Tuesday, October 4, 2016

"Homo Deus," notes on Yuval Harari's new book

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?

Yuval Harari

Yuval Harari, born in 1976, is an Israeli historian and professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The quote above is from his previous book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, (2011 in Hebrew, 2014 in English), which makes the point that human culture in the post-tribal age of large populations derives its coherence from "fictions," mental constructs with no concrete reality, such as gods, money, laws, nations and human rights.   

In his new book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari describes our future: Through bio-engineering, artificial intelligence and advancing medicine, we will become, by definition, gods, with indefinitely long lives and complete creative license to design ourselves and our environments.  

Harari's logic is compelling, though one might add that we don't know what a god is, only what it does.  As in physics, where we label atomic particles in terms of their behavior and effects on other particles- not in terms of what they are, which we don't know- so, even though we may define a god as "a super-human being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature or human fortunes" (OED), that describes what a god does, not what it is.   Whatever a god is, though, that's what we're going to be, Harari writes.  The transformation will usher in the age of Homo Deus, and herald the eclipse of Homo Sapiens.  In other words, we're about to go extinct:

Every day millions of people decide to grant their smartphone a bit more control over their lives or try a new and more effective antidepressant drug.  In pursuit of health, happiness and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human. 

Harari is as much concerned with our progeny's difficulties in figuring out how to be gods as he is with our extinction:

When humankind possesses enormous new powers, and when the threat of famine, plague and war is finally lifted, what will we do with ourselves?  What will the scientists, investors, bankers and presidents do all day?  Write poetry?

He may have answered his own question.   Others have come to the same conclusion about our final purpose.  In Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956) a vision of ultimate humanity features two small human settlements on a desert-covered earth of the far future. One of the groups lives in a self-sustaining mechanical environment of which no one knows the origin and which no one has any idea how to operate or repair (fortunately it repairs itself). Inhabitants spend their time writing poems which they send to each other.  The other group lives a tribal, nomadic life in portable tents.  Their distinguishing feature is that they are telepathic, so no one can lie. Presumably they handle honesty by speaking to each other in poetry.

By the way, I ran some of these ideas by my gila monster friend, Robert, and he was somewhat contemptuous.  He informed me that his kind had achieved this putative godlike state eons ago.  He said all it represents is re-entrance to the cosmic womb, which he said is humankind's goal, though we won't admit it.

I think at this point I owe my readers a poem.  

If I were a god

By Harry the Human

If I were a god
I'd find it odd
that even a clod
who'd been so awed

by seeming divinity
(though he felt no affinity)

lurched in the void
feeling scared and annoyed
where a soul should have buoyed
godlike views, not destroyed 


Yes, imagine it: I am a god, writing poems like this for all eternity!  

Harari is an exceptionally thorough, clear and fascinating author, the perfect antidote to the infantilism of an American presidential campaign.   I highly recommend him!  

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