Homo Deus: Religion

One measure of a good (non-fiction) book is how much highlighting and underlining I do. The new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow) filled seven pages so I won’t include all of the excerpts here. The link above will take you to a Google Doc that has them all.

Like his previous book (Sapiens), Homo Deus made me think about a lot of Big Ideas in fresh, new and sometimes uncomfortable ways. He makes some bold predictions but presents them more in terms of trends and in this regard the book reminded me of Kevin Kelley’s The Inevitable. Dr. Harari specializes in World History and macro-historical processes. (Wikipedia)

And the “macro-historical” perspective is what really grabbed in this book. It was good to be jolted out of my ‘election cycle’ time frame. I’ll probably do two or three posts on this book just to keep them from getting impossible long.

I came away with a new — and much broader — understanding of religion which Harari defines as: “any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values.”

He includes Liberalism, Communism and other modern creeds but one quickly understand from context that he’s not talking about “liberals vs. conservatives” in the narrow sense of American politics.

“Liberals, communists and followers of other modern creeds dislike describing their own system as a ‘religion’, because they identify religion with superstitions and supernatural powers. If you tell communists or liberals that they are religious, they think you’re accusing them of blindly believing in groundless pipe dreams. In fact, it means only that they believe in some system of moral laws that wasn’t invented by humans, but humans must nevertheless obey.”

This topic gets really interesting in the final chapter of the book but we’ll save that for another post.


The communist laws of history are similar to the commandments of the Christian God, inasmuch as they are superhuman forces that humans cannot change at will. According to Marx, we cannot change the laws of history.

Religion is a tool for preserving social order and for organising large-scale cooperation. […] Without the guiding hand of some religion, it is impossible to maintain large-scale social orders.

Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey. […] If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you’ll burn in hell. […] Spiritual journeys take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations (Who am I?). […] For religions, spirituality is a dangerous threat.

Religion is interested above all in order. Science is interested above all in power (e.g. to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food.)

Modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. Humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

Is economic growth more important than family bonds? By presuming to make such ethical judgements, free-market capitalism has crossed the border from the land of science into that of religion.

New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. The revolutionary technologies of the twenty-first century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds.

Islamic fundamentalists may repeat the mantra that ‘Islam is the answer’, but religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day forfeit their ability even to understand the questions being asked. […] Hundreds of millions may nevertheless go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism. But numbers alone don’t count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by backward-looking masses.

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 to ever leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. In order to get a seat on it you need to understand twenty-first-century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms. […] If Marx came back to life today, he would probably urge his few remaining disciples to devote less time to reading Das Kapital and more time to studying the Internet and the human genome.

Ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the twentieth century? That’s a difficult question, because it is hard to choose from a long list of candidates, including scientific discoveries such as antibiotics, technological inventions such as computers, and ideological creations such as feminism. Now ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of traditional religions such as Islam and Christianity in the twentieth century? This too is a very difficult question, because there is so little to choose from. What did priests, rabbis and muftis discover in the twentieth century that can be mentioned in the same breath as antibiotics, computers or feminism? Having mulled over these two questions, from where do you think the big changes of the twenty-first century will emerge: from the Islamic State, or Google?

The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back

From Bacteria to Back and Back. The Evolution of Minds, by Daniel C. Dennett. The book’s cover teased me with “How did we come to have minds?” The author dragged me through 300 pages of “groundwork” before providing anything I could recognize as an answer. But I took notes (below), if underlining counts as taking notes. And here’s a review by Thomas Nagel. And a 45 minute audio interview at The Big Think.

The immaterial mind, the conscious thinking thing that we know intimately through introspection, is somehow in communication with the material brain, which provides all the input but not of the understanding or experience. 

Can there be reasons without a reasoner, designs without a designer? (Dennett says yes)

A central feature of human interaction, and one of the features unique to our species, is the activity of asking others to explain themselves, to justify their choices and actions, and then judging, endorsing, rebutting their answers, in recursive rounds of the “why?”

Natural selection doesn’t have a mind, doesn’t itself have reasons. […] For instance, there are reasons why termite colonies have the features they do, but the termites do not have or represent reasons, and their excellent designs are not products of an intelligent designer.

