It will take probably another year before I will find time to read Homo Deus, but I think I understood the main message by watching a new TED format yesterday evening. It’s called TED dialogues and entails a 60’ discussion between a moderator and some prodigy guest. The first TED dialogue was recorded this February and Chris Anderson himself hosts Yuval Harari to discuss nationalism vs. globalism referring widely to both mentioned books. Winston Chuchill is credited with having said: The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see. Historian Harari turning futurologist is then probably a likely calling.
Harari brilliantly explains like an old school systems theorist why nationalist governance models fail in a globalized environment; why e.g. national policies can’t find answers to ecological or ethical questions of global dimension. I am intrigued, because this short dialogue, essentially operates as a rejection of the political system put forward in Henry Kissinger’s brilliant, but somehow outdated oeuvre World Order. Kissinger perceives the national state as the smallest unit of a global order, whereas Harari argues for a global order. Kissinger speaks to us in the 21st century – with all due respect - as a fossil from a different era, whereas Harari’s post-national POV meets the Zeitgeist of an increasingly global audience.
I feel though that both Kissinger and Harari propose world orders which are same in essence. Same, same, but different as we say here in our Asian style of simplified English. Why? Because both talk about governance from without. Harari seemingly hasn’t realized this flaw in his argumentation, but his lack of vision for how a global government should look like is telling. Any governance from without will be sooner or later corrupted by mankind. The only governance which can lastingly change such dynamics comes from within.
But this is exactly the point of discussion, where I split with Harari despