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Yuval Noah Harari’s Dystopia

I recently read Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow [1], the new book by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. It’s a terrible book if you read it in terms of prescription. That is, if the world Harari expects to come into existence actually does, it will be a nightmare (though he considers it a dreamland). But if you read it for an insight into where certain defining trends in our culture are taking us, then it’s an excellent resource.

Here is Harari’s basic thesis. Science and technology have solved many of the problems that preoccupied mankind since the dawn of his existence. More people today die from obesity than from starvation. If we haven’t universalized the solutions yet, then we must keep at it. The point is, we have largely mastered nature. Now, modern people seek happiness, indeed have come to think of it as a right. In the future, people will use biotechnology and other forms of technology to create happiness for themselves. They will become like gods, “attaining divinity.” This is a very good thing; it means we can go beyond humanity, and “acquire for us divine powers of creating and destruction, and upgrade Homo sapiens into Homo Deus. Another great social project of the 21st century is to biologically re-engineer Homo sapiens so that it can enjoy everlasting pleasure.

It’s no surprised that Harari’s favorite book is Brave New World. [2]He said about it:

When you read 1984 by George Orwell you know it’s a dystopia, you know it’s a horrible world. The only question is how do we prevent it from happening? So in this sense it’s not very sophisticated. It’s quite straight forward. When you read Brave New World you don’t know if it’s a utopia or a dystopia. You have the sense that something is terribly wrong in this world but you can’t put your finger on what it is because everybody is happy and satisfied all the time. The amazing thing is that when he wrote it in the 1930s everybody read it as a dystopia. When you read it today, more and more people actually think that it’s a utopia. Looking at our present trajectory we are on the way to Brave New World.

Everybody read it as a dystopia because they understood living in a state of constant pleasure, controlled by the state, was to give up your liberty. For people back then, there were some things more important than pleasure. To be fair to Harari, though, he’s right that we are headed to Brave New World. When people would rather surrender liberty than suffer pain, or even discomfort, we are well on our way to servitude. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — a Christianity without the cross — is the religion that prepares people for slavery. Real religion has done a poor job standing against “the capitalist juggernaut [that says] happiness is pleasure. Period.”

Harari advocates for eugenics. He doesn’t use the word, but that’s precisely what he’s calling for: humans gaining control of the genome to manipulate it for the sake of creating a higher species. Harari says that it doesn’t matter whether we should be doing this. We’re going to be doing this, because it is in our nature to do so. And it will start with scientists saying that they are undertaking this or that genetic engineering initiative for the sake of healing.

Harari is a thorough materialist, of the sort who says that if we haven’t measured it or isolated it in a laboratory, it cannot be said to exist. “If you really understand the theory of evolution, you understand that there is no soul,” he writes. Oh really? He believes that the proper object of worship for humans is themselves. Whatever we choose to make of our own genetic nature, whatever post-human, or trans-human, future we choose for ourselves is good by the fact that we have chosen it. As a result of the changes in science and technology, “our world of meaning might collapse within decades.”

Again, I remind you that to Harari, this is a very good thing. He eagerly anticipates the future mankind will build for itself, bound by nothing but its own will and imagination. This caveat is half-hearted:

[I]t is far from clear that we should be aiming at immortality, bliss and divinity. Adopting these particular projects might be a big mistake. 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.

To be fair, I completely agree with that last line. I believe quite strongly that we should not be aiming at these things, but I believe that given human nature, and given “our current values,” that there is a certain inevitability to this.

Though he doesn’t use the phrase “liquid modernity” — Zygmunt Bauman’s term for our own time, a time in which the rate of change is so rapid that no customs, forms, or institutions have time to solidify — Harari writes about it here:

Centuries ago human knowledge increased slowly, so politics and economics changed at a leisurely pace too. Today our knowledge is increasing at breakneck speed, and theoretically we should understand the world better and better. But the very opposite is happening. Our newfound knowledge leads to faster economic, social and political changes; in an attempt to understand what is happening, we accelerate the accumulation of knowledge, which leads to faster and greater upheavals. Consequently we are less and less able to make sense of the present or forecast the future. In 1016 it was relatively easy to predict how Europe would look in 1050. Sure, dynasties might fall, unknown raiders might invade, and natural disasters might strike; yet it was clear that in 1050 Europe would still be ruled by kings and priests, that it would be an agricultural society, that most of its inhabitants would be peasants, and that it would continue to suffer greatly from famines, plagues, and wars. In contrast, in 2016 we have no idea how Europe will look in 2050. We cannot say what kind of political system it will have, how its job market will be structured, or even what kind of bodies its inhabitants will possess.

He’s right about this. Christian readers, this is why I’m so insistent on the Benedict Option as the only viable strategy for the church going forward. The changes upon us now, and the changes coming, are going to wash away churches that are not capable of riding out the flood.

Harari makes a good and important point in his discussion of “intersubjective truth”. He says that most people think there are only two kinds of truth: objective and subjective. But there is a third kind: intersubjective. An intersubjective truth is a truth that is only true when it is shared by a network of subjects. Let me clarify this.

An objective truth is one that can be demonstrated scientifically or logically.

A subjective truth is a truth that can only be apprehended personally. It doesn’t mean that it is objectively untrue, but only that its truth can only be known by taking it into one’s own life and living as if it were true. For example, I believe that God’s existence is a fact, whether or not others do. But God’s existence cannot be demonstrated scientifically. It is in His nature, and in ours, that the truth of His existence is something that can only be experienced in the subject’s experience.

An intersubjective truth is a subjective truth that depends on a group (of any size) of subjects believing it for it to have the force of truth. Money — the belief that little green-tinted pieces of paper with numbers printed on them have value — is a good example of intersubjective truth. If large numbers of people quit believing this, the fact that a wad of $20 bills will buy you a nice dinner will cease to be true.

So, think of it this way:

Objective truth: Bill and Janet live together.

Subjective truth: Bill and Janet love each other.

Intersubjective truth: Bill and Janet’s union is consecrated in marriage, a social institution that we all agree carries with it a certain meaning, and certain binding obligations.

So, let’s go to this Harari quote:

We want to believe that our lives have some objective meaning, and that our sacrifices matter to something beyond the stories in our head. Yet in truth the lives of most people have meaning only within the network of stories they tell one another.

Meaning is created when many people weave together a common network of stories. Why does a particular action — such as getting married in church, fasting on Ramadan or voting on election day — seem meaningful to me? Because my parents also think it is meaningful, as do my brothers, my neighbours, people in nearby cities and even the residents of far-off countries. And why do all these people think it is meaningful? Because their friends and neighbours also share the same view. People constantly reinforce each other’s beliefs in a self-perpetuating loop. Each round of mutual confirmation tightens the web of meaning further, until you have little choice but to believe what everyone else believes.

Yet over decades and centuries the web of meaning unravels and a new web is spun in its place. To study history means to watch the spinning and unravelling of these webs, and to realise that what seems to people in one age the most important thing in life becomes utterly meaningless to their descendants.

He’s right about this, too. To stick with the subject most important to me, Christianity: in the West (though not elsewhere on the planet), we are living through the unraveling of the distinct web of meaning we call “Christianity”. We should not be surprised that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has supplanted Christianity as the de facto religion of America; it is an attempt to hold on to some meaning, articulated in familiar religious concepts. But as Christian Smith has demonstrated, it is simply impossible to reconcile MTD with any version of historical Christianity. It is a different religion. 

What the Harari passage above tells us, though, is the inconvenient truth that “Christianity” as a sociological fact is inevitably going to be whatever most people who call themselves Christians say it is. If you believe in some form of traditional Christianity, and believe it to be objectively true, then you have no realistic choice now but to form small communities of really convinced believers, and from that dense, thick community try to form the next generations with a resilient commitment to the traditional Story. Otherwise, as Father Cassian of Norcia puts it, you will not make it through what’s coming. Learn more about this here.  [3]

It’s not just about religion. We face the unraveling of the postwar world order, and within our own country, the fraying of the bonds that have historically united our diverse people. One has to hope that this process can be halted, but once people have lost a common Story — be it sacred or secular — it is hard to see how it can be easily reclaimed.

Harari — who, recall, is a professional historian — says that humans think they make history, “but history actually revolves around the web of stories.” It is impossible to organize masses of people without them sharing some “fictional myths. So if you stick to unalloyed reality, without mixing any fiction with it, few people will follow you.”

