Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Homo Deus -- Excerpts

By Yuval Noah Harari

This piece began by me wanting to write a book review. Then I decided no, I would just write down some notes for my own reflection. It is said that the average person only remembers about 1 percent of a book. I painstakingly typed out the excerpts below to give myself a better chance of remembering what I had read. I’m one of those who read to remember, not read to forget. I now share this effort with those who may not get around to reading this excellent book.

Harari is an atheist. I am Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) aka Spiritual But Not Affiliated (SBNA). I believe in energy that does not die, the soul, and afterlives. Hence, I disagree with those parts of the book that cover these subjects. 


The prologue says, “I encourage all of us, whatever our beliefs, to question the basic narratives of our world, to connect past developments with present concerns, and not to be afraid of controversial issues.” – Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

The book is full of questions:

P 3: What are we going to do with ourselves?

What will we do with all that power?


P 3/5: Misfortune or stupidity on the collective level resulted in mass famines. Mass famines still strike some areas from time to time, but they are exceptional, and they are almost always caused by human politics rather than by natural catastrophes.

P 5: Though hundreds of millions still go hungry almost every day,  in most countries very few people actually starve to death.

P 6: For the first time in its recorded history China is now free from famine.

P 14: Incidentally cancer and heart disease are of course not new illnesses – they go back to antiquity. In previous eras, however, relatively few people lived long enough to die from them.

P 16:  It is therefore likely that major epidemics will continue to endanger humankind in the future only if humankind itself creates them, in the service of some ruthless ideology.

P 17: Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.

Today the main source of wealth is knowledge.

P 19: Cyber warfare may destabilize the world by giving even small countries and no-state actors the ability to fight superpowers effectively.

Though cyber warfare introduces new means of destruction, it doesn’t necessarily add new incentives to use them.

P 20: Throughout history, if kings and emperors acquired some new weapon, sooner or later they were tempted to use it.

P 21: Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Qaeda.

If the Jungle Law comes back into force, it will not be the fault of terrorists.

P 22: History does not tolerate a vacuum.

P 23: When the moment comes to choose between economic growth and ecological stability, politicians, CEOs and voters almost always prefer growth.

Humans are rarely satisfied with what they already have.

P 24: Humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity.

We are constantly reminded that human life is the most sacred thing in the universe.

P 25: Because Christianity, Islam and Hinduism insisted that the meaning of our existence depended on our fate in the afterlife, they viewed death as a vital and positive part of the world.

Just try to imagine Christianity, Islam or Hinduism in a world without death – which is also a world without heaven, hell or reincarnation.

P 28: If you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500, the answer is yes.

Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel has recently confessed that he aims to live forever.

P 29: But if you believe you can live forever, you would be crazy to gamble on infinity like that.

P 30: But life is generally divided into a learning period followed by a working period.

P 31: In truth, so far modern medicine hasn’t extended our natural life span by a single year.

P 32: A relentless war against death seems to be inevitable.

As long as people die of something, we will strive to overcome it.

P 34: For who would like to live forever in eternal misery?

P 38: The rate of suicide in the developed world is also much higher than in traditional societies.

P 40: Achieving real happiness is not going to be much easier than overcoming old age and death.

Rather, we become satisfied when reality matches our expectations.

John Stuart Mill, explained that happiness is nothing but pleasure and freedom from pain.

P 41: According to the life sciences, happiness and suffering are nothing but different balances of bodily sensations.

P 44: Perhaps the key to happiness is neither the race nor the gold medal, but rather combining the right doses of excitement and tranquillity.

P 45: In order to raise global happiness levels, we need to manipulate human biochemistry. And this is exactly what we have begun doing over the last few decades.

People have been quarreling about education methods for thousands of years.

P 46: The biochemical pursuit of happiness is also the number one cause of crime in the world.

P 47: The state hopes to regulate the biochemical pursuit of happiness, separating ‘bad’ manipulations from ‘good’ ones.

In research labs experts are already working on more sophisticated ways of manipulating human biochemistry, such as sending direct electrical stimuli to appropriate spots in the brain, or genetically engineering the blueprints of our bodies.

