Yuval Noah Harari
'We're On The Verge Of Creating An Inorganic Life Form.'
As if by accident Yuval Noah Harari has become one of the West's most high profile thinkers and intellects. His juggernaut of a book, Sapiens, released in 2011, rendered a remarkable portrait of our past, and was described by Barack Obama as “a sweeping history of the human race, from 40,000 feet.”
What makes Yuval stand out from other thinkers is his simple yet revealing depiction of what makes humans so incredible, as well as his unflinching confrontation of our shortcomings and delusions. As humankind enters a discernible new phase in our evolution, Harari doesn’t want to prophesise about where we might be heading as a species, instead he wants to use the past as a template to understand how we arrived at this point.
His new book Homo Deus speaks of the great and equally terrifying unfulfilled potential of technology, artificial intelligence and genomics but as we speak with him it becomes clear that he believes our first priority should be to learn to communicate with each other in a more humane language.
So let’s start with your book Sapiens. I understand it came out of a class you were teaching in 2011?
I actually started teaching an ‘introduction to world history’ course at the Hebrew university around 2004, and after teaching this course for six or seven years I basically took my lecture notes and turned them into Sapiens.
It’s become this huge phenomenon, with even Obama recently recommending it. It must feel incredible.
It’s really unbelievable. I wrote it in Hebrew originally because I thought it would just be something for college students in Israel, but the reaction has been so positive. I realised that actually this is something that everyone needs, especially in the early 21st century 100 years ago you could still sort of understand your life just by knowing the history of your country, and your religion, and your society. But today there are no longer independent countries, we are all interdependent. All the big problems of human kind are global in nature, whether it’s global warming, or the rise of artificial intelligence. Most educational systems, certainly those in Israel, are stuck somewhere in the 20th century or 19th century. In Israel students only learn Jewish and Israeli history, so they really need some overview that will make them understand the picture of human history rather than the small picture of their own country and religion.
It seems from your book that you really are fascinated by the past and that you believe it says more about who we are now than all these future prophecy soothsayers like Ray Kurzweil.
Definitely. Most people ask me about the future because most people are more interested in the future, but certainly in Sapiens and also Homo Deus, it’s a history of tomorrow, but most of it is about the past. You can’t understand tomorrow and you certainly can’t understand the present condition of humankind just by studying the latest gadget. The iPhone, the internet, artificial intelligence, if you don’t understand history then you can’t make sense of what an iPhone means for humankind.
"Now for the first time we are on the verge of creating an inorganic life form. The context to understanding the meaning of this development is not 10 years or 100 years, its 4 billion years."
Yuval Noah Harari on the next phase of human evolution
One of your best lines about the future is “after 4 billion years of wandering in the kingdom of organic compounds, life will break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm.” Can you give us an idea of what you mean by that?
People look at the present problems of artificial intelligence and they have a very narrow myopic understanding of what it means. They think, oh well it means it will make these changes to the economy and society. But if you look at the past then you realise that this is something much bigger than the fate of the human economy, this is something much bigger than the fate of human kind. This is really about the tree of life itself, because as you just quoted, for 4 billion years whether you were an amoeba, or a dinosaur, or a cactus, or a homo sapien, you’re just organic compounds. Now for the first time we are on the verge of creating an inorganic life form. The context to understanding the meaning of this development is not 10 years or 100 years, its 4 billion years.
This also implies the possibility of breaking out of planet earth for the first time in a meaningful way. Life has been confined to earth because organic beings are adapted to this planet and it’s hard for them to survive in outer space, but for inorganic beings it’s going to be far easier.
You’re clearly very passionate about where we’re heading and the kind of opportunities and challenges we’re going to face. But there are still huge gaps in our knowledge, we don’t even understand how the brain works and the fact remains that we’re emotional creatures.
Yeah, somebody said, I can’t remember who, that we have stone aged emotions controlling silicon age technology, and that’s quite a dangerous combination. I agree that there are still many important things that we don’t understand, not only about the brain but more importantly about the mind. So far we have absolutely no idea about what the mind is, how it emerges and what is it’s function. We’re very good at recognising correlations between brain states and mental states. We know that if certain neurons in the brain are firing then the person is in love, or in pain, or bored. But we don’t have even a thread of a theory as to how billions of electrical signals can shift neurons to create a subjective experience of love or pain? Nobody has the faintest idea.
One of my big fears is that we will go forward with developing artificial intelligence and so forth, basically superseding human consciousness, without understanding what we are losing in the process. We could end up upgrading our brains and our bodies, and losing our minds in the process. There is a mismatch between the immense progress in the development of artificial intelligence and the utter cluelessness with our regard to consciousness.
“We don’t have even a thread of a theory as to how billions of electrical signals can shift neurons to create a subjective experience of love or pain? Nobody has the faintest idea.”
But the real question here is, and it verges on the metaphysical, how do we know if our reality is right or wrong?
In the transition from religion to modern science we gained a lot, but we lost one thing, which is the ability to make value judgements. Science is much better than religion at saying what is, and in finding practical solutions to all kinds of problems, whether its famine, disease, plague, whatever. But science by definition has no way to answer value questions. Personally I think that the key to making value judgements is not so much human emotions but the question of suffering.
