Shaky intellectual, serious prophet.
By Gary Scarrabelotti
Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus is a proud tower of prophecy built on shaky intellectual foundations. It is easy to be taken in by the work because the writing is so smooth, clear, engaging, even seductive and because its author is widely read and flashes brilliant insights. Deep down, however, in his rational soul, the writer is unhinged.
“Soul” is a problem for Harari and this book. In fact, it is the problem. Everything turns on it. Harari makes it so. He argues that we don’t have a soul or, if we do, then it can be dismissed, for all practical purposes, since a soul cannot be identified by any scientific instrument or experiment. Everything follows from that.
Yuval Noah Harari is a “phenomenon” – a term, I believe, that he’d find in agreeable accord with his own notions about who or what we are. Harari literally sparkles with conventional signs of brilliance: Oxford PhD; accomplished military historian; books to his name – famously, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) published in no less than forty languages; multilingual; and a lecturer in “World History” at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Noah – as, hereinafter, I shall call him – has written a book that groans with desire for acceptance; and yet, on so many counts, it cries out for rejection. Homo Deus comes pre-programmed with false impressions as to its purpose and with historical caricature as to its method.
Homo Deus appears in the guise of a critique of liberal humanism. Its failures, especially in providing a persuasive meaning of life, paves the way, the book argues, for a post-liberal, post-human dystopia. In days to come, man will appreciate that he is nothing more than a set of algorithms driving flesh and blood and, abandoning himself to the logic and suffering of his position, will yield with relief to DNA manipulation and an attempted marriage with machines in the hope of attaining, as a cyborg, mastery over death and bliss without end. Hence the title: Homo Deus- Man God. It seems plucked straight from Dostoyevsky, albeit with an opposite purpose.
As one reads these always lucid chapters, it’s easy to get excited (or filled with dread) by a vivid expectation that, after the next turn in the argument, there will be found, limp and expiring, the brain-dead body of contemporary humanism. It doesn’t happen. Noah never lands a king-hit punch.
When argument fails, mockery serves. Like the smart alec academic whose amusement is to befuddle and confuse first year undergrads, mockery is the only sustained ‘argument’ Noah has to offer. And, yet, it’s of a feather duster kind. For this there are good reasons.
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow; by Yuval Noah Harari; Harvill Secker, London, 2016, pp. 440; £14.99
For one, Noah is laughing at himself and, for so patently tender and self-regarding a spirit, gentle handling is only right. Also, a killer strike of any kind against humanism would be too devastating for the world view he shares, I guess, with the most part of his peers, readers and TV audiences. It really would be the end of the road, not only for them, but also for Noah: no more books; no more lectures; no more admiring interviews; no vindication; no cred; just meat and bone, cogs and wires, and a download to patch glitches in the original human algorithms.
Nonetheless – and this is the really weird bit – Noah actually salutes the future against which he pretends to warn us. There is something more here than the author’s explicit avowal that the death of humanity is near at hand. More important is the petulant subliminal message: if I plunge into my free inner self and consult my feelings – a recourse Noah has just led us to believe is untenable – and they tell me its OK to swap human life for machine life, then it is OK.
It’s not the arguments or prophecies found in this book that matter so much as the author himself. Unwittingly,Noah has made himself the message. In the end, it is his own ambiguity and unresolved internal contradictions that represent the most potent critique of the world view he feigns to judge as a failure.
To accomplish, moreover, this half-baked demolition, Noah indulges blatant distortions of significant bits of the World history he claims to profess. For instance, he boils down the whole of the humanism bequeathed by the Enlightenment to Rousseau:
“I need only consult myself with regard to what I wish to do; what I feel to be good is good, what I feel to be bad is bad.
Noah lingers lovingly over this quote and giggles about it for quite some pages, like a doting wife relishing hubby’s failings. A love match is one thing, but as history this is odd. Rousseau – and the Romantic movement he sired – was but a theme in the Enlightenment’s wild and discordant symphony of ideas and a reactionary one at that: a revolt against the authority conceded by the spirit of the age to science and to its method as the only reliable source of truth.
Rousseau thoroughly deserves critical scourging as a false moral and aesthetical authority. But to claim to have dealt with humanism by dealing with Rousseau displays a cavalier indifference to the obligations and discipline of history itself. The historian’s job is to tease out the different elements at play in events, to apply due weighting to their influence and to untangle interconnections. Or at least to make the attempt. In Homo Deus, however, such exercises have been discarded as boring and inconvenient. Who cares for doing history when cartooning is much more fun.
The same applies to his treatment of the Catholic Church, biblical interpretation and papal authority, all subjects about which Noah seems to have developed a nervous preoccupation. Why? I mean, they’re not a threat to anyone. Yet misrepresent and lampoon them Noah must. This is de rigueur, of course, in those circles where Noah lives, moves, and has his being. So, ordinarily, no questions would be asked. The fact remains, however, that his treatment of these subjects is enough to make an educated but innocent reader blush. One more worldly, however, might suspect that Noah knows quite well what he’s up to. In this, despite the posturing, Noah proves himself a classic of the Enlightenment humanist kind. Also, and quite decisively, he’s “outed” by his childlike faith in the supremacy of scientific knowledge.