P 48: To attain real happiness, humans need to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate it.

This Buddhist view of happiness has a lot in common with the biochemical view.

P 49: For what is the point of running after something that disappears as fast as it arises?

With each passing year our tolerance for unpleasant sensations decreases, and our cravings for pleasant sensations increases.

You may debate whether it is good or bad, but it seems that the second great project of the twenty-first century – to ensure global happiness – will involve re-engineering Homo sapiens so that it can enjoy everlasting pleasure.

P 50: Up till now increasing human power relied mainly on upgrading our external tools. In the future it may rely more on upgrading the human body and mind, or on merging directly with our tools.

P 52: Breaking out of the organic realm could also enable life to finally break out of planet Earth. Not even the toughest bacteria can survive on Mars.  A non-organic artificial intelligence, in contrast, will find it far easier to colonise alien planets.

Technologies for upgrading humans pose a completely different kind of challenge.

P 53: Many scholars try to predict how the world will look in the year 2100 or 2200. Any worthwhile prediction must take into account the ability to re-engineer human minds, and this is impossible.

(Mena note: Why impossible? Because the mind is a part of the soul factor?)

P 56: In pursuit of health, happiness and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human.

P 65: What is the point of making predictions if they cannot change anything?

The more we know, the less we can predict.

For what is the use of new knowledge if it doesn’t lead to novel behaviours?

P 67: Knowledge that does not change behavior is useless.

P 68: Historians study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it.

P 75: If you start with a flawed ideal, you often appreciate its defects only when the ideal is close to realization.

P 76: Homo sapiens does its best to forget the fact, but it is an animal.   

P 97: The twenty-first century will be dominated by algorithms. ‘Algorithm’ is arguably the single most important concept in our world. If we want to understand our life and our future, we should make every effort to understand what an algorithm is, and how algorithms are connected with emotions.

An algorithm is a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions. An algorithm isn’t a particular calculation, but the method followed when making the calculation.

P 99: The algorithms controlling humans work through sensations, emotions and thoughts.

P 100: What we call sensations and emotions are in fact algorithms.

P 101: 99% of our decisions -- including the most important life choices concerning spouses, careers and habitats -- are made by the highly refined algorithms we call sensations, emotions and desires.

P 118/9: The traditional monotheist answer is that only Sapiens have eternal souls. Since pigs and other animals have no soul, they live only for a few years, and then die and fade into nothingness. The belief that humans have eternal souls whereas animals are just evanescent bodies is a central pillar of our legal, political and economic system. It explains why, for example, it is perfectly okay for humans to kill animals for food, or even just for the fun of it. There is zero scientific evidence that in contrast to pigs (animals), Sapiens have souls.

P 124: The most up to date theories also maintain that sensations and emotions are biochemical data processing algorithms.

P 125: We won’t be able to grasp the full implications of novel technologies such as artificial intelligence if we don’t know what minds are.

(Mena note: Minds are a part of the soul factor.)

To be frank, science knows surprisingly little about mind and consciousness.

P 128: One of the wonderful things about science is that when scientists don’t know something, they can try out all kinds of theories and conjunctures, but in the end they can just admit their ignorance.

P 129: The better we understand the brain, the more redundant the mind seems.


(Mena note: This video begs to differ. There is a section where it's shared that people are found with very little brain matter and they live normal lives.)

P 134: As private individuals, many biologists and doctors may go on believing in souls. Yet they never write about them in serious scientific journals.

P 136: Some scientists concede that consciousness is real and may actually have great moral and political value, but that it fulfills no biological function whatsoever.

P 139: Since there is only one real world, whereas the number of potential virtual worlds is infinite, the probability that you happen to inhabit the sole real world is almost zero.

P 169: The value of money is not the only thing that might evaporate once people stop believing in it. The same can happen to laws, gods and even entire empires.

P 170: Yet we don’t want to accept that our God, our nation or our values are mere fictions, because these are the things that give meaning to our lives. 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.

P 171: Each round of mutual confirmation tightens the web of meaning further, until you have little choice but to believe  what everyone else believes.

P 174: Nobody in twelfth-century England knew what human rights were.