Turing showed that it was possible to design mindless machines that were Absolutely Ignorant, but that could do arithmetic perfectly. […] He foresaw that there was a traversable path from Absolute Ignorance to Artificial Intelligence. […] Both Darwin and Turing claim to have discovered something truly unsettling to a human mind — competence without comprehension.

Why and how did human-style comprehension arrive on the scene?

Ontology – the set of “things” a person believes to exist.

Comprehension is an emergent effect of systems of uncomprehending competence.

What is consciousness for (if anything)? If unconscious processes are fully competent to perform all the cognitive operations of perception and control.

Information is always relative to what the receiver already knows.

If DNA can convey information about how to build a nest without any terms for “build” and “nest,” why couldn’t a nervous system do something equally inscrutable?

Intentional mind-clearing, jettisoning information or habits that endanger one’s welfare, is not an unusual phenomenon, sometimes called unlearning. […] The brain’s job in perception is to filter out, discard, and ignore all but the noteworthy features of the flux of energy striking one’s sensory organs.

One of Darwin’s most important contributions to thought was his denial of  essentialism, the ancient philosophical doctrine that claimed for each type of thing, each natural kind, there is an essence, a set of necessary and sufficient properties for being that kind of thing.

Children learn about seven words a day, on average, from birth to age six.

Understanding a word is not the same as having acquired a definition of it.

Words don’t exist,  strictly speaking. They have no mass, no energy, no chemical composition.

Memes are transmitted perceptually, not genetically.

Words are memes that can be pronounced.

“In terms of the brain, we know that concepts are somehow stored there, but we have little idea of exactly how.”

The acquisition of a language — and of memes more generally — is very much like the installation of a predesigned software app of considerable power, like Adobe Photoshop, a tool for professionals with many layers that most amateur users never encounter.

We may “know things” in one part of our brain that cannot be accessed by other parts of the brain when needed. The practice of talking to yourself creates new channels for communication that may, on occasion, tease the hidden knowledge into the open.

Nature makes heavy use of the Need to Know principle, and designs highly successful, adept, even cunning creatures who have no idea what they are doing or why.

Our thinking is enabled by the installation of a virtual machine made of virtual machines made of virtual machines.

We learn about others from hearing or reading what they say to us, and that’s how we learn about ourselves as well.

“We speak not only to tell others what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think.” — John Hughlings Jackson

Bare meanings, with no words yet attached, (can) occupy our attention in consciousness.

Evolution has given us a gift (the mind?) that sacrifices literal truth for utility.

(The mind is) that thinking thing with which you are so intimately acquainted that is hardly distinguishable from you, yourself. No wonder we are reluctant to see it as illusory; if it is illusory, so are we!

If free will is an illusion then so are (we).

Human consciousness is unlike all other varieties of animal consciousness in that it is a product in large part of cultural evolution, which installs a bounty of words and many other thinking tools in our brains, creating thereby a cognitive architecture unlike the “bottom-up” minds of animals. By supplying our minds with systems of representations, this architecture furnishes each of us with a perspective—a user-illusion—from which we have a limited, biased access to the workings of our brains, which we involuntarily misinterpret as a rendering of both the world’s external properties (colors, aromas, sounds,. . . ) and many of our own internal responses (expectations satisfied, desires identified, etc.).

Deep learning will not give us — in the next fifty years — anything like the “superhuman intelligence” that has attracted so much alarmed attention recently. […] I have always affirmed that “strong AI” is “possible in principle” — but I viewed it as a negligible practical possibility, because it would cost too much and not give us anything we really needed.

The real danger, I think, is not that machines more intelligent than we are will usurp our roles as captains of our destinies, but that we will over-estimate the comprehension of our latest thinking tools, prematurely ceding authority to them far beyond their competence.

When you are interacting with a computer, you should know you are interacting with a computer. Systems that deliberately conceal their shortcuts and gaps of incompetence should be deemed  fraudulent, and their creators should go to jail for committing the crime of creating or using an artificial intelligence that impersonates a human being.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

The new book by Yuval Noah Harari sounds like just what I need.

“For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.” Amazon

Mr. (Doctor?) Harari wrote the bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind


From a brief interview (WIRED) interview with the author:

Dataism is a new ethical system that says, yes, humans were special and important because up until now they were the most sophisticated data processing system in the universe, but this is no longer the case. The tipping point is when you have an external algorithm that understands you—your feelings, emotions, choices, desires—better than you understand them yourself. That’s the point when there is the switch from amplifying humans to making them redundant.

