Many people have read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Homo Deus is his follow-up book in which he explores several possible outcomes to current developments in society. As a person trained in science with an emphasis on Chemistry and Biology, I find some of his observations uncomfortable. Most painful to me is that scientists will discount the value or importance of experiences they cannot explain: mind and consciousness. The following notes are samples of what is in the text that were most important to me. I believe that, if these notes intrigue you, you will gain much from reading the book, and probably finding other pieces that connect with you. Harari expresses his hope that readers will take this book seriously and work on ways to prevent these possible outcomes from happening. One difficult part of this book is the undermining of many myths important to many people. For this I especially am thankful to him as I have recognized these myths for what they are as I see how they are helpful and how they prevent truly open and necessary conversation.
A Jesus-Centered Response to Homo Deus
Yuval Noah Harari (author of Sapiens) followed with Home Deus, in which he summarizes current knowledge and theories from many disciplines along with current developments, and considers possible outcomes over the next 50 to 200 years. The following are notes I made from this book. [including also my additions to or comments on what he wrote]
Introduction: Chapter 1
For 70,000 years we faced starvation, plague/disease, and war, and created myths about spirits, gods, fairies, saints, [and ancestors] for hope in facing those challenges as well as countless tools, institutions, and social systems. And we continued to die in large numbers from all three until the last 100 years. Failure led to the belief that this is what had to be, either because it was part of a deity’s master plan or because that is our natural destiny. Now we have technical solutions to all three and our rates of death from them have declined enormously. When there are significant deaths from any of them, those events are regarded as failures of our political and economic systems.
Examples of what was include the death of between 50 million and 100 million people in less than a year from the Spanish Flu, similar large scale deaths from the Black Plague, famines in Europe and elsewhere in the 1700s and 1800s, and the deaths of millions in many wars.
The greatest threat to humanity now is our power, beginning with power to disrupt ecology, a power enhanced by human greed, our lust for more. (p 23) [Harari made many comments through the book related to our disconnection from the environment, and I believe this maybe one of his greatest personal concerns – his writing shows a depth of compassion for animals that I have rarely encountered in all that I have read.]
Having vanquished famine, plagues and war, our new human goals are immortality / amortality (life until ended by accident or violence) with no expiry date; happiness on command (even though wealthier countries have higher suicide rates than poorer countries); and superpowers (available to the wealthy leading to new class divisions, control by devices/AI, three parent embryos)
Our quest for more cannot be stopped without disruptive impacts on the economy.
p 64: Paradox of Knowledge – predictions related to human behaviour lead to changes in the activity, leading to failure of the prediction [incentive for this book is believing that putting the possibilities out to the public will lead to action that changes those possibilities]
p74: A Gun in Act I [reference to theatrical tradition that a gun revealed in Act I will be used before the end of the play] – purpose of this book is an invitation to examine predictions and change the future; examination of humanism – deification of the human.
Part 1: Humans as Animals; Chapter 2
p 84: Biomass of wild large animals is 100 million tons; biomass of humans is 300 million tons; biomass of domesticated animals is 700 million tons
pp85/86: Transitioning from organic evolution to inorganic evolution
pp 88/89: Transition from animism (humans seen as animals) to agricultural religions (humans separate from and above animals and plants) – the emotional/religious need for this separation drives the extreme response of conservative religious people to evolution.
pp92ff: domestic animals are treated cruelly
p 96: [some] biologists regard organisms as algorithms [mathematical rules]
p 105: Agricultural Deal: belief in some deity or myth justifies cruelty to domestic animals with cruelty as economic necessity
p 112 ff: Five Hundred Years of Science: Scientific/industrial revolutions silenced the gods.
Chapter 3: Human Spark
p 117: Gap between theory of ethics and practice – human lives/animal lives may be theoretically equal but not in practice. Value of human lives is supposed to be equal but not in practice (as shown in hundreds of ways today).
p 119: Who’s Afraid of Charles Darwin? – religious zealots as evolution challenges base of their beliefs.
p 123: Mind and Consciousness – these have yet to be explained by science. Separation of intelligence from consciousness; different levels of /kinds of consciousness. One example is Hans, the counting horse who read humans’ body language better than we read each other.
pp 153/154: Success of humans comes from ability to cooperate in large numbers [he made this point in Sapiens)
p 167: Web of Meaning: Part II Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World
Chapter 4: The Story Tellers
pp 197/198: Mass education system invented marks after industry and government started thinking in numbers (a curse of mass education). Control of people requires mix of reality and fiction.
p 207: Distinguishing between reality and fiction will become increasingly harder and more important than ever before [part of my motivation for preparing these notes and starting a blog].
