Reading your typical book is like sitting on the grandstand of a racetrack. You see the race cars whizzing by, and you sort of feel the excitement of the race, albeit from quite a distance away. The book you read is like that: fun yet forgettable.
Reading a good book is like being invited to sit in the passenger-seat of the race car. The excitement of the book’s language, its story, is experienced much closer ‘to the skin’, as if sitting next to the driver. Now, your book has your attention.
However, reading an exceptional book is like being behind the race-car’s steering wheel. Now you find yourself on a wholly different and immersive level. The content of your book will stay with you forever.
Both works are meticulously reasoned, precisely formulated, engagingly written; academic writing at its absolute best.
Perusing Yuval Noah Harrari’s book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, however, feels like observing a car on a dirt track in the distance, kicking up dust and grit as the driver is doing nothing but doughnuts. Dull, uninspiring, and you can’t really see what’s going on.
A brief history of tomorrow. A sly subtitle surrounded by many caveats. Yuval Harari is a cautious man, and who can blame him? We are talking about the future here!
His prediction is breathtaking: “humankind is likely to aim for immortality, bliss and divinity”. However, that might be a problem, according to him:
… it is far from clear that we should be aiming at immortality, bliss and divinity. Adopting these particular projects might be a big mistake. But history is full of big mistakes. Given our past record and our current values, we are likely to reach out for bliss, divinity and immortality – even if it kills us.
Worse, his ‘prediction’ is “less of a prophecy and more a way of discussing our present choices. If the discussion makes us choose differently, so that the prediction is proven wrong, all the better. …”
So before Harari get’s his argument started, he has hedged his bets broad enough as to manoeuvre out of any tight spot he might find himself in down the road.
That being said, let’s dive into some of his writings and see what we might learn from him. And that immediately poses a problem. Although the book seems to contain answers to many a ‘big question’, Harari is only willing to share his own ‘map of reality’.
That is, Harari never deals in any profound sense with the discourses he engages with, and never tackles sturdy critiques he might encounter along the way.
Put differently, Harrari might make big claims about all sorts of things, but you, as a reader, are never given any justifications for these claims so that you might actually come to believe all that he is saying.
For that reason I will look for internal consistency in Harari’s book, or a lack thereof.
I am really curious how well he argues for some of his positions he aims to defend on his own terms. I will specifically look at some of the issues he likes to scrap as to give room to his own version of the world we live in.
Make no mistake, clearing away ‘conceptual rubbish’ in our search for truth is massively important. Let’s begin our little ‘clarification quest’ by looking at what Harari has to say about the human soul (emphasis added):
For thousands of years people believed that all our actions and decisions emanate from our souls. Yet in the absence of any supporting evidence, and given the existence of much more detailed alternative theories, the life sciences have ditched the soul. As private individuals, many biologists and doctors may go on believing in souls. Yet they never write about them in serious scientific journals.
…Scientists have subjected Homo sapiens to tens of thousands of bizarre experiments, and looked into every nook in our hearts and every cranny in our brains. But they have so far discovered no magical spark. There is zero scientific evidence that in contrast to pigs, Sapiens have souls.
If that were all, we could well argue that scientists just need to keep looking. If they haven’t found the soul yet, it is because they haven’t looked carefully enough. Yet the life sciences doubt the existence of soul not just due to lack of evidence, but rather because the very idea of soul contradicts the most fundamental principles of evolution. This contradiction is responsible for the unbridled hatred that the theory of evolution inspires among devout monotheists.
The following might seem extremely disappointing, but as a Christian I sense in myself no hatred whatsoever against the theory of evolution. None!
Nonetheless, I do weep over the stupidities Harari champions here, which any person in their right mind could spot with no effort. No need to be a monotheist, of whatever stripe.
What Harari does here is akin to defending ‘metallicism’, a term Edward Feser introduced in one of his brilliant blogposts, which subsequently he demolishes comprehensively like so (emphasis added):
1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has.
2. Therefore what metal detectors reveal to us (coins and other metallic objects) is all that is real.
Metal detectors are keyed to those aspects of the natural world susceptible of detection … But however well they perform this task – indeed, even if they succeeded on every single occasion they were deployed – it simply wouldn’t follow for a moment that there are no aspects of the natural world other than the ones they are sensitive to.
That ‘metallicism’ is sheer nonsense is easy to understand – there are far more materials around – e.g. wood, stone, plastics, biorganics – than metal detectors could ever, well, detect – ánd on par with Harari’s drivel on the absence of the soul because science-is-unable-to-find-it.
Science of the empirical kind will never (as in never) be able to find something like the soul, just as it is incapable of empirically proving that 2 + 2 = 4, or any other logical proposition for that matter.
Put differently, can we empirically (in the real world that is) observe a negative integer (e.g. -395), the square root of 2, the number pi, other irrational numbers? Of course not! Neither can empirical science ‘find the human soul’. It’s not ‘built’ for doing so.
The facts about evolution have nothing whatsoever to do with the reality of the human soul. Harari’s (mis)understanding of (the philosophy of) science all the more so.
The irony is that although Harari opts for materialism as the only ‘real’, the square root of 2, the number pi and countless other mathematical entities and propositions existed before any humans came on the scene or even discovered and understood them.
