Visions of the Semantic Apocalypse: A Critical Review of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus
“Studying history aims to loosen the grip of the past,” Yuval Noah Harari writes. “It enables us to turn our heads this way and that, and to begin to notice possibilities that our ancestors could not imagine, or didn’t want us to imagine” (59). Thus does the bestselling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind rationalize his thoroughly historical approach to question of our technological future in his fascinating follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. And so does he identify himself as a humanist, committed to freeing us from what Kant would have called, ‘our tutelary natures.’ Like Kant, Harari believes knowledge will set us free.
Although by the end of the book it becomes difficult to understand what ‘free’ might mean here.
As Harari himself admits, “once technology enables us to re-engineer human minds, Homo sapiens will disappear, human history will come to an end and a completely new process will begin, which people like you and me cannot comprehend” (46). Now if you’re interested in mapping the conceptual boundaries of comprehending the posthuman, I heartily recommend David Roden’s skeptical tour de force, Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. Homo Deus, on the other hand, is primarily a book chronicling the rise and fall of contemporary humanism against the backdrop of apparent ‘progress.’ The most glaring question, of course, is whether Harari’s academic humanism possesses the resources required to diagnose the problems posed by the collapse of popular humanism. This challenge—the problem of using obsolescent vocabularies to theorize, not only the obsolescence of those vocabularies, but the successor vocabularies to come—provides an instructive frame through which to understand the successes and failures of this ambitious and fascinating book.
How good is Homo Deus? Well, for years people have been asking me for a lay point of entry for the themes explored here on Three Pound Brain and in my novels, and I’ve always been at a loss. No longer. Anyone surfing for reviews of the book are certain to find individuals carping about Harari not possessing the expertise to comment on x or y, but these critics never get around to explaining how any human could master all the silos involved in such an issue (while remaining accessible to a general audience, no less). Such criticisms amount to advocating no one dare interrogate what could be the greatest challenge to ever confront humanity. In addition to erudition, Harari has the courage to concede ugly possibilities, the sensitivity to grasp complexities (as well as the limits they pose), and the creativity to derive something communicable. Even though I think his residual humanism conceals the true profundity of the disaster awaiting us, he glimpses more than enough to alert millions of readers to the shape of the Semantic Apocalypse. People need to know human progress likely has a horizon, a limit, that doesn’t involve environmental catastrophe or creating some AI God.
The problem is far more insidious and retail than most yet realize.
The grand tale Harari tells is a vaguely Western Marxist one, wherein culture (following Lukacs) is seen as a primary enabler of relations of power, a fundamental component of the ‘social apriori.’ The primary narrative conceit of such approaches belongs to the ancient Greeks: “[T]he rise of humanism also contains the seeds of its downfall,” Harari writes. “While the attempt to upgrade humans into gods takes humanism to its logical conclusion, it simultaneously exposes humanism’s inherent flaws” (65). For all its power, humanism possesses intrinsic flaws, blindnesses and vulnerabilities, that will eventually lead it to ruin. In a sense, Harari is offering us a ‘big history’ version of negative dialectic, attempting to show how the internal logic of humanism runs afoul the very power it enables.
But that logic is also the very logic animating Harari’s encyclopedic account. For all its syncretic innovations, Homo Deus uses the vocabularies of academic or theoretical humanism to chronicle the rise and fall of popular or practical humanism. In this sense, the difference between Harari’s approach to the problem of the future and my own could not be more pronounced. On my account, academic humanism, far from enjoying critical or analytical immunity, is best seen as a crumbling bastion of pre-scientific belief, the last gasp of traditional apologia, the cognitive enterprise most directly imperilled by the rising technological tide, while we can expect popular humanism to linger for some time to come (if not indefinitely).
Homo Deus, in fact, exemplifies the quandary presently confronting humanists such as Harari, how the ‘creeping delegitimization’ of their theoretical vocabularies is slowly robbing them of any credible discursive voice. Harari sees the problem, acknowledging that “[w]e won’t be able to grasp the full implication of novel technologies such as artificial intelligence if we don’t know what minds are” (107). But the fact remains that “science knows surprisingly little about minds and consciousness” (107). We presently have no consensus-commanding, natural account of thought and experience—in fact, we can’t even agree on how best to formulate semantic and phenomenal explananda.