Ch 5: Odd Couple, p 210: Science makes myths stronger; science and religion are like a man and wife who still don’t know each other.
p 211: Religion is created by humans à all encompassing story confers legitimacy on human laws, norms and values, and social structures. Every society has a dominant religion which is a tool for preserving social order. [Now I understand political correctness – cannot say anything which questions the legitimacy of the dominant social conventions.]
p 214 Religion is a deal; spirituality is a journey.
p 215 Spirituality seeks to escape world order, seeking truth.
p 218 Lonely path for individual. [Is this always true?]
p 219 Science needs religious assistance in creating viable human institutions; science = “facts”; religion à values/ethics – the ought of living.
p 222 Religious stories: 1. ethical judgements; 2 factual statements; 3 conflation of ethical and factual [factual statements are claims about what is fact; not necessarily actually true]
p 231 ‘Neither science nor religion cares that much about truth’: science seeks power; religion seeks order; modern history is a deal between science and humanism à possibly coming to an end as humanism faces replacement by other religions.
Ch 6: The Modern Covenant: p 233 “humans agree to give up meaning for power”. Before this humans sought meaning in their imagined role as part of a cosmic plan which restricted human power [Story of the Tower of Babel]
p 234 Now “Life has no script, no playwright, no producer – and no meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing”
p 235 “The modern world does not believe in purpose, only a cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens’.” à “We can do anything we want.” à quest for paradise through technology and growth in economy. [Our quest for paradise or even pieces of it provides social support for funding scientific research, giving scientists power which they seek. àreaching for omnipotence with abyss of complete nothingness at our feet.
pp 236-239 (“Why Bankers are Different than Vampires”) Most of time on earth has seen the earth as a more or less static pie which is shared by its inhabitants; developing trust in future and in technology has many of us seeing earth as a pie which can be grown.
pp 240-247 (“Miracle Pie”) modern religion is need for continuous economic growth. Current strategy games are essentially capitalist, focused on growth.
p 247 “The Ark Syndrome”: there are 3 kinds of resources: raw materials, energy, and knowledge. [Maybe spirituality or aesthetics are a 4th kind of resource.]
p 248 The greatest discovery was the discovery of ignorance.
p 249 The nemesis of modern economic growth is ecological collapse: creed of growth will not accept moderating growth.
p 251 The margin of error between economic collapse and ecological collapse is getting narrower; the power of science is making the rich (the decision makers) complacent.
p 253 The belief in the possibility of a high tech Ark to save the wealthy is one of the biggest threats to humanity. “People who believe in the high tech Ark should not be put in charge of the global economy for the same reason that people who believe in a heavenly afterlife [and the Rapture] should not be given nuclear weapons.
pp 253-257 “The Rat Race” Everything today is uncertain. “All that is solid, melts into aiir” à growth is a supreme value.
p 254 “For whose sake we should make every sacrifice and risk every danger”
p 255 “Greed comes easily to humans.”
p 256 “In exchange for power, the modern deal expects us to give up meaning.”
[Possible key for myth to replace modernism.]
Chapter 7: The Humanist Revolution pp 258-323) Worships humanity; meaning, in part, is found in our feelings.
pp 264-289 Beauty, goodness, value, etc. determined by individuals (could make a perfect car, but if no one wants to buy it, it has no value; if consumers buy meat raised with great suffering to animals, their choice to buy makes it good); truth of war and suffering (by humans)
pp 289-300 “The Humanist Schism” : the core of humanism is that humans matter most; Orthodox/Liberal/Libertarian humanism believes indviduals should have as much freedom as possible (Ayn Rand is one example); socialist humanism focuses on the feelings of others, understand prevailing socio-economic system, advocate collective institutions; evolutionary humanism sees conflict as raw material for natural selection à some people are superior to others and deserve whatever they can get; super humans could be individuals or races or nations [Americans have been trained to see the US as a nation of super humans; Nazism is one past example of evolutionary humanism] Is Beethoven better than Chuck Berry?
pp 305-312: Humanist Wars of Religion—Liberalism prevailed until 1914. Socialist and Evolutionary Humanists then prevailed until about 2010.
pp 312-323: Electricity, Genetics and Radical Islam [no notes]
Chapter 8: Time Bomb in the Laboratory: Liberal humanism is based on abstract ethical judgements and factual statements that are not true.
Factual Statement #1: Free Will – does not appear to be true according to laboratory research. Its use to justify political and consumer freedom is not justified (pp 334/336 – Concentration helmet)
pp 338/348: Who Are I? We have multiple identities, especially narrating self and experiencing self.
pp 348/355: The Meaning of Life Sacrifices for a delusion can strengthen our commitment to the delusion. [What implications are there for St. Andrew’s United Church in this passage?] new package of religious beliefs and political institutions.
Chapter 9: The Great Decoupling (pp 356/408)
Dangers to Liberalism: It MIGHT be that
- Humans will lose economic and military usefulness.
- System will find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals [Matrix].
