Homo Deus Review

Book Review

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Yuval Noah Harari

(Harper. New York. 2017)

Frank DeSiano, CSP

Someone insisted I read Homo Deus because of its mind-shattering message. I reluctantly began to read it—400 pages is a lot to devote in a relatively busy life. But now I have finished and feel compelled to try to address the themes of this book which bear upon religion, culture, contemporary experience, and potential experience into the future.

Harari had written another book, Sapiens, to rave reviews and huge sales. This book follows that one. If humankind emerged from a range of possibilities thanks to evolution, then what does this portend for the future? Within his 400 pages, Harari paints broad and impressionistic strokes in order to raise fundamental questions for the reader. Scientists, philosophers, and theologians all have reason to be on alert, given Harari’s broad picture and potentially dire warnings.

What does the book say in a nutshell? That the Industrial Revolution changed the way knowledge and religion worked, because it smashed the assumptions of religion. As a result, the Industrial Revolution brought about a new religion—humanism. (Harari has a very loose idea of what religion is, basically any broad set of commonly held assumptions about life’s meaning.) The new wrinkle is this: with the coming of computers and non-human-dependent intelligence, technology (the descendant of the industrial revolution) has now made humanism irrelevant. So, we face a future in which Homo Sapiens can potentially be enslaved or made extinct by machines of our own invention.

Harari writes this book as a positivist: the world is composed of atoms, waves, and other measurable things. There is no God, soul, or transcendence. He presumes that evolution theory has settled the case that the survival of the fittest is the immutable law of human experience. Instead of having molecules as the elementary particles, he presents algorithms as basic components of existence. Algorithms run everything, from cellular makeup to human thinking. Algorithms are inexorable; humankind has set them loose with the advance of computers and non-human-dependent intelligence.

Harari simplifies things in the process of making his argument. So, according to him, humanism is based on human feelings; these feelings posit what is valuable and meaningful. Likewise, he cannot explain consciousness other than the experience of algorithms in a brain. He does away with free will, leaving the reader to wonder who, actually, wrote his book. Or, perhaps better, what, actually, wrote his book. He seems to be claiming that algorithms are behind everything, so some concoction of these must have conspired to put words onto 400 pages.

This book is worth the time just for the chapter on humanism because it compellingly presents how humanist assumptions have eroded humankind’s experienced need for religion. Chapter 7, in part II, gives narrative color to all the statistical charts that pastors have been seeing about the drop in participation in church. He comes up with simple equations to explain different eras (e.g., for medieval Europe, Knowledge = Scripture x Logic), although he doesn’t fill some of these equations out very well. Medieval theology far outstrips his caricature of thinking during this period. Now the industrial-humanist equation (Knowledge = Experiences x Sensitivity) is giving way to something new: machines that can process data far better than humans can and, as a result, can develop an autonomy that makes human experience (indeed, existence) more relative than at any point in the past.

Throughout this book, Sapiens stands on wobbly ground. A product of evolution, Sapiens assumes dominance over the earth (to its destruction) and to other creatures (to their destruction) without having any real claim on existence in the first place. Sapiens is a blip on a larger, mechanical-technological process that existed before him and will exist beyond him. Humankind experiences a tiny sliver of actual “consciousness”—we do not know what whales or bats feel, do we? Strangely, the chart depicting the extreme limitation of human experience on p. 359 could as easily justify the need for angelic existence to fill out what is missing in consciousness. Not to mention God . . .

Harari weaves the potential problems of what he calls “Dataism” with results of recent elections, reinforcing, as he sees it, the point that machines and algorithms have taken over human experience. The need for big data to fulfill the Deus side of humankind’s ambitions (immortality, happiness) creates vectors that probably will upset the possibility of those very divine ambitions. Data, and the machines needed to process that data, will take over both as an intellectual perspective, and also as an actual threat to human existence.

Having said all that, he covers his flank with questions, on the last page, that can potentially undermine the whole point of his book. Not many of us can get away with that. (“Are organisms really just algorithms . . .?”)

Harari likes to be provocative; he succeeds very well. He makes it clear that people of faith had better work to pin humanist ideals securely to a transcendent vision which only faith provides; obviously, we are not succeeding in doing this at the present time. Few authors have the ability to weave large concepts into simple patterns as does Harari. With that simplicity comes insight, but also the need for caution and critical thinking.