Yuval Noah Harari, HOMO DEUS: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017; 2015 in Israel)

This is, in effect, a sequel to SAPIENS.

Top level summary:

  • It opens with a long prologue: now that humanity has largely overcome famine, plague, and war, what next? Three possibilities: immortality, happiness, divinity. However these are predictions; this book is not a manifesto. They are the ideals of humanism, but humanism has flaws: that’s what this book is about.
  • He reviews human history from the agricultural revolution, emphasizes the idea of the algorithm, and wonders how humans are superior to animals: it’s our ability to connect, to use ‘imaged orders’ (money, law, gods, empires) to manage groups larger than 150 people. Meanings exists only within the networks of stories people tell each other. Science, meanwhile, has given rise to humanistic religions. [[ He still uses that word in a problematic sense, as noted for the first book. ]]
  • Religion is a social function that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms, and values. Modern history is about forming a deal between science and one particular religion: humanism.
  • Modern power comes from scientific progress and economic growth; free-market capitalism is virtually a religion. But it can’t go on forever: we’ll run out of resources, or risk collapsing the ecology.
  • So humanism is about being true to oneself, prioritizing personal feelings over scriptures. There is now no serious alternative to the “liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy, and a free market.” The old religions have nothing relevant to say about the world.
  • And yet—some of liberal presumptions may not be true—e.g. free will. Brain studies show the complexities of our minds; there is no one authentic self. Thus one’s ‘true’ self is an imaginary story too, like nations, gods, and money. People live their lives as if living one type of story or another.
  • The final chapters explore three possible futures, ways that liberalism might be made obsolete: humans will lose economic and military usefulness (e.g. by being replaced by robots); the system will value humans collectively, but not individually; or the system will find some individuals valuable, and they will constitute a new elite. Useless people, their lives supported by robots that rend them unemployable, take drugs and play computer games. Or income inequality might lead to gaps in physical and cognitive abilities, rendering ideas of equality and civil rights obsolete.
  • Some in Silicon Valley want to upgrade humanity—e.g. by pursuing immortality. Alternatively, data might take over the world, an expanding internet of everything, with the new value of sharing everything, uploading experiences to the internet.
  • Finally: so what should we pay attention to: In the short term, immigration, refugees. Over decades: global warming, inequality. And in the long term: examining the dogma that organisms are algorithms and life is a data process; whether intelligence is decoupling from consciousness; whether intelligent algorithms may come to know us better than we know ourselves. Are these valid?

General comments:

Again, note how frequently Harari rolls out concepts in groups of three. I’m still irritated of his use of the word religion to describe value systems that explicitly revoke traditional religion, e.g. secular humanism. He does so because he wants to identify those values with the analogous presumption about the world that religions make, so that he can challenge them and thus consider whether the western liberal project is doomed. There are lots of interesting ideas here, but I’m not as alarmed about the future as he seems to be. For example, does it matter if free will doesn’t exist in some fundamental sense? People still act as if they have free will. Perhaps it only matters if these intelligent algorithms he anticipates learn to manipulate us to what we think we are choosing freely is really chosen for us. But this already happens—we are guided in our tastes by culture; we are guided in our beliefs by our families and social groups.

He examines many of these same themes in this third big book, which I’ll cover next.

Detailed summary (with key points in bold and my comments [[ in brackets ]])

The book begins with a long, 70-page, prologue: “The New Human Agenda.” To some extent this recalls themes from SAPIENS, and to some extent it gives the impression that he forgot about another triad of ideas—or perhaps one cut for space—and is filling it in here. But no; reflecting on this book’s theme, instead what he’s doing is setting the stage, by explaining how several eternal trials of human existence have largely been overcome. Which leads to the book’s theme: what do we do now? But first, review those eternal trials.