Humanity as yet lacks any workable, thoroughly naturalistic, theory of meaning or experience. For Harari this means the bastion of academic humanism, though besieged, remains intact, at least enough for him to advance his visions of the future. Despite the perplexity and controversies occasioned by our traditional vocabularies, they remain the only game in town, the very foundation of countless cognitive activities. “[T]he whole edifice of modern politics and ethics is built upon subjective experiences,” Harari writes, “and few ethical dilemmas can be solved by referring strictly to brain activities” (116). Even though his posits lie nowhere in the natural world, they nevertheless remain subjective realities, the necessary condition of solving countless problems. “If any scientist wants to argue that subjective experiences are irrelevant,” Harari writes, “their challenge is to explain why torture or rape are wrong without reference to any subjective experience” (116).
This is the classic humanistic challenge posed to naturalistic accounts, of course, the demand that they discharge the specialized functions of intentional cognition the same way intentional cognition does. This demand amounts to little more than a canard, of course, once we appreciate the heuristic nature of intentional cognition. The challenge intentional cognition poses to natural cognition is to explain, not replicate, its structure and dynamics. We clearly evolved our intentional cognitive capacities, after all, to solve problems natural cognition could not reliably solve. This combination of power, economy, and specificity is the very thing that a genuinely naturalistic theory of meaning (such as my own) must explain.
“… fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth, surpassing even wayward asteroids and natural selection. Hence if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.”
So moving forward it is important to understand how his theoretical approach elides the very possibility of a genuinely post-intentional future. Because he has no natural theory of meaning, he has no choice but to take the theoretical adequacy of his intentional idioms for granted. But if his intentional idioms possess the resources he requires to theorize the future, they must somehow remain out of play; his discursive ‘subject position’ must possess some kind of immunity to the scientific tsunami climbing our horizons. His very choice of tools limits the radicality of the story he tells. No matter how profound, how encompassing, the transformational deluge, Harari must somehow remain dry upon his theoretical ark. And this, as we shall see, is what ultimately swamps his conclusions.
But if the Hard Problem exempts his theoretical brand of intentionality, one might ask why it doesn’t exempt all intentionality from scientific delegitimation. What makes the scientific knowledge of nature so tremendously disruptive to humanity is the fact that human nature is, when all is said and down, just more nature. Conceding general exceptionalism, the thesis that humans possess something miraculous distinguishing them from nature more generally, would undermine the very premise of his project.
Without any way out of this bind, Harari fudges, basically. He remains silent on his own intentional (even humanistic) theoretical commitments, while attacking exceptionalism by expanding the franchise of meaning and consciousness to include animals: whatever intentional phenomena consist in, they are ultimately natural to the extent that animals are natural.
But now the problem has shifted. If humans dwell on a continuum with nature more generally, then what explains the Anthropocene, our boggling dominion of the earth? Why do humans stand so drastically apart from nature? The capacity that most distinguishes humans from their nonhuman kin, Harari claims (in line with contemporary theories), is the capacity to cooperate. He writes:
“the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another. Humans nowadays completely dominate the planet not because the individual human is far more nimble-fingered than the individual chimp or wolf, but because Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of cooperating flexibly in large numbers.” 131
He poses a ‘shared fictions’ theory of mass social coordination (unfortunately, he doesn’t engage research on groupishness, which would have provided him with some useful, naturalistic tools, I think). He posits an intermediate level of existence between the objective and subjective, the ‘intersubjective,’ consisting of our shared beliefs in imaginary orders, which serve to distribute authority and organize our societies. “Sapiens rule the world,” he writes, “because only they can weave an intersubjective web of meaning; a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination” (149). This ‘intersubjective web’ provides him with theoretical level of description he thinks crucial to understanding our troubled cultural future.
