Book: Homo Deus – a history of Tomorrow

TLDR: Yes, you should read this book.

“In seeking bliss and immortality humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods.”

Yuval Noah Harrari

Humanism has brought us incredible advances: We cured plagues, stopped wars, tamed nature. Climate catastrophe aside, we succeeded in overcoming every challenge thrown at a human race and came stronger and more resilient from experience.

Homo Deus is a book about the possible paths for humanity. Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens takes his insightful analysis of our species history and maps the trends and technological advances to present us with a possible future. I find this analysis highly accurate and agree with him on the direction we are facing.

Plagues and wars are no longer a daily concern. Now, my main struggle is finding ripe enough Avocado for my morning toast.

But this enormous success has brought its own trap: We have become accustomed to our way of life. 

Amazon link

The shortcomings of Humanism

You can only force people to do so many things. But it turns out that if you give them meaning and a purpose, they will be capable of incredible feats.

In early modern times, religion has provided this purpose generously. If you served God, you would go to Heaven. Everything made sense. You should, without a doubt, put all your efforts into furthering churches’ mission, even if that meant killing more pagans or dying yourself in the process.

Then came the Renaissance.

Slowly, but surely the religion was not the only game in town. People discovered the value of an individual human being, and human colossus started to gain more power ( Read this post by Tim Urban to learn more about the human collossus ).

During the Agricultural Revolution humankind silenced animals and plants, and turned the animist grand opera into a dialogue between man and gods. During the Scientific Revolution humankind silenced the gods too. The world was now a one-man show.

Yuval Noah Harrari

When you give people meaning and empower them to unleash their creativity, they will stop at nothing to achieve the goal. There is a catch, though.

The goal of Humanism is to remove any artificial meaning continually.

This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world.

Yuval Noah Harrari

For a while, that meaning was elevating the living conditions of the western world. Fighting poverty, hunger, and diseases. Human spirit prevailing over the harsh environment.

We have succeeded in all these pursuits, but in the course of doing so, we have created problems that do not have clear solutions. We have run out of meaning, and postmodernism has poisoned our ability to seek it.

Different flavors of Humanism have pursued different ways of seeking that meaning:

  • Liberal Humanism is all about freedom of the individual – this is what we usually mean when we say “Humanism.”
  • Socialist Humanism aims to elevate the living conditions of the collective. By working together, we will thrive.
  • Evolutionary Humanism wants to create better conditions by ensuring only the strongest individuals continue to shape the future. 

In the second half of the twentieth-century humankind almost obliterated itself in an argument about production methods.

Yuval Noah Harrari

For a while, after World Wars, we have relished in the renewed sense of meaning yet again. Rebuilding our broken world, healing the wounds and ensuring working on the trauma gave us purpose.

But those days are gone.

What will be the new frontier?

“It took just a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful. How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer?”

We are now heading straight for techno-utopia. Our every little annoyance is solved with technical advances. Now I do not need to seek an Avocado for my toast. The meal will be delivered to my doorstep without me leaving the couch.

And Avocado Toast is here to stay.

Every primary belief system has made use of one thing as the ultimate meaning source: The death itself.

  • “Obey, or you will go to hell.”
  • “Enjoy your time while you are here.”
  • “We are only playthings of the Gods, and we die when they are finished with us.”

Regardless of the specific theology, death was always a constant fact of life. At least you could count on that.

It is only natural that humans would try to attack it with considerable hubris. Hans Rosling expands on this in Factfulness.

The life span is increasing, thanks to medical advances rapidly.

We don’t have to invent immortality. To effectively live forever, your life expectancy has to improve by one year, every year.

Current medical improvements will keep you around long enough to see future medical enhancements and so on.

I am consciously getting around the topic of life quality in this scenario, since that may be a good question for another time.

Virtual Reality is also becoming a consideration. We could upload our consciousness straight into the Internet.

Let’s not lie to ourselves – many of us are already living there.

The perils of immortality

Let’s say we have achieved immortality.

We will have conquered everything. Where do we find meaning, then?