  • Humanity has largely overcome the three ancient problems—famine, plague, and war. Now that these have been addressed, what do we do now? Consider history.
  • Famines—example of France in 1694. Ironically, now more people are obese than die from famine.
  • Plagues—recalls the Black Death, about which people could do nothing by pray, or assign the problem to demons. Other examples: Europeans coming to the Americas, and spreading plagues, 1520; later Hawaii, 1778. In world war I, the Spanish flu.
  • Now child mortality is down. Smallpox is gone. The recent plagues, SARS et al, even AIDS, have been relatively small by historical examples.
  • And doctors are getting better at diagnosing new diseases. When something goes wrong now, we don’t blame god or demons, we demand responsibility and arrange investigations. [[ Well, some simple-minded evangelical types still blame God—or blame whatever social matter they personally don’t like, e.g. homosexuality or abortion, for having triggered God’s wrath. This egocentric bias will never go away. ]]
  • Wars, p14. Statistics, 15t. We have overcome the ‘law of the jungle’, wherein people live their lives assuming that at any moment a neighboring country might invade them. No governments make plans with contingencies for war, anymore. There are exceptions – e.g. where the author lives (Israel).
  • True, there is a potential for cyber warfare. Yet we have also broken Chekhov’s Law [i.e. by the 19th century Russian playwright], the notion that if a gun appears [in a play], it must be used; that is, we’ve nuclear weapons for decades, and not used them.
  • Terrorism? It has worked only by provoking its enemies to overreact, 18.7, then rage like a bull in a china shop, doing the terrorists’ work for them. [[ Every time I go through airport security, I can’t help but reflect, here at least the terrorists have won. ]]
  • So—
  • What will replace these threats in the human agenda? Well, we might take steps to protect the planet from our influence.
  • What else? 21t – three things: immorality, happiness, divinity.
  • About death – religions have depended on it. They don’t make much sense if death did not exist.
  • Nowadays, death is viewed as a technical problem, with potential technical solutions. A few talk about defeating death entirely – like Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel. But by 2050? That’s optimistic. A-mortals would be cautious. [[ an idea already exploited by sf ]]
  • If even human life-spans were only doubled, it would greatly change social arrangements – families; how long individuals would reign over corporations or religions. Ideas would linger. 26.
  • Note that the *natural life span* has not been extended; people in the past sometimes did live until 70 or 80. We’ve just been eliminated causes of early death. Extending the life span will be more difficult.
  • But science, and capitalism, seem to inevitably drive the search for extended life spans.
  • P30, the right to happiness. Epicurus; Jeremy Bentham; nations provided education and health care as a means of making the nation stronger (not to make people happy). By now there is the idea that nations *should* make people happy. By GDP, Singapore must now be happiest. Is this true? It’s hard work to be happy; advanced nations aren’t necessarily ‘happier’ than less fortunate ones. Quality of life has increased, but not overall happiness. [[ A recurring theme; one of the closing ideas in SAPIENS. ]]
  • Why? First, happiness depends on expectations rather than objective conditions. Second, happiness is a matter of pleasant sensations and lack of unpleasant ones. Beyond that, said John Stuart Mill, there’s no objective good and evil. And this is, in effect, current scientific orthodoxy. The problem is, pleasant sensations don’t last long; they must be constantly renewed.
  • One answer might be drugs—pharmacology. We increasingly take drugs to mediate moods and behavior; to calm soldiers. This recalls the Buddhist view of the transience of existence.
  • P43, the gods of planet earth. Upgrading into gods might happen in three ways: biological engineering; cyborg engineering; or through non-organic beings. We can’t grasp what new minds would think to do.
  • Attaining divinity doesn’t mean becoming omnipotent—p47.5; it’s more like becoming Greek gods, with great powers but still with human foibles.
  • Recall that ancient agricultural societies, their religions weren’t metaphysical, so much as about attaining superhuman powers.
  • Is this moving too fast? It will happen bit by bit. It may take only decades. Recall the internet in 1993.
  • But if it’s scary, can we hit the brakes? No; we don’t know what the brakes are; if we put a halt to such efforts, the economy would collapse; and we can’t even separate these three goals.
  • Examples: Viagra; plastic surgery; in vitro testing. Three-person embryos. Upgrades are always first about healing, then about applying them for enhancements.
  • P56, the paradox of knowledge—four points: 1, only a few people will be engaged in these activities [[ recalls Gibson comment about how the future is already here, just not evenly distributed ]]; 2, these comments are only predictions based on history, not a manifesto; 3, they may not succeed!, and 4, these are about choices. New knowledge changes behavior; e.g. Marx’s writings were read by capitalists, who accommodated his thinking, so his revolution never came. That’s the paradox.
  • So why study history? To understand the choices we have. Example: lawns, a history of status symbols—then follow 7 pages beginning p59, with photos, about how lawns have been status symbols.
  • These goals are the ideals of humanism, which has ruled for 300 years. But there are flaws in humanism—and that’s what this book is about; these plans are likely to cause its disintegration, 66b.