“During the twenty-first century the border between history and biology is likely to blur not because we will discover biological explanations for historical events, but rather because ideological fictions will rewrite DNA strands; political and economic interests will redesign the climate; and the geography of mountains and rivers will give way to cyberspace. As human fictions are translated into genetic and electronic codes, the intersubjective reality will swallow up the objective reality and biology will merge with history. In the twenty-first century fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth, surpassing even wayward asteroids and natural selection. Hence if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.” 151
The way Harari sees it, ideology, far from being relegated to prescientific theoretical midden, is set to become all powerful, a consumer of worlds. This launches his extensive intellectual history of humanity, beginning with the algorithmic advantages afforded by numeracy, literacy, and currency, how these “broke the data-processing limitations of the human brain” (158). Where our hunter-gathering ancestors could at best coordinate small groups, “[w]riting and money made it possible to start collecting taxes from hundreds of thousands of people, to organise complex bureaucracies and to establish vast kingdoms” (158).
Harari then turns to the question of how science fits in with this view of fictions, the nature of the ‘odd couple,’ as he puts it:
“Modern science certainly changed the rules of the game, but it did not simply replace myths with facts. Myths continue to dominate humankind. Science only makes these myths stronger. Instead of destroying the intersubjective reality, science will enable it to control the objective and subjective realities more completely than ever before.” 179
Science is what renders objective reality compliant to human desire. Storytelling is what renders individual human desires compliant to collective human expectations, which is to say, intersubjective reality. Harari understands that the relationship between science and religious ideology is not one of straightforward antagonism: “science always needs religious assistance in order to create viable human institutions,” he writes. “Scientists study how the world functions, but there is no scientific method for determining how humans ought to behave” (188). Though science has plenty of resources for answering means type questions—what you ought to do to lose weight, for instance—it lacks resources to fix the ends that rationalize those means. Science, Harari argues, requires religion to the extent that it cannot ground the all important fictions enabling human cooperation (197).
Insofar as science is a cooperative, human enterprise, it can only destroy one form of meaning on the back of some other meaning. By revealing the anthropomorphism underwriting our traditional, religious accounts of the natural world, science essentially ‘killed God’—which is to say, removed any divine constraint on our actions or aspirations. “The cosmic plan gave meaning to human life, but also restricted human power” (199). Like stage-actors, we had a plan, but our role was fixed. Unfixing that role, killing God, made meaning into something each of us has to find for ourselves. Harari writes:
“Since there is no script, and since humans fulfill no role in any great drama, terrible things might befall us and no power will come to save us, or give meaning to our suffering. There won’t be a happy ending or a bad ending, or any ending at all. Things just happen, one after the other. The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens.’” 200
The absence of a script, however, means that anything goes; we can play any role we want to. With the modern freedom from cosmic constraint comes postmodern anomie.
“The modern deal thus offers humans an enormous temptation, coupled with a colossal threat. Omnipotence is in front of us, almost within our reach, but below us yawns the abyss of complete nothingness. On the practical level, modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning.” 201
Or to give it the Adornian spin it receives here on Three Pound Brain: the madness of a society that has rendered means, knowledge and capital, its primary end. Thus the modern obsession with the accumulation of the power to accumulate. And thus the Faustian nature of our present predicament (though Harari, curiously, never references Faust), the fact that “[w]e think we are smart enough to enjoy the full benefits of the modern deal without paying the price” (201). Even though physical resources such as material and energy are finite, no such limit pertains to knowledge. This is why “[t]he greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance.” (212): it spurred the development of systematic inquiry, and therefore the accumulation of knowledge, and therefore the accumulation of power, which, Harari argues, cuts against objective or cosmic meaning. The question is simply whether we can hope to sustain this process—defer payment—indefinitely.
“Modernity is a deal,” he writes, and for all its apparent complexities, it is very straightforward: “The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power” (199). For me the best way of thinking this process of exchanging power for meaning is in terms of what Weber called disenchantment: the very science that dispels our anthropomorphic fantasy worlds is the science that delivers technological power over the real world. This real world power is what drives traditional delegitimation: even believers acknowledge the vast bulk of the scientific worldview, as do the courts and (ideally at least) all governing institutions outside religion. Science is a recursive institutional ratchet (‘self-correcting’), leveraging the capacity to leverage ever more capacity. Now, after centuries of sheltering behind walls of complexity, human nature finds itself the intersection of multiple domains of scientific inquiry. Since we’re nothing special, just more nature, we should expect our burgeoning technological power over ourselves to increasingly delegitimate traditional discourses.
