Yuval Noah Harari’s Dystopia
I recently read Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, 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. 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.
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 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 suggest that social pain and physical pain are processed by the same neural circuits. 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. In both humans and other social mammals, social contact reduces physical pain. 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.
Experiments summarised in the journal Physiology & Behaviour 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, 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.
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” — 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. 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 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.