Traditional religion has this big story, this big cosmic drama created by the director in the sky, and we all have a part to play in this drama. It says, if we discover what this part is and fulfil this, whatever it is, then it’s good. And if we ignore the instructions of this great director and do something else then this is bad. Now I think this is complete nonsense. There is no great drama. My mission in life is not to discover my great role in this play and fulfil that role. Ethics is not that at all.
For me ethics is about suffering. It’s about reducing suffering and liberating both yourself and others from suffering. But what most people miss about this is that suffering is a far more difficult and complicated issue. We tend to think it’s obvious what suffering is and the only problem is to find ways to solve it. In the case of disease or hunger, yes it’s obvious what suffering is and the only question is, how do you find treatments to cancer? How do you find enough food so there is no longer any famine? But as you go deeper you see that suffering is extremely complicated and our feelings are not always the best guides to understanding suffering. Very often we don’t realise it when we suffer. Very often our feelings cause us to do things that result in much greater suffering for ourselves and to others because our feelings are basically the result of natural selection. And natural selection is not interested in suffering and happiness. Natural selection is interested in survival and reproduction, and if in order for the organism to survive and reproduce then it has to suffer a lot, natural selection will push the organism in that direction.
Fascinating, yet the narrative we cling onto so dearly remains our moral compass through all this, right?
Well, the thing about humans is that we’re very good at inventing fictional stories, and believing in these stories, and then we can’t tell the difference between the imagination and reality. I look at my nephews playing Pokémon Go, and I’m struck by how similar this is to traditional religion. You go on the street and look at your smartphones and see everywhere these Pokémon. You have to catch them, you have to do this, and do that, and it’s just like traditional religion. In the real world there are no angels or demons, no gods, no sin, but you look at the world through the bible and suddenly the entire world is filled with angels and demons, and this is a sin, and you shouldn’t do this or do that, and it’s all in the imagination. The question is how do you tell the difference? What is human imagination and what is reality? I come back to suffering. One good test to know whether an entity is real or a fiction is to ask yourself whether it can suffer.
Which leads me to my next question. I know you practise meditation. There are a lot of very subtle Buddhist themes in the book.
Yes I practise two hours of vipassana meditation every day and my yearly vacation is to go and do 30 or 60 days retreat.
What do you get out of that?
For me vipassana above all enables me to differentiate fiction from reality. The teacher, he keeps saying as he gives instructions to meditate, just observe what you actually experience and don’t add anything. Don’t add any imagination or any story. You start with very simple realities. The first exercise when you go to a vipassana course on the meditation retreat is to observe your breath, coming in and out. Natural breath. You don’t try to control it, or breathe in a particular way, just sit there from morning to evening and observe your breath. Most people find it utterly impossible. They can do it for a few seconds and immediately the mind runs away to all sorts of dreams and fantasies. You have to bring your attention back to the breath. Just notice, is the breath going in or coming out. If you can’t observe the reality of your own breath coming in and going out, then you can’t observe any reality in the world. If you manage to do it, if you start to really focus, from there you start a process of deeper and deeper observation. With the same instruction, just observe the reality as it is. Don’t add anything, don’t imagine anything, and don’t add any theories. The most difficult thing for me is this exercise.
I saw a talk you did recently, and someone asked you at the end about the subject of love. I’m going to make a contentious point here, I don’t feel you answered the question to the best of your ability. So I’d just like to press you on that point.
There has been tremendous progress in understanding the biochemistry of love. Of course the crucial question is, what kind of love do you have in mind? Throughout history people have had very different ideas about love. Today, at least in the West it is very closely connected to sexual attraction. The romantic love that is being propagated by Hollywood is very closely connected with sexual attraction, which is quite unique in history.
I don’t know if I agree. I think love plays a large role in our quest for understanding ourselves and spirituality. Perhaps we don’t understand the larger role it plays, wouldn’t you say?
It depends what kind of love. There is the love between parents and children, there is cosmic love as you love the universe and love your neighbour and so forth, but one of the things that characterises modern western society is that its one of the only civilisations in history which spiritualised sexual attraction. Again if you look at Hollywood blockbusters you will find that romantic love, sexual love, is closely connected to self-knowledge and to the truth. At the climactic scene of the matrix, where the machines almost win and Neo is about to die, what saves him at the last moment is love.
I feel like you play this strange dance between spirituality, religion and science. It also seems like you have a love-hate relationship with science.
I would definitely say that personally I am not so much interested in technology and science. I am far more interested in this dance between science and technology on one hand, and politics, economics, spirituality, religion and philosophy on the other. Otherwise it’s quite sterile. It’s an intellectual entertainment to try and understand how machine learning works, but it becomes really gripping when you start thinking – what are the political and religious implications of having an artificial intelligence that understands me better than I understand myself? I would also like to say that for me religion and spirituality are very different things. They are in a way opposite things. Religion is about answers and spirituality is about questions. A spiritual quest for me is when you raise some big question, like, who am I? What is the meaning of life? And then you go in a quest trying to answer this question, and allow this question to take you wherever it goes. Religion is the exact opposite. It’s a dogmatic story that claims to have the answer to everything. Who am I? What is the meaning of life? Read the bible, this is the answer, this is how you should live. This is good and this is bad. It basically blocks the spiritual quest.