Of course, ‘metallicism’ is a metaphor for the (ludicrous and dangerous) ideology of scientism, which we ran into previously, for instance, in my blogpost Dystopian threats and the globalisation of faiths, as defined by Karl Pearson(emphasis added)
…the scientific method is the sole path by which we can attain to knowledge. The very word knowledge, indeed, only applies to the product of the scientific method in this field. Other methods, here or elsewhere, may lead to fantasy, as that of the poet or of the metaphysician, to belief or to superstition, but never to knowledge.
About our presence in the Universe, again ironically, Harari is blatantly relativistic, which is utterly antithetical to his scientistic absolutism. For instance (emphasis added):
Modern culture rejects this belief in a great cosmic plan. We are not actors in any larger-than-life drama. Life has no script, no playwright, no director, 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. During our infinitesimally brief stay on our tiny speck of a planet, we fret and strut this way and that, and then are heard of no more.
So what about the stories we tell each other, the faiths we share (or not), the gods we worship (or not), or freedom and human rights we regard as ‘self-evident’ (or not)?
In his previous Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind to which Homo Deus is the sequel, his answer to these questions is unequivocal (emphasis added):
… ‘liberty’? There is no such thing in biology. Just like equality, rights and limited liability companies, liberty is something that people invented and that exists only in their imagination. From a biological viewpoint, it is meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free, whereas humans in dictatorships are unfree. And what about ‘happiness’? So far biological research has failed to come up with a clear definition of happiness or a way to measure it objectively. Most biological studies acknowledge only the existence of pleasure, which is more easily defined and measured. So ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ should be translated into ‘life and the pursuit of pleasure’. …
We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.
This is courteous parlance for saying that all these things, that is our ‘mental creatures’, are imagined, not real, thus ultimately non-existent.
According to Harari, only biology – chemistry and physics to be more precise – is real. Everything else is just fiction; myth making; an intersubjectively shared reality at its most diplomatic.
Incontrovertibly then, the most obvious of flaws comes to haunt Harari, destroying all his arguments in the process.
As his ‘fictive perspective’ must by necessity apply to áll our brainchilds, science must fall under the same category of myth-making as anything else Harari ‘condemns’ to the realm of the un-real.
Of course, Harari tries to hide this glaring reasoning offence, resulting in him axiomatically camouflaging ‘science as fiction’ with his concoction of ‘real science’.
Well, it’s actually worse than that.
If there is no “meaning” or “purpose”, then there can be no truth or correctness of any kind, including the truth and correctness he would ascribe to science, which he does so copiously albeit simplistically!
So for all his hundreds of pages of text, Harari is just woolgathering his own world he can comfortably live in, trying to tag us along as much as we let him. Well, I am not buying.
Why? Again, there is literally nothing of any substance in Harari’s world, because his “universe is blind and purposeless”.
At the end of all his “meaningless” (really!) meanderings, we are left with “dataism” as our ‘new religion’. We are biochemical algorithms soon to be overtaken by the electronic versions thereof, according to Harari that is.
Except for one thing: we need to get rid of this pesky little thing known as free will, as Harari emphatically asserts (emphasis added):
To the best of our scientific understanding, determinism and randomness have divided the entire cake between them, leaving not even a crumb for ‘freedom’. The sacred word ‘freedom’ turns out to be, just like ‘soul’, an empty term that carries no discernible meaning. Free will exists only in the imaginary stories we humans have invented.
The last nail in freedom’s coffin is provided by the theory of evolution. Just as evolution cannot be squared with eternal souls, neither can it swallow the idea of free will. For if humans are free, how could natural selection have shaped them? According to the theory of evolution, all the choices animals make … reflect their genetic code. …
Again we are treated with the ridiculous reductionism of ‘metallicism’: ‘if science can’t find it, it isn’t there’.
Perhaps we need to look deeper to really understand the sheer silliness of rejecting free will. Let me cite from my good friend William Briggs’ book Everything You Believe is Wrong (emphasis added):
It should be obvious free will cannot be an illusion. An illusion held by whom? It takes a person equipped with free will, i.e. free choice in at least some situations, to have an illusion. That is the only way to know an illusion is an illusion. Thus we have the Illusion Of Illusion Fallacy.
This is why denying free will is a denial of self. People claiming illusion somehow suppose they ride above their bodies and minds in some unexplained way, and merely witness life unfolding before them, powerless to make real choices, but somehow there is some entity below themselves which falsely believes it is making choices.
You can’t have both things being true at once. Either a walking meat machine is a true zombie, programmed in all its actions, and therefore incapable of having illusions—it can’t know it’s a zombie—or you have to have free will, with the possibility that some choices are only apparent, but where some choices are real.
Done; nuff said. In the end I got really bored looking at the dust kicked up by Homo Deus. The book is no more than a “speck” on the bookshelf of history, and then is, hopefully, “heard of no more”, which fits Harari’s perspective quite well by the way!
Let’s pray for that to happen, although materialism is too an attractive worldview as an instrument to allegedly confront Thomas Nagel‘s “cosmic authority problem”, which in his view is “responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time”.
Yuval Noah Harari follows Nagel’s script to a tee. That, in my view, explains his success ánd his widely shared animosity against religion of specifically the monotheistic kind.
This article also appears at Hanekamp’s website.
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Categories: Book review