History, people used to believe, is the outcome of human decisions, a process conducted within the realm of human freedom and a unique bequest that we alone, of all the animals, can grasp. The thinker who did most to embed that conception within the academy was Hegel, for whom history reveals the progress of the universal spirit as it unfolds toward its final self-realization as the Absolute Idea. History does not concern the biology of the human organism but the self-consciousness of humans and the world of meanings to which they alone possess the key. From this attitude to the past has emerged the division of our world into regions, civilizations, and eras, so as to distinguish the many forms of human membership and provide each with a cogent narrative of its own. The emerging nation-states of the nineteenth century justified their independence in terms of national histories, and despite Tolstoy’s attempt to rewrite the Napoleonic narrative in terms of the “swarm-life of humankind,” the nation-state is still what the history curriculum is largely about.
The extraordinary success of Yuval Noah Harari, whose volumes Sapiens and Homo Deus have sold millions of copies worldwide and been lauded by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and other technology leaders, is due in part to his vigorous demolition of that old way of seeing things. In the short term, it is true, history can be written as the narrative of conscious actions and the drama of small-scale social groups. And we have gotten used to the broader geopolitical histories, in the style of Fernand Braudel, which overwrite national, linguistic, and religious boundaries. But Harari belongs to a new type of historian altogether—one who sees our past as a biological process, which is itself no more than an episode in the wider biology of the planet. Our species is named for its distinctive feature—homo sapiens, the reasoner. Other reasoning, tool-making, community-building species of hominids have existed, and there has been no radical break that brought us into being, no divine intervention, but only a steady process of adaptation from the muttering tribes in the treetops to the bankers sipping whiskey on the lawn below.
From the biological perspective, the past of our species has no goal, no meaning, and no story. It is a matter of incremental transitions and vast geological calamities. It embraces the change from hunter-gatherer to farmer; the development of language and symbolic behavior; the cognitive revolution that enabled us to distinguish past from future, possible from impossible, truth from fiction. All this occurred for no purpose and was governed, on Harari’s view, by no teleological laws. Of course, we, the survivors, take the gift of reason for granted. We even name ourselves by reference to it. We can hardly conceive of a world in which hominids do not communicate through symbols, or distinguish past from future, true from false, and right from wrong. But for many millennia, our ancestors lacked those capacities. And it was only by chance that they survived.
Nor did our survival benefit the biosphere. Of the three great extinctions that have afflicted our planet, Harari tells us, humans are responsible for two: one that destroyed the larger mammals; and one, currently ongoing, that threatens to destroy everything else. This current great extinction prompts in Harari—who is not given to intense bouts of moral outrage—his most passionate indictment of sapiens. He is not only on the side of the animals but is convinced that, if we are going to talk of rights, we should accord rights to our animal victims first of all. As he puts it: “If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.”
In fact, Harari thinks that rights are fictions—that all moral claims are fictions. But fictions have power, he says, and this is especially true of the fictions propagated in the name of religion. Our gods perform a vital and life-enhancing function. They unite us in larger groups than families and tribes, give beauty and appeal to the sacrifices undertaken in their name, and stand watch over the rites of reproduction. By means of them, we have transformed our world from a habitat to a home. The supernatural sphere is not simply a purposeless invention; it is a by-product of the great cognitive revolution, whereby human beings began to think and talk about things other than the objects in our immediate field of perception: absent things, past things, future things; the possible, the imaginary, the nonexistent. The important point, for Harari, is not just that we can imagine things but that we can do so collectively. We can weave common myths, creation stories, narratives of collective triumph and suffering, and the “nationalist myths of modern states.” These myths have given sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate in large numbers, and even to be at home among strangers, facing adversity in a crowd large enough, and trusting enough, to overcome it.
Harari does not dismiss the imagined order of religion as merely subjective. It is, he says, an intersubjective order, existing in the shared imagination of millions. Through imagining things, we create the bonds of trust that connect us to others and that call them silently to our side in all our endeavors. This is as true of the modern money- and credit-based economy as it is of the modern conceptions of moral and political order. Thus, Harari states that
the dollar, human rights and the United States of America exist in the shared imagination of billions, and no single individual can threaten their existence. If I alone were to stop believing in the dollar, in human rights, or in the United States, it wouldn’t matter much. These imagined orders are intersubjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy.
We can abolish one imagined order only by replacing it with another, Harari argues. For religions are not, as a rule, destroyed by scientific knowledge but only by other religions. Among religions at work today, Harari includes Communism, nationalism, and other systems of belief that have emerged as European civilization loses its faith in the Judeo-Christian God and comes around to worshiping man instead.
Having taken this path, Harari must distinguish the collective stories that we know to be false from those on which we depend in our daily dealings. He takes the example of the modern corporation—specifically, the Renault car company. As he rightly acknowledges, a corporation, though brought into being by legal instruments, has a presence in our world comparable with that of you and me. It can hold property, make decisions, owe money, make gifts, and be generous, severe, or kind. It can even commit crimes. Yet it is, on Harari’s view, a fiction, a resident of the imagined order. How, then, is it distinguished from Mr. Pickwick, or Harry Potter, and why is it treated as a person in a court of law?