P 177: Hence if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must also decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.

P 181: Animals live in a dual reality. Sapiens, in contrast, live in triple-layered reality.

P 187: We encountered the term 'algorithm' when we tried to understand what emotions are and how brains function, and defined it as a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions.

P 195: As bureaucracies accumulate power they become immune to their own mistakes. Instead of changing their stories to fit reality, they can change reality to fit their stories.

P 198: In practice, the power of human cooperation networks depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction. You cannot organize masses of people effectively without relying on some fictional myths. So if you stick to unalloyed reality, without mixing any fiction with it, few people will follow you.

P 199: Really powerful human organizations are not necessarily clear-sighted.

P 201: Even when scriptures mislead people about the true nature of reality, they can nevertheless retain their authority for thousands of years.

P 205: History isn’t a single narrative, but thousands of alternative narratives. Whenever we choose to tell one, we are also choosing to silence others.

P 206: Corporations, money and nations exist only in our imagination. We invented them to serve us; why do we find ourselves sacrificing our lives in their service?

P 207: In the twenty-first century we will create more powerful fictions and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era. Being able to distinguish fiction from reality and religion from science will therefore become more difficult but more vital than ever before.

P 209: Thanks to computers and bioengineering, the difference between fiction and reality will blur, as people reshape reality to match their pet fictions.

P 210: How does modern science relate to religion?

P 214: Just as the gap between religion and science is narrower than we commonly think, so the gap between religion and spirituality is much wider. Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey.

P 215: Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations.

P 218: From an historical perspective, the spiritual journey is always tragic, for it is a lonely path fit only for individuals rather than for entire societies.

P 219: Science always needs religious assistance in order to create viable human institutions. Scientists study how the world functions, but there is no scientific method for determining how humans ought to behave.

P 220: Science studies facts, religion speaks about values, and never the twain shall meet.

P 229: We have no scientific definition or measurement of happiness.

P 231: The uncompromising quest for truth is a spiritual journey, which can seldom remain within the confines of either religious or scientific establishments.

P 255: Modernity accordingly inspired people to want more, and dismantled the age-old disciplines that curbed greed.

P 257: Humankind was salvaged not by the law of supply and demand, but rather by the rise of a revolutionary new religion --  humanism.

P 258: The modern deal  offers us power, on condition that we renounce our belief in a great cosmic plan that gives meaning to life. Yet when you examine the deal closely, you will find a cunning escape clause.

This escape clause has been the salvation of modern society, for it is impossible to sustain order without meaning.

Throughout history prophets and philosophers have argued that if humans stopped believing in a great cosmic plan, all law and order would vanish. Yet today, those who pose the greatest threat to global law and order are precisely those people who continue to believe in God and His all-encompassing plans.

P 259: The humanist religion worships humanity and expects humanity to play the part that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhism and Daoism.

Whereas traditionally the great cosmic plan gave meaning to the life of humans, humanism reverses the roles and expects the experiences of humans to give meaning to the cosmos. According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe.

This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world.

P 260: Meaning and authority always go hand in hand. Whoever determines the meaning of our actions – whether they are good or evil, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly – also gains the authority to tell us what to think and how to behave.

P 261: For centuries humanism has been convincing us that we are the ultimate source of meaning, and that our free will is therefore the highest authority of all.

P 262: The DSM diagnoses the ailments of life, not the meaning of life. Most psychologists believe that only human feelings are authorized to determine the true meaning of human actions.

P 272: As the source of meaning and authority relocated from the sky to human feelings, the nature of the entire cosmos changed.

Angels and demons were transformed from real entities roaming the forests and deserts of the world into inner forces within our own psyche.

You experience hell every time you ignite the fires of anger and hatred within your heart; and you enjoy heavenly bliss every time you forgive your enemies, repent your own misdeeds and share your wealth with the poor.

P 275: In the Middle Ages, without a god I had no source of political, moral and aesthetic authority. I could not tell what was right, good or beautiful. Who could live like that? Today, in contrast, it is very easy not to believe in God, because I pay no price for my unbelief. I can be a complete atheist and still derive a very rich mixture of political, moral and aesthetic values from my inner experience.