He predicts that

in the 21st century, we will create more powerful fictions and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era. With the help of biotechnology and computer algorithms these religions will not only control our minute-by-minute existence, but will be able to shape our bodies, brains and minds, and to create entire virtual worlds complete with hells and heavens. Being able to distinguish fiction from reality and religion from science will therefore become more difficult but more vital than ever before.

We will do this because people cannot stand too much isolation and lack of meaning. A reader sends in a link to an unsettling George Monbiot column in The Guardian [4]talking about the physical and social toll that our social order is taking on people. Monbiot, you may not know, is a left-wing secularist. He writes:

If social rupture is not treated as seriously as broken limbs, it is because we cannot see it. But neuroscientists can. A series of fascinating papers [5] suggest that social pain and physical pain are processed by the same neural circuits [6]. This might explain why, in many languages, it is hard to describe the impact of breaking social bonds without the words we use to denote physical pain and injury [7]. In both humans and other social mammals, social contact reduces physical pain [8]. This is why we hug our children when they hurt themselves: affection is a powerful analgesic. Opioids relieve both physical agony and the distress of separation. Perhaps this explains the link between social isolation and drug addiction [9].

Experiments summarised in the journal Physiology & Behaviour [7] last month suggest that, given a choice of physical pain or isolation, social mammals will choose the former. Capuchin monkeys starved of both food and contact for 22 hours will rejoin their companions before eating. Children who experience emotional neglect, according to some findings [10], suffer worse mental health consequences than children suffering both emotional neglect and physical abuse: hideous as it is, violence involves attention and contact. Self-harm is often used as an attempt to alleviate distress: another indication that physical pain is not as bad as emotional pain. As the prison system knows only too well, one of the most effective forms of torture is solitary confinement.

It is not hard to see what the evolutionary reasons for social pain might be. Survival among social mammals is greatly enhanced when they are strongly bonded with the rest of the pack. It is the isolated and marginalised animals that are most likely to be picked off by predators, or to starve. Just as physical pain protects us from physical injury, emotional pain protects us from social injury. It drives us to reconnect. But many people find this almost impossible.

More Monbiot:

This does not require a policy response. It requires something much bigger: the reappraisal of an entire worldview. Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous. We stand together or we fall apart.

Back to Harari now. Harari says that liberals hate it when you say that they believe in religion, because they associate religion with supernatural claims. In fact, he says, all that means is that they believe in some system of moral laws that all humans must obey. Here is a non-religious statement that is “religious” in the sense Harari means: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

What’s important about this is Harari’s recognition that human beings require a sacred story to make sense of their lives — and “sacred,” broadly speaking, is not strictly religious, but a shared story that people see as defining their identity, and binding them together and to beliefs they understand as higher than themselves. “We hold these truths” is part of one such story.

Harari understands that modernity has a way of dissolving all inherited sacred stories. Here is a key paragraph that is incredibly important:

Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

Read that again. Think about it. What he’s saying is that ceasing to believe that there is fixed meaning in the universe leaves us in an unstable situation, but it gives us more agency to remake the world in our own image. Very few people are what Damon Linker calls “honest atheists” [11] — that is, atheists who understand what it means to surrender the meaning that comes with theism. Most of them end up becoming sentimentalists of some sort or another — and that is the fate of Yuval Noah Harari, who is an incorrigible nostalgist for the future.

He believes that having been freed from the old myths is a very good thing indeed, because it liberates us to do what we like. Harari believes that capitalism is a force for good in the sense that it responds to human desires. Human desire is good. The desire to be free from pain, suffering, and death is good. Therefore, anything done in service of those goals is good. He eagerly anticipates the power of redefining what it means to be human that will soon be delivered to us via science and technology.

It is breathtaking to read this book and to accept that an intelligent person believes these things in the 21st century, given events of the 20th century. You do not have to be any kind of religious believer to accept what in Christianity is called “original sin” — the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with us humans. Harari doesn’t deny this, exactly, but he seems blithely confident that there’s nothing wrong with us that science and technology won’t one day fix.

His understanding of religion can be crazy-making, because deep down, he doesn’t really get what it is and what it’s for. He indulges in techno-triumphalist cant about “new discoveries” in religion — as if revealed religion were like science. That said, I find it hard to deny his point that religions have to be able to answer the challenges of their own times, or they fade away. The thrust of the Benedict Option project is to say that Christian life in the West, as it is presently constituted, is wholly unsuited for enduring the post-Christian order. Harari praises progressive Christianity for updating itself by accepting contemporary mores and conventions, but he laughs gently at the lie they have to tell themselves: that these things can be justified by the Bible.

“Then they pretend the [modernizing] idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault,” he writes. “The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.”

Here’s the fundamental question Harari asks:

The humanist belief in feelings has enabled us to benefit from the fruits of the modern covenant without paying its price. We don’t need any gods to limit our power and give us meaning — the free choices of customers and voters supply us with all the meaning we require. What, then, will happen once we realise that customers and voters never make free choices, and once we have the technology to calculate, design or outsmart their feelings? If the whole universe is pegged to the human experience, what will happen once the human experience becomes just another designable product, no different in essence from any other item in the supermarket?

In other words, he says that we have enjoyed the economic and technological benefits of modernity — that is, of being set free from a world of pre-determined meaning, our passions and desires being the only real guides for our life. Those days are coming to an end, he says, because science is discovering that there is no such thing as free will, that the human person is nothing but an algorithm. The good news (from Harari’s point of view) is that science will be able to come up with new ways for us to satisfy our desires. For him, being blissed out, to banish awareness of suffering, is to achieve freedom. And if man is nothing but an algorithm, then in theory, it will be possible to engineer his permanent happiness.

This is batty. Because I’ve gone on far too long here, let me refer you to Alan Jacobs’s deft evisceration of this childishly naive point of view.  [12] What troubles me so much about Harari’s book — and why I think it is a good bad book — is that he really does exemplify the way a lot of very smart people think. At one point, he says that the future is determined by small groups of dedicated innovators (= Toynbee’s “creative minorities”), e.g., the scientists and engineers who created the iPhone will probably have had more influence on the direction of history than hundreds of millions of people who did nothing. Whether you and I think that this Silicon Valley Epicurean mythology Harari has concocted is viable or true is beside the point. If those elites who maintain a monopoly on the means of idea production in our society believe it, then we are all going to have to live in the world they have brought into being.

If you think Brave New World is utopia, then you will love Harari’s book without qualification. If, however, you think it is a dystopia, then you may respect Harari’s analysis in many (but by no means all!) respects, but find his prescriptions terrifying. I think the book is ultimately a lie, but it is a seductive lie. Again, I believe Harari has done a pretty good job of showing why, if many of the things we accept in late modernity are true, we really have no strong reasons for following the logic further, into his dystopia. Harari is an evangelist for the Grand Inquisitor [13] of the Church of Silicon Valley (“the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not the Islamic State or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley”), preaching that we can have perfect happiness if we will surrender all our freedom to the ones who know better.

 

 

100 Comments (Open | Close)

100 Comments To "Yuval Noah Harari’s Dystopia"

#1 Comment By Bernie On April 18, 2017 @ 1:03 pm

Oakinhow, I agree there is a distinction between “immoral” and “sinful”, but there is a vast overlap of the two in all world religious traditions and all cultures. Refraining from certain religious rituals and not eating meat on certain days are religious disciplines, the violation of which may be regarded as sinful, but the broader world would not consider them immoral. Agreed.

Otherwise, what distinguishes immoral from sinful in your thinking? What criteria determine an immoral act? Theft, cheating, adultery, lying, greed, etc. – where is the line between immoral and sinful (assuming one believes in a God)?

And what constitutes “meaning” in your mind? Is it linked to truth and how so? Does a person determine his own truth, or is there objective truth?

#2 Comment By hstrom On April 18, 2017 @ 1:30 pm

I think the outworking of Harari’s view is logically inconsistent.

And I wonder if, in his world, holocausts matter?

#3 Comment By Elijah On April 18, 2017 @ 2:10 pm

Well, of course I share your alarm at anyone who thinks the way that Harari apparently does.

BenH does have a good point in re “man has conquered nature” – really? We can’t even predict the damn weather with any sort of certainty and global climate change poses some very real threats to mankind. Man has certainly conquered certain aspects of nature, but we still face enormous basic challenges in climate, medicine, water supply, etc.