[[ He may be right to the extent that, in the sense that humanism endorses continued expansion of the species, we’ll destroy the planet and thus ourselves. That’s why I’ve never been entirely happy with the idea of ‘humanism’ – what’s really needed is an *understanding* of our place on earth and in the universe, and the goal should be long-term sustainability, not continued expansion. (Which might subvert the SF fantasy of exploring and colonizing the universe.) And certainly the commandments of religions to keep reproducing and fill up the globe. ]]

Part I, Homo sapiens conquers the world

1, The Anthropocene

  • There are very few lions or wolves left; humans have impacted the world over the past 70k years, recently by mixing up all the previously separate (on various continents) ecologies.
  • Early human were likely animists, believing in a network of beings.
  • The story of the expulsion from Eden reflects the agriculture revolution, p77ff; changed the relationship between humans and animals; now animals were domesticated, subjected to humans. Today 90% of animal mass on earth is domesticated animals. And those animals live in misery; their evolutionary drives haven’t changed. Pig farms, etc.
  • We understand that organisms are algorithms, collections of needs and survival strategies….  83.7: “’Algorithm’ is arguably the single most important concept in our world.”
  • Example of recipes, and machines that follow algorithms; they work in humans through sensations, and emotions, and thoughts 85.3; humans are algorithms that produce copies of themselves, 85.1.
  • Animals like baboons operate through feelings and sensations—but these are in fact algorithms, built into their instinctive thinking. 86.2. even in humans, 99% of our decisions are based on subconscious algorithms (sensations, emotions, and desires) 87.2, note 18, citations of books by Kahnemann and Ariely.
  • In the early 20th century experts denied the idea of human nature; theories were behaviorist. Harry Harlow demonstrated the instinctive mother-infant bond, among monkeys, in the ‘60s. The animal industry violates this, 90.4
  • P90, The agricultural deal: Farmers justified their behavior toward domesticated animals through… theist religions, in which a parliament of beings was reduced to humans and their relationship with a god or gods, with only humans having souls, in which the gods played intermediary, 92b. “The gods safeguarded and multiplied farm production, and in exchange humans had to share the produce with the gods. This deal served both parties, at the expense of the rest of the ecosystem.”
  • 92.3, “Much of theist mythology explains the subtle details of this deal.” Gilgamesh! Example even cites how the gods smelled the savor of sacrificed animals (!!) – because the animals weren’t for safekeeping, they were for sacrifice! [[ important point to relate back to biblical reading! ]] (a good example of, why these stories and not others?) 93.8: “Non-human organisms have no intrinsic value; they exist only for our sake.” And see 94t.
  • Some religions are more animal-friendly; but all justify human exploitation of animals, and the subsequent classification of people into classes, 96b. “The farm thus became the prototype of new societies, complete with puffed-up masters, inferior races fit for exploitation, wild beasts ripe for extermination and a great God above that gives His blessing to the entire arrangement.”
  • P97, Five Hundred Years of Solitude. Science silenced the gods. The new paradigm was curiosity leading to greater control, another step toward paradise on earth.
  • Science gave rise to the humanistic religions. [[ He is still using the word religion in a problematic sense here. ]] But what makes humans special, that artificial intelligence wouldn’t be moreso? Is there some human spark?

Ch3, The Human Spark

  • Why are human lives superior? The tradition is that only humans have souls; it’s a central pillar of society.
  • Yet there’s no evidence of ‘souls’; in fact the idea of evolution contradicts it, which is why so many hate Darwin and evolution.
  • Why no such anger about relativity etc? [[ I’ve long though this is a key point; fundamentalists hate evolution, but are indifferent to cosmology, even though the latter just as much contradicts the Bible. Why? Because evolution offends people’s sense of being special. ]] Because evolution contradicts prior beliefs. … or is it because we are conscious and animals aren’t?
  • Yet we have no good idea about what consciousness is… what is the evolutionary advantage of subjective experience? What happens in the mind that doesn’t happen in the brain? No one knows.
  • Can we discard the idea? … no; perhaps it is real but performs no useful function. Perhaps our analogies are wrong.
  • 121, so do animals have minds? Examples of dogs, chimps, lab rats; legal acts, p123.
  • So what gives our species an edge? Tools? Intelligence? No—it’s the ability to connect, 132.7. [[ 2018—yes, this echoes ideas about how human social cooperation has been more important than merely using tools, a key theme of EO Wilson. ]]
  • Historical examples—communism, how it fell apart; example: the video of people booing Romanian leader Ceausescu, p135.
  • Communists held power for three reason, 136b: they placed loyal apparatchiks in control of everything; they prevented the creation of rival organizations; third, they relied on support from parties in other countries.
  • 138, So how is human life sacred? What makes humans able to cooperate so well? Our group size is limited, only up to about 150. And we are not ‘logical’… examples.
  • Larger groups depend on ‘imagined orders’, 143b – 144: sets of rules that exist only in our imagination yet we believe to be as real as anything – these are ‘intersubjective’, p144. Examples are money, laws, gods, empires. It can happen, e.g. that some currency is defined to suddenly be without value.
  • 146.4: Maybe hard to accept; “Yet in truth the lives of most people have meaning only within the network of stories they tell one another.” And following: “Meaning is created when many people weave together a common network of stories…” Why does anything mean anything? Because it did to our parents, etc, examples. [[ aligns with idea of understanding reality via narrative – and the stipulations that all such narratives, stories, are made up ]]  [[ again – the smart ones understand that these are just stories, that we tell ourselves to provide meaning, and that they could easily be entirely different stories. ]]
  • Long historical example of how meaning at the time of the crusades changed over the centuries.
  • The idea of human rights might be just as absurd in another century. 150.6.
  • Only human understand these chimeras – intersubjective realities. That’s our advantage. This is what separate humanities from life sciences; the latter depend on complete understanding…
  • So, 152 last lines, “If you want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must also decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.”

Part II: Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World

Ch4, The Storytellers, p155

  • Animals are a dual reality – objective entities, and subjective experiences. Humans add a third reality – those intersubjective stories.
  • We had the cognitive revolution 70kya, but fictional webs remained weak. With the agricultural revolution, 12kya, the Sumerians imagined gods like modern corporations. Only with the invention of writing, and money, were these enabled. The idea of pharaoh, a living god, became a personal brand. Society’s rules became written down, i.e. became algorithms, p160m. Now we have ‘the system’, e.g. hospitals, where everything is a matter of procedure and rules. These worked so well that the Egyptians could create pyramids and an enormous lake, even without iron or the wheel…
  • P163, Living on Paper. Written texts became so important that, example of visas in Portugal, 164.5. Yet they could backfire: the Chinese effort to expand led to imaginary reports which led eventually to government actions that led to famine.
  • Writing reshaped reality, 167t. –it could describe, and then it could reshape, reality, to the extent that reality had to give way to what was written.
  • Examples: how African borders, drawn up by Europeans, ignored local circumstances. How school function to aim for high marks [grades] rather than knowledge or understanding.
  • 170b: “In theory, if some holy book misrepresented reality, its disciples would sooner or later discover this, and the text’s authority would be undermined. Abraham Lincoln said you cannot deceive everybody all the time. Well, that’s wishful thinking. In practice, the power of human cooperation networks depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction. If you distort reality too much, it will weaken you, and you will not be able to compete against more clear-sighted rivals. On the other hand, you cannot organize masses of people effectively without relying on some fictional myths. So if you stick to unalloyed reality, without mixing any fiction with it, few people will follow you.” [[ nice summation of this current quandary ]]
  • Thus the power of money; even of holy scriptures, which become self-fulfilling prophecies in the way they function in society. P172b, “Even when scriptures mislead people about the true nature of reality, they can nevertheless retain their authority for thousands of years. …”  A monotheistic view in which my good fortune or bad luck must be about my relationship with an all-powerful god. P173.4, “Such self-absorption characterizes all humans in childhood. Children of all religions and cultures think they are the centre of the world, and therefore show little genuine interest in the conditions and feelings of other people. … Most people grow out of this infantile delusion. Monotheists hold on to it till the day they die.”
  • In contrast, ancient animist religions actually had a more accurate view of the world—as a playground of numerous different powers rather than a single god. Historians like Herodotus and Theucydides…
  • And yet the Bible won—because “No matter how mistaken the biblical world view was, it provided a better basis for large-scale human cooperation” [[ –the essence of the human tragedy? To survive we must believe in what is not real? ]]
  • 174, “Fictions enable us to cooperate better.” At least by the criteria of those fictions. Examples. Yet real entities suffer; gods don’t suffer; even nations don’t suffer, exactly. “That is exactly why we should strive to distinguish fiction from reality.” And last line p178: “Being able to distinguish fiction from reality and religion from science will therefore become more difficult but more vital than ever before.”

Ch5, The Odd Couple

  • Has modern science replaced the importance of stories, of myths? No; in ways science has made some myths stronger. So what is the relationship between science and religion?
  • 181, Germs and demons—there are many faulty definitions of religions; they’re not about superstition or belief in gods. Religion rather is a social function that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms, and values. 182.4; moral laws that exist and that we cannot change. Examples of boys asking questions of their fathers. Thus liberals and communists don’t like to be called religions, yet in fact they believe in some system of moral laws that wasn’t invented by humans, that humans must obey. And all societies have some version of this. All believers think theirs is the one true religion.
  • 184, If you meet the buddha—distinction between religion and a spiritual journey. Religions are about cementing a worldly order; journeys are about escaping it. If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him – i.e., if you encounter a fixed law, free yourself from it, 186. Such ideas are threats to religions, thus Martin Luther; details.
  • 188, Counterfeiting god—so what about the relationship between science and god? Sworn enemies? All scientific projects require religious insights, 189m. How to determine which projects to build?
  • Or are they separate kingdoms? Yet this ignores the factual statements made by religions. Abortion; biological facts, about when life begins. Religious stories almost always involve ethical statement, factual statements, and the conflation of the two, p191. Science has a lot to say about factual statements. Example about the Donation of Constantine, in AD 315… which later historians agree was forged, in the 8th century.
  • 193, Uganda criminalized homosexual activities, inspired by the Bible; long example.
  • 196, Holy dogma—it’s not easy to separate ethical judgements from factual statements. Philosophers like Sam Harris have argued that science can always resolve ethical dilemmas. And yet, what is happiness? We can’t measure it. And without the guidance of some religion [ in the broadest sense of course ], we can’t maintain large-scale social orders, 198.3.
  • 198, The witch hunt—history. In theory, both religion and science are interested in truth. “In fact, neither science nor religion care much about the truth, hence they can easily compromise, coexist and even cooperate.” 199.4 Religion is interested in order; science is interested in power, over truth. [[ Really? At best this is a cynical take. ]]
  • Thus modern history is about forming a deal between science and one particular religion: humanism.
  • Next two chapters about this covenant; and the final part of the book about how this covenant is disintegrating, and what might replace it.

Ch6, The Modern Covenant, p200

  • Modernity is a deal: “humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power” 200.7. This deal shapes our entire culture, and ourselves from the moment of birth. [[ it doesn’t seem to matter to Harari that the meaning given up is false – fictitious – and invented by humans; doesn’t reality matter? ]]
  • Modern power comes as a result of scientific progress and economic growth. There was no such ‘growth’ for much of history; productivity was steady, etc. It was for lack of funding. The miracle of credit enables economic growth. (reference to zero-sum, p204b) Example vampire bats, who loan blood to each other, but without interest, unlike bankers.
  • Modern economic growth is vital. We must produce more in order raise the standard of living, handle expanding population, and making any headway against poverty. And economic growth turns out to be the solution for everything, p207, e.g. to solve religious and political strife.
  • And so free-market capitalism has become virtually a religion, 210.1; certainly it “helped global harmony far more than centuries of Christian preaching about loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek.” P201.5
  • The first commandment of capitalism is: reinvest profits. Thus a typical conservation today is about how best to invest one’s gains. P211. Even games these days are oriented around capitalism, e.g. Civilization.
  • 212, But can this go on forever? Only if we have a store of resources. We used to rely on the discovery of new lands. Now, despite talk of “new planets and even galaxies” (212.7 !? – perhaps the only allusion to space travel in this book?), we need other methods.
  • That new resource, beyond raw materials and energy, is knowledge, provided by science. People used to believe the holy scriptures contained all knowledge worth knowing, 213.4.
  • Now the danger is ecological collapse. Do we slow growth? Or expect that expanded knowledge, and more growth, will solve the problem? In some quarters people are taking measure to shut out the consequences of ecological collapse, e.g. in China, protection against the smog. Yet the poor, as always, will suffer the most. And despite understanding the danger, greenhouse gases haven’t slowed, despite international agreements.
  • 218, The Rat Race. And so we’re always under pressure to produce more. We *need* upheavals; all that is solid melts into air. And it feeds on the natural human tendency toward greed. And it’s been a huge success, 220. Yet, how did we avoid the loss of meaning? By a new religion: humanism.

Ch7, The Humanist Revolution (60 pages)

