“Homo Deus”(Yuval Noah Harari) Critique and Commentary from a Philosophical Perspective(Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein) Part Nine: Techno-Humanism and Dataism

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New Religions are going to emerge from research laboratories. Thus sayeth Harari. Silicon Valley will be the birthplace of techno religion that :

“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)

Just as medicine is going to transform itself from an archeological discipline dedicated to the curing of disease, to an imaginative, teleological adventure striving to bring immortality to the soul, so humanism narrowly conceived will transform itself into techno-humanism (imaginatively conceived)that will seek unknown experiences and strange states of consciousness in an infinite ocean of possible states of consciousness.

The narrow conception of humanism we have been provided with in this work was of course necessary for the plot of Harari’s drama to unfold as it has. The Humanism of Aristotle, Kant, Wittgenstein and their followers would regard what Harari calls ” ” the sect of techno-humanism” as a figment of the imagination, especially the following totalitarian phantasy;

“Like all humanist sects, techno-humanism too sanctifies the human will, seeing it as the nail on which the universe hangs. Techno-humanism expects our desires to choose which mental abilities to develop and thereby determine the shape of future minds. Yet what will happen once technological progress makes it possible to reshape and engineer those very desires?”

The author then continues to insist in accordance with his narrow conception of humanism, that humanists cannot identify their authentic will from the cacophony of internal voices competing for attention. Firstly it is not clear how our desires can decide to shape the character of our minds in the future. I can of course decide to become educated but this is a decision which is not visualising or imagining the exact consequences of such an extended process filled with unknowns. This is more like an existential decision to transform myself into something that I know that I value which in turn has been arrived at not through perception or imagination but by knowledge and argument. This existential force of knowledge in relation to the will must be acknowledged. Hannah Arendt in her work “The Human Condition” discussed the ability of man to use his will to create something completely new and related this phenomenon to the totalitarian movements of the 20th century. She points to the three forms of activity man can engage in: labour, work and action and attributes to the latter the ability to create something entirely new but it is not clear, even on this account, that one can decide to create a new self, although Sartre the French existentialist thought that this might be possible. That is, Sartre thought that I am able to recreate myself through my action from moment to moment. This “philosophy of mind” that “anything is possible” was, according to Arendt one of the motivating forces of totalitarianism. For O’Shaughnessy, on the contrary, the mind is divided into a willing half and a knowing half and this divide is more complete the simpler the organism that possesses it. This means that in relation to willed action knowledge plays a greater guiding role in complex organisms such as ourselves–hence the importance of the humanistic “decision” to educate oneself.

Julian Jaynes, discussing the phenomenon of hemispheric function, pointed to how, with the development of our human consciousness,( as a consequence of the development of language which occurred much much later than the author of this work has claimed) we spatialise time and even our consciousness itself which according to Jaynes is not a “something” but rather an operation that operates in accordance with an analogous “I” to the I that is, acts, and thinks. This “I” also operates in an analogous space to the space in which I act and think. This spatialisation of a metaphorical world enables us to imagine”ourselves” doing this and that with imagined outcomes. Narratization is the spatialisation of my temporal life strung out as it is in a chain of befores and afters. The assigning of causes and purposes or the saying of why we did a particular thing is also a feature of this narratization process. When we encounter on our daily walk a cat perched nervously on the branch of a tree we say to ourselves that the neighbours dog has probably chased it up the tree. By extension, encountering putative facts about the mind, we then assemble them into a story. This spatialisation of the mind is a consequence of the integrated functioning of the right and the left hemispheres, according to Jaynes. The long tradition of the influence of oracles during the period of Greek ascendency was probably, according to Jaynes a consequence of right hemisphere dominant individuals.(ca 35,000 people a day from all regions of the Mediterranean were visiting Delphi at the height of the influence of oracles). We do not hae any clear idea of the states of mind of such individuals or the kinds of judgment they were capable of. Reason and knowledge enter into this picture via the goal of thinkers immersed in their various disciplines aiming at truth or knowledge via methods and principles of reasoning such as the principle of non contradiction and the principle of sufficient reason which seek to disentangle the false and meaningless parts of our narratives from the true parts. Narratization obviously preceded the search for knowledge by thousands of years.

