is humanism, nothing more or less. Its tenets are simple and clear.
It is too early to write off the liberal humanistic world order, whose victory was proclaimed way too soon by Fukuyama and others in 1989. The excesses of globalisation and reactionary populism have still to run their course.
Humanistic principles and the nation state, albeit grouped into trade blocs, working through truly accountable and reformed international bodies, remain our best hope yet to protect the planet and regulate successfully against the horrors of runaway science, corporatism and despotism.
Prof.Yuval Noah Harah ably takes us to the brink of the chasm… and leaves us there.
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