Will tech companies become our new rulers, even gods?

When you talk about God and religion, in the end it’s all a question of authority. What is the highest source of authority that you turn to when you have a problem in your life? A thousand years ago you’d turn to the church. Today, we expect algorithms to provide us with the answer—who to date, where to live, how to deal with an economic problem. So more and more authority is shifting to these (technology) corporations.

Wikiquote

I recently stumbled upon Wikiquote (“a free online compendium of sourced quotations from notable people and creative works”). I have a quotation jones. When I read a book I obsessively underline passages for hoarding on Google Docs. So I can get lost for hours on Wikiquote. Here’s one from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (Erasmas theorizing why others are joining his journey):

“The work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be, it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power, but of story. If their employees came home with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them. People who couldn’t live without story…had to look somewhere outside of work for a feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why Sæculars were so concerned with sports, and with religion. How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure?”

Has all the story been bled out of your life? My life?

The prophetic Mr. Adams

First the good news. I finished reading God’s Debris (for the umpteenth time, as we mathematicians like to say), the 2004 novella by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams. This will be the final excerpt (until next time).

I was a long time fan of Mr. Adams’ blog and the ideas he shared there but stopped reading when he — like the rest of America — became obsessed with Donald Trump. As far as I can determine, Adams was the first person (of some notoriety) to predict Trump would win the nomination and go on to win the White House. He was saying that as early as September 15, 2015 and perhaps earlier.

I seem to recall Adams insisting he wasn’t saying Trump would make a good president, just that he (like Adams) knew some Master Persuader voodoo that would take him all the way. And I don’t think Adams ever wavered in his conviction. Like I said, I stopped following because my politics toxicity was already dangerously high.

I bring it up as background for this bit from the final chapter of God’s Debris (written 13 years ago):

“The great leaders in this world are always the least rational among us. Charismatic leaders have a natural ability to bring people into their delusion. They convince people to act against self-interest and pursue the leaders’ visions of the greater good. Leaders make citizens go to war to seize land they will never live on and to kill people who have different religions.”

I hesitate to put words in Mr. Adams’ mouth but I don’t think he’s using “great leaders” in the sense of good or admirable but rather in terms of effective. Achieving an objective. Hard to argue Trump did not do that.

Two types of people

This excerpt from Scott Adams’ novella, God’s Debris, is the best explanation I’ve found for why Facebook is — and always will be — more successful (numerically) than Google+:

“There are two types of people in the world. One type is people-oriented. When they make conversation, it is about people — what people are doing, what someone said, how someone feels. The other group is idea-oriented. When they make conversation, they talk about ideas and concepts and objects. […] Idea people are boring, even to other idea people.”

“When a person talks about people, it is personal to everyone who listens. You will automatically relate the story to yourself, thinking how you would react in that person’s situation, how your life has parallels.”

I go to Google+ for new ideas, and usually find some. And I’m much more likely to share an idea than talk about people. Frankly, there are not that many people in my life and I’ve grown quite comfortable with that. The line between ‘people’ and ‘ideas’ can get fuzzy, I suppose. When one rants about Donald Trump’s latest outrage, are you talking about and idea or a person. My sense is the latter.

New Harry Bosch novel in November

“Michael Connelly will publish the next installment in the Bosch series (untitled as of now) on Nov. 7, 2017, and will introduce the world to the new Renée Ballard series kicking off with The Late Show on July 18, 2017, Little, Brown, and Company announced Tuesday.”

“The Late Show‘s Renée Ballard, Connelly’s first new protagonist in 10 years, is a young detective for the LAPD who has been stuck on the night shift in Hollywood after filing a sexual harassment complaint against her supervisor. Given the nature of the job, she can never finish a case and must hand each project to the day shift detectives when the night ends. But everything changes when she finds two cases of violence against women that she refuses to part with.”

Entertainment Weekly

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

“You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. . . I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.”

— Richard Feynman

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

Am I alive because of the atomic bomb?

I’m about halfway through Genius, James Gleick’s biography of Richard Feynman, considered by many the most brilliant American physicist of the 20th century. Feynman was probably the smartest of the scientists working on the Trinity Project (America’s atom bomb program). The first (and only test) of the bomb took place July 16, 1945. American bombers nuked the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few weeks later (Aug 6-9). Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945.