  • We’ve managed to find a new meaning. Ironically, the greatest danger these days come from those who cling to the old meaning of a grand cosmic plan, 222b: “Yet today, those who pose the greatest threat to global law and order are precisely those people who continue to believe in God and His all-encompassing plans.”
  • So absent that, what keeps world order? Humanism. “The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part of that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhist and Daoism.” [[ I still take great exception to use of the loaded term ‘worship’…..]]
  • In past centuries no one trusted human thinking; we needed God for meaning, and authority. Compare 1300 to now.  [[ again, Harari sidesteps the obvious point that ideas of God and God’s meaning and authority *were invented by humans* ]]
  • Today, the humanist theme is everywhere: be true to oneself. What do you feel? People marry for love. When conflicts arise, the resolution is about feelings, not scripture. Even zealots – e.g. religious zealots upset by gay pride parades – resort to their hurt feelings, 228t.
  • And in politics: democracy, never remotely conceivable in the middle ages, when even art was attributed to superhuman inspiration—the Holy Spirit, represented by the dove.
  • Now, anything can be art, e.g. Duchamp’s urinal. [[ again, saying “feelings” makes it sound wishy-washy; one could just as well talk about trust and accountability… ]]
  • Again: the customer is always right; education is about thinking for oneself. The cosmos has changed—236m, the exterior universe became empty; the interior world became deep and rich with meaning. And so even belief in God is a *choice* about what one feels…
  • The medieval formula for knowledge was Scriptures X Logic. (multiplied; just one won’t do). With the scientific method it became Empirical Data X Mathematics.
  • Now the humanist formula is Experience X Sensitivity. Now understanding is about having a wide variety of experiences, and interest in what they mean, and being able to change one’s views 239.6. Thus author might cultivate fine teas. 240.7, “The highest aim of humanist life is to fully develop your knowledge through a wide variety of intellectual, emotional and physical experiences.”
  • Thus we have a yin and yang, a balance between science and humanism, between power and meaning.
  • In premodern narratives, there was no change—heroes killing monsters or villains. Modern narratives are all about inner lives, how people change, from Ulysses to Survivor, Oz to Trek etc. [[ Thus the standard definition of modern literature, which science fiction subverts, as being about someone’s inner life, typically about the most important events of that life. There was no such literature until about 150 years ago. ]]
  • 243, War. Similarly, attitudes about war changed; used to be depicted as the results of fearless leaders; now about the experience of the common soldier, rather than about dying in battles ordained by God. Examples of paintings.
  • 248, Yet the humanist movement split into three schisms: ‘liberalism’, 249.7; socialist humanist; and evolutionary humanism. They all deal differently with the contradictions that arise. E.g., what to do about refugees, Angela Merkel.
  • Liberal humanism is about allowing each person to experience their own life fully, and not valuing any one over others. This can lead to nationalism, a mild sort where the shared values of an entire country must be protected from outside influence.
  • Socialist humanism focuses on others’ feelings and how one’s actions influence others. These people might consider liberalism a capitalist trap, a self-absorption, a naivety about how the system really works and how it came to be. The goal of socialist humanism is to understand the system; thus an emphasis on political parties and trade unions.
  • Evolutionary human keys off Darwin to emphasize that conflict is necessary, because only the fittest should win; the superior beings and cultures should prevail. Famous quote from the film The Third Man. This attitude is popularized by Nietzsche –what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger—and in the memories of soldiers who’ve gone to war, an experience that pales all others.
  • Author cautions that the extremes of Hitler or Stalin don’t mean these approaches have no value – they are all sections of the ‘human horizon’, 259t.
  • An extended example: consider four experiences, listening to Beethoven, to Chuck Berry, to a tribal chant, or to a wolf’s howling. Which is most valuable? The liberal might dismiss only the wolf – thus the Voyager record. The socialists look at context of each. The evolutionary humanists are eager to declare Beethoven as obviously best, there I said it., p262
  • Are these distinctions frivolous? No—these schisms have widened. At the start of the 20th century, liberalism thought history was on their side. Then they were assaulted on both the left and right. (Long brilliant sketch of 20th century history p264-269). Liberalism eked through only by virtue of nuclear bombs, the MAD stalemate. And eventually prevailed, as the 21st came around, as more and more countries became liberal democracies.
  • There is now no serious alternative to “the liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy and a free market”, 269.2
  • Not the religious fundamentalists? No; they have nothing relevant to say about the world. Technology depends on a kind of ‘religion’ to give it purpose, but the ancient fundamentalist religions have nothing to say about new technologies. Hundreds of millions may go on believing, but numbers don’t count much in history – history is made by small groups of engineers and financiers who change the technological world.
  • There’s never been a shortage of “priests, mystics, and gurus who argued that they alone held the solution to all of humanity’s woes…” 272.2
  • Examples of religious reactionaries—a religious leader in Sudan, in 1881, who beheaded the local British commander and established an Islamic theocracy that lasted until 1898. A Hindu revival movement for Vedic knowledge; Pope Pius IX, who discovered the principle of papal infallibility; a Chinese scholar named Hong had visions of being Jesus’ younger brother that led to wars that killed 20 million people. While elsewhere factories and railroad and steamships filled the world.
  • P275 Now, in the early 21st century, the last train of progress is leaving the station – after which there may be no more homo sapiens. It’s about 21st century technology to create bodies, brains, and minds.
  • Traditional religions are reactive, not creative. Contraceptives, the internet, … religious leaders fret.
  • Compare the most important influential inventions or discoveries of the 20th century – there are so many to choose from – to the influential discoveries or inventions of traditional religions – of which there are virtually none? Except perhaps the industry of torture, via YouTube.
  • New ideas come from new thinkers, not ancient religious texts, 277-278: when considering new ideas. “Yet Christian true-believers – however progressive – cannot admit to drawing their ethics from Foucault and Haraway. So they go back to the Bible, to St. Augustine and to Martin Luther, and make a very thorough search. They read page after page and story after story with the utmost attention, until they finally discover what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that, if interpreted creatively enough means God blesses gay marriages and women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault. The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.”
  • Yet—liberalism may become obsolete.