The “man as algorithm” thing also seems to me to be demonstrably false. I keep hearing about how scientists have figured out our brains, how religion is ‘all in our heads’ and so on, but then I see studies that show how parts of the brain supposedly controlled by religious impulses seem to be more effectively stimulated by strawberry ice cream than thoughts of the Almighty. People are more complicated than that.

Like you, I don’t see how anyone can look at the destruction of the 20th century and say “Let’s trust science to guide us.”

“It’s not that you understand your true self better, but you come to realize there is no true self. There is just a complicated connection of biochemical connections, without a core. There is no authentic voice that lives inside you.”

I became a Christian because I tried to live this way and it is simply unworkable unless you are a sociopath. And fundamentally, it is self-defeating: if there is no “you”, no “authentic inner voice”, then what difference does anything make? Why would you, your family, or your pleasure matter one bit? We end up right back to where one commenter here indicated: the pursuit of power, pure and simple. It seems as if “Brave New World” and “1984” inevitably lead to each other in some way.

#4 Comment By TA On April 18, 2017 @ 3:48 pm

If Harari’s goal of eliminating suffering through technology is misguided, what level of suffering is good?

Lots of people who read/comment here have modified their vision through artificial means. Is this good or bad? Why? (No one today would likely consider this wrong, but there are, admittedly disputed, accounts that early lens researchers like Roger Bacon were looked down on for such unnatural interests.)

Many of the older visitors here likely have replaced their natural joints with artificial mechanisms. Is it better to suffer or unnaturally modify their bodies? Why?

Assume a calculator that was implantable in the brain which gives perfect mathematics skill to anyone who has it. (i.e. think of a math problem or equation and instantly know the solution, but has no other effects) Moral or immoral?

Where does the (seemingly always shifting) line of “human dignity” lie?

#5 Comment By Antonia On April 18, 2017 @ 4:35 pm

Oh, good grief!
First of all, we have NOT conquered starvation. And we have added self-induced starvation (anorexia, anyone?).

Note to Thomas Parker re cellphone: Good for you! I refuse to have a smartphone. I have an old flip cellphone for emergency only (i.e. car breakdown on freeway), but it is OFF all the time.

#6 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 18, 2017 @ 6:23 pm

Carlo said:

What image?

Either man is an imago Dei, or he is completely faceless. Men without religious or national or cultural backgrounds are especially faceless,

By face do you mean nature, essence, the capacity for free will and reason? What do you mean by especially faceless?

#7 Comment By Oakinhou On April 18, 2017 @ 7:25 pm

@Bernie

“Otherwise, what distinguishes immoral from sinful in your thinking? What criteria determine an immoral act? Theft, cheating, adultery, lying, greed, etc. – where is the line between immoral and sinful (assuming one believes in a God)?”

As a start I would suggest to take (liberals like me) at their word when they/we say that they/we value very strongly the moral foundations of care/harm and fairness/cheating.

First, an act is immoral if it harms someone else (are self harming acts immoral? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Nuance is important)

Second, an act might be harm-free, but still may be (observe, not “is”) immoral, if it results in the actor taking an unfair advantage from the action.

in more general terms, the morality or immorality (or neutrality) of an act depends mainly on the effects that act has on others, first, and then, on the actor himself.

Social conservatives (a broadly descriptive term, both over and underinclusive) tend to ignore the effects, and attach the moral content to the form of the act itself, comparing it to a list received from [God/tradition/the Elders of the tribe]. Our favorite dead equine is a textbook example

SC: “homosexual acts are always immoral”

L: “Why? How do we know they always result in harm?’

SC: “Because they are always selfish”

L: “Were the sexual acts between Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, who lived together for 41 years, even though Spyer was suffering from MS for 32 of those 41 years, always selfish? Were not the unitive expression of their love?”

SC: “The telos of sexual acts require them to be both unitive and genitive. Sexual acts that are not genitive are selfish, hence immoral”

L: “What about infertile couples?”

SC: “Well, the form of the sexual act of infertile couples is the same form of the sexual acts for fertile couples. Hence it covers -in form, if not in substance- the genitive prong. Form matters more than consequences. The sexual acts of Britney Spears and her 55 hours husband Jason Alexander were moral (during those 55 hours), but Edith Windsor’s 41 years long relationship was immoral for the duration”.

I posit that -again, broadly speaking- social conservative morality hinges on a list from authority: This is immoral, this is moral; without reference to the effects of the actions themselves. The genocide of the Amelekites is in the moral column because God himself put it in that list, and we are forbidden to second guess him. Likewise, Edith Windsor is in the immoral column also because we are told God wanted it to be so, even though, when we look at Winsdor’s and Spyer’s relationship, we cannot identify the harm to others, to themselves, or to society.

Best

#8 Comment By mwing On April 18, 2017 @ 7:59 pm

“The point is, we have largely mastered nature.”

Oh, no, we so haven’t. Ask anyone with a relative with Alzheimers disease. Or anyone who works on it, as some of my faculty do. Or anyone who has a chronic, uncureable, only-semi-treatable health condition, as I do. Disease process – what is actually going on in those damn cells anyway – is a hot research topic BECAUSE it is still poorly understood- there is so much work to do.

#9 Comment By Brendan from Oz On April 18, 2017 @ 9:26 pm

I was reading yesterday (can’t find the link or source now, sorry) that learning algorithms are about 10 lines of pseudo-code, and all we are missing is about 5 more lines and we have machines capable of being far more intelligent than we are.

It isn’t a matter of 1 universal algorithm for the mind or set of algorithms (all brains grow physically and intellectually differently) but various self-improving algorithms given time and input. They already have sensors to immitate pain and so forth.

Once those machines add to the 15 lines of pseudo-code …

#10 Comment By Craig On April 19, 2017 @ 12:30 am

“What’s important about this is Harari’s recognition that human beings require a sacred story to make sense of their lives — and “sacred,” broadly speaking, is not strictly religious, but a shared story that people see as defining their identity, and binding them together and to beliefs they understand as higher than themselves. We hold these truths” is part of one such story.”

With any shared sacred narrative, religious or not, you always have the Wizard of Oz problem: Once someone has pulled back the curtain and exposed the little old man working the levers, the Great and Powerful Oz is no longer great or powerful. In a scientific age, religious narratives that rely in miracles and unseen supernatural beings are particularly vulnerable. But it isn’t that hard to question secular sacred narratives. Just remind people that some of the guys who wrote “We hold these truths” were slave owners, a now despicable identification.

#11 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 19, 2017 @ 8:06 am

“Conservative Christians will bend themselves into pretzels rationalizing Republican policies”

Project much?

#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 19, 2017 @ 10:23 am

learning algorithms are about 10 lines of pseudo-code, and all we are missing is about 5 more lines and we have machines capable of being far more intelligent than we are.

But those machines are merely machines. They merely do what they are programmed to do. They have no will or consciousness, even if they do react to “stimuli.” There remains an intangible will and self-awareness in biological life, and particularly in homo sapiens, that mere machines will never have. They just don’t.

Oakinhou makes a plausible rational argument, and religious traditionalists will have to make more sophisticated, empathetic, and subtle arguments if they hope to remain on the field.

Without pretending I have The Answer, I would suggest first, that God seldom if ever issues commands purely as a test of faith or loyalty… there is generally some reason we would generally be better off, happier, healthier, not to mention more salvageable (to take a certain view of Salvation) if we did as instructed. But we are free to learn that for ourselves.

With regard to sexuality, the telos, whatever it may be, is not gross, empirical, or sharp. But the testimony of the statistically small number of people who have shifted from homosexual to heterosexual suggests that there MAY be some subtle benefits. It is not beyond the realm of real possibility that children are more secure, healthier, balanced, with one parent of each sex.

Such subtleties do not make for good law, enforced by the blunt instrument of the police power of the state. But, it should not be written off that patient spiritual instruction may actually strike a nerve, and may actually have a good effect.

I see studies that show how parts of the brain supposedly controlled by religious impulses seem to be more effectively stimulated by strawberry ice cream than thoughts of the Almighty. People are more complicated than that.

Excellent.

#13 Comment By Bernie On April 19, 2017 @ 11:06 am

Oakinhou, thanks for your response. Words such as “fairness” and “harm” lie in the eye of the beholder and, in my opinion, aren’t sufficient to distinguish moral from immoral acts, especially when no precise definition is given them.

For example, is adultery immoral if the spouse committing the adultery has the consent of the third party (the non-spouse), as well as the consent of his or her own spouse? Is the violation of a solemn vow immoral if no one feels hurt?