Humanism, on this account, amounts to an adaptation to the ways science transformed our ancestral ‘neglect structure,’ the landscape of ‘unknown unknowns’ confronting our prehistorical forebears. Our social instrumentalization of natural environments—our inclination to anthropomorphize the cosmos—is the product of our ancestral inability to intuit the actual nature of those environments. Information beyond the pale of human access makes no difference to human cognition. Cosmic meaning requires that the cosmos remain a black box: the more transparent science rendered that box, the more our rationales retreated to the black box of ourselves. The subjectivization of authority turns on how intentional cognition (our capacity to cognize authority) requires the absence of natural accounts to discharge ancestral functions. Humanism isn’t so much a grand revolution in thought as the result of the human remaining the last scientifically inscrutable domain standing. The rationalizations had to land somewhere. Since human meaning likewise requires that the human remain a black box, the vast industrial research enterprise presently dedicated to solving our nature does not bode well.
But this approach, economical as it is, isn’t available to Harari since he needs some enchantment to get his theoretical apparatus off the ground. As the necessary condition for human cooperation, meaning has to be efficacious. The ‘Humanist Revolution,’ as Harari sees it, consists in the migration of cooperative efficacy (authority) from the cosmic to the human. “This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world” (221). Rather than scripture, human experience becomes the metric for what is right or wrong, and the universe, once the canvas of the priest, is conceded to the scientist. Harari writes:
“As the source of meaning and authority was relocated from the sky to human feelings, the nature of the entire cosmos changed. The exterior universe—hitherto teeming with gods, muses, fairies and ghouls—became empty space. The interior world—hitherto an insignificant enclave of crude passions—became deep and rich beyond measure” 234
This re-sourcing of meaning, Harari insists, is true whether or not one still believes in some omnipotent God, insofar as all the salient anchors of that belief lie within the believer, rather than elsewhere. God may still be ‘cosmic,’ but he now dwells beyond the canvas as nature, somewhere in the occluded frame, a place where only religious experience can access Him.
Man becomes ‘man the meaning maker,’ the trope that now utterly dominates contemporary culture:
“Exactly the same lesson is learned by Captain Kirk and Captain Jean-Luc Picard as they travel the galaxy in the starship Enterprise, by Huckleberry Finn and Jim as they sail down the Mississippi, by Wyatt and Billy as they ride their Harley Davidson’s in Easy Rider, and by countless other characters in myriad other road movies who leave their home town in Pennsylvannia (or perhaps New South Wales), travel in an old convertible (or perhaps a bus), pass through various life-changing experiences, get in touch with themselves, talk about their feelings, and eventually reach San Francisco (or perhaps Alice Springs) as better and wiser individuals.” 241
Not only is experience the new scripture, it is a scripture that is being continually revised and rewritten, a meaning that arises out of the process of lived life (yet somehow always managing to conserve the status quo). In story after story, the protagonist must find some ‘individual’ way to derive their own personal meaning out of an apparently meaningless world. This is a primary philosophical motivation behind The Second Apocalypse, the reason why I think epic fantasy provides such an ideal narrative vehicle for the critique of modernity and meaning. Fantasy worlds are fantastic, especially fictional, because they assert the objectivity of what we now (implicitly or explicitly) acknowledge to be anthropomorphic projections. The idea has always been to invert the modernist paradigm Harari sketches above, to follow a meaningless character through a meaningful world, using Kellhus to recapitulate the very dilemma Harari sees confronting us now:
“What then, will happen once we realize 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?” 277
And so Harari segues to the future and the question of the ultimate fate of human meaning; this is where I find his steadfast refusal to entertain humanistic conceit most impressive. One need not ponder ‘designer experiences’ for long, I think, to get a sense of the fundamental rupture with the past it represents. These once speculative issues are becoming ongoing practical concerns: “These are not just hypotheses of philosophical speculations,” simply because ‘algorithmic man’ is becoming a technological reality (284). Harari provides a whirlwind tour of unnerving experiments clearly implying trouble for our intuitions, a discussion that transitions into a consideration of the ways we can already mechanically attenuate our experiences. A good number of the examples he adduces have been considered here, all of them underscoring the same, inescapable moral: “Free will exists in the imaginary stories we humans have invented” (283). No matter what your philosophical persuasion, our continuity with the natural world is an established scientific fact. Humanity is not exempt from the laws of nature. If humanity is not exempt from the laws of nature, then the human mastery of nature amounts to the human mastery of humanity.
