MONDAY, MARCH 27, 2017
What do you think of when you think of a (possibly) non-supernatural future?
Do we have a vision of a meaningful future? Or of an increasingly fractured and meaningless one?
Do you fear or welcome the advance of technology? Are you comfortable with the likelhood of the Singularity occurring in our, or at least our childrens’, lifetimes?
Our main book will be HOMO DEUS by Yuval Noah Harari.
Any suggestions for supplementary readings or images, please send them in! See you on the 26th.
Well, I finished Homo Deus, and I found it very thought-provoking.
Even when I disagreed with Harari, he certainly led me down lines of inquiry I would not have otherwise followed…
In case it is useful, here are some very abbreviated notes on the book.
Notes on Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari
Chapter One: A New Human Agenda
An amazing thing has happened in the last 500 years.
We have ended famine, plague and war, for most human beings.
So what now?
Harari argues that we have to come up with a new agenda.
He thinks that it is taking shape around three main goals:
Death is now commonly seen as a technical problem to be solved.
(Note that we will still be mortal (from, say, accidents), just not from disease. So perhaps the goal, properly stated, is “a-mortality” instead of immortality.)
Happiness is also increasingly seen as a technical problem to be solved.
Sure, there seems to be a “glass ceiling” of happiness, due to:
–Our expectations always getting reset, higher and higher, so as to keep driving us forward (this drive is due to evolution).
–Note that some (e.g. Buddhists), reject this goal entirely – say it leads to suffering.
–But most people reject such renunciations. Instead, they seek a biochemical fix… Through drugs, through entertainment, and through technology.
- Godliness – i.e. Power
Humans want increased power in their lives.
We are focused on three ways to achieve this:
- genetic and hormonal engineering
- becoming cyborgs by adding technology to our biochemical selves
- replacing ourselves entirely with a technological Homo Deus (following the Singularity)
This all sounds scary. Can we hit the brakes? Or as Harari puts it: can a gun appear onstage without being fired?
- We don’t know how to stop it.
- Our capitalistic economy relies on growth, or it will collapse.
- No clear line separates healing from upgrading anyway.
Chapter Two: The Anthropocene
Roughly 70,000 years ago, one species of the greater apes, Homo sapiens, made a Cognitive Leap.
But what exactly was it that set us apart from all other animals?
Not our “intelligence” – it’s pretty marginal, really.
No, it was our ability to collaborate through collective fictions.
We could organize ourselves better than other animals and other human species.
Then about 10,000 years ago, as we developed agriculture and the domestication of animals, we needed new cosmological myths, new religions.
We went from being animists to being… theists.
We developed the idea of the Great Chain of Being.
We insisted that humans alone were made in image of God.
The rest of the world has suffered ever since.
Chapter Three: The Human Spark
Our new cosmological myths offered many justifications of human difference:
- Free will
Of course all of these are collective fictions. But they worked!
And then Scientific Revolution took it even farther.
We silenced the gods. We became our own creators.
Chapter Four: The Storytellers
5000 years ago Sumerians invented writing.
This habituated humans to symbolic thinking – abstraction.
Human cooperation depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction.
But these stories become ever more powerful.
More than ever, we need to learn to distinguish truth from fiction when necessary!
Chapter Five: The Odd Couple
Harari claims that science and religion rely on each other, and cannot function separately.
He thinks that values must come from our collective fictions – they are derived from some “superhuman legitimacy.”
Science can check and correct religious claims but not replace them.
(I am not sure about this. Not sure it has to remain superhuman at all.)
Chapter Six: The Modern Covenant
The modern deal: humans will agree to give up meaning… to gain power.
We developed the fictions of money, credit. This spurred development.
“More stuff” at the expense of traditional values and identities.
Yet resources are finite…
Possibility of ecological collapse…
Also, we suffered increased psychological and emotional stress, caused by the competition.
A new cosmological mythology was needed to assuage us: humanism.
Chapter Seven: The Humanist Revolution
Think Goethe, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, William Blake, Ludwig Von Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Franklin Roosevelt…
The creed: Humans can give meaning to the universe themselves!
The basis of everything is how we feel.
Each person is a single authentic self.
Knowledge = Experiences x Sensitivity
Humanism split off into three main branches:
- Liberal humanism holds that each person is unique ray of light
- Socialist humanism emphasizes collective action – less feeling, more facts.
- Evolutionary humanism focuses on conflict and allows for judgments of superiority and inferiority.
The 20th century was marked by “religious wars” between these three branches. Authoritarianism, fascism vs. communism, socialism vs. capitalism, liberalism.
But in recent decades, the rise of new technologies – biochemical and cyber – are making this cosmological mythology of humanism obsolete.
Are new “techno-religions” coming (based on the third branch of humanism)?
Chapter Eight: The Time Bomb in the Laboratory
Humanism has been exposed as wrong by neuroscience and statistics.
- Idea of free will is incoherent at best (driven by desires, yes, but they are determined)
- No singular “self” (experiencing self, narrating self, multiple biochemical systems)
Chapter Nine: The Great Decoupling
As a result, we are currently decoupling from humanism (read: liberalism).
Why is this happening?
Humans are losing their economic and political usefulness.
- They are not needed in war.
- They are not needed for the production of consumer goods.
- They are easily manipulated as consumers.
- They are easily manipulated for political purposes.
So the hard truth is that the rights and liberties of the masses are becoming of less and less interest to the elite! (Think Koch brothers, Ivanka…)
Oh, and for you romantics… Harari says that even art is not a refuge.
Soon computers will do better than humans at this too! (They are already writing symphonies and doing digital animation.)
All of this has given us a hazy, new understanding of humans:
- We are made up of organic algorithms and entirely divisible (not in-dividuals at all)
- These algorithms are not free but determined.
- There are in theory more efficient algorithms possible.
In response, the Quantified Self movement says, “To hell with human individuality!”
But most of us cling to the old threadbare ideas of ourselves as special.
Soon, our personal data will know us better than ourselves… Could shop and vote and work for us, and do a better job advancing our interests.
We are becoming part of an all-knowing network – and will perhaps soon find it impossible to detach from it (without huge costs to our health, our relationships, the quality of our lives). See Katy Perry: We are all “chained to the rhythm,” as it were.)
Chapter Ten: The Ocean of Consciousness
Two new cosmological mythologies are emerging:
Seeks to upgrade the human mind and body.
To expand our limited cognitive frame (looking to animals as well as unknown)
Celebrates trans-human values of data-processing
Recognizes that it could lead to end of the relevance of Homo sapiens.
Harari is concerned and wants us to focus on present choices.
He ends: “Today having power means knowing what to ignore.”