Another example: if I steal $10,000 from a multi-millionaire and he never even realizes it or misses it, is anyone harmed? Is my act fair because the money is spent on my struggling family and my disabled child when the rich man doesn’t even know the money is gone?

If I have promiscuous, frequent sex with a number of people, none of whom I really love and want to commit to, is this fair and harmless as long as there is consent?

When anyone can set his own criteria, rather loosely defined, to determine what is moral or not, you have no cohesive culture and no real moral compass.

I believe, perhaps incorrectly, that your campaign to distinguish morality from sin is due largely to your attempts to validate same-sex relations and perhaps cohabitation which includes sexual relations. The instigator of an immoral act is always diminished by the act, whether or not he realizes it. Hearts are hardened, bad example is given, and self wins over selflessness. My spirit shrivels, and I’m diminished in my capacity to deeply love and give myself away sacrificially.

#14 Comment By TA On April 19, 2017 @ 11:35 am

@Siarlys

But those machines are merely machines. They merely do what they are programmed to do. They have no will or consciousness, even if they do react to “stimuli.” There remains an intangible will and self-awareness in biological life, and particularly in homo sapiens, that mere machines will never have. They just don’t.

Never is a very, very long time.

Let’s say it’s now the year 2200 and the “Machine Intelligence Council” is meeting to discuss humanity. One of them states to the others:

“But those humans are merely animals. They merely do what their crude instincts and hormones program them to do. They have no real will or consciousness, even if they do react to “stimuli.” There remains an intangible will and self-awareness in self-modifying machine life, and particularly in the more recent iterations, that mere biologicals will never have. They just don’t.”

Not saying it is right, but how would someone refute that?

#15 Comment By JonF On April 19, 2017 @ 12:56 pm

Re: all we are missing is about 5 more lines and we have machines capable of being far more intelligent than we are.

It would help if we had a definition of “intelligent” in this context. Computers are much quicker than humans are at performing complex calculations and tabulating data. If that’s what you mean by “intelligent” then, yes, they are and have been for a long, long time. Just as a backhoe or bulldozer is much stronger than any human being. Though as Siarlys notes computers do what they are told to do. They lack an independent motivation– something even a jellyfish possesses. And if you’re trying to tell us that computers will soon be providing us with the theory that unifies quantum physics and relativity, or will be composing fugues that improve on Bach (without have Bach-algorithms programmed in) then your claim deserves severe skepticism, akin to the claims of the inventors of perpetual motion machines.

#16 Comment By Max On April 19, 2017 @ 2:16 pm

I was interested in hearing what you had to say on this book. I read his previous book Sapiens by discovering him through a link of yours a couple of years ago. I had been waiting for “Homo Deus” for a good while and read it as soon as it came out in the U.S. Like the commentor Christopher Cook before me, I did not read it as advocacy but more as description, kind of like his previous book. I thought he was intrigued yet troubled by some of the advances that we’ve made. I will re-read his book to try to square your comments with my initial thoughts. Once again, thank you for the subjects that you discuss on this blog. Especially, the sort of questions that lead to interesting pieces like Harari’s.

#17 Comment By Oakinhou On April 19, 2017 @ 6:25 pm

@Bernie

Thanks again for engaging.

I still feel that you (or the under/over inclusive social conservatives) rely too much on the letter of the received rule, as opposed to its effect.Then, when the letter proves inapplicable, or patently unjust, or against other priors, great effort is spent in explaining why the rule means something different. That way you start with the 79,976 words in the Torah, and soon you need 63 Tractaes of Mishnah to explain it, and then you need thousands of pages of Guemara to explain the Mishnah.

Staying away from sexual items, you say

” if I steal $10,000 from a multi-millionaire and he never even realizes it or misses it, is anyone harmed? Is my act fair because the money is spent on my struggling family and my disabled child when the rich man doesn’t even know the money is gone?”

Me, I would say it’s probably moral. But if you go by the Rule book you supposedly don’t have the leeway I might have. The Rule book is clear : “You shall not steal” There is no wiggle room for struggling families, Exodus is clear about that. Even if you are hungry, you are supposed to return what you stole, plus a compensation to the Owner, and another one to God. If you couldn’t, you are to be sold as a slave (Ex. 22:2-3), your struggling family notwithstanding.

Because this result is unfair, and does not reflect the real harm you caused, scores of exegetes through the centuries have explained that the rule is not such, and that circumstances are this, and that, and so on.

So now, instead or reading the Torah to see what God wants, we peruse the thousands of pages of the Talmud to find out what God really, really, meant when he said that you were to be sold as a slave, because He obviously didn’t mean for you to be sold as a slave. That would be unfair (*)

This is nothing but the sleight of hand substitution of one rule book for a different one.

Examples abound “You shall not kill” became “you shall not commit murder, but stand your ground and preemptively shooting someone you “think” is threatening you is perfectly OK. (For the record, I find “stand your ground” morally problematic, because I find the harm of killing larger than the harm of robbing)

Mind you, I’m not pointing this out as a gotcha, a demonstration of hypocrisy of SoCons or whatever. I just want to impress on you that individual circumstances matter, the world changes, and suddenly you find yourself trying to explain to yourself why you no longer are supposed to stone gay men (**).

Yes, harm, and fairness are relative, mushy, terms, difficult to define in the Rule Book, but, in practice, easier to grasp than you might suppose.

On the contrary, the comfort and feeling of safety you get from the hard rules is lost once you grasp that the rules forbid both rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.

(*) If you look at the Talmud you will find that the obligation of restitution ceases when the original owner gives up looking for the lost property. In your example, because the millionaire did not notice the loss, there was no crime.

(**) The Jewish Oral Law states that capital punishment would only be applicable if two men were caught in the act of anal sex, if there were two witnesses to the act, if the two witnesses warned the men involved that they committed a capital offense, and the two men — or the willing party, in case of rape — subsequently acknowledged the warning but continued to engage in the prohibited act anyway.

Plus, Rabbinic tradition understands the Torah’s system of capital punishment to not be in effect for the past approximately 2,000 years, in the absence of a Sanhedrin and Temple, so even if you met all the previous conditions, you still are not supposed to stone the gay men, even though God specifically told us to do it.

#18 Comment By Northern owl On April 19, 2017 @ 8:35 pm

I urge Mr. Dreher to reflect on his conclusions that Harari is a sentimentalist or that he believes that science/technology will lead to any particular good.
As Max stated before me, the writing is descriptive. There is little in his conclusions about science, technology and intersubjectivity that one would call “good” or positive nor does he eagerly anticipate anything. Perhaps it is the breezy pop tone of the writing that makes Harari appear upbeat. All I see in it is the willingness to dig hard at the contradictions in a culture and to project forward from the conclusions derived. Eyes wide open as we rush into the unknown. But definitely not cheer leading for secular humanist positions.

#19 Comment By Brendan from Oz On April 19, 2017 @ 9:03 pm

“It would help if we had a definition of “intelligent” in this context.”

Self-learning and self-developing. Not calculating and tabulating – making decisions such as targetting people for death sans any human oversight.

They already do.

Do keep up or you will not have na clue what swept over you.

#20 Comment By Brendan from Oz On April 19, 2017 @ 9:09 pm

From [14]:

When asked about those reactions, Schmidhuber has that pitying look again. “My theses have been controversial for decades, so I am used to these standard arguments. But a lot of neuroscientists have no idea what is happening in the world of AI.”

“The central algorithm for intelligence is incredibly short. The algorithm that allows systems to self-improve is perhaps 10 lines of pseudocode. What we are missing at the moment is perhaps just another five lines.”

#21 Comment By Bernie On April 19, 2017 @ 9:58 pm

Oakinhow, you say: “In your example, because the millionaire did not notice the loss, there was no crime.” (Oakinhou is referring to the loss of the $10,000 that was stolen from a multi-millionaire in the example I gave.)

Well, we completely disagree. If I steal $10,000 from anyone I think it’s both sinful and immoral. What if I didn’t pay my taxes because I wanted the money to help with my child care payments? Would that be just fine as well, or is it purely legalistic thinking on my part to think it’s immoral?

What about my adultery question? Is adultery immoral if both the person I’m cheating with as well as my spouse consent? Is there no morality involved in breaking a solemn marriage vow, or am I guilty of simple legalism here as well?

When “fairness” and what’s moral have no objective anchor other than what I think is fair, chaos ensues and SELF reigns. Whatever I feel is correct.

#22 Comment By JonF On April 19, 2017 @ 10:06 pm

Re: Do keep up or you will not have na clue what swept over you.