  • One idea is that the meaning is data being processed. Humanity is only the vector by which information is spreading.
  • We may find that space – “The Final Frontier” – is something that will infuse humanity with new Vigor
  • Do you have any ideas? I’m all ears

Another thing we are currently battling with is that it’s tough to change people’s minds.

Never before in human history, the reality has changed faster than people were dying. The psychological makeup after you are thirty makes you less likely to change mind and accept new concepts.

Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at a time.

Yuval Noah Harari

You could blame the recent resurgence of conservatism on the change velocity in the modern world. It will be exciting to see how humanity will adapt to this constant change.

Sidetone: The intersubjective level of Reality.

According to Harari, there are three levels of the reality:

  • The objective reality that we share. This one is governed by immutable laws of nature,
  • Intrasubjective Reality that is private for each and every one of us. It’s governed by our belief system,
  • Intersubjective Reality that we share, but it is governed by our shared belief systems.

Part of our political discussion recently is that we ignore the third, intersubjective level and try to classify our experience in one of the former two. We mostly do not agree about this classification.

There is a talk by Yuval Noah Harari in University of California:

My highlights

  • There are no longer natural famines in the world; there are only political famines. If people in Syria, Sudan or Somalia starve to death, it is because some politician wants them to.
  • Whereas in March 1520, when the Spanish fleet arrived, Mexico was home to 22 million people, by December only 14 million were still alive. Smallpox was only the first blow. While the new Spanish masters were busy enriching themselves and exploiting the natives, deadly waves of flu, measles and other infectious diseases struck Mexico one after the other, until in 1580 its population was down to less than 2 million.8 Two centuries later, on 18 January 1778, the British explorer Captain James Cook reached Hawaii.
  • Altogether the pandemic killed between 50 million and 100 million people in less than a year. The First World War killed 40 million from 1914 to 1918.
  • In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes.23 Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.
  • as knowledge became the most important economic resource, the profitability of war declined and
  • What Rwanda earned from an entire year of looting Congolese coltan, the Chinese earn in a single day of peaceful commerce.
  • When the moment comes to choose between economic growth and ecological stability, politicians, CEOs and voters almost always prefer growth.
  • Rather, for modern people death is a technical problem that we can and should solve.
  • They maintain that anyone possessing a healthy body and a healthy bank account in 2050 will have a serious shot at immortality by cheating death a decade at a time.
  • Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at a time.
  • Indeed, even chimpanzees in the jungle sometimes live into their sixties.
  • Galileo Galilei died at seventy-seven, Isaac Newton at eighty-four, and Michelangelo lived to the ripe age of eighty-eight, without any help from antibiotics, vaccinations or organ transplants. Indeed, even chimpanzees in the jungle sometimes live into their sixties.29
  • When you take into account our belief in the sanctity of human life, add the dynamics of the scientific establishment, and top it all with the needs of the capitalist economy, a relentless war against death seems to be inevitable.
  • You fought for your country when you were eighteen, and paid your taxes when you were forty, because you counted on the state to take care of you when you were seventy.30
  • liberty. It’s important to note, however, that the American Declaration of Independence guaranteed the right to the pursuit of happiness, not the right to happiness itself
  • Epicurus recommended, for example, to eat and drink in moderation, and to curb one’s sexual appetites.
  • It took just a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful. How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer?
  • Forget economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions: in order to raise global happiness levels, we need to manipulate human biochemistry.
  • The principle is clear: biochemical manipulations that strengthen political stability, social order and economic growth are allowed and even encouraged (e.g., those that calm hyperactive kids in school, or drive anxious soldiers forward into battle). Manipulations that threaten stability and growth are banned.
  • Some 2,300 years ago Epicurus warned his disciples that immoderate pursuit of pleasure is likely to make them miserable rather than happy.
  • To attain real happiness, humans need to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate it.
  • In seeking bliss and immortality humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods.
  • Breaking out of the organic realm could also enable life to finally break out of planet earth.
  • In the twenty-first century, the third big project of humankind will be to acquire for us divine powers of creation and destruction, and upgrade Homo sapiens into Homo deus.
  • Thus the Old Testament God never promises any rewards or punishments after death.