He turns, at this point, to Gazzaniga’s research showing the confabulatory nature of human rationalization (via split brain patients), and Daniel Kahneman’s account of ‘duration neglect’—another favourite of mine. He offers an expanded version of Kahneman’s distinction between the ‘experiencing self,’ that part of us that actually undergoes events, and the ‘narrating self,’ the part of us that communicates—derives meaning from—these experiences, essentially using the dichotomy as an emblem for the dual process models of cognition presently dominating cognitive psychological research. He writes:
“most people identify with their narrating self. When they say, ‘I,’ the mean the story in their head, not the stream of experiences they undergo. We identify with the inner system that takes the crazy chaos of life and spins out of it seemingly logical and consistent yarns. It doesn’t matter that the plot is filled with lies and lacunas, and that it is rewritten again and again, so that today’s story flatly contradicts yesterday’s; the important thing is that we always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death (and perhaps from even beyond the grave). This gives rise to the questionable liberal belief that I am an individual, and that I possess a consistent and clear inner voice, which provides meaning for the entire universe.” 299
Humanism, Harari argues, turns on our capacity for self-deception, the ability to commit to our shared fictions unto madness, if need be. He writes:
“Medieval crusaders believed that God and heaven provided their lives with meaning. Modern liberals believe that individual free choices provide life with meaning. They are all equally delusional.” 305
Social self-deception is our birthright, the ability to believe what we need to believe to secure our interests. This is why the science, though shaking humanistic theory to the core, has done so little to interfere with the practices rationalized by that theory. As history shows, we are quite capable of shovelling millions into the abattoir of social fantasy. This delivers Harari to yet another big theme explored both here and Neuropath: the problems raised by the technological concretization of these scientific findings. As Harari puts it:
“However, once heretical scientific insights are translated into everyday technology, routine activities and economic structures, it will become increasingly difficult to sustain this double-game, and we—or our heirs—will probably require a brand new package of religious beliefs and political institutions. At the beginning of the third millennium, liberalism [the dominant variant of humanism] is threatened not by the philosophical idea that there are no free individuals but rather by concrete technologies. We are about to face a flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans. Can democracy, the free market and human rights survive this flood?” 305-6
The first problem, as Harari sees it, is one of diminishing returns. Humanism didn’t become the dominant world ideology because it was true, it overran the collective imagination of humanity because it enabled. Humanistic values, Harari explains, afforded our recent ancestors with a wide variety of social utilities, efficiencies turning on the technologies of the day. Those technologies, it turns out, require human intelligence and the consciousness that comes with it. To depart from Harari, they are what David Krakauer calls ‘complementary technologies,’ tools that extend human capacity, as opposed to ‘competitive technologies,’ which render human capacities redundant).
Making humans redundant, of course, means making experience redundant, something which portends the systematic devaluation of human experience, or the collapse of humanism. Harari calls this process the ‘Great Decoupling’:
“Over the last decades there has been an immense advance in computer intelligence, but there has been exactly zero advance in computer consciousness. As far as we know, computers in 2016 are no more conscious than their prototypes in the 1950s. However, we are on the brink of a momentous revolution. Humans are in danger of losing their value, because intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.” 311
He’s quick to acknowledge all the problems yet confronting AI researchers, insisting that the trend unambiguously points toward every expanding capacities As he writes, “these technical problems—however difficult—need only be solved once” (317). The ratchet never stops clicking.
He’s also quick to block the assumption that humans are somehow exceptional: “The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking” (319). He provides the (I think) terrifying example of David Cope, the University of California at Santa Cruz musicologist who has developed algorithms whose compositions strike listeners as more authentically human than compositions by humans such as J.S. Bach.
The second problem is the challenge of what (to once again depart from Harari) Neil Lawrence calls ‘System Zero,’ the question of what happens when our machines begin to know us better than we know ourselves. As Harari notes, this is already the case: “The shifting of authority from humans to algorithms is happening all around us, not as a result of some momentous governmental decision, but due to a flood of mundane choices” (345). Facebook can now guess your preferences better than your friends, your family, your spouse—and in some instances better than you yourself! He warns the day is coming when political candidates can receive real-time feedback via social media, when people can hear everything said about them always and everywhere. Projecting this trend leads him to envision something very close to Integration, where we become so embalmed in our information environments that “[d]isconnection will mean death” (344).