LOL. With respect, Brendan, you’re more likely to be the astounded one if you live long enough. The world of carbon has been at it for, what? 3.8 billion years? It is immensely more diverse and has immensely more potential than a few decades worth of silicon tools one its more hubristic representatives has created. Somewhere out there a mega-tsunami will gather and it will change the future far more profoundly (and probably not very happily) than anything coming out of some lab in California or Tokyo.
Long-term the silicon tools at best will simply be absorbed into the carbon world’s cells and neurons, enhancing them to be sure, perhaps ultimately even becoming vital (think: cellular mitochondria as an example), but forever trapped by the very nature of their power source in the here-and-now.

#23 Comment By Brendan from Oz On April 19, 2017 @ 10:31 pm

Keep misreading as you please. LOL.

Didn’t read a word with the slightest comprehension, did you?

#24 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 19, 2017 @ 11:53 pm

The last free place in Brave New World was an Indian Reservation. Since we have property on one, I take comfort in that option.

#25 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 19, 2017 @ 11:57 pm

Let’s say it’s now the year 2200 and the “Machine Intelligence Council” is meeting to discuss humanity.

Machines are inherently incapable of such a discussion. Machines don’t even process data, they process signals, which are instructions fed into them, acting upon code that represents data. Don’t confuse the abstract code with the reality it represents.

It can be very frustrating when one person tells another person “That’s not what my computer says,” but it takes a person placing reliance on what the computer mechanically puts on the screen to create that frustration. It is also frustrating when a computer flashes on the screen “You are not authorized to access that file” when its MY compute and MY file… but the computer hasn’t a clue what the box on the screen MEANS, it has been programmed to flash that image when certain algorithms play out in certain ways. Programmed by humans who think that’s “good security.”

(And yes, I do love science fiction, but I know the difference.)

#26 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 20, 2017 @ 8:15 am

@Siarlys Jenkins, at the molecular level your brain doesn’t process data either. It moves neurotransmitters across a gap from one neuron to another, which either activates or inhibits the second neuron. So TA’s machine counsel might assert that the use of molecules instead of electronic signals proves animals are not truly conscious, as their brains are not a coordinated whole, but independent entities acting as if they were.

I understand the philosophy of the mind body problem, but assertion that machine consciousness is impossible is likely as premature as assumptions that it is.

#27 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 20, 2017 @ 8:32 am

If you think Brave New World is utopia, then you will love Harari’s book without qualification. If, however, you think it is a dystopia, then you may respect Harari’s analysis in many (but by no means all!) respects, but find his prescriptions terrifying.

As so often, I have such a hard time with choices like this, because I like neither one. I don’t think Brave New World was a pure dystopia, but certainly neither do I think it was a utopia, and my feelings about that extend to Harari as well.

Much of what he says I agree with (his support for genetic engineering of humans, for example, I see as an invaluable tool by which we could improve ourselves: not just aesthetically and intellectually, though those are important, but morally as well. What would happen if we could ‘correct’ the physiological pathways that predispose us to aggression or selfishness?)

I also don’t have that much of an objection to ‘control by the state’. I think C.S. Lewis is quite right that in large degree, control over nature boils down to some men controlling other men. (The reason is fairly simple: as we get better and better at controlling nature, our necessities of life become more and more capital intensive, which means we become more and more dependent on the people who have the resources to produce them or control access to them, wether that be private capitalists or the state. I prefer the state, for reasons of fairness, but I’m under no illusion that in either case we are going to end up more free or more self reliant). Where I disagree with C.S. Lewis is that I don’t see why this is necessarily a bad thing. I’m not a libertarian, a liberal or even a democrat, and I have very little faith in the ability of most people to govern themselves. Why would we assume that Lewis’ “Controllers” would be malevolent? Maybe they will be a benevolent, and isn’t submission to a benevolent state authority often better than self-reliance?

Where I disagree with Harari, very strongly, is the end goal to which genetic engineering, state authoritarianism, central planning and the like should be directed. I don’t like his central goals of “bliss, divinity, and immortality.” I don’t want to live forever, or to be eternally blissful, or to be a god. (If those goals are worth achieving they’re worth achieving only in the afterlife). I want a world of hard work, of achievement won through struggle, and of virtue, and it’s worth pointing out that all of the virtues presume limits and suffering. Courage would be meaningless in a world with nothing to fear: “thou shalt not kill” would be meaningless in a world of immortals; charity and generosity would be meaningless in a world where we all had all the material goods we could want, and so forth.

And no Rod, the point of “Brave New World” isn’t that “liberty” is better than pleasure. Mustapha Mond makes the point quite correctly that if his subjects were given political liberty, they’d probably choose him. The point is a much deeper and truer one which is that struggle is better than pleasure, or rather that struggle is essential to the highest kind of pleasure. You can tell this by looking at Huxley’s other book (which I have not read, but I’ve read portions of it), After Many a Summer which is a satire on the quest for immortality and the myth of Tithonus. Here, like Swift, he makes the case against immortality purely without reference to an authoritarian state. The central character is a rich nobleman who buys the secret of immortality purely with his own money and initiative, so there are no constraints on liberty here. He discoveres that immortality makes you, well, inhuman in a very literal sense. It’s also worth pointing out that many of the harshest critics of Brave New World were no believers in liberty themselves. I don’t think the central point is about liberty.

So yes in conclusion, I find a lot of the means Harari wants to employ (soft eugenics / genetic engineering, state control, propaganda, etc.) fairly unobjectionable. I think his ends however, are terrible, and would in fact be a dystopia if we ever reached them.

#28 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 20, 2017 @ 8:43 am

In terms of ‘eugenics’, don’t the East Asian nations sort of having a very soft eugenics here? The birth rate in Japan, China, Korea and Singapore are very low and it appears only the well off couples have more than one child. Considering most conservative LOVE Singapore society, especially their healthcare, it seems conservative indirectly support this soft eugenic system. And we have seen the Flynn effect for several generations.

I don’t much like the East Asian model personally, but you make a very good point here which is that the choice not to do eugenics (or let’s call it soft eugenics, to dissociate it from objectionable means like forced abortions, etc.) is in effect, accepting a sort of negative eugenics by default. More exactly, if you choose not to try and affect the future makeup of the human genetic code, in beneficial ways, you’re in effect allowing our future makeup to be shaped either by random chance, by our past history of natural selection, or else by the “free” choices of people regarding how much to reproduce. I don’t see why we should place that much faith in the ability of any of those forces to improve the human genome, and in some some situations they’re clearly going to have a negative effect. (Sociopathy for example is actually a sexually selected trait at least in some degree).

If we can employ nondestructive ways to shape the future human species in ways that we would like- to make people of the future smarter, prettier, harder working, less selfish, less aggressive- I don’t see why we wouldn’t. That seems like a great idea to me. And this is directed specifically to M_Young, but as you’ve expressed so much concern about the possibility of “Girls who look like Fra Lippi Vigins” disappearing from the planet, what if it was possible to recreate that phenotype through genetic engineering?

#29 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 20, 2017 @ 8:54 am

Biological engineering is likely to work as well as plastic surgery has in providing happiness.

Plastic surgery probably does make us, well, not happy, but happier. I don’t have the survey at hand, but breast implants for example do really have a large impact on women’s life satisfaction.

I think genetic engineering really will make us happier, and maybe better too. The danger is, as I noted that it might work too well and make us too happy.

The idea that man has conquered nature is moronic and makes no sense to anyone who has worked in a garden, has to manage an old house or has a car that breaks.

I worked doing agricultural foreign aid for three years, in a very poor third world village, so I have some experience with at least the first of those. Certainly we haven’t ‘conquered’ nature, but equally certainly we have much, much more control over nature than we had in the past. I’d respond to your challenge by saying, sure, work in a garden, but do so using the techniques of 1500 AD and then compare to the techniques of 2017 AD.

Agriculture is still vulnerable to the weather as it always has been, and to global warming which is a byproduct of our being too successful at conquering nature. But the advances that we’ve made over the last few hundred years (the invention of artificial fertilizer, the discovery of organic chemistry and subsequent invention of chemical pesticides and herbicides, the scientific plant breeding during the Green Revolution, and most recently techniques of genetic engineering) have enabled us to grow our food much more productively, producing, well not two, but more like ten heads of grain where once there was only one. And that in turn has beneficial effects in terms of needing less land to produce the same yields (and thereby having less impact on the environment).