  • This is what we fear collectively, as a species, when we hear of superhumans. We sense that in such a world, our identity, our dreams and even our fears will be irrelevant, and we will have nothing more to contribute.
  • But most experts think on a timescale of academic grants and college jobs. Hence, ‘very far away’ may mean twenty years, and ‘never’ may denote no more than fifty.
  • but soon enough men who had no impotence problems in the first place began using the same pill to surpass the norm, and acquire sexual powers they never had before.45
  • Once stem-cell research enables us to create an unlimited supply of human embryos on the cheap, you can select your optimal baby from among hundreds of candidates,
  • Knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless. But knowledge that changes behaviour quickly loses its relevance.
  • The new history will explain that ‘our present situation is neither natural nor eternal. Things were different once. Only a string of chance events created the unjust world we know today. If we act wisely, we can change that world, and create a much better one.’
  • In most Semitic languages, ‘Eve’ means ‘snake’ or even ‘female snake’.
  • because the twenty-first century will be dominated by algorithms. ‘Algorithm’ is arguably the single most important concept in our world.
  • Over the last few decades biologists have reached the firm conclusion that the man pressing the buttons and drinking the tea is also an algorithm.
  • These algorithms undergo constant quality control by natural selection.
  • What we call sensations and emotions are in fact algorithms.
  • It is therefore likely that frightened humans, frightened baboons and frightened pigs have similar experiences.
  • John Watson, a leading childcare authority in the 1920s, sternly advised parents, ‘Never hug and kiss [your children], never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.’
  • A modern Jewish family that celebrates a holiday by having a barbecue on their front lawn is much closer to the spirit of biblical times than an orthodox family that spends the time studying scriptures in a synagogue.
  • During the Agricultural Revolution humankind silenced animals and plants, and turned the animist grand opera into a dialogue between man and gods. During the Scientific Revolution humankind silenced the gods too. The world was now a one-man show.
  • Everything that happens in the cosmos is judged to be good or bad according to its impact on Homo sapiens.
  • Hence the existence of souls cannot be squared with the theory of evolution.
  • So perhaps behind all the sensations and emotions we ascribe to animals – hunger, fear, love and loyalty – lurk only unconscious algorithms rather than subjective experiences?
  • Consciousness is the biologically useless by-product of certain brain processes. Jet engines roar loudly, but the noise doesn’t propel the aeroplane forward.
  • it implies that all the pain and pleasure experienced by billions of creatures for millions of years is just mental pollution.
  • Mind and body are made of pipes, cylinders, valves and pistons that build and release pressure, thereby producing movements and actions. Such thinking had a deep influence even on Freudian psychology, which is why much of our psychological jargon is still replete with concepts borrowed from mechanical engineering.
  • Starting with the assumption that we can believe humans when they report that they are conscious, we can identify the signatures of human consciousness, and then use these signatures to ‘prove’ that humans are indeed conscious.
  • According to Turing, in the future computers would be just like gay men in the 1950s. It won’t matter whether computers will actually be conscious or not. It will matter only what people think about it.
  • This declaration stops short of saying that other animals are conscious, because we still lack the smoking gun. But it does shift the burden of proof to those who think otherwise. Responding to the shifting
  • Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness,
  • This declaration stops short of saying that other animals are conscious, because we still lack the smoking gun. But it does shift the burden of proof to those who think otherwise.
  • If a hive faces a new threat or a new opportunity, the bees cannot, for example, guillotine the queen and establish a republic.
  • First, they placed loyal communist apparatchiks in control of all networks of cooperation, such as the army, trade unions and even sports associations. Second, they prevented the creation of any rival organisations – whether political, economic or social – which might serve as a basis for anti-communist cooperation. Third, they relied on the support of sister communist parties in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.
  • Classical economists have probably never left their laboratories and lecture halls to venture into the real world.
  • These are sets of rules that, despite existing only in our imagination, we believe to be as real and inviolable as gravity.
  • there is a third level of reality: the intersubjective level.
  • Meaning is created when many people weave together a common network of stories.
  • Sapiens rule the world because only they can weave an intersubjective web of meaning: a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination.
  • Humans think they make history, but history actually revolves around the web of stories.
  • Just like the living-god pharaoh, the living-god Petsuchos was lovingly groomed by attending priests who provided the lucky reptile with lavish food and even toys, and dressed him up in gold cloaks and gem-encrusted crowns.
