Summary of some of the criticisms of “Homo Deus” from a Philosophical point of view(Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein)

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First Part
The author asserts that famine, plague, and war are fading into insignificance thanks to the pragmatic scientific approach to the solution of the problems facing mankind. The Humanist largely agrees with the view that mankind is making slow progress with respect to the various goals that define for him a flourishing life but this is not all good news because it is obvious that man is not living up to his rational potential. Were Apollo to send a message to us it would be the same as the one he sent to the ancient Greeks. The message would contain the two norm based imperatives “Nothing too much” and “Know thyself”. He would clearly see the hubris of man in his continual craving for more and better and bigger. Harari claims that on the biological level our expectations and happiness are founded on biochemistry rather than economic, social or political factors. Happiness is pleasure for the capitalist Juggernaut, it is claimed and this pseudo-knowledge is then used for re-engineering projects which will modify our biochemistry rather than our relation to the world. It is quite clear that “Humanism is a straw man erected for the purposes of the impending bonfire” and it is equally clear that the kind of progress Harari suggests is not that of the humanist who demands norm based progress.

Part two
Harari dubs our era “The Anthropocene era because for the first time the fate of the globe is in the hands of its products, Homo Sapiens. There is much discussion about the lot and fate of animals in this section. Harari hypothesises that animals are just a collection of algorithms and claims this leaves a question mark over the issue of whether they suffer or not. This approach contrasts dramatically to Aristotle’s claim that animals possess a “soul” or psuche that is not like a spirit dwelling within them but more like a principle explaining their movement and activity. The Agricultural Revolution Harari argues sees animals rather as fodder for the gods and given that we have a streak of the divine within us, we treat animals as fodder for ourselves. The Scientific Revolution changed our relation to the divine and moved us to the centre of the stage to replace deus absconditus. In its wake new humanistic based religions occurred such as Nazism, the author proclaims somewhat paradoxically. These kinds of reflections cannot but arouse the spectre of post modernism and its obsession with relativism.

Part three
After a long fruitless discussion of the soul which disregards the philosophical view of the soul as a principle of motion there is an attempt to reify the soul as some spiritual something(not a principle) which is separate from its effects. It was in response to Cartesian mythology of this sort that Wittgenstein insisted in his later work that “Our attitude towards a person is an attitude towards a soul”. This importantly draws our attention to the fact that attitudes belong to human beings and not some fictitious part of a human being.

“Darwin has deprived us of our souls” Harari claims. Does this even make sense? One can surely ask how any theory about the evolution of an animal body could deprive us of a philosophical theory of an attitude which is an expression of a principle? This point is in a critical point elaborated upon as follows:

“This claim could only be true if science could engage directly with the argumentation of Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein and “prove” that there is no principle governing out attitudes, thoughts, etc. How would that be done? By observation? This is completely ignoring the fact that Darwin’s theory is as much a theory involving reasoning about animal populations as it is a theory incorporating the observation of animal populations. The person standing before me now might have been evolved “by degrees” over millions of years but my recognition of this person as human is only partly constituted by this long history of his human bodily form. He stands before me and I recognise him to be the kind of being that is capable of discourse and a source of rational argumentation in spite of the fact that he is at the moment staring at the cat in the room. It is my expectations of him and his expectations of me that constitute the kind of interactions we can have with one another. Referring to these expectations as either “subjective” or “intersubjective” is an “idle use of language” as a Wittgensteinian might be inclined to comment.”

In the light of the above it is difficult to comprehend exactly what is meant when Harari says “If you really understand the theory of evolution you understand that there is no soul.”

Harari then attempts to link the continuity of our human being with immortality which is neither a religious/philosophical view nor a secular/philosophical view where occupants of either of these positions may believe the formercontinuity thesis but not the latter immortality thesis. Reference is made to the importance of our institutions and in relation to this question we should point out that our legal systems are secular/philosophical and have no rules for dealing with the actions of disembodied souls or the actions of uninhabited bodies. There is however a belief in a continuous embodied principle which is responsible for its actions. Imagine the absurdity of a defence in terms of evolution theory where the defendant claims no responsibility for his actions because “he is evolving”.