Philosophers have not been silent on this matter. For the Hegelians, corporations are as real as individuals, and personality is an attribute that humans and their institutions share. To which the usual anglophone response is “Wow!” For the American philosopher John Searle, corporations belong in the world of “deontic powers,” which we create through our promises and fuel from our trust. For the early phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, the world of scientific inquiry is overlaid by another world, equally objective though irreducible to scientific categories. This other world is the Lebenswelt, the “world of life,” in which we distinguish the realities, such as laws, institutions, and commitments, from the fictions, like Mr. Pickwick or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. For all those philosophers, the things that Harari describes as intersubjective might also be objectively real. The least that we can say is that more work is needed before we can sort out the real from the unreal and the merely real from the really real among Harari’s fictions.
Harari is aware of this, and he indicates the way in which the limitless outpouring of human trust can be crystallized in a coin or even held in an electronic bottle. The hunter-gatherer tribe of 150 men and women was held together by the trust that comes from intimacy and mutual dependence. The money economy is also held together by trust, but trust between millions of strangers, all of whom understand in their hearts that promises are obligations and that obligations are not fictions at all, but part of the fabric of reality. Describing the rise of the credit economy, Harari shows how these institutional entities are not merely the result of human decision but also real and lasting discoveries, like the truths of higher mathematics.
Though much of the human world is, like money, rooted in our thinking, we should not forget that we are truth-tracking creatures, whose thinking is rooted in the way things are. The charm of Harari’s prose depends on this. Set aside your dreams and illusions, he is telling us, acknowledge that we are evolved creatures whose cognitive capacities are stored in a digitally organized brain, and you will see that even what seems most mysterious in the human condition—love, trust, faith, sacrifice—is an imaginative reflection of some biological fact. Our thinking can embellish our biology but never deny it.
This means that Harari has to steer carefully around those places where the thought police stand guard. I admired the adroitness with which he quietly punctures the feminist illusion that the distinction between men and women is “socially constructed,” while at the same time suggesting that maybe men and women are in all relevant capacities the same. As we know, it is okay to admit that we are governed by biological laws but not okay to use that truth to distinguish one kind of human being from another—not, at least, without kowtowing to the thought police. It is testimony to Harari’s literary skill that he is able to combine his biological determinism with deferential nods toward the prevailing liberal orthodoxies. In fact, he defines himself as a liberal universalist, who sees nations, tribes, and exclusive communities as obstacles to the new world order.
On the other hand, as Harari also recognizes, most of us are not liberal universalists, and that might be one reason that we have survived. Trust that spreads to everyone, that makes no distinction between friend and foe, is spread too thin. The promised global order is not an order at all but a final randomization at the end of our million-year struggle with the second law of thermodynamics. In his second volume, Homo Deus, Harari admits that democracy depends on restricted loyalties, since people feel bound by democratic elections only if they are also bound by mutual trust. Nevertheless, he peppers his argument with constant critical asides directed against Brexiteers, Trump supporters, Zionists, Roman Catholics, right-to-lifers, and the many others who reject the maxim that “Thou shalt not discriminate.”
Our cognitive powers, Harari argues, have given us intersubjective paths around objective constraints. Thus, we have achieved goals that we never intended and that could not be achieved by an explicit plan. As Harari notes, this argument generalizes Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand. But the question now arises as to whether—and, if so, how—we should apply our ever-increasing knowledge in explicit plans for the future.
Homo Deus repeats the central argument of Sapiens, concerning the way in which human powers are indefinitely amplified by trust. But Harari also recognizes an impasse. Our religious fictions came to us by the invisible hand. They were believed and passed on with the effect of enhancing our power, yet it was not power but meaning that we were looking for. The power conferred by the imagined order, that is, depended on our pursuing something else. In this way, the self-sacrificing renunciation of power became a power immeasurably greater than the power renounced. To use the language of game theory, renunciation became a winning strategy in the game of domination, as in the monastic orders of the Middle Ages.
Now, though, it is all out in the open. The myths have been debunked, and the truth that they concealed is exposed to our view. Meaning is a fiction; the reality is power. As Harari puts it, modernity offers us a deal: “Give up meaning in exchange for power.” There is no purpose in the world, only the unending chain of cause and effect. Hence human beings have no predetermined role, and we can use our knowledge as we please. This knowledge, which tells us what we are, also confers the power to change what we are. “On the practical level,” therefore, “modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning.” Instead of acquiring power through the invisible hand of faith, we can now seize it directly and compel the world to obey us.
This does not mean that we will be particularly pleased with the outcome. Harari is skeptical of our progressivist illusions—the obsession with economic “growth,” the transhumanist attempt to complete the “Gilgamesh project” and to free us from death, the bland satisfactions of the consumer society, and the attempt to live for creature comfort alone. But he also has a more subtle response to the “modern deal,” which “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 find a cunning escape clause. If humans somehow manage to find meaning without predicating it on some great cosmic plan, this is not considered a breach of contract.”