“The individual will not be crushed by Big Brother; it will disintegrate from within. Today corporations and governments pay homage to my individuality and promise to provide medicine, education and entertainment customized to my unique needs and wishes. But in order to do so, corporations and governments first need to break me up into biochemical subsystems, monitor these subsystems with ubiquitous sensors and decipher their workings with powerful algorithms. In the process, the individual will transpire to be nothing but a religious fantasy.” 345
This is my own suspicion, and I think the process of subpersonalization—the neuroscientifically informed decomposition of consumers into economically relevant behaviours—is well underway. But I think it’s important to realize that as data accumulates, and researchers and their AIs find more and more ways to instrumentalize those data sets, what we’re really talking about are proliferating heuristic hacks (that happen to turn on neuroscientific knowledge). They need decipher us only so far as we comply. Also, the potential noise generated by a plethora of competing subpersonal communications seems to constitute an important structural wrinkle. It could be the point most targeted by subpersonal hacking will at least preserve the old borders of the ‘self,’ fantasy that it was. Post-intentional ‘freedom’ could come to reside in the noise generated by commercial competition.
The third problem he sees for humanism lies in the almost certainly unequal distribution of the dividends of technology, a trope so well worn in narrative that we scarce need consider it here. It follows that liberal humanism, as an ideology committed to the equal value of all individuals, has scant hope of squaring the interests of the redundant masses against those of a technologically enhanced superhuman elite.
… this isn’t any mere cultural upheaval or social revolution, this is an unprecedented transformation in the history of life on this planet, the point when the evolutionary platform of behaviour, morphology, becomes the product of behaviour.
Under pretty much any plausible scenario you can imagine, the shared fiction of popular humanism is doomed. But as Harari has already argued, shared fictions are the necessary condition of social coordination. If humanism collapses, some kind of shared fiction has to take its place. And alas, this is where my shared journey with Harari ends. From this point forward, I think his analysis is largely an artifact of his own, incipient humanism.
Harari uses the metaphor of ‘vacuum,’ implying that humans cannot but generate some kind of collective narrative, some way of making their lives not simply meaningful to themselves, but more importantly, meaningful to one another. It is the mass resemblance of our narrative selves, remember, that makes our mass cooperation possible. [This is what misleads him, the assumption that ‘mass cooperation’ need be human at all by this point.] So he goes on to consider what new fiction might arise to fill the void left by humanism. The first alternative is ‘technohumanism’ (transhumanism, basically), which is bent on emancipating humanity from the authority of nature much as humanism was bent on emancipating humanity from the authority of tradition. Where humanists are free to think anything in their quest to actualize their desires, technohumanists are free to be anything in their quest to actualize their desires.
The problem is that the freedom to be anything amounts to the freedom to reengineer desire. So where the objective meaning, following one’s god (socialization), gave way to subjective meaning, following one’s heart (socialization), it remains entirely unclear what the technohumanist hopes to follow or to actualize. As soon as we gain power over our cognitive being the question becomes, ‘Follow which heart?’
Or as Harari puts it,
“Techno-humanism faces an impossible dilemma here. It considers human will the most important thing in the universe, hence it pushes humankind to develop technologies that can control and redesign our will. After all, it’s tempting to gain control over the most important thing in the world. Yet once we have such control, techno-humanism will not know what to do with it, because the sacred human will would become just another designer product.” 366
Which is to say, something arbitrary. Where humanism aims ‘to loosen the grip of the past,’ transhumanism aims to loosen the grip of biology. We really see the limits of Harari’s interpretative approach here, I think, as well as why he falls short a definitive account of the Semantic Apocalypse. The reason that ‘following your heart’ can substitute for ‘following the god’ is that they amount to the very same claim, ‘trust your socialization,’ which is to say, your pre-existing dispositions to behave in certain ways in certain contexts. The problem posed by the kind of enhancement extolled by transhumanists isn’t that shared fictions must be ‘sacred’ to be binding, but that something neglected must be shared. Synchronization requires trust, the ability to simultaneously neglect others (and thus dedicate behaviour to collective problem solving) and yet predict their behaviour nonetheless. Absent this shared background, trust is impossible, and therefore synchronization is impossible. Cohesive, collective action, in other words, turns on a vast amount of evolutionary and educational stage-setting, common cognitive systems stamped with common forms of training, all of it ancestrally impervious to direct manipulation. Insofar as transhumanism promises to place the material basis of individual desire within the compass of individual desire, it promises to throw our shared background to the winds of whimsy. Transhumanism is predicated on the ever-deepening distortion of our ancestral ecologies of meaning.