Harari shifts to speaking about the mind and slips very surprisingly into Cartesianism. Aristotle Kant and Wittgenstein all reject this form of dualism for good philosophical reasons which are not even acknowledged in Harari’s discussion. Why, one may justifiably ask? He then equally surprisingly claims that science knows very little about mind or consciousness” and he subsequently, on Cartesian grounds, rejects the possibility of robots or machines possessing experience. The right conclusion for the wrong reasons. One of the consequences of this argument is :

“The whole system of human value collapses because there is nothing significant science can say about it.”

Harari discusses the fall of communism and attributes it to the inability of the Soviets to cooperate and organise their society. The point he extracts is not the Greek position that they lacked the appropriate knowledge but rather that power needs to be organised effectively. One means of organising power effectively is for the population concerned to believe the same stories which can lose their credibility overnight, it is argued. Our human rights are a consequence of a story we all believe, it is claimed.

Part four

The dualism of Descartes is again invoked when it is claimed that animals live in a dual reality, a world of trees and rivers and an internal world of subjective experience of which they are aware! This attributes to animals a self consciousness which is necessary for what Hacker called the operation of two way powers in which we humans that possess such powers will to do or not to do an action. It attributes to animals self conscious actions, that is, instead of behaviour. Harari then distinguishes animal “actions” from human actions by the fact that we humans tell stories about our actions , money, gods nations and corporation. These stories are so powerful apparently that they, rather than our actions, are the means by which History is created. Again it is suggested that our story telling ability is wrongly dated and there is talk of story-telling Neanderthals. It is not being deniedin our commentary that story telling played a part in our cognitive development: what is being questioned is that this concrete cognitive skill could give rise to abstract activities such as the formulation of laws or the intentional creation of Biblical texts possessing abstract symbolic complexity. The stories of the Sumerian gods created the modern equivalent of brands or corporation it is claimed. In response to this point it was argued:

“the talk of God or gods of most of the Greek philosophers were not items of the imagination gleaned from stories, but rather condensations from clouds of argumentation. Even Kant would have objected to the claim that his philosophical idea of God originated in the imagination. For Kant God was an idea of reason that interestingly enough was only one of three ideas. The idea of God for Kant, in contrast, was not to be explained in the theoretical terms of Aristotle but more in terms of the moral law.”

The counterargument to Harari’s position is that the kind of abstract knowledge we are presented with in the Bible does not emanate from the concrete stories that we find there. It is impossible to capture the philosophical idea of God in a story:

“We should also remember that Einstein believed in Spinoza’s “philosophical” view of God and his reasoning may well have been Aristotelian and Kantian.Newton too believed in God but it is difficult to believe that his theological training at Trinity College Cambridge did not relate to the arguments of the philosophers. Wittgenstein’s belief in God was also based on argumentation not of the demonstrative theoretical kind but rather of the practical ethical kind. All of these figures, Newton, Kant, Einstein, and Wittgenstein of course probably read the bible closely but this reading process would more resemble a critical interpretative activity than a receptive emotional process of identification and introjection. These latter two processes may well involve the imagination whereas the former would require reasoned argumentation.”

The Bible is also a source of law and the same point can be made in relation to this fact, namely that the civilisation creating act of legal intention cannot be fully captured in a concrete story. The complexity of the action of writing and the possible abstract uses of language in the communication of abstract intentions and knowledge is not captured in narratives where the intentions of the authors are connected with the evoking of imaginative mechanisms such as projection and introjection.

Part five

The emphasis on the power of stories to shape mans existence continues at the expense of the view that much of the cooperation that lies behind mans success is founded upon the following of abstract ethical rules which occur in texts like the Bible and the laws in our law books:

“For Harari, the decisive contents in a narrative are the elements in it which may happen to be false or fictional as he puts it. It was suggested in the previous lecture that the belief in the fictional elements of biblical narratives are not actually the components which facilitate cooperation between men but rather that function is produced by the element of the following of the ethical rules which are suggested in these narratives. The reason why men follow these rules are teleological: they hope that their actions will lead to a flourishing life for themselves and the people they care for. Corporations and nations are not “fictional entities” as is maintained but rather entities which scientific theory cannot adequately describe given its ignorance of what consciousness is and its ignorance of how to characterise action in general and ethical action in particular. Nations and corporations are not objects of belief but objects of action brought about by the activities of men. Action is as real as the suffering that cause it or it causes. Philosophical theory has been concerned with action theory for over two thousand years not through the activity of story telling but through the activity of theorising and arguing about it. The kind of action that avoids the consequences of suffering is the kind of action which builds not upon a shaky belief about something fictional but about knowledge of what is real, e.g. suffering.”

