This afternoon I came across an article in The Guardian titled “Yuval Noah Harari: the myth of freedom” (Sept. 14, 2018).
A few notable excerpts from the article:
Unfortunately, “free will” isn’t a scientific reality. It is a myth inherited from Christian theology. Theologians developed the idea of “free will” to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices.
Though “free will” was always a myth, in previous centuries […]
But now the belief in “free will” suddenly becomes dangerous. If governments and corporations succeed in hacking the human animal, the easiest people to manipulate will be those who believe in free will.
In recent years some of the smartest people in the world have worked on hacking the human brain in order to make you click on ads and sell you stuff. Now these methods are being used to sell you politicians and ideologies, too.
Liberalism has developed an impressive arsenal of arguments and institutions to defend individual freedoms against external attacks from oppressive governments and bigoted religions, but it is unprepared for a situation when individual freedom is subverted from within, and when the very concepts of “individual” and “freedom” no longer make much sense.
The very same technologies that we have invented to help individuals pursue their dreams also make it possible to re-engineer those dreams. So how can I trust any of my dreams?
There is nothing new about doubting free will or about exploring the true nature of humanity. We humans have had this discussion a thousand times before. But we never had the technology before. And the technology changes everything.
My initial reaction after reading that article:
Views like those expressed by Harari are what cause some of us to feel utterly obsolete going forward. That people believe AI will replace God, that we humans will be defenseless in the face of it and rendered into mere pawns — a terrifyingly hollow existence awaits us.
— Byenia (@WaywardByenia) September 21, 2018
Having now read it through a 2nd time, I’d like to elaborate a bit further.
First off, I listened to the audio version of Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens a couple years back and generally appreciated it. Though I haven’t kept up with the author since then and was unaware of his shifting views. Now, the reason I reacted as I did to his latest article is based on a number of reservations and concerns.
1.) The notion of Free Will being a “myth” approaches sacrilege among average Western minds. Our entire history up until this point is predicated on the idea of individual rights and freedoms, as Harari acknowledges. But I’m not aware of anyone who would claim that Free Will can be defined as 100% freedom over oneself with no regard whatsoever for our human, environmental or cultural limitations. Scientific exploration indeed has taught us much about the role genetics play in directing our desires and weaknesses, but are we mere animals bound to deterministic cause and effect? There is plenty of evidence to the contrary in that area as well. We humans are a mixed lot, existing within and impacted by the material realm while also possessing potential to transcend what’s given to us to an extent, at least psychologically. In short, we are both directed by forces beyond our control as well as directors of our own lives, simultaneously.
2.) Blaming Free Will off onto Christianity (though it’d be more apt to include Judaism in this as well) seems to imply that this religion somehow did humans a disservice in this regard, that it lied to us about Reality and our role within it. Furthermore, it appears Harari assumes that individualism didn’t arise organically on its own — that is to say, is a natural part of the evolution of our species. Instead he seems to be arguing that such a notion was born strictly out of this monotheistic religion, which is confusing since which came first, humanity’s trending toward individualism or the idea of individualism being encapsulated within a religious context?
3.) Harari’s argument appears to be that while individualism and the notion of Free Will proved useful previously, it’s no longer of much (if any) value moving forward. Why? Because we have failed at the calling to Know Thyself and therefore are being rendered at the mercy of other humans and the technologies they employ to sway, deceive, control and make money off of us, all while convincing us that we’re actually acting as free agents. Okay, that much I can agree with. We, collectively speaking, have dropped the ball in taking seriously the navigation of our own individual lives, preferring instead to flow with the mainstream channels provided to all of us. But still, recognition of this does not negate the existence of Free Will. Rather, it points to our option to not embrace it (that being an important part of the concept of Free Will). We’re not required to strive to understand it and act upon it, though arguably we should. Because people often prove weak and fail at this task still doesn’t negate the Free Will option (again, despite it not being about 100% freedom since that’s an impossibility; we human beings not being gods in our own right).