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 author takes up in a spirit of excited curiosity, the prospect of experiencing a strange form of consciousness that no one else has experienced. These forms of consciousness remind one of the deranged desires of mental patients like Schreber who thought his body was stretched all over the universe. Many mentally deranged people believe they are all-powerful in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary. They too are troubled by a cacophony of voices which they may not recognise as their own.

In elaborating upon his plot the author claims:

“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)

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 which restored that 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.

The will of course is connected fundamentally to desire but it is also, as we have pointed out, connected to knowledge. Indeed along with the mysteries of consciousness the mysteries of the epistemological relation of the will to the world and its own body have yet to be fully explored, although it should be added that O’Shaughnessy has made a good start in this direction by philosophically exploring these topics in accordance with the traditions of Aristotelian and Kantian Philosophy. In the light of this work the following quote is somewhat surprising:

“According to Humanism, only human desires imbue the world with meaning.Yet if we could choose our desires on what basis could we possible make such choices?”(p425)

The explorations of the philosophers have indicated that we cannot choose our desires, they happen to us, and sometimes they need restraining. We can of course choose the objects of our desires and those can vary considerably if we ignore the prophecy of Apollo, “Nothing too much”. Narcissus, we should recall was consumed eventually by his own desire as are many mentally ill patients. Of course the mentally ill patients can “choose” to go to therapy in order to be returned to normal but the quotation marks around this word suggest that this may not be a choice in the normal sense of the word at all. Saying as the author does that when our desires make us uncomfortable, technology can remedy this situation does not make sense in the light of the above reflections.

Nevertheless let us follow this high speed train speeding into its station and ask how one might wish to manipulate our desires. The author claims that we should replace them with the element worshipped by the members of the new religion of the 21st century, namely information or data. The concept of information, however, is ambiguous. It can either refer to facts or to knowledge. If the former is what is meant and the information is value neutral and the product of scientific inquiry, we are by definition excluding all forms of humanistic and philosophical knowledge such as that which has been presented in the form of counterarguments in this review. This is also the case if the knowledge we are talking about is restricted to the algorithms of science. Replacing desire with knowledge instead of integrating these two parts of the mind is going to lead to a high speed catastrophe. The absence of value related to the knowledge of the good and the absence of the desire of individuals to live in freedom will be a very strange algorithm of ethical and political life indeed.

Dataism is what is going to give the 21st century its meaning, according to the author. This religion, it is claimed owes its existence to two different scientific origins: Firstly,Darwin’s “Origin of the species” which the author claims, somewhat enigmatically, leads to the modern scientific position that all organisms are biochemical algorithms, and secondly, the discovery of electronic algorithms by computer science. The confluence of these two streams will, it is claimed, change the future structure of the world. Electronic algorithms, however, hold the real power to deliver this vision of totalitarian control. The humanistic means of controlling our existence is the law which incorporates in its laws knowledge of the good and respect for the freedom of the individuals that are subject to the law. Information, or the facts of scientific knowledge, are obviously important in legal cases but at the end of this process, constructed with the intention of distributing justice, is a human judging the evidence in accordance with the value laden humanistically oriented law(influenced no doubt by Greek ideas of the common good and Kantian notions of the practical contradictions involved in disregarding moral laws). This work “Homo Deus”, speaks very seldom of the law and its humanistic structure and processes and this is a limitation because the law is the humanistic discipline which best incorporates the findings from the inhabitants of the ivory tower where philosophers dwell. What we know about totalitarian regimes is that the first order of business is to dismantle respect for the existing law in order to replace it with “the law of the Fuhrer” or “the laws of history as interpreted by Lenin, Stalin etc” that often involve not just small alterations but veritable inversions of what is right and what is wrong. Harari’s system disregards philosophy, philosophical ethics philosophical psychology and political philosophy because it belongs in Greek or Enlightenment ivory towers. His system redefines and thereby inverts the value of Humanism, redefines Liberalism which also historically via liberals such as Socrates, Locke and Kant has had a great respect for the law, disregards the truths and knowledge of civilisation-building institutions such as religion, and elevates all forms of science and technology to fill the vacuums created. This is an algorithm for totalitarianism if there ever was one.