Part III: Homo Sapiens Loses Control

Ch8, The time Bomb in the Laboratory, p283

  • Some of Liberalism’s ‘factual statements’ don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. In particular: free will, the elephant in the lab.
  • Brain studies show that biological functions are either deterministic or random – but not free. Even though we ‘feel’ free. Studies show our minds make decisions a few hundred millisecond before we are consciously aware of them. We feel, but we don’t choose.
  • [[ tempted to wonder why author doesn’t simply acknowledge soul and free will as ‘stories’ like his others… ]]
  • Further, we can manipulate and control the mind, e.g. robo-rats, treatments for depression, and ‘transcranial stimulators’ that enable a person to play first-person shooter games without the ‘voices in the head’ causing doubts, 291.2.
  • This undermines the belief in individualism; there is no one authentic self. Our minds have two hemispheres; experiments and accidents; our minds concoct explanations for things the other side has already perceived. Kahneman: we have a narrating self. We’re subject to the ‘peak-end rule’ as in childbirth, colonoscopies.
  • We identify with our narrating self, as opposed to our experiencing self.
  • 301, A Borges story. We cling to justification; ‘our boys didn’t die in vain’ – that causes us to pursue lost causes, send even more soldiers to die in battle. Priests know this too—by making people sacrifice, it cements their commitment to the cause they are sacrificing for. [[ this is the sunken cost fallacy, though he doesn’t use the term ]] Applies to economics, etc. Our ‘self’ is just another such story, 306m—
  • “We see then that the self too is an imaginary story, just like nations, gods and money. Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with bits from movies we’ve seen, novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, and daydreams we’ve savoured, and out of all that jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I am going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause me to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. We all have our genre. Some people live a tragedy, others inhabit a never-ending religious drama, some approach life as if it were an action film, and not a few act as if in a comedy. But in the end, they are all just stories.”  [[ one gets used to such passages, but taken in isolation, such passages like this are quite extraordinary…
  • Thus, 307.2: “Medieval crusaders believed that God and heaven provided their lives with meaning; modern liberals believe that individual free choices provide life with meaning. They are all equally delusional.”
  • And yet even people like Dawkins and Pinker cling to liberal values…

Ch9, The Great Decoupling

  • So what are the practical implications? There are three points about how 21st century development might make liberalism obsolete:
    • 1, Humans will lose economic and military usefulness;
    • 2, The system will find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals;
    • 3, The system will find some value in particular unique individuals, and they will constitute a new elite
  • Historical sketch that notes how conscription, beginning in the French revolution, came with civil rights… even women’s suffrage, since women were required to support America’s wars.
  • Yet, with modern cyber warfare, individual warriors are no longer needed. Computers are as *intelligent* as us without being conscious. Autonomous cars; etc
  • So unenhanced humans may become useless. We have algorithmic stock market trading; lawyer searching; digital teachers; even doctors; Watson. There are technical problems to be solved – but they only need to be solved once. Pharmacists.
  • 322, So what to do with this useless class? Humans over history have specialized into various specialized professions – which make them *more* easily replaced by algorithms.
  • Humans are algorithms; even things like facial recognition and chess have now been done better by machines. Baseball. Truck driving.
  • Might algorithms become legal entities? Even art, and music. Examples. Poetry.
  • So what to do with all the useless people? Estimates of various professions being taken over by computer algorithms, p330. What will they do all day? Take drugs and play computer games? Or would an advanced AI simply exterminate humanity? –note scenario 332t, in which a computer assigned to compute pi takes over the universe – is this an SF scenario?
  • So, 332, summary. Algorithms may know us better than we know ourselves.
  • 334.7, “People will no longer see themselves as autonomous beings running their lives…” [[ really? Why not? Most people today see themselves in the context of ancient religions… ]]
  • Algorithms need not be perfect, only better. Medical devices; health monitors. Angelina Jolie and her genetic test. In theory, if Google monitored all emails, it could detect flu epidemics more quickly than ever. 23andm3; Google’s life advance 342.
  • The system will know you better. Would elections become obsolete? [[ again, can’t imagine this actually happening ]]
  • Through our interaction with google and Fb, we are giving away our lives for free.
  • 346, Waze, and driving system. What if it goes from being an oracle, to a sovereign – that is, it *runs* all traffic to best efficiency?
  • Similarly, Cortana, and Siri, and Amazon recommendations, and Kindle’s statistics.
  • And yet, these devices are subject to attacks…
  • 351, Third threat: that a group of elites might emerge. We already have huge income inequality; what if real gaps of physical and cognitive abilities emerge?
  • The age of the masses may be over, and thus the idea of equality or civil rights for all.
  • What new ideologies might emerge?