Much of this section of Harari’s work “The Odd Couple” is again a dialectical bi-polar discussion that swings between Science and Religion, natural and supernatural,facts and myths, power and order. Reality, however, is not so easily divided. In one bizarre discussion it is suggested that once the power of science takes over the weakness of myth, people will be able to reshape their reality in accordance with their pet fictions. The philosophical analysis of reality and ethical principles is wholly absent in such discussions, which have a post modernist atmosphere about them. Everyone can live in their virtual alternative reality if they wish to: a formula for chaos if ever there was one. Along the way religion is branded with the term “supernatural” because for example the narrative of Moses is a story about a meeting with a supernatural being. Once again there is a failure to recognise and understand the intentions of the writers of sacred texts and their use of symbolic language which, actually, in the end, after philosophical analysis, might reveal that God was an idea in mans mind–a complex idea condensed from clouds of argumentation about the nature of reality and human existence. Or, alternatively, an analysis of the symbolic language of the Biblical text might reveal that Moses , in order to put an end to wandering in the wilderness leading a hunting-gathering form of life, made the judgment that an agricultural revolution was the next necessary step in the progress of man toward leading the flourishing life. Harari regards the agricultural revolution as a fraud, as promising something it never delivered, but if one brings philosophy and ethics into the equation we might then see that the agricultural revolution was necessary for one of the following steps which was the industrial revolution that in its turn eventually provided man with the freedom to educate himself and philosophise in his free time. But for Harari it is the scientific revolution that pre dated the industrial revolution which will take control of our destinies rather than the philosophical revolution( that predated the scientific revolution by thousands of years). But as we know the philosophical revolution is not even on Harari’s timeline of important historical events.

Part six

Harari claims that prior to our modern age human beings were like actors on a stage playing a part. Presumably he believes that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were playing the role of the philosopher whilst at the same time initiating through their complex and abstract ruminations the very subject and activity of Philosophy. This is said in response to Harari’s claim:

“If famine, plague, and war were in the script then everyone played their parts with varying degrees of Stoicism. Humans had no control of the script, no control over famine, plague, and war. It is this powerlessness that science challenges on the grounds that the cosmic plan has no meaning. Life , it is claimed has no meaning and “the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing”. The feeling that life is without meaning is actually a symptom of the depressive phase of the mental illness, manic depression, and we know that the Shakespearean character associated with the above words was not in a stable mental condition. This statement that the life of humans and the processes of the universe have no meaning would be somewhat puzzlingand mysterious only if we were not familiar with the cultural phenomenon of post-modernism. Post modernists begin by denying the truth and then they deny meaning on grounds that actually undermine their own position. To take post modernist claims seriously we would have to believe that they were true and meaningful. If these claims were not meaningful they could not be true and this relation between truth and meaning has been a fundamental tenet of Philosophy since the time of Aristotle and up until modern times which Philosophers date back to Hobbes and Descartes. Hobbes as we saw wished for humans to give up their freedom that according to Kant is the source, principle and meaning of human action and human activity. Kant would not therefore have negotiated any deals with the Hobbesian Leviathan.
Normally the Shakespearean character in a mental state of confusion rants and raves about the storm and the lightning and sees an adversarial meaning in the storm. If he is finally blinded and moves toward a state of calmer equilibrium and as a consequence a greater understanding of what has happened to him, it is not out of the question that he might sit and ponder his behaviour in the storm and arrive at the Aristotelian analysis that the storm is a physical process composed of the elements of earth, air, water, and fire and processes of hot and cold, wet and dry interacting with the purpose of reestablishing an equilibrium in the weather system. The storm is not a blind process: its power has meaning. Modern culture does not reject this cosmic plan. Modern science might believe this but that is a problem that science needs to address. If science has been blinded by its power then it is about time that it calm down and sit in Shakespearean fashion and ponder its future.”