#30 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 20, 2017 @ 9:13 am

Oakinhou, thanks for your response. Words such as “fairness” and “harm” lie in the eye of the beholder and, in my opinion, aren’t sufficient to distinguish moral from immoral acts, especially when no precise definition is given them.

I’m not Oakinhou, but I’ll take a shot at answering these:

For example, is adultery immoral if the spouse committing the adultery has the consent of the third party (the non-spouse), as well as the consent of his or her own spouse? Is the violation of a solemn vow immoral if no one feels hurt?

I’d say that no, extramarital sex is not wrong if and only if it’s done with the knowledge and full consent of both spouses. (This is what one would call an open marriage, or an open relationship, and what the Sex at Dawn authors have been evangelizing for so vociferously). It would be immoral if there was, as you say, a solemn vow being broken. It’s interesting that you presume there is such a breaking of vows though because most people who have open relationships or the like are up front about *not wanting monogamy to begin with*, and don’t make such vows in the first place.

Another example: if I steal $10,000 from a multi-millionaire and he never even realizes it or misses it, is anyone harmed? Is my act fair because the money is spent on my struggling family and my disabled child when the rich man doesn’t even know the money is gone?

It would be wrong under certain conditions (in today’s society when we have a semi-functional welfare state, and assuming that your need wasn’t extreme: even St. Thomas Aquinas conceded that in cases of extreme necessity theft would not be immoral). It wouldn’t be wrong under others. More importantly though I’d suggest that a social order in which you have multi-millionaries next to ‘struggling families’ is an unjust and immoral social order in and of itself. No one deserves that kind of money. (Back to my point against Harari, that the unlimited accumulation of material goods is not a good thing). The existence of the multimillionaries is the bigger moral problem here.

If I have promiscuous, frequent sex with a number of people, none of whom I really love and want to commit to, is this fair and harmless as long as there is consent?

I think so, yes. I’m struggling to see what would be unfair or harmful about it, unless you accept a certain set of premises (those of the Catholic Church for example) about ‘what sex is for’, and I don’t accept those in general.

When anyone can set his own criteria, rather loosely defined, to determine what is moral or not, you have no cohesive culture and no real moral compass.

In practice, societies create a cohesive culture and a common moral compass by coercion of some sort or other, so that becomes less of an issue. I think you do have a good point that you can’t really have a liberal-democratic order without a shared moral compass though: any attempt to impose a moral compass from the top down is going to end up being authoritarian to some degree. But why is having a cohesive culture based around a false moral compass any better? Your moral guidelines are presumably derived from those of the Catholic Church, but what particular strong reason do those of us who aren’t Catholic have to believe that those claims are correct? (Unless they match up with our own moral intuitions that is, which is why these sorts of appeals to religious authority are ultimately unconvincing).

The truth claims of the Catholic Church look even weaker when you look at history, because even once one accepts the core Christian story, which I do, the Catholic Church is only one of many Christian sects which coexisted during the first four centuries of the Christian era. What reason do we have to believe that, say, the Catholic Church got things right and, say, the Pelagians got it wrong (or the Brethren of the Free Spirit, or the Marcionites, or anyone else?)

The instigator of an immoral act is always diminished by the act, whether or not he realizes it. Hearts are hardened, bad example is given, and self wins over selflessness. My spirit shrivels, and I’m diminished in my capacity to deeply love and give myself away sacrificially.

I’m sure this is true, but you’re presuming here the correctness of your views about what’s immoral, which is precisely where we disagree.

#31 Comment By Oakinhou On April 20, 2017 @ 9:20 am

@Bernie

I apologize for failing to express myself correctly. The small quote of my response you highlighted was not my personal response, which I completely garbled.

The quote you picked up is the result of applying the Talmudic exegesis to the plain You shall not steal, which devotes thousands of words on when is stealing really stealing, and when it is not. Let your yes be a yes and your no be a no is, for very good reasons, something that traditional, rule based, cultures don’t tend to do, because they, too, soon find applying the rules to real life frequently yield unfair and immoral results.

Going back, yes, stealing the 10,000 is probably immoral because there is real harm to the billionaire, even if he doesn’t notice it.

Your swinging couple example depends on how true the consent is. I think you will agree I can release people of the vows they made to me. If they vowed to give me 10,000 dollars, I can release them of that vow. The question is, how true is the consent. Do I feel forced to accept that my partner has a sexual relationship with another person, or do I gladly consent because it’s something I want to do for him/her? Intent matters a lot, not just the “form” of consent.

So, if there is consent freely and happily given on all parties, there is no immorality. If one party consents “with heavy heart” then there is harm, and it is immoral. If I say “I consent, but I’d rather you didn’t do it” the consent does not erase the harm, and the act is immoral.

My argument is that it is not the form of the act that makes it moral or immoral. It’s the consequences of the act.

You say

“When “fairness” and what’s moral have no objective anchor other than what I think is fair, chaos ensues and SELF reigns. Whatever I feel is correct.”

It is not whatever “I, oakinhouston, feel”. It’s not whatever the person executing the act feels. The moral bellwether is whatever the person that is at the end of the act feels. It’s not the harm I am planning to do, it’s the harm people suffer from my actions.

If my actions are truly harmless, judged by all of humanity, then my actions are moral.

Now, in real life, it’s almost impossible for any act to be completely harmless, so we find ourselves comparing harm vs harm. The harm of stealing bread is lower than the harm of dying of starvation (that’s what the Torah scholars concluded when they looked at the plain “You shall not steal” and concluded that stealing bread to feed your family could not merit being sold as a slave, even though that was God’s specific mandate).

For the Jewish people, the Torah is an and complete objective standard of what is and is not moral. For Muslims the Q’ram plays the same role. For Catholics the Magisterium is probably the equivalent. But Jewish and Muslim scholars have spent hundreds of years parsing the plain language of the objective standard to squeeze out of it results that contradict the plain language but align with justice -The Talmud rabbis do not believe wanted the parents of starving children sold into slavery for stealing bread, so they explained Ex, 22:2-3 away. The Magisterium has famously done something similar with charging interest, going from “charging interest is a sin because money is a barren thing that bears no fruit” to “we never, ever, taught that charging reasonable levels of interest are sinful, because money has alternative uses”.

tl:dr.

– The harm of an action is measured by the effect of the action on the recipient of it, not by the intent of the actor. People -like me- that subscribe to the harm/care moral foundation do not explain harm away based on “feelings”, or “freedom”. That’s a strawperson that you, Bernie, should discard, if you want to understand what we are talking about.

– The objective truths received from God/tradition are anything but if you take the time to look at them. I invite you to just look at the sheer size of a complete Talmud in your public library, and compare it with the Torah in your pocket Bible. This is centuries of exegetes trying to reconcile their own -but also God’s given- sense of justice and fairness in their minds with the plain black and white letter of the “objective” text.

In return, I ask you, Bernie. Without referring to the objective rules from your tradition, do you really have no criteria if an action you witness is harmful, or fair?

#32 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 20, 2017 @ 9:23 am

Bernie,

I’d also add that we aren’t stuck where you think we are, on the marsh of competing moral claims where we are all bogged down by subjectivity. We can reason about these things, and we can try to convince each other. For example: one argument I’d make in favour of the truth claims of the sexual revolution (that sex is primarily recreational and secondarily procreational, in contrast to what the Catholic Church would say) is that they have lowered fertility rates, in the societies which have adopted them, to at or below replacement. This is going to sooner or later result in global population decline and thereby help get us out of the problem of an already (probably) overpopulated world. Any set of sexual ethics that results in a fertility rate above replacement, is heading for Malthusian crisis sooner or later, at this point in time. (That was not the case, of course, three thousand years ago).

It’s of course possible as an individual or even a society to achieve a low fertility rate through natural family planning (Poland did so in the 1990s- there was use of contraception, but the most common method was NFP). I think that sort of equilibrium is logically inconsistent though, because you’re accepting the specific prescription of the Catholic Church about birth control without accepting the whole logic that went into it (that the procreative dimension of sex is essential to the whole) and it’s not surprising that Poland has since adopted contraception to the detriment of NFP.

#33 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 20, 2017 @ 10:55 am

Siarlys Jenkins, at the molecular level your brain doesn’t process data either. It moves neurotransmitters across a gap from one neuron to another, which either activates or inhibits the second neuron.

