Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, Harvill Secker, £25
This is Yuval Noah Harari’s follow-up to Sapiens, his much-praised “brief history of humankind”. The dust jacket of this book, subtitled A Brief History of Tomorrow, tells us that “Sapiens showed us where we came from. Homo Deus shows us where we are going.”
Homo Deus deals with an immense range of scientific, sociological, ethical and spiritual issues in its 440 pages, which are never ponderous or boring. Does it show us the future? Well, maybe, at least in part. Much is tantalising guesswork and possibility, and you cannot quite unscramble science fiction from scientific fact.
As the book progresses there are a series of elephants in the room. The first is an over-optimistic belief in the inevitability of progress. The back cover proclaims: “War is obsolete … Famine is disappearing … Death is just a technical problem.” Tell that to a Syrian refugee or Ebola victim in Africa. True, Harari gives a nod to such issues in his narrative, but they are just in passing – signs that we haven’t sorted everything out yet. His speculations about technological advancement might have much to commend them, but they fail to give due regard to human nature.
This is the second elephant in the room: humanity. “Sapiens” have tremendous skills that have brought dominance of the planet and improved life chances, cured many diseases and created levels of communication which make it easier for nations to cooperate in various ways. The human race need not progress onwards and upwards, though, as we can see in the rise of Putin’s Russia, the migrant crisis, the horrors of ISIS and the popularity of Donald Trump. Human beings themselves are morally flawed, and this is something that education, reason and prosperity cannot eradicate totally (though it can help). We are fallen beings, to speak theologically.
The next elephant in the room is materialism. This is scientism that leaves no room for any conception of the transcendent beyond this measurable reality, and religion is all about being pre-scientific. Thus, the longing for immortality is physical, a way of reversing ageing so there will be no room for heaven, resurrection or reincarnation. Harari really envisages a future (maybe a long time away) where we will repair bodies sufficiently so that only accidents and warfare will cause death (diseases will have been wiped out, of course).
Then there would be the problem of long-living boredom, but there is no sense of the spiritual dimension – not as the sense that there could be things beyond us that cannot be measured because they are not just physical. For the Christian, immortality is hope for the Beyond, for what cannot be imagined, for the beatific vision and not just longevity (in whatever sort of body or non-body). It is not about staying here ad infinitum.
Harari does have wise and sharp insights, though, and sees how society is changing with the impact of new technologies. Look at the potential for “intelligent personal assistants” such as Cortana and Siri to communicate with other Cortanas and Siris, even to the extent of future employers not bothering to ask for a CV but simply extracting the data through programs such as these. Human beings are on the verge of a new step in evolution to an extent, but how far so? That is debatable, and when Harari says that we are about to become “gods”, they are very fallible deities.
St Irenaeus’s dictum that God became man that we may become divine meant so much more. It was ethical and spiritual as well, leading to redemption and the vision of God. Neither of these things has any place in Harari’s future, and it would be much bleaker for it despite all its whizz and wonder.