It’s ironic that Jesus was one of the more spiritually bound people in history.
Not only him. You could say the same thing about Buddha and other religious leaders. The fact is that an individual or even a small group of people can really go on a quest for the truth, but an entire society cannot. An entire society, in order to function, needs rules and regulations, and courts and taxation and all of that. You cannot have a taxation system just with big questions about life, you need to have some rules. So the tragedy of every spiritual leader is that if enough people follow him or her, they have to start organising, and then they slowly transform the spiritual quest into a religious institution, which will kill spirituality and leave only the shell of some stories that everyone has to believe.
I sensed some anger in you in Homo Deus, especially when you were talking about the treatment of animals. We’re at a point now where if we put all our money into creating artificial meat, we could do it.
Definitely. Coming back to suffering, the amount of suffering we inflict on animals, especially domesticated animals like cows and pigs and chickens, is so huge that there is a lot of room for anger.
How has that anger taken shape? Do you feel that the book is a kind of appeal of sorts, for people to go out and fix this problem?
I didn’t want it to be written in a preaching missionary way. I tried basically to focus on what I understand to be scientific facts, especially when it comes to animal cognition. People have all kinds of arguments for why they don’t want to become vegan or vegetarian, and there is room for debate. But there is no room for bad science and for just not knowing the facts. When someone says, “I eat animals and they don’t suffer. They don’t have minds,” this is completely divorced from what we know to be true today about animals. So in Homo Deus it was important for me to first of all get the facts straight about animal emotions. I think there is a very widespread consensus that all mammals, all birds, and probably some reptiles and fish, have consciousness, they have emotions, they can feel fear or boredom. Let’s get this fact straight and then we can start having an argument about whether we want to still keep them in cages and eat them.
"Emotions are the way that all mammals solve problems of survival and reproduction."
Harari on the eternal question of suffering
But aren’t we still anthropomorphising animals by saying that they have consciousness?
No, consciousness is not a human thing.
But what if animals operate on a level we don’t even understand at all?
First of all, as far as we know, if there is no consciousness and no emotions then there is no suffering. A computer has no emotions so however complicated and intelligent it is there is no ethical dilemmas when it comes to destroying computers. It becomes an ethical question only when there is suffering involved. So for there to be suffering you must have consciousness and emotions. Secondly, it’s not anthropomorphising animals to say that they have emotions. It’s just the opposite. If you start by thinking emotions are some unique spiritual quality that god gave only humans so that we can appreciate poetry or whatever, then to say a pig has emotions, that is to humanise the pig. But from a scientific perspective it’s just the opposite. Emotions are basic to how the entire animal kingdom has evolved and functions. Emotions are the way that all mammals solve problems of survival and reproduction. There is nothing divine or spiritual about it. It’s all about natural selection. Homo sapiens are just one amongst many mammals that are built around this core system. So I would say it’s the other way around. We are not humanising animals, we are mammalising humans. Emotions are a mammalian quality, not a human quality.
We interviewed Aubrey de Grey. What is your opinion of people like him and Ray Kurzweil who predict a future in which humans will be able to live forever by uploading their consciousness into machines?
I think they are some of the most interesting thinkers of our time. I think they will be extremely influential. But personally I don’t like their vision. I have all kinds of bones to pick with them, but I think they are far braver than most of the other thinkers today, who basically stay within the comfort zone of traditional humanist thinking and don’t take the implications of new technologies seriously enough.
People like Ray Kurzweil accept that the age of humans is over and say – ok this is happening. Let’s get over it and start thinking about what’s next. But it seems like they don’t care about us so much. They just care about a clean artificial future with no consequences?
Yes, I think they focus too much on the cool new technology. If I can just say one thing about uploading human consciousness and all this, we’ve had two big religious visions in history: firstly the Judea Christian vision which focuses on the soul. It believes in the existence of human essence, and the aim is to perpetuate the essence forever. In Judea Christian thinking this will happen in paradise or heaven. Then you have the more Buddhist view which says there is no essence, it is just an illusion, and the aim is not to perpetuate it but to be free of it. Now you have Ray Kurzweil saying we can have this paradise in a computer. Modern science is taking a very strange middle ground, saying the Buddhists are right, there is no soul, there is no essence, but we’re still going to try and realise the Christian vision by perpetuating the illusion forever. That is Kurzweil’s vision, let’s perpetuate the illusion forever. I find that a disturbing possibility.
Yuval Noah Harari Homo Deus is out now through Penguin
He changed not just the way I think but the way I behave, which is much more difficult.
He is the person in history who gave up the most power with the least struggle. If you put Milosevic in the Kremlin in 1989 maybe none of us would be here today. Imagine, you have the greatest army that ever existed, and all these nuclear weapons, and when you see your empire crumbling you somehow just accept it. You say – yes my empire is over, and I’m going to give up all this power.
This book was a real eye opener for me and it’s also one of the funniest science books I’ve ever read. I think every politician should read it.