The modern covenant is a contract that we moderns have formed with Politics Science and Economics in the spirit of the motto “Shit happens”. Economic growth and credit is what enables us to trust in the future it is argued and the primary economic commandment is to invest ones profits to increase growth. This together with the motto of post modernism which is to destroy the old and build the new in the face of the death of God provides a picture of the kind of future Hobbes envisaged when he recommended a contract with the Leviathan. The counterargument that Kant used against Hobbes was that we trust in a future better ethical state of the world which he called “the kingdom of ends” in which if there was any economic component necessary at all it would be “Use capital responsibly to create a kingdom of ends.” Trust for the philosophers was a condition of economic activity and not a consequence of it.

Part seven

Harari points out that Gods death did not lead to a social collapse and this might prove that there is no cosmic divine plan or script for mans destiny. For the Enlightenment Philosopher, Kant, there are both physical and moral laws that explain both what happens to man and what he does. Freedom and God are ideas of reason that jointly motivate the moral law and will explain the route of his pilgrimage to the kingdom of ends that the cosmopolitan man will create. There is a humanistic script aiming at the good elaborating upon the above points:

“Only rational animals capable of discourse can think,plan and aim at this good.Animals lead their lives in accordance with the drivers of instinct, feeling and emotion and because of this they cannot cooperate in the large numbers needed to found cities and communities in which such art,activities and inquiries can be pursued for the purposes of the good. Reason for Aristotle enabled man to develop the virtues which then defined the good person and the good action. Here again feelings were either an incidental irrelevant accompaniment or psychic obstacles which needed to be circumnavigated. This is similarly the case in Kant where the ideas of reason such as Freedom and God jointly motivate the moral law in which it is scripted that man ought to treat his fellow (and himself) as an end in himself and never merely as a means. Thus for Kant, the God respecting philosopher, there is a humanistic script to the human drama leading to the formation of the Cosmopolitan man which is part of the cosmic plan and there are laws both moral and physical which will explain the free, chosen pilgrimage of man on the road to a kingdom of ends. For both Aristotle and Kant the pursuit of the good is the essence of humanism and Aristotle specifically says in the Nichomachean ethics that virtue is not a feeling because it would be absurd to praise or blame a man for the feelings he is experiencing. For him the humanistic drama playing out is a process of actualisation in which the political conditions are being created for man to acquire the virtues via politically created educational systems led by a politically educated middle class. Aristotle, the biologist, believes that man the rational animal capable of discourse, is the most important proximate cause of this actualisation process: he believes, that is, that this process is driven by human nature that somehow participates in the divine through its possession of reason and the use of this reason in moments of philosophical contemplation.”

Harari identifies humanism with the feelings the humanist has and ignores the Aristotelian criticism of this position which states that man is not praised or blamed for the feelings he has. Humanists like Aristotle and Kant certainly would not ride the waves of populism and claim that God was dead or that there was no plan for mans destiny. For both Kant and Aristotle it was a philosophical possibility that the universe had always existed and that God was present in its form and the changes it underwent and undergoes. Their positions are not incompatible with the fact that both were amongst the most renowned scientists of their age and that both have built a philosophical framework for science which has as yet to be fully evaluated.

The “science” of psychology par excellence, i.e. Freudianism, created the professional role of the therapist which Harari contrasts with the role of a priest. Freud’s therapy was of course an example of humanistic moral treatment of mentally ill patients and the humanistic art/science of symptom interpretation. When Harari claims that:

“Humanism has taught us that something can be bad only if it causes someone to feel bad.”(p264).

He clearly misunderstands the role of both the priest and the therapist as interpreters of symptoms and the negative feelings associated therewith. Both these professionals in response to the negative feelings of their patients/parishioners, might, as part of their interpretation of these negative feelings produce more anxiety and even more negative feelings for the greater good of the flourishing life that Aristotle referred to in his Ethics.