Although it is not a perfect analogy, and no analogy is perfect, I am reminded of a conversation in C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Eustace, the nasty self-centered cousin from the liberal boarding school, tells the retired star, Ramandu, ‘in my world, a star is a ball of claming gas.’ Ramandu replies, that is not what a star IS, it is one thing that a star DOES.

The undoubted existence of neurochemical reactions and neuroelectric transmissions tells us some of the material phenomena at work, but does not give us the complete essence of humanity. I suspect that the “mind body problem” is unresolvable, because we will never know empirically all that is at work. There will always be the component of what Talmudic scholars call the nefesh, the neshama, and and the nefesh chayyim. Without these, an organic body is simply a pile of dead meat.

My point about the machine council is that no such council will ever assemble. Machines are utterly devoid of curiousity. We can program machines to mimic what we do, but they have no initiative of their own. The entire Terminator series posits that a machine becomes “self aware,” which seems to me a highly dubious prospect, although it does make for entertaining fiction. Isaac Asimov wrote some fascinating tales on this theme for his robot series. It is of course true that machines can be programmed by sentient beings to respond with prearranged lethal force when certain pre-programmed stimuli come in contact with detectors constructed for that purpose.

This is centuries of exegetes trying to reconcile their own -but also God’s given- sense of justice and fairness in their minds with the plain black and white letter of the “objective” text.

I know of two broad categories of people who treat the text this way. One is scriptural literalists, who cherry pick the passages they find most conducive to their own dystopian dreams, and then try to render the bare text of these cherry picked passages, out of context, to be the totality of The Law. The second, of course, is people who wish to discredit religious belief, by pinning a given faith to a narrow reading of certain texts, and then asserting that anything good, true, right, or just, was achieved by straying from that text.

Both are narrow, incomplete, stale, rigid, and wrong. One reason I’ve come to appreciate the King James translation is precisely what others have criticized it for: it does not render exact meanings. It is poetical and allegorical in its construction, and in many places is susceptible to several layers of meaning. This, I think, is a relatively accurate way to reflect revelations of a transcendent deity whose ways none of us can really understand, but all must try to learn. And then, we should be cautious about asserting that we know exactly what it means, either in the affirmative or in the negative.

#34 Comment By Bernie On April 20, 2017 @ 12:04 pm

Oakinhou says: “In return, I ask you, Bernie. Without referring to the objective rules from your tradition, do you really have no criteria if an action you witness is harmful, or fair?”

Of course I do, including what actions and thoughts result in my peace, selflessness, and joy. What I see in your explanation of what is and isn’t moral is rationalization and your missing of the full definition of “harm”. For example, you conclude that my stealing $10,000 from a billionaire is “probably immoral” because: “… there is real harm to the billionaire, even if he doesn’t notice it.”

No, that’s not why it’s immoral; I’d say there is NO harm to the billionaire. None at all. The harm is to the person who stole the $10,000. You seem to measure harm only by what can be seen or measured, but often the deepest harm inflicted by our immoral actions is its psychological, spiritual, and even physical effects. We are most fully alive and human when we are selfless and good. When we violate the rights of another (cheat him, steal from him, use him for our pleasure, etc.) we are diminished in our sensitivity to evil. First, I shoplift and get used to it. Then I graduate to cheating others out of money. As my sensitivity to evil is ever dulled, I graduate to more serious stealing…and I feel less and less remorse for it. Ditto for cheating in marriage, broken promises made to others, etc. This harm often goes unseen and cannot be measured, but it always diminishes me. I’m not as free or happy; I’m in bondage to thoughts and actions that make me less.

Many women who have abortions suffer psychologically for the rest of their lives; doctors and counselors will attest to this. In this “harmless” exercise of control over her own body, something wired into her very core is violated. You would say no harm is done to a blob of flesh removed after four months in the womb. I would say that probable irreparable harm is done spiritually, emotionally and mentally to a large percent of women who have abortions. Immorality violates and diminishes me, every time, whether or not I realize it.

The moral code of all the world’s major religions is very similar. It’s not measured solely by visible harm or lack of consent of the parties involved.

There is objective truth, tested through the millennia, that results in our freedom, peace and happiness, or our diminishment as human beings. By using partial and, in some cases, self-serving measures of right and wrong, we’ll never attain the wholeness and joy of which we are capable.

#35 Comment By Bernie On April 20, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

Hector, please see my latest (and as yet unposted) response to Oakinhou. You and I are far apart here, and I’ll just let my response to him address your comments as well.

#36 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 20, 2017 @ 12:35 pm

Siarlys Jenkins said:

My point about the machine council is that no such council will ever assemble. Machines are utterly devoid of curiousity. We can program machines to mimic what we do, but they have no initiative of their own.

Lord Kelvin infamously asserted stated that “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” Rumor has it Lord Kelvin is slightly in error.

#37 Comment By JonF On April 20, 2017 @ 2:10 pm

Re: It moves neurotransmitters across a gap from one neuron to another, which either activates or inhibits the second neuron.

Well, yes– but hat’s only part of the story. Somehow that activity translates into other sorts activity Somewhere Else– and we experience sensation and perception as a result.
Does a computer even a complex one, also have that effect? I am only to the possibility of panpsychism whereby some degree of mind exists in everything– but I see no evidence whatsoever that even the most elaborate computer has anything like a human mind– or even the mind of a millipede for that matter. Human and animal minds are the result of millions upon millions of years of evolution building them up. Computers have nothing like that time depth backing them up.

#38 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 20, 2017 @ 3:26 pm

@JonF, this isn’t a question of what exists now, but the limits on what can exist in the future. Can we say machines will never have a certain capability?

Simple insects like a honey bee can have a million neurons and a billion synapse junctions. A human has 86 billion neurons and over 150 trillion synapse junctions. Compare this to a modern computer that has about 1.5 billion transistors, and at least two are required to make logic gates.

I’m not sure how to compare these unlike things, but the number of synapse junctions versus number of logic gates seems fairest. So I’d argue computers are just reaching the insect level of complexity and no where near the complexity of the human brain.

#39 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 20, 2017 @ 3:58 pm

MH Sec – Mis: You’re no Lord Kelvin.

Its not the only thing Kelvin was wrong about either. He figured based on the temperature of the earth that it could be no more than 500,000 years old. But these are simple quantitative observations, and the discussion about machines having a mind of their own are qualitatively different. Birds fly, fish swim, the idea that aerodynamic pressures could be manipulated is not far fetched. Piling up numbers of transistors vs. numbers of synpase junctions may well not get us to any reliable comparison.

#40 Comment By Oakinhou On April 20, 2017 @ 7:12 pm

@Bernie

I am afraid we are at very different definitions of harm. I do not dispute your (and Tolkien’s) understanding of the harm that actions prompted by greed, pride, avarice, lust, etc. do on our psyches and our self. But I would say it is a very limited (can I say selfish, pun intended) understanding of harm. Instead of focusing on the harm my actions cause on my, I’d rather focus on their -slightly more objective to measure- impact on those at the receiving end of my actions.

Perhaps it’s because we have talked a lot about harm and very little about the other end of the same moral principle: care. Acts rooted in care, in love, in philia, are (normally) moral, be then stealing bread for your children or loving and caring your same sex spouse.

To do acts of love and avoid acts of harm because they will have a “positive”or “negative” impact on my own soul defeats the purpose. The morality of harm and care, of fairness, is a morality of relationship with what is outside me, be them nature or other humans.

We are not the protagonists of this story. It’s not about us. We are but threads in a big tapestry. The world is not a scenery for ME to have significance and meaning.

#41 Comment By Bernie On April 20, 2017 @ 10:55 pm

Oakinhou,

You vastly misjudge me if you think I limit my view of harm to myself and only my own soul. If you believe humans have souls, (I don’t know your belief), the harm that is done by my immoral actions negatively affects the souls, as well as the material well-being, of others.

You’ve not invented and pioneered what love and care mean. I look to the holy people of all religious traditions and find an extraordinary likeness in how they demonstrate love and care. “Love” is probably the most misunderstood word in our vocabulary. When I love someone, I want their good, their ultimate good being their freedom, peace, wholeness, integrity and eternal salvation. If one doesn’t believe in God, freedom and love can be defined very differently from mine.

I bet your moral focus is on sexuality, as I bet it is for some other commenters, especially same-sex issues. Live your values and I’ll live mine. I’m almost 70 years old, and I know what works for me, and I think, pleases God. I hope and presume you’ll live with integrity as you interpret it. Sincerely.

