Futurology with a Materialist

September 12, 2017
Original Title: ההיסטוריה של המחר
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Publish Date: 2015
Pages: 448
Original language: German, Hebrew

The world is changing—perhaps faster than ever before. Unlike our ancestors, who could reasonably expect the lives of their children to look much like the lives of their ancestors, we are faced with new challenges and technologies at every turn. How will humankind cope? In his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari offers an assessment of the modern world and a few visions of the future.

Harari sets the stage by describing how the historical preoccupations of humankind—disease, war, famine—are now obsolete. Relatively speaking. All three still exist, but humans are better equipped to combat them than we have been previously. Throughout history, Harari says, people were defeatist; they believed the world’s problems to be inevitable and unsolvable. In the last few centuries, humanism and science have allowed us to make progress and secure “unprecedented levels of prosperity, health and harmony” (20). All this success has gone to our heads; Harari predicts that “humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity,” hence the title (21). In the future—and already today—humankind will seek to become like God. (Now, why does this storyline sound familiar?)

In the subsequent three sections of the book, Harari asks us to reconsider our assumptions about humankind and human history so we can more freely and creatively think about what the future may look like. First, he challenges humankind’s belief that it is special among mammals (making a plug for veganism while he’s at it). Then, he describes the role mythmaking and storytelling play in the success of humankind, and how accepting these stories as truths rather than viewing them as tools is dangerous. Finally, he examines the consequences of the Information Age and the growing religion of Dataism, which threatens to reduce living organisms to algorithms. The pictures Harari paints are rather grim. But, unlike too many authors who explore futurology, Harari humbly acknowledges that these are mere conjectures. His point is to get us thinking about the modern world and where we are heading.

Throughout the book, Harari assumes a God-of-the-gaps approach to science and progress generally; he assumes that, because we now know how things like disease, weather, and war arise and function, we can no longer chalk these things up to God’s Will. Though this is a faulty assumption—just because we know about the biochemistry of sickle cell anemia doesn’t mean it cannot be part of God’s plan—it is not an uncommon one, especially in scientific humanism.

In the first two thirds of the book, Harari takes regular jabs at organized religion (well, actually, almost exclusively Judaism and Christianity). This is, frankly, wearisome. But, it is interesting to learn how a non-Christian views Christianity, and developing thoughtful responses to these is good practice should you ever meet someone who believes these assessments to be accurate and devastating to Christianity.

Besides, Harari raises worthwhile questions about living in an increasingly technology-dependant age that seems to be pursuing progress for progress’s sake. It is good for humans to take responsibility for (or at least initiative against) the problems of the world. If, as Christians, we believe that God has called us to care for His Creation, innovating remedies to the suffering of Creation seems like a reasonable course of action. But, in all our work, we must not forget that our solutions are, ultimately, inadequate. Refusing to rely on God is something Scripture pretty thoroughly discourages. Harari’s suggestion that humanity is yet again trying to innovate its way to divinity should cause us to pause. If what he suggests is true, what do we do? How do we find a balance between defeatism and an arrogant Tower of Babel-esque pursuit of solutions to the world’s problems?

Harari does not offer answers to all the questions he raises, and he certainly does not offer overmuch hope for the future. Homo Deus is well written (and studded with interesting pictures at regular intervals), but the weighty (and sometimes hostile) content may be a bit much to take if you are not mentally prepared for that sort of thing.1 But, there is hope to be had.

About the Author
  • Lydia Marcus has a biology degree from Dordt. She has a special interest in the dialogue between science and faith, and she hopes to begin a master’s of public health program in epidemiology.

  1. If you are interested in reading Homo Deus with a small group, I can give you a study guide with questions that can help guide your discussion. 

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  1. My tolerance is tapped at “immortality, happiness, and divinity.” One cannot be a truly committed post-theist and literally appropriate for oneself the very attributes the premodern world gave to the gods. The only thing worse than seeking literal immortality would be to find it; even the most literal religious believer has to admit this is only an unelaborated and mysterious hope. To realize immortality in history would immediately make civilization as we know it unsustainable without reducing the population to a tiny number.

    To identify happiness with comprehensive knowledge that is also reductionist and instrumentalist, focused on mastery, power, and control — this is symptomatic of an illness. Children, poor people, and those living in what we see as primitive conditions must be desperately unhappy in this view. I cannot see how they could be allowed to exist with any freedom in the future Harari wants.

    1. Gerry,
      I appreciate your thoughts. Indeed, the society Harari envisions has many horrifying implications. In his defense, he does intend his book to catalyze conversations about the implications of such a society. He seems to think that, though the path we are currently pursuing is reductionist and instrumentalist, it is not too late to reconsider our values as a society; Harari believes that humans can re-shape their cultures.
      Though it seems contrary, I think Harari would not advocate for an instrumentalist view of people. He is certainly very concerned about the well being of animals (hence the veganism), and it would be hard to imagine such an individual accepting the abuse of his fellow man.