Ch10, the Ocean of Consciousness

  • The new religions will emerge from labs, e.g. in Silicon Valley. Two alternatives: techno-humanism, or data religion.
  • The first uses technology to upgrade humanity to achieve the humanist goals.
  • 358, The gap between our perceptions and mental states, with all those possible – the spectrum; the “vast ocean of alien mental states”. Psychology has only closely studied sub-normatives and WEIRD (i.e. Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) people, especially psychology students themselves. Yet many exotic mental states may be unique, as in primitive cultures. [[ really?? Never seen any suggestion why this might be so, only cf Haidt about cultural attitudes ]]
  • Thus we can’t know how Neanderthals thought, let alone bats, or other animals.
  • We’ve lost some of our earlier senses. ‘Positive psychology’ tries to explore not damaged minds but prosperous minds. Our sense of smell is no longer so important; we’re not so attentive as in the past; we dismiss insights from dreaming.
  • Yet attempts to explore these senses might *downgrade* humans…
  • 368, So do we listen to our inner voices, or control them? We can do that through chemicals – drugs that calm nerves and so on. Yet doesn’t this violate the humanist first commandment? 370t, to listen to oneself? That is, what is the authentic self? Where do we peg the nail of authentic self?
  • It’s the humanist dilemma. And so what could replace desires and experience? Information.

Ch11, The Data Religion

  • The idea of ‘dataism’ is the result of Darwin and Turing – biology and computer science. There’s no longer a chain from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. The idea that biology is about data is now scientific dogma, 373.8
  • It’s seen in the dynamic between central vs distributed data-processing, i.e. communism vs capitalism. The former failed, e.g. Lysenko, because it couldn’t deal with change as well as the latter.
  • 378, Where has all the power gone? Political systems can’t keep up with technology, e.g. the internet. Thus voters selected Brexit, etc.
  • Thus, currently, no politicians have grand visions. As if they are leaving everything for the market to decide.
  • And yet, of course, market forces cannot address global warming, or the threat of AI, 382t.
  • So what might emerge? p383, history in a nutshell, as:
    • 1, increasing number of processors;
    • 2, increasing the variety or processors;
    • 3, increasing the number of connections between processes; and
    • 4, increasing the freedom of movement along existing connection.
  • And then a sketch of history along these four methods. What is the output? The internet of all things.
  • 386. Dataism becomes a religion through its values: the flow of information should be free; everything should be linked…
  • This is the first new ‘value’ since 1789.
  • About Aaron Schwartz, who felt information should be free, and hung himself before he was convicted.
  • And so, we have communal cars, and Wikipedia, and how young people these days welcome the connectivity 391.8—“What’s the point of doing or experiencing anything if nobody knows about it, and if it doesn’t contribute something to the global exchange of information?” [[ brilliant, but – isn’t modern technology simply allowing a human tendency that has always existed? And here I am posting these notes on the web! ]]
  • And so: share! Upload! Otherwise nothing has any value, 392b, “We must prove to ourselves and to the system that we still have value. And value lies not in having experiences, but in turning these experiences into free-flowing data.”
  • 393, Know Thyself. So this trend is not humanist nor anti-humanist. Music is mathematical patterns.
  • Hollywood pictures about how love defeats aliens; how simplistic; is that the best you can do?
  • Whatever happens, it will take decades, or centuries.
  • Feelings remain as encapsulating millions of years of evolution, 397t—“When you read the Bible you are getting advice from a few priests and rabbits who lived in ancient Jerusalem. In contrast, when you listen to your feelings, you follow and algorithm that evolution has developed for millions of years, and that withstood the harshest quality-control tests of natural selection.” …
  • “Yet in the twenty-first century, feelings are no longer the best algorithms in the world….”
  • And so what are our new guidelines: get a DNA sequence! Monitor your body! Put everything online! Allow Google and Fb to access all your email and posts!
  • Where do these algorithms come from? Some are designed… some emerge.
  • 399, There are critiques. We don’t know how ‘data flows’ produce consciousness; so maybe life is more than data flows. And maybe there’s more to life than decision making. A critical examination of this dogma is in order. But even if it’s wrong, it might still take over.
  • If it does—initially it would promote health, happiness, and power. Eventually though individual humans would become less and less important than the internet-of-everything. Humans may just become another ripple in the data flow.
  • All the ideas in this book are just possibilities, not prophecies. So what should we pay attention to? We need to decide what to pay attention to. In the short term, immigration, refugees. Decades: global warming, inequality.
  • Long term:
    • 1, A scientific dogma that organisms are algorithms and life is data process;
    • 2, Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness;
    • 3, Non-conscious but intelligent algorithms may come to know us better than we know ourselves.
  • Are these valid? What will happen if they are?
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Evolution, Human Progress, Religion, Science. Bookmark the permalink.