The name of this escape clause is humanism, “a revolutionary new creed that conquered the world during the last few centuries.” It is a creed that exists in many forms—liberal, socialist, evolutionary, and even nationalist. It has led us into the great destructive wars of the twentieth century and into the horrors of totalitarianism but also into the modern free economy with its unprecedented prosperity and the expansion of wealth across the globe. But “what will happen,” Harari asks, “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?”
That sentence is typical of the tone of voice with which Harari addresses the future. The Brave New World scenario has been presented many times before, and the response has usually been “Don’t go there.” But Harari thinks that knowledge will take us there, anyway. He believes that a yet-newer religion is arising from the wreck of humanism. He calls it “dataism.” As we develop forms of artificial intelligence that do not merely take over our cognitive abilities but enhance them beyond our grasp, we will rapidly find ourselves marginalized, our distinctively human capacities no longer useful for running the great machine that we set in motion by accident when Alan Turing gave us his definition of the mind. A machine has a mind, Turing maintained, if it responds to human questioning exactly as a human would. For Harari, “Once the Internet-of-All-Things is up and running, humans might be reduced from engineers to chips, then to data, and eventually we might dissolve within the torrent of data like a clump of earth within a gushing river.”
In all this, Harari assumes that the biological science of human nature gives the true and full account of what we are. But I am something more, or something other, than the biological entity in which I am incarnate. I am also this “I,” this subjectivity that is both the owner of all the states of mind that matter to me and also the target of those attitudes in others (love, friendship, respect) that endow my life with a meaning. What do evolutionary theory and cognitive neuroscience tell me about this entity that I am? Is it even an entity? Can it be discovered by an MRI scan? Can it be mentioned in a scientific account, framed in terms of causal laws? Maybe it is not so much an item in the world as a point of view about it. Maybe it is, as Sartre argues, a Nothing, but a Nothing that is more important than all the somethings in its world.
In a breezy appendix to his two large studies of our species—21 Lessons for the 21st Century—Harari extrapolates into the future world of robots, big data, bionic enhancement, and transhuman capacities, awakening his readers’ anxieties at the prospect of a world that we no longer control. This appendix adds little to the picture offered in the two previous volumes, but it does contain a blunt statement of Harari’s reductionism. He believes that the liberal enlightenment was the best replacement for the old superstitions and oppressions of the religious worldview but that liberalism has run its course. Its assumptions about human nature have been refuted, and its optimism is no longer believable. “Those who believe in the liberal story,” he writes,
live by the light of two commandments: create, and fight for liberty. Creativity can manifest itself in writing a poem, exploring your sexuality, inventing a new app, or discovering an unknown chemical. Fighting for liberty incudes anything that frees people from social, biological and physical constraints, be it demonstrating against brutal dictators, teaching girls to read, finding a cure for cancer, or building a spaceship. . . . This sounds extremely exciting and profound in theory. Unfortunately, human freedom and human creativity are not what the liberal story imagines them to be. To the best of our scientific understanding, there is no magic behind our choices and creations. They are the product of billions of neurons exchanging biochemical signals, and even if you liberate humans from the yoke of the Catholic Church and the Soviet Union, their choices will be dictated by biochemical algorithms as ruthless as the Inquisition and the KGB.
It is false to say that we are imprisoned by algorithms in the same way that we might be imprisoned by an authoritarian church or a criminal regime. And when the algorithms in the brain click home to their theorem, what occurs is not just a movement of the organism; it is an action of the person. It is something that happens but also something done, by a self-conscious individual who acts for a reason. There is a problem in reconciling these two seemingly incommensurable descriptions of a single process. But to assume, as Harari does, that the description of my bodily movement gives the whole truth about the action that I perform is to overlook the real escape clause from the “contract with modernity”—namely, the escape clause provided by the first-person perspective.
Like Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and others who have defended the biological view of the human condition, Harari is troubled by the first-person case, which seems to deliver a different world from the world of scientific inquiry. What is consciousness, and how is it explained? Harari treats consciousness as a kind of inner quale, a “what it is like” that glows on the strands of our neurons like a secret blush. That vision has surely been exorcized by Wittgenstein’s private language argument. At any rate, it is hardly surprising if, envisaging the first-person perspective in such a way, Harari leaves the problem of consciousness where he found it, in the box of unsolved problems.
The obstacle that stands in the way of all biological reductionism is not consciousness but self-consciousness, the “I think” that accompanies my perceptions, as Kant put it. This “I,” which is always subject and never object, which flits behind its own awareness and is never in its own line of sight, belongs to the “deep grammar” of the human condition. It resides neither in the physical world nor in the Lebenswelt, for the reason that it does not reside. There is no place where it can be captured, and no quality or condition that points to where it hides. It is the source of our freedom and the thing whose story remains always to be told, when the causal theory has been completed. It is what we are, and its absence from Harari’s narrative implies that his comprehensive biological theory is not a theory of humanity at all. It is an account of homo, without the sapiens. Harari’s world would contain only objects and no subjects. And in that world, the Turing machines would dance meaninglessly, until someone with the gift of self-consciousness decides to turn them off.