- System will find value in some unique, possibly upgraded, individuals.
p 358: Soldiers and workers of democratic countries outperform those of dictatorships.
pp 361/370: decoupling of intelligence from consciousness.
pp 370/382: The Useless Class – p 372 Science declares organisms are algorithms; non-organic algorithms can do anything organic algorithms can do; p 375 – easier to replace specialized humans than generalists; p 376 – power could end up in hands of people who control algorithms, algorithms could theoretically own most of the plant instead of corporations and nations.
pp 382/397 Probability of 87%: technology is being developed which could know us better than we know ourselves and we will willingly accept the guidance offered by this technology, slowly giving up/losing our freedom of choice: examples include exercise, health, monetary devices and music selection programs; p 386 Quantified Self Movement (“Self Knowledge through Numbers”); p 387 challenge to humanism is the reality of nursing homes and geriatric wards – “medicine can keep us alive long enough for our minds and authentic selves to disintegrate and dissolve.”; using DNA information to make big decisions (example of Angelina Jolie”; pp396/397 Facebook has an algorithm based on our likes that is very powerful at knowing about us à potential to provide information to politically motivated interests to influence election outcomes; [our votes could be up for sale to those with enough money or power to obtain this information]; “In the 21st century our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos.”
pp397/403: From Oracle to Sovereign: Kindles collect data on how we read books à which parts we read slowly, which parts we read quickly; which parts lead us to quit reading. As we come to rely on our electronic algorithms, they can shift from guides to agents (empowered to act on our behalf) to sovereigns, and we can reach a point where disconnection means death.
pp 401/402 The driver for this development is the life sciences. Biologists are the ones who declared we are algorithms.
pp 403/408 Upgrading Inequality: The third threat to liberalism is that some people will remain both indispensable and undecipherable but they will constitute a small and privileged elite of upgraded humans.
pp 404/405 62 billionaires control as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people.
p 405 20th century medicine aimed to heal the sick; 21st century medicine is increasingly aiming to upgrade the wealthy/healthy
pp 407/407: May be moving to time when elites may conclude there is no benefit to providing health care to the useless masses. [I believe the sentiment for this is already present and active and we see it in the failure to adequately help millions of refugees around the world such as the Royhinga in Myanmar.]
Ch 10: The Ocean of Consciousness, pp 409-427
p 409: The new religions are likely to come from research laboratories. Silicon Valley is most interesting place from a religious point of view. Two types: Techno-humanism and Dataism: “Data religion argues that humans have completed their cosmic task and should now pass the torch on to entirely new kinds of entities. Techno-humanism argues technology should be used to create Homo deus.”
p 411: techno-humanism seeks to upgrade the human mind to access unknown experiences and unfamiliar states of consciousness. We are learning to engineer new mental states, but we do not know what aims to set for ourselves. → we do not know what mental states other animals experience and we do not know what mental states are currently experienced by people outside of the sub-normative (mentally ill) and the WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic), especially psychology students who make up the bulk of individuals studied by psychologists in research (67-80%).
p 414: It is possible many mental states are now extinct.
Pp417/418: There may be an infinite variety of mental states never experienced by humans or animals.
Pp 418/423: I Smell Fear – developing mental abilities useful to society can lead to loss of other abilities (smell, dreaming, etc.)
pp 423/427: The Nail on Which the Universe Hangs – humanism wanted us to listen to our inner voices; techno-humanism wants to control our inner voices.
Chapter 11: The Data Religion pp 428-462
p 428: “Dataism concludes that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity depends on its contribution to data processing.”
p 429: Dataism is the child of computer science and biology.
Pp 430/431: Free market capitalism distributes the work of analyzing data and decision-making between independent but connected processors → requires the free flow of information
pp 431/432: reduction of taxes reduces power of government’s centralized data processing and increases corporate power of data processing
p 438: The inability of governments to manage data has them thinking SMALL.
P 443: Once Internet of All Things is created, Homo sapiens will vanish
pp 446-448: Dataism – greatest value is freedom of information → humans lose right to own data & restrict its movement. First martyr was Aaron Swartz – 2013-01-11 – committed suicide at age 26 when facing prison for hacking ISTOR digital library → humans are not entitled to profit from their creation of data
p 449: connecting to the data-processing system is the source of all meaning [think smartphones].
P 451 : Dataism doe not believe human experiences are intrinsically valuable.
P 458: Maybe organisms are not algorithms after all!
Biology and Dataism only look at decision-making
p 459: Dataism is spreading across all scientific disciplines, and may conquer the world.
P 461: “If you do not like some of these possibilities, you are welcome to think and behave in new ways that will prevent these particular possibilities from materializing.”
p 462: “In the twenty-first century censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information.”
Comments by Jim
1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data-processing?
- What is more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?
- What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?