Harari reads transhumanism as a reductio of humanism, the point where the religion of individual empowerment unravels the very agency it purports to empower. Since he remains, at least residually, a humanist, he places ideology—what he calls the ‘intersubjective’ level of reality—at the foundation of his analysis. It is the mover and shaker here, what Harari believes will stamp objective reality and subjective reality both in its own image.
And the fact of the matter is, he really has no choice, given he has no other way of generalizing over the processes underwriting the growing Whirlwind that has us in its grasp. So when he turns to digitalism (or what he calls ‘Dataism’), it appears to him to be the last option standing:
“What might replace desires and experiences as the source of all meaning and authority? As of 2016, only one candidate is sitting in history’s reception room waiting for the job interview. This candidate is information.” 366
Meaning has to be found somewhere. Why? Because synchronization requires trust requires shared commitments to shared fictions, stories expressing those values we hold in common. As we have seen, science cannot determine ends, only means to those ends. Something has to fix our collective behaviour, and if science cannot, we will perforce turn to be some kind of religion…
But what if we were to automate collective behaviour? There’s a second candidate that Harari overlooks, one which I think is far, far more obvious than digitalism (which remains, for all its notoriety, an intellectual position—and a confused one at that, insofar as it has no workable theory of meaning/cognition). What will replace humanism? Atavism… Fantasy. For all the care Harari places in his analyses, he overlooks how investing AI with ever increasing social decision-making power simultaneously divests humans of that power, thus progressively relieving us of the need for shared values. The more we trust to AI, the less trust we require of one another. We need only have faith in the efficacy of our technical (and very objective) intermediaries; the system synchronizes us automatically in ways we need not bother knowing. Ideology ceases to become a condition of collective action. We need not have any stories regarding our automated social ecologies whatsoever, so long as we mind the diminishing explicit constraints the system requires of us.
Outside our dwindling observances, we are free to pursue whatever story we want. Screw our neighbours. And what stories will those be? Well, the kinds of stories we evolved to tell, which is to say, the kinds of stories our ancestors told to each other. Fantastic stories… such as those told by George R. R. Martin, Donald Trump, myself, or the Islamic state. Radical changes in hardware require radical changes in software, unless one has some kind of emulator in place. You have to be sensible to social change to ideologically adapt to it. “Islamic fundamentalists may repeat the mantra that ‘Islam is the answer,’” Harari writes, “but religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day lose their ability even to understand the questions being asked” (269). But why should incomprehension or any kind of irrationality disqualify the appeal of Islam, if the basis of the appeal primarily lies in some optimization of our intentional cognitive capacities?
Humans are shallow information consumers by dint of evolution, and deep information consumers by dint of modern necessity. As that necessity recedes, it stands to reason our patterns of consumption will recede with it, that we will turn away from the malaise of perpetual crash space and find solace in ever more sophisticated simulations of worlds designed to appease our ancestral inclinations. As Harari himself notes, “Sapiens evolved in the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago, and their algorithms are just not built to handle twenty-first century data flows” (388). And here we come to the key to understanding the profundity, and perhaps even the inevitability of the Semantic Apocalypse: intentional cognition turns on cues which turn on ecological invariants that technology is even now rendering plastic. The issue here, in other words, isn’t so much a matter of ideological obsolescence as cognitive habitat destruction, the total rewiring of the neglected background upon which intentional cognition depends.
The thing people considering the future impact of technology need to pause and consider is that this isn’t any mere cultural upheaval or social revolution, this is an unprecedented transformation in the history of life on this planet, the point when the evolutionary platform of behaviour, morphology, becomes the product of behaviour. Suddenly a system that leveraged cognitive capacity via natural selection will be leveraging that capacity via neural selection—behaviourally. A change so fundamental pretty clearly spells the end of all ancestral ecologies, including the cognitive. Humanism is ‘disintegrating from within’ because intentional cognition itself is beginning to founder. The tsunami of information thundering above the shores of humanism is all deep information, information regarding what we evolved to ignore—and therefore trust. Small wonder, then, that it scuttles intentional problem-solving, generates discursive crash spaces that only philosophers once tripped into.