How often one finds this kind a phrase in Homo Deus:“ … the latest findings of the life sciences …” Well, what do they show? There’s no soul on the radar; we’re just a bundle of chemical reactions and snapping synapses managed (science believes) by a set of procedural instructions. If I can play Noah against Noah: Hey, guys, get over it; we’re machines already; embrace the future!
To give Noah his due, he’s done a good job – reluctantly, I’d wager – of showing us where science has failed to understand man.
Despite the sophistication of its instruments and methods, for all its dazzling accomplishments, science can neither explain rationality, consciousness, memory, or emotion nor point to where they might be found. No matter how many in-brain chemical reactions bioscience can describe, no matter how thoroughly it can map the pathways taken by the brain’s electrical impulses, neither reason nor consciousness, neither memory nor emotion,finally crystalizes out to light up the banks of research equipment and to set them pinging with alien messages from inner space.
Noah doesn’t argue from this that there is no soul. He just says that, if science can’t find it, it can’t be important. It is as clear as daylight, at this point in his argument, that Noah knows he’s copping out. He can’t face the possibility. He’s squibbed it.
It is obvious that rationality, consciousness, memory and emotion are not physical things and that, therefore, direct knowledge of them is beyond the scope of science whose object is the material order. Their effects, however, can be seen.
A young lad correctly solves all the algebra problems set in the exam and wins a prize. Later in life, he goes on to be a famous engineer who builds bridges that survive intact all that mother nature can hurl at them. No-one can point to his mathematical rationality but we can all see its effects.
Under interrogation the criminal cracks – “Yes, I killed her; I can’t carry the weight of it any longer” – and,after due legal process, he is hung by the neck. No-one can point to the crim’s consciousness of his actions but we can all see the effects of making it known.
A fashionable and ambitious young woman is all a-tizz and loses her car keys. She spends a desperate half-hour looking for them, then remembers that they are in her handbag. She arrives late and embarrassed for an important interview, but still gets the job and goes on to smash the glass ceiling. No-one can point to the memory which saved her bacon but we can all see its effects.
After a long and happy marriage a man loses his wife to a sudden illness. He weeps inconsolably. No one can point to his emotion but we can all see its effects.
Using our ‘stand-alone’ reason, working on the basis of our normal sensory observations of commonly experienced events and conditions, we conclude that the unseen source of these phenomena must be something immaterial and must, somehow, exist within humans and provide them with their power to reason, to be aware of themselves, to recall past events, to experience invisible rivers of sensibility and generally to direct and co-ordinate all that makes us truly human. We call this “soul”.
Sure, “the latest findings of the life sciences” maybe able to show that the brain lights up blue in one place when Noah is sad, red in another when he’s angry, and white in yet another when he’s happy. Why, we can even plug electrodes into Noah’s brain – let’s do it: here, here and here – to make him feel alternatively sad, angry and happy. We just throw the switch, sit back and enjoy the light show.
So what have we proved?
Well, this proves neither the non-existence of the soul nor its irrelevance. All it establishes is that modern man has reached the point where he can use technology to mimic the soul. If man can do that, then it suggests that, for some reason, the soul does not exercise a perfect sovereignty over the body. We can intervene in these gaps in ‘soul control’ for good or for evil. We can administer anti-depressants and assist a patient to recover from melancholy. No problem there. Or there is the prospect of wholly stealing the body from the grasp of the soul in order to acquire an imagined god-like power over death and the fonts of happiness. That would be unambiguously evil. A living body totally severed from soul control, if such were possible, would turn the body into a permanent and hideous solitary confinement for everything that makes us human. That would be hell and Noah declaims that we have no choice but to accept it.
“The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking. The current scientific answer to this pipedream …”
And here he begins a logician’s rant to demonstrate, without fear of contradiction, that surrender we must. The mask drops and a fanatical Strangelovian face appears. It was a moment when I could not help recalling Chesterton’s remarkable insight:
“The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”
I do not say forget Homo Deus. Far from it. It’s a must. Nuggets of insight are scattered throughout and only fools would ignore its prophecy. Just because an author fails to place his argument in a well judged intellectual framework doesn’t mean he cannot light up hidden or neglected truths. Nor does the fact that the author inspires fear and pity rather than respect mean that he has not seen the future. I am very much afraid that he has and, I’m not sure how, on our present trajectory, the nightmare can be avoided. As Noah himself exhibits, our culture lacks the intellectual and moral equipment to resist it.
One sentence alone brilliantly sums up this entire book:
“… modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.”
It is both a judgement against modernity and a demand that we sign on.