4.) It seems that Harari is suggesting that artificial intelligence is coming on the scene, whether any of us like it or not, and that it will necessarily prove dominant over all of us. Okay, that might happen. But is Harari fine with that outcome? Is he suggesting that we should bow down and accept that fate as the “hackable animals” that we apparently are? Is it his opinion that resistance is futile? Because that’s the way it sounds, and that comes across as extremely deterministic, which then causes someone like me to feel pangs in my soul at such a thought.
5.) Harari’s position also seems to leave out consideration over whether this AI-dominated future that’s unfurling will be psychologically compatible with us as human beings. I personally don’t believe it will. Already a good many of us are disturbed by the effects of modern life and are exhibiting chronic symptoms of depression and anxiety as a result. Plus there are the falling birth rates (perhaps due to our “captivity” conditions) and the rising suicide rates among Westerners. It’s possible that we’re heading in a direction that will wind up pushing more of us to the margins of society, if not off a cliff entirely. (Though, some then might argue that’s evidence that we who can’t or won’t adapt are not strong enough in this game for survival, so adios.)
6.) The idea that if we give up our notion of individuality and Free Will we’ll then be free to listen more to others and become more actively engaged in protecting the environment sounds absurd. If anything, this trend would lead to more nihilism which may lead to more violent backlashes and reactionary inclinations to attempt to dismantle society itself. Just sayin’. (Perhaps he would argue that the anarchistic spirit within some is just another genetically-determined drive and/or a manipulated reaction stoked by those with a hidden agenda? *shrugs*) Anyway, why would a person care about a future world where humans aren’t free to be human, where life’s meaning has become trivialized, where our choices and options are supposedly pre-determined, and where Big Brother dominates us all whether we like it or not? Sounds like hell on earth, not a place I’d care about trying to save.
7.) Because science has not (or perhaps cannot) explain a phenomenon doesn’t automatically mean it’s not real. As others have suggested, scientists have barely scratched the surface in trying to make sense of consciousness — and yet, here it remains. What is it? We don’t know. Where did it originate from? We’re not certain. What is its purpose? That remains to be seen. Should we deny it outright and treat it dismissively because scientists can’t explain it? No. We continue studying and pondering on the topic, all while utilizing the very thing we’re unable to understand. Life is paradoxical like that. So much remains a mystery. Yet some place so much faith in human accomplishments and ingenuity that anything that falls outside of that which our sciences can readily explain winds up being treated as if inconsequential. To our detriment, I’ll argue.
8.) Harari speaks disdainfully of those who retreat away from this AI-dominated future vision, preferring instead to turn back toward traditional ways of life and the religions of old. He sees this trend as problematic, refusing to acknowledge that perhaps this too is a perfectly natural response for humans confronting a future that may very well spell our demise. Instead of having compassion for that reaction, he labels it as a threat. Which then gives me the impression that he’s actually in favor of this new world order he speaks of. (New world order = totalitarian in nature, tech-dominated, highly centralized, surveillance-infested, socially-engineered so much as possible, with the emphasis placed on our unity as persons on this globe, no longer citizens of nations.) Much as he seems to be warning us about it, he also appears to be pushing for it, hence why he chastises those who wish to break rank and seek a way to escape or fight back against it. That’s not too cool. Doesn’t sound like someone’s advice I’d care to follow.
So, those are my points of contention with what Harari wrote in the article, as well as what I listened to thus far from the podcast he went on with Sam Harris (uploaded yesterday):
Happened to be cleaning my guns while tuning in, which turned out to be a fine task while concentrating on a conversation of that nature. Then the phone rang and I’ve been distracted ever since. Decided to post this up before resuming listening.
If nothing else is certain to be true, I can safely say it’s a hell of a time to be alive.
The next day: I have now listened to the following talk from Harari (uploaded a month ago):