Harari believes that the power of science and the growth principle of economics will lift us out of the dustbin of history where artificial intelligence will take the place of the death of God and the failure of what he calls “humanistic religion”

Part eight

Liberalism and Humanism are closely associated for Harari:

“The Liberal order, according to Harari, is defined in terms of individualism human rights, democracy and the free market and is also a form of religion. Human rights as we learned earlier are figments of the imagination and Humanism, a term traditionally closely associated with liberalism, is also more or less defined in terms of a romantic solipsistic individualism which does not have very much in common with our traditional notion of an ethical humanism steered by law and reason. Ever since Kant associated ethics and human rights with freedom, freedom also became a more systematically characterised concept than it was when it was referred to by Hobbes as that which citizens have to partly abandon in order for the Leviathan or the commonwealth to provide security for nation states citizens.”

The concept of the free will is then criticised because it is undetectable with a microscope or otherwise accessible to human observation. The commentary responds to this position as follows:

“Looking for freedom with such instruments is of course what a philosopher would call a category mistake. Harari claims that the attribution of free will to humans is a fact and that is true, but some facts are categorial such as “all men are mortal”: no observation would ever reveal the counterfactual that a man is immortal and trying to base this conceptual fact on purely observational grounds is failing to appreciate the logical and categorical nature of conceptual truths. Hume once tried this line of reasoning with the self and pointed out that we are not able to observationally detect the “self” and therefore the self did not exist. Kant pointed out a number of objections to this line of empiricist thinking , amongst which was the self or soul, was an idea of reason(a principle) rather than a phenomenal thing to be encountered in the phenomenal world. He pointed out, in other words, that the initial premise that we can not observe the self is ambiguous. If the self is a principle that cannot be observed because it is a condition of what it as that we are observing then it cannot warrant the conclusion that there is no such principle or condition. Similarly if freedom is an idea or principle of ethical activity, then claiming as the author does people are free because they “feel free” is incoherent. When people say they feel free it is a negative judgment which is in focus: the judgment namely that no one is preventing them from doing what they wish to, which in turn focuses attention on the fact that freedom is an idea or condition qualifying action and can not qualify sensation:actions and sensations are different psychological entities and even if sensations might peripherally be associated with action there is no logical connection between these logically different entities”

There is then a discussion of consciousness and its cognitive correlates in this section which is the key to understanding the kind of reasoning that Harari is using to establish his position in the latter part of “Homo Deus”. O Shaughnessy and his work “The Will:a dual aspect theory” is used in the commentary to establish the kind of psychological explanation that is used in a universe of discourse that is philosophical and not scientific.

Harari, however, continues to insist that in this region it is not psychological explanation that reigns but rather

“The free individual is just a fictional tale concocted by an assembly of biochemical algorithms.”(354)

The response of the commentary is to suggest that this kind of reasoning then destroys “the myth” that a story is something told by one free individual to another with the intention of understanding a person,or the time he lives in.

Liberalism is then defined as a kind of utilitarian position:

“Ethics is of course a figment of the imagination for Harari as is human rights which is tied not to mans imagined happiness but to his actual dignity and worth. In his reasoning about the utility of man for the economic or political system he notes that artificial intelligence is decoupling intelligence from consciousness and that there is no guarantee that this will not lead to man becoming superfluous to the point at which all occupations can be performed more efficiently by computerised robots. This is a serious prediction. Hannah Arendt pointed to the consequences of the industrial revolution when large numbers of men became superfluous in Europe and created the economic and political conditions for two world wars. It should, however be pointed out that it was precisely the political and economical utilitarian value of these men that contributed to their alienation. Educational systems did not suffice to convince the masses of unemployed that they possessed a value in being human.”

Harari is not merely ignoring the reflections and theories of the philosophers in the regions of philosophical psychology, ethics and politics but he is also ignoring the History of Psychology and the history of the idea of consciousness which we will need to present in detail if our counterarguments in this field are to be efficacious. The case against AI rests to a large extent on the case for robots or machines being neither alive nor conscious and therefore incapable of “intelligent action”.

The account of this so called “history of the future” becomes more and more like a story from a science fiction author:

“once Google, Facebook and other algorithms become all knowing oracles, they may well evolve into agents and ultimately into sovereigns”(p397)

So God is dead and the future rests not with the philosophical capacities and judgments of men but with the algorithms of machines. The familiar totalitarian consequences follow and it is claimed(Harari):

“some elites may conclude that there is no point in providing improved and even standard levels of health for masses of useless poor people, and it is far more sensible to focus on upgrading a handful of super-humans beyond the norm.”(pp407)

We have been down this totalitarian road before and it is difficult to believe that our knowledge of what happened in History will not prevent some of these more exotic scenarios from actualising in the future.