#42 Comment By Jeff On April 20, 2017 @ 11:24 pm

Soylent Green is people

#43 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 21, 2017 @ 6:58 am

@Siarlys Jenkins, obviously I am not Lord Kelvin, but neither are you. You don’t have an argument other than to assert that it isn’t possible, that’s not the basis of a convincing argument.

#44 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 21, 2017 @ 8:19 am

No, that’s not why it’s immoral; I’d say there is NO harm to the billionaire. None at all. The harm is to the person who stole the $10,000. You seem to measure harm only by what can be seen or measured, but often the deepest harm inflicted by our immoral actions is its psychological, spiritual, and even physical effects. We are most fully alive and human when we are selfless and good. When we violate the rights of another (cheat him, steal from him, use him for our pleasure, etc.) we are diminished in our sensitivity to evil.

I agree with you that wrongdoing damages our soul and diminishes us as people. I don’t really agree with your framing of why stealing from a billionaire would be wrong (“violate the rights of another”) because I don’t think that anyone can properly be said to have a right to have billions of dollars. I think you’re certainly right that stealing, even of small things, can damage our souls. I would draw a big distinction here between someone stealing out of necessity and (for example) someone who has more than enough to live on shoplifting sunglasses from a store. Aquinas made that distinction too. And I’d also go further than him and say that allowing such disparities of income to exist is quite as immoral as stealing would be, and diminishes us as a society in much the same way that you correctly point out that (unjust) theft would.

Of course, in any particular case, the act of theft might or might not be damaging to one’s soul (again, as Aquinas, the Talmudic writers, etc. observed, a theft out of genuine necessity might not be morally corrupting, while other sorts of theft would be). This is why a virtue ethics perspective would look at the totality of intentions, circumstances, etc. involved in a particular act rather than a more absolute, rule-based perspective.

The moral code of all the world’s major religions is very similar. It’s not measured solely by visible harm or lack of consent of the parties involved.

There is objective truth, tested through the millennia, that results in our freedom, peace and happiness, or our diminishment as human beings. By using partial and, in some cases, self-serving measures of right and wrong, we’ll never attain the wholeness and joy of which we are capable

I’m going to have to push back here: what commonalities, do you see, precisely, between the moral codes of major religions? Because I see a lot of differences. I’d argue:

1) Your invocation of “major religions” here is somewhat skewing the deck. On the specific issues you raise (sexuality and private property) it’s not clear why the moral codes of, e.g. Hindus and Jews ought to be a better guide to truth than the codes of say, the Incas and the trobriand islanders, just because the religions of the first two are around today and the second two aren’t. Manichaeanism was a major religion in its day and had a very different moral code in some regards from the Catholic Church.

2) That a moral view is old or widespread doesn’t necessarily make it correct.

3) More importantly, I don’t think your view of how moral codes are “tested through millennia” and found to be objectively true, is historically correct. There are obvious reasons for example why most societies historically had a high view of private property and sexual monogamy, and it isn’t because these views are necessarily true, or make for greater human flourishing: it’s because they served the interests of particular individuals within society. Sexual monogamy served the interests of men who wanted assurance of paternity, and a strong view of private property favoured the interests of those who owned agricultural lands and so forth. I’m not convinced that the ‘tested through millennia’ vision of moral evolution is at all true.

When I love someone, I want their good, their ultimate good being their freedom, peace, wholeness, integrity and eternal salvation

I agree here, but to the extent that we disagree on what human flourishing is, and what’s ultimately good for people, we are also going to disagree to some extent about moral prescriptions.

#45 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 21, 2017 @ 8:25 am

“When “fairness” and what’s moral have no objective anchor other than what I think is fair, chaos ensues and SELF reigns. Whatever I feel is correct.”

BErnie your claim here seems to be that we should all agree on a moral code, even if that code is wrong, rather than rely on conscience. I think we always have a duty to follow our own conscience. You can’t dispense with your own moral judgment even if you choose to submit to the teaching of the Catholic Church, because the choice to follow Catholicism rather than some other faith is itself an individual moral judgment.

#46 Comment By Bernie On April 21, 2017 @ 11:11 am

Hector, thanks for your views. I think the following of individual conscience rests on conscience being informed, mature, and enlightened. There are many destructive acts done in the name of good conscience. A well-meaning person with an unformed, unenlightened conscience may enable an alcoholic family member to drink because he feels it’s “the compassionate thing to do”, a world leader may start an unjust war because he thinks it’s the right thing to do, parents may serve alcoholic beverages at their 17-year old’s graduation party because “it’s better to have them drink at home than get in cars and drive drunk”, etc. Acting with good intentions is not necessarily the same as acting with a mature, informed conscience. But the distinction is rarely made between the two. “As long as one acts in good conscience” is misleading due to the comprehensive ignorance regarding the development of conscience.
The confusion is that as long as a person is well intentioned, it’s okay to do what he wishes. That’s simplistic and not true. As an extreme, ISIS killers believe this.

#47 Comment By Bernie On April 21, 2017 @ 11:28 am

Hector, I just submitted a response to you that I wish to supplement here. I stated that conscience must be mature, enlightened, and informed. The logical next question is: by what standards and sources? Is the conscience determined by relativism or absolute truth? Does the pastor of each of the tens of thousands of churches have the truth to lead others in conscience formation? Then who does? Is there any authority wherein truth lies, or is it a grab bag of competing ideas for each person to pick and choose from? Is there a North Star that serves as a moral compass, or is each star in the sky equally viable as an option to pluck for belief?

#48 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 21, 2017 @ 2:07 pm

You don’t have an argument other than to assert that it isn’t possible, that’s not the basis of a convincing argument.

Oh. Did I strike a nerve? You don’t seem to have read anything I wrote. It must have been quite a shock to your system.

#49 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 21, 2017 @ 3:21 pm

No you are projecting. I read it, you engaged in an ad hominem, and then went off on a tangent. Here’s an argument:

The brain is a material object that processes information, and mind states seem correlated with physical brain states. Moreover physical things like psychotropic medication are able to produce changes in mind by altering brain states. In addition non-material entities like a soul have something called the interaction problem which makes their existence unlikely given what we know about physics.

This is strong evidence that the solution to the mind body problem is physicalism (we are our brains). So it appears possible to manufacture a physical artifact that has the same properties as the human brain, including creativity and consciousness.

Now I could be wrong, but I definitely don’t think we can rule it out on the basis of “machines will never be able to do that”.

#50 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 22, 2017 @ 10:41 pm

It occurs to me that if a Machine Council is going to sit in judgment on human beings, then we have the diametrical opposite of Homo Deus.

Let me try to simplify this MH. TA — not you, and not I — offered an imaginary bit of off the cuff science fiction, a “Machine Intelligence Council” is meeting to discuss humanity. I called this as an inventive piece of art offering no proof of anything, and an unlikely scenario to even be happening to boot. Your replies essentially boil down to “You can’t prove a negative.”

No, I cannot PROVE that there is no God, I cannot prove definitively that you are not and could not possibly be D.B. Cooper (although I could probably document that this is highly unlikely), and I cannot prove that there is no way machines could ever be made which possess the full faculties of self-awareness, will, and motivation to sit in judgment on others.

But the analogy, “What if a council of machines sat in judgment on biological humans, wouldn’t they find us to be rather structurally unsound and weak?” … does not in any way prove that machines are just as capable of developing will and consciousness as biological humans are. It just shows that TA is capable of inventing neat dopplegangers in his inventive mind. Its a piece of art, not a scientific hypothesis.

What you call “strong evidence” that “we are our brains” is no such thing. Psychotropic medications are very crude instruments, although certainly I know of people whose organic difficulties have been stabilized by such medications, allowing them to function as their normal selves. The interaction problem is a problem for philosophers… Isaac Asimov has offered some fascinating stories based on various material solutions, which are themselves so transcendent of current science as to suggest that there are other transcendent solutions that are equally possible.

Now I could be wrong, but I certainly don’t think speculation that “sure machines could do that,” explain how a machine could be anything MORE than predictable mechanical response to programmed stimuli. To argue “but we are nothing more than that either” remains a tautological argument. Being as you are a secular misanthropist, you are naturally inclined to accept such tacit assumptions, but that doesn’t make them likely, much less true.

Please not that the structural unsoundness of biological life is part and parcel of the Orthodox Jewish understanding of what Christians call (misguidedly in Jewish opinion) “Original Sin.” It doesn’t add up to, therefore machines more perfect than us will someday sit in judgment. To date, machines do what they do when human make use of them and rely on the output to be something more reliable than garbage.