The more the mechanisms behind learning impediments are laid bare, the less the teacher can attribute performance to character, the more they are forced to adopt a clinical attitude. What happens when every impediment to learning is laid bare? Unprecedented causal information is flooding our institutions, removing more and more behaviour from the domain of character, why? Because character judgments always presume individuals could have done otherwise, and presuming individuals could have done otherwise presumes that we neglect the actual sources of behaviour. Harari brushes this thought on a handful occasions, writing, most notably:
“In the eighteenth century Homo sapiens was like a mysterious black box, whose inner workings were beyond our grasp. Hence when scholars asked why a man drew a knife and stabbed another to death, an acceptable answer said: ‘Because he chose to…” 282
But he fails to see the systematic nature of the neglect involved, and therefore the explanatory power it affords. Our ignorance of ourselves, in other words, determines not simply the applicability, but the solvency of intentional cognition as well. Intentional cognition allowed our ancestors to navigate opaque or ‘black box’ social ecologies. The role causal information plays in triggering intuitions of exemption is tuned to the efficacy of this system overall. By and large our ancestors exempted those individuals in those circumstances that best served their tribe as a whole. However haphazardly, moral intuitions involving causality served some kind of ancestral optimization. So when actionable causal information regarding our behaviour becomes available, we have no choice but to exempt those behaviours, no matter what kind of large scale distortions result. Why? Because it is the only moral thing to do.
Welcome to crash space. We know this is crash space as opposed to, say, scientifically informed enlightenment (the way it generally feels) simply by asking what happens when actionable causal information regarding our every behaviour becomes available. Will moral judgment become entirely inapplicable? For me, the free will debate has always been a paradigmatic philosophical crash space, a place where some capacity always seems to apply, yet consistently fails to deliver solutions because it does not. We evolved to communicate behaviour absent information regarding the biological sources of behaviour: is it any wonder that our cause-neglecting workarounds cannot square with the causes they work around? The growing institutional challenges arising out of the medicalization of character turns on the same cognitive short-circuit. How can someone who has no choice be held responsible?
Even as we drain the ignorance intentional cognition requires from our cognitive ecologies, we are flooding them with AI, what promises to be a deluge of algorithms trained to cue intentional cognition, impersonate persons, in effect. The evidence is unequivocal: our intentional cognitive capacities are easily cued out of school—in a sense, this is the cornerstone of their power, the ability to assume so much on the basis of so little information. But in ecologies designed to exploit intentional intuitions, this power and versatility becomes a tremendous liability. Even now litigators and lawmakers find themselves beset with the question of how intentional cognition should solve for environments flooded with artifacts designed to cue human intentional cognition to better extract various commercial utilities. The problems of the philosophers dwell in ivory towers no more.
First we cloud the water, then we lay the bait—we are doing this to ourselves, after all. We are taking our first stumbling steps into what is becoming a global social crash space. Intentional cognition is heuristic cognition. Since heuristic cognition turns on shallow information cues, we have good reason to assume that our basic means of understanding ourselves and our projects will be incompatible with deep information accounts. The more we learn about cognition, the more apparent this becomes, the more our intentional modes of problem-solving will break down. I’m not sure there’s anything much to be done at this point save getting the word out, empowering some critical mass of people with a notion of what’s going on around them. This is what Harari does to a remarkable extent with Homo Deus, something which we may all have cause to thank him.
Science is steadily revealing the very sources intentional cognition evolved to neglect. Technology is exploiting these revelations, busily engineering emulators to pander to our desires, allowing us to shelter more and more skin from the risk and toil of natural and social reality. Designer experience is designer meaning. Thus the likely irony: the end of meaning will appear to be its greatest blooming, the consumer curled in the womb of institutional matrons, dreaming endless fantasies, living lives of spellbound delight, exploring worlds designed to indulge ancestral inclinations.
To make us weep and laugh for meaning, never knowing whether we are together or alone.