  • But nowadays we habitually say that the United States built the first nuclear bomb, that China built the Three Gorges Dam or that Google is building an autonomous car. Why not say, then, that pharaoh built a reservoir and Sobek dug a canal?
  • Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the angel with the rubber stamp.
  • Sousa Mendes, armed with little more than a rubber stamp, was responsible for the largest rescue operation by a single individual during the Holocaust.2
  • He is convinced that everything happens because of him. Most people grow out of this infantile delusion. Monotheists hold on to it till the day they die.
  • Indeed, even today when US presidents take their oath of office, they put their hand on a Bible.
  • Consequently the system may seem to be working well, but only if we adopt the system’s own criteria.
  • History isn’t a single narrative, but thousands of alternative narratives. Whenever we choose to tell one, we are also choosing to silence others.
  • How do you know if an entity is real? Very simple – just ask yourself, ‘Can it suffer?’
  • Corporations, money and nations exist only in our imagination. We invented them to serve us; why do we find ourselves sacrificing our lives in their service?
  • We always believe in ‘the truth’; only other people believe in superstitions.
  • Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values.
  • For religions, spirituality is a dangerous threat.
  • When religions advertise themselves, they tend to emphasise their beautiful values. But God often hides in the fine print of factual statements.
  • The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange
  • Yet in fact 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.
  • If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens’.
  • On the practical level modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning.
  • For thousands of years priests, rabbis and muftis explained that humans cannot overcome famine, plague and war by their own efforts. Then along came the bankers, investors and industrialists, and within 200 years managed to do exactly that.
  • This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world.
  • develop a particular liking for ‘Panda Dung tea’ from the mountains of Ya’an in Sichuan province, made from the leaves of tea bushes fertilised by the dung of panda bears.
  • at least during the nineteenth century nationalism was closely aligned with liberalism.
  • My current political views, my likes and dislikes, and my hobbies and ambitions do not reflect my authentic self. Rather, they reflect my upbringing and social surroundings. They depend on my class, and are shaped by my neighbourhood and my school.
  • While it is a favourite pastime of Western academics and activists to find fault with the liberal package, they have so far failed to come up with anything better.
  • Pius led a series of reforms in Catholic dogma and established the novel principle of papal infallibility, according to which the Pope can never err in matters of faith (this seemingly medieval idea became binding Catholic dogma only in 1870, eleven years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species).
  • In the second half of the twentieth century humankind almost obliterated itself in an argument about production methods.
  • 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.
  • The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.
  • The sacred word ‘freedom’ turns out to be, just like ‘soul’, a hollow term empty of any discernible meaning.
  • For the experiencing self, it is impossible that adding a slightly unpleasant experience to a very unpleasant experience will make the entire episode more appealing.
  • The value of the whole experience is determined by averaging peaks with ends.
  • We identify with the inner system that takes the crazy chaos of life and spins out of it seemingly logical and consistent yarns.
  • Our narrating self would much prefer to continue suffering in the future, just so it won’t have to admit that our past suffering was devoid of all meaning.
  • if we want to come clean about past mistakes, our narrating self must invent some twist in the plot that will infuse these mistakes with meaning.
  • 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.
  • We are about to face a flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans.
  • Is it a coincidence that universal rights were proclaimed at the precise historical juncture when universal conscription was decreed?
  • It is telling that already today in many asymmetrical conflicts the majority of citizens are reduced to serving as shields for advanced armaments.
  • An application called Deadline goes a step further, informing you of how many years of life you have left, given your current habits.
  • Algorithms won’t revolt and enslave us. Rather, they will be so good at making decisions for us that it would be madness not to follow their advice.
  • Liberalism will collapse on the day the system knows me better than I know myself. Which is less difficult than it may sound, given that most people don’t really know themselves well.
  • Modern humanity is sick with FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – and though we have more choice than ever before, we have lost the ability to really pay attention to whatever we choose.6
  • 1.Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing? 2.What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness? 3.What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

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