It is not clear that Harari shares the definition of information given by the OED because he constructs a chain of terms beginning with data, leading to information, and thereupon to knowledge and wisdom. It is not clear here whether he is envisaging the possibility of false information that is not possible with knowledge if we agree with the definition of the philosophers that knowledge is justified true belief. If false information is a possibility then it is not clear how it or data could be the focus of his “new religion”. What would be the value of “false information” or data which presumably could also be truth neutral or false? Arguments require true premises if they are to be valid. Imaginative narratives can of course contain accounts of robots or superhuman bionic men obeying the rules or algorithms of Google or Facebook but this is fictional. If these narratives are a consequence of studying the disciplines of computer science and biology then something has gone seriously wrong. It is argued that even societies are data processing systems and the only difference between capitalism and communism is that the former is a centrally organised data processing system and the latter a distributed processing system. The latter system is evaluated as being inferior to the former because of the impossibility of steering the price of bread centrally. Further,as is the case with all singular instrumental judgments the evaluation does not take into account the possible advantages of steering entire artificial intelligence systems centrally in accordance with a policy of economically and politically interfering with other more distributed data processing systems. The author is very clear in his judgment:

“Capitalism did not defeat communism because capitalism was more ethical, because individual liberties are sacred or because God was angry with the heathen communists. Rather capitalism won the cold war because distributed data processing works better than centralised data processing, at least in periods of accelerating technological change. the Central Committee of the Communist Party just could not deal with the rapidly changing world of the late twentieth century.”(p434)

So, in the light of the above, would the unethical behaviour of centrally steered data processing systems, if successful, be in any sense laudable? Surely, the author does not believe that the only residue of the Greek reflections on ethics and the Kantian reflections on ethics are either a)individual liberties defined solipsistically or narcissistically or b)the religious dogma of an angry God?
Democracies and dictatorships are also defined in terms of centralised and distributed data processing systems and even if democracies appear to have advantages it is admitted that in some circumstances centrally steered systems may prove advantageous. In rapidly changing technological environments the government tortoise, it is argued can never outrun the hare. The amount of data is overwhelming and the average voter in a democracy is, it is argued :

“beginning to sense that the democratic mechanism no longer empowers them”(p437)

The average voter further believes:

“Government has become mere administration. It manages the country but no longer leads it.”(438)

In this environment, it is argued, some people search for conspiracy theories to explain why the society is taking the direction it is.

Harari asks what the output of international data processing systems are and refers to the “Internet of all things” which once it is installed will mean the disappearance of Homo Sapiens. According to the dogma of Dataism mankind is merely a tool to create this universal/cosmic data processing system:

“Homo Sapiens is an obsolete algorithm. After all what’s the advantage of humans over chickens? Only that in humans information flows in much more complex patterns.. Well, then if we could create a data processing system that can assimilate even more data than a human being, and process it more efficiently, would not that system be superior to a human in exactly the same way that a human is superior to a chicken?”(pp444-5)

In this maelstrom of the flow of information(and as pointed out above it is not clear whether the author means to regard false information as part of this flow) it is claimed that no one would understand fully what is happening. But, it is claimed, no one today understands how the global economy works or where global politics is heading. The recommended response to this state of affairs is to contribute to this information flow by writing e mails(which presumably might inadvertently contain false information) that could then be read by the system(Would the system detect falsehoods?), and part of this response requires trusting the invisible hand of the system. Apparently this system would not be anti-humanist because it has nothing against human experience: the system merely “believes” that these experiences are not valuable.

Music.according to the author, is just a mathematical pattern and God is a product of our imaginations that are merely biochemical algorithms and will be replaced by the internet of all things which will be monitoring for example how many eggs there are in my refrigerator. The previous modern alliance(?) between science and humanism had resulted in scientists accepting the guidance of humanism because, apparently, the author claims, in the name of his narrow definition of humanism, feelings were the best algorithms in the world for millions of years. This “alliance” between scientists and humanists will be dissolved now that algorithms have replaced feelings. There will no longer be any need to listen to the internal voices giving expression to ones feelings because, for example, the algorithms will know how we are going to vote( making democratic elections also irrelevant). The algorithms will know how we feel and the interesting question to be raised is what if anything will be done with that knowledge especially if it indicates that all the humanists believe the system to be totalitarian. 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. The author then claims that the overthrow of homo sapiens is not inevitable and that the purpose of the book is to loosen the grip of technology in order that we may think in more imaginative ways about the future. The problem with this declared purpose is that human beings are rational animals capable of discourse and it is the denial of this thesis that has led us into totalitarian realms of the imagination where one can literally imagine anything.