Part nine:

Research laboratories will provide us with new religions, it is argued amongst which will be a techno religion which:

“argues that humans have completed their cosmic task and should now pass the torch on to entirely new kinds of entities….Techno-humanism agrees that homo sapiens as we know it has run its historical course and will no longer be relevant in the future, but concludes that we should therefore use technology in order to create Homo Deus–a much superior human model.”(pp409-410)

Medicine will transform itself from an archeological discipline to a teleological adventure in which new states of consciousness will be sought and a new super-form of life will emerge.

The will to power is of course crucial in this brave new world. The commentary elaborates upon this position in the following way:

“The above account of Jaynes may well, however, support the thesis that the will is the nail which the universe is hung upon but if this is so, it is the nail of knowledge and not the nail of power. All previous attempts to hang the universe on the nail of power have failed. The author openly admits that science knows very little about consciousness, and if history has taught us anything as a consequence of the failed attempts to control the masses via power, it is surely that these attempts failed because power hungry dictators did not have sufficient knowledge of the human psyche to transform it. If this authors work has taught us anything it is that science has no theory of the knowledge of value or knowledge of the good as Plato put the matter.”

The Enlightenment Philosophy of Kant strengthened this message and related ethical knowledge to the moral law that opposed the raw exercise of power in the name or normative logic.

Harari claims that there will be a collective pursuit for the experience of the strange: experience of strange forms of consciousness which we will engineer ourselves:

“Technological progress has a very different agenda.It does not want to listen to our voices. It wants to control them. Once we understand the biochemical system producing all these voices we can play with the switches, turn up the volume here lower it there and make life much more easy and comfortable. We will give Ritalin to the distracted lawyer, Prozac to the guilty soldier and Cipralex to the dissatisfied wife. Humanists are appalled by this approach but we had better not pass judgment on it too quickly. The humanist recommendation to listen to ourselves has ruined the lives of many a person, whereas the right dosage of the right chemical has greatly improved the well being and relationships of millions.”(p424)

No humanist would insist that one listen to “voices” from within. As was pointed out earlier in this work the phenomenon of Socrates remaining transfixed on the same spot for hours consulting his daemon would have caused suspicion already at the time of Aristotle. Humanist has no objection to the administering of chemicals to return the patient to a state in which he can receive meaningful therapy for his hallucinations. The following was the response to the above point:

“The schizophrenic experience of being plagued by alien and sometimes hostile voices is, according to Jaynes , an interesting throwback to bicameral man, a throwback to a time before the advent of consciousness and it is , according to him, a moot point whether medication is the right method to lead the patient back on the road to full consciousness. Humanists like Aristotle and Kant who understood that we are physical beings composed of physical substances in a certain state of equilibrium would hardly have objected to any physical treatment that restored lost equilibrium. Many medications, however, alleviate symptoms and do not restore the natural equilibrium of life. The humanist will naturally question such a state of affairs. Freud being a follower of Aristotle and Kant, would also have agreed with this position: remember he experimented with magnetism and hypnotism before the “age of medication” we now live in. There were patients who needed to be returned to a state of physical equilibrium before the so called “talking cure” could be effective.”

Returning to the plot of the overthrow of our old world in favour of the new Harari ends with the following image:

“Instead of visiting a museum or climbing a mountain to view a beautiful sunset the more appropriate responses to the problems of life would be to have ones DNA sequenced, wear a bio-medical monitoring device, post pictures of all ones experiences on Facebook, allow Google to read your e mails and keep a record of your likes and dislikes. Finally, the author argues, even if Dataism is wrong and organisms are not algorithms this in itself might not prevent Dataism from taking over the world.”

We are meant to replace our desires with information, as if we could ever do such a thing without becoming machines ourselves. The paradox of all this is that if we humans cease to exist as humans and if “deus” is merely absconditus and not dead he may send a flood the like of which no man has ever seen to rid the earth of the algorithms and metal monstrosities we created, in proof, as Paul Ricoeur would put it, of the fallibility of man.