P 278: Experiences and sensitivity build up one another in a never-ending cycle. I cannot experience anything if I have no sensitivity, and I cannot develop sensitivity unless I undergo a variety of experiences.

P 279: We aren’t born with a ready-made conscience. If we pay attention, our moral sensitivity sharpens, and these experiences become a source of valuable ethical knowledge about what is good, what is right and who I really am.

P 288: If you want to understand war, don’t look up at the general on the hilltop, or at angels in the sky. Instead, look straight into the eyes of the common soldiers.

P 311: The entire twentieth century looks like a big mistake.

P 315: History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by the backward-looking masses.

P 319: In the early twenty-first century the train of progress is again pulling out of the station – and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance.

In the twenty-first century, those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction.

P 321: Ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the twentieth century? Now ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of traditional religions such as Islam and Christianity in the twentieth century?

P 323: 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?

P 342: Most experiments have indicated that there is no single self taking any of these decisions. Rather, they result from a tug of war between different and often conflicting inner entities.

(Mena note: Many lives, many identities?)

P 348: The important thing is that we always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death (and perhaps even beyond).

(Mena note: Again, the soul factor?)

P 349: Paradoxically, the more sacrifices we make for an imaginary story, the more tenaciously we hold on to it, because we desperately want to give meaning to these sacrifices and to the suffering we have caused.

P 351: It is much easier to live with the fantasy, because the fantasy gives meaning to the suffering.

P 380: The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms.

P 386: So if you wish to obey the old adage and know thyself, you should not waste your time on philosophy, meditation or psychoanalysis, but rather you should systematically collect biometric data and allow algorithms to analyse them for you and tell you who you are and what you should do. The movement’s motto is ‘Self-knowledge through numbers’.

(Mena note: Cue Astrology, Numerology, etc. as algorithms.)

P 402: If we are not careful the result might be an Orwellian police state that constantly monitors and controls not only all our actions, but even what happens inside our bodies and our brains.

In the twenty-first century the individual is more likely to disintegrate gently from within than to be brutally crushed from without.

P 411: Just as the spectrum of light and sound are far broader than what we humans can see and hear, so the spectrum of mental states is far larger than what the average human perceives.

P 414: Different socio-economic realities and daily routines nurtured different states of consciousness.

(Mena note: Why rich people think differently from poor people, for example.)

P 423: Humanism always emphasized that it is not easy to identify our authentic will.
Many people take great care not to probe themselves too deeply.

P 424: Technological progress has a very different agenda. It doesn’t want to listen to our inner voices. It wants to control them.

P 427: The most interesting emerging religion is Dataism, which venerates neither gods nor man – it worships data.

P 428: Dataism declares that the universe consists of data flows.

P 429: The work of processing data should therefore be entrusted to electronic algorithms, whose capacity far exceeds that of the human brain. In practice, this means that Dataists are skeptical about human knowledge and wisdom, and prefer to put their trust in Big Data and computer algorithms.

P 439: Mixing godlike technology with megalomaniacal politics is a recipe for disaster.

Politicians find it convenient to believe that the reason they don’t understand the world is that they don’t need to understand it.

P 443: If humankind is indeed a single data-processing system, what is its output? Dataists would say that its output will be the creation of a new and even more efficient data-processing system, called the Internet-of-All-Things. Once this mission is accomplished, Homo sapiens will vanish.

P 444: Humans are merely tools for creating the Internet-of-All-Things, which may eventually spread out from planet Earth to pervade the whole galaxy and even the whole universe. This cosmic data-processing system would be like God. It will be everywhere and will control everything, and humans are destined to merge into it.

Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm.

P 445: Remember that according to current biological dogma, emotions and intelligence are just algorithms.

Like other successful religions, Dataism is also missionary. Its second commandment is to link everything to the system, including heretics who don’t want to be plugged in.

We mustn’t leave any part of the universe disconnected from the great web of life. Conversely, the greatest sin would be to block the dataflow. What is death, if not a condition in which information doesn’t flow? Hence Dataism upholds the freedom of information as the greatest good of all.