My father was in the Navy from May, 1943 until March 9, 1946. He served on the USS Mount McKinley; USS Appalachian; USS New Jersey; USS War Hawk; USS Iowa; and one or two others. All of which saw action in the Pacific.

According to Gleick, building the atomic bomb dramatically affected the lives of the scientists who created it. The Japanese lives lost to this terrible weapon have always been balanced against those that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan. Like my father, for instance. Japan surrenders, they turn the ships around and head home. Discharged March 9, 1946 in St. Louis. Meets and marries my mom (March 23, 1946) who was living in St. Louis. Happy ending. For some.

I’ve been sitting here for a few minutes trying to boil down some meaning from this bit of history. But “what if this event hadn’t happened” is a pointless game. It did happen.

“Nothing can happen unless the entire universe makes it happen. A thing is as it is, because the universe is as it is.”

Technocracy in America: Rise of the Info-State

“American democracy just isn’t good enough anymore. A costly election has done more to divide American society than unite it, while trust in government–and democracy itself–is plummeting. But there are better systems out there, and America would be wise to learn from them. In this provocative manifesto, globalization scholar Parag Khanna tours cutting-edge nations from Switzerland to Singapore to reveal the inner workings that allow them that lead the way in managing the volatility of a fast-changing world while delivering superior welfare and prosperity for their citizens.” Amazon »

Switzerland is so decentralized it does not have a president (or head of state), but rather a Federal Council of seven members whose chairman rotates each year. (Most citizens cannot name even three of the seven.)

(Info-states) define their geography by their connectivity rather than just their territory; their supply chains are as important to their map as their location.

Their only ideology is pragmatism.

As with natural selection, governance models evolve over time through adaptation, modification, and imitation. The more the world becomes connected and complex, devolved and data-saturated, the more the info-state model will rise in status. Global political discourse is shifting into a post-ideological terrain where performance—based on citizen satisfaction and international benchmarks—is the arbiter of success.

We are coming to appreciate that the difference between successful and failing countries today is not rich versus poor, left versus right, or democratic versus authoritarian, but whether they have the capacity to meet their citizens’ basic needs, empower them as individuals, and act or change course when needed. Everything else is window dressing.

Here then is a key reason to pay attention to technocracy: Because it is Asia’s future. Technocracy becomes a form of salvation after societies realize that democracy doesn’t guarantee national success. Democracy eventually gets sick of itself and votes for technocracy.

China’s spectacular rise versus that of democracies such as India has shown the world that it is better to have a system focused on delivery without democracy than a system that is too democratic at the expense of delivery. For democracy to be admired, it has to deliver.

In the long run, the quality of governance matters more than regime type.

“Chinese people don’t love their government, but they trust it.”

“The Swiss no longer believe in churches and religion,” muses Reto Steiner, a professor at the University of Bern. “They put their trust in deliberation, academics and experts.

Watches and knives, pharmaceuticals and chocolate, precision tools and encrypted hardware—almost everything Switzerland makes is better than anything anyone else can offer. This is because rather than shun vocational education, Swiss overwhelmingly prefer apprenticeships as a mode of skill-building for the global marketplace.

The top three most competitive economies in the world according to the Global Innovation Index (GII) are Switzerland, South Korea and Singapore, all of which have vocational educational systems and worker retraining programs and near-zero unemployment.
The state-builders, urban planners, and economic strategists of the 21st century all take their inspiration from (Singapore’s founder) Lee Kuan Yew, not Thomas Jefferson.

Singapore’s civil service is a spiral staircase: With each rung you learn to manage a different portfolio, building a broad knowledge base and first-hand experience. By contrast, American politics is like an elevator: One can get in on the bottom floor and go straight to top, missing all the learning in between.

At no point in the past decade has any official or academic in a foreign country told me they want their country to look like “America.” They want to have a Silicon Valley, a New York City and a Boston—hubs of innovation, finance, and knowledge.

The notion that western societies rule by reason and eastern societies by despotism is a tired cliché in a world of constant data feedback.

In the coming decades, global competition will punish the sentimental. A society that could do something better but doesn’t is either stupid or suicidal—or both. For political systems this means less emphasis on democracy and more on good governance. Success is measured by delivering welfare domestically and managing global complexity, not by holding elections.