(Mena note: A point for Wikileaks?)

P 446: Dataism is the first movement since 1789 that created a genuinely novel value: freedom of information. This novel value may impinge on humans’ traditional freedom of expression, by privileging the right of information to circulate freely over the right of humans to own data and to restrict its movement.

(Mena note: A point for Wikileaks?)

P 447: Dataists believe all good things – including economic growth – depend on the freedom of information. So if we want to create a better world, the key is to set the data free.

(Mena note: A point for Wikileaks?)

P 449: Just as free-market capitalists believe in the invisible hand of the market, so Dataists believe in the invisible hand of the dataflow.

Humans want to merge into the dataflow because when you are part of the dataflow you are part of something much bigger than yourself.

Human experiences have been the most efficient data processing algorithms in the universe.

P 454: All truly important revolutions are practical. Ideas change the world only when they change our behavior.

P 456: After Darwin, biologists began explaining that feelings are complex algorithms honed by evolution to help animals make correct decisions. When you listen to your feelings, you follow an algorithm that evolution has developed for millions of years. Your feelings are the voice of millions of ancestors, each of whom managed to survive and reproduce in an unforgiving environment.

For millions upon millions of years, feelings were the best algorithms in the world.

P 457: Dataism now commands: ‘Listen to the algorithms! They know how you feel.’

But where do these great algorithms come from? This is the mystery of Dataism.

P 458: The seed algorithm may initially be developed by humans, but as it grows its own path, going where no human has gone before – and where no human can follow.

At present we have no idea how or why dataflows could produce consciousness and subjective experiences. But maybe we’ll discover that organisms aren’t algorithms after all.

P 459: Is there perhaps something in the universe that cannot be reduced to data?

If Dataism succeeds in conquering the world, what will happen to us humans?

P 460: Dataism thereby threatens to do to Homo sapiens what Homo sapiens has done to all other animals.

P 461: We cannot really predict the future, because technology is not deterministic.

P 462: In the twenty-first century censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information. Today having power means knowing what to ignore.

Parts I question:

P 119: Yet the life sciences doubt the existence of soul not just due to lack of evidence, but rather because the very idea of soul contradicts the most fundamental principles of evolution.

P 120: If you really understand the theory of evolution, you understand that there is no soul.

P 121: The theory of evolution rejects the idea that my true self is some indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal essence. According to the theory of evolution, all biological entities are composed of smaller and simpler parts that ceaselessly combine and separate. Something that cannot be divided or changed cannot have come into existence through natural selection.

(Mena note: The soul is energy and energy can be transformed.)

P 122: That’s why the theory of evolution cannot accept the idea of souls, at least if by ‘soul’ we mean something indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal. Such an entity cannot possibly result from a step-by-step evolution.

But the soul has no parts.

(Mena note: Metaphysicians would disagree.)

P 123: Hence the existence of souls cannot be squared with the theory of evolution. Evolution means change, and is incapable of producing everlasting entities.

This terrifies large numbers of people, who prefer to reject the theory of evolution rather than give up their souls.

P 329: To the best of our scientific understanding, determinism and randomness have divided the entire cake between them, leaving not even a crumb for ‘freedom’. Free will exists only in the imaginary stories we humans have invented. Just as evolution cannot be squared with eternal souls, neither can it swallow the idea of free will. For if humans are free, how could natural selection have shaped them?

P 330: If by ‘free will’ we mean the ability to act according to our desires – then yes, humans have free will, and so do chimpanzees, dogs and parrots. But the million-dollar question is not whether parrots and humans can act upon their inner desires – the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place.

P 332: However, once we accept that there is no soul and that humans have no inner essence called ‘the self’, it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘How does the self choose its desires?’ In reality, there is only a stream of consciousness, and desires arise and pass away within this stream, but there is no permanent self that owns the desires, hence it is meaningless to ask whether I choose my desires deterministically, randomly or freely.

Doubting free will is not just a philosophical exercise. It has practical implications.

P 338: Science undermines not only the liberal belief in free will, but also the belief in individualism. The single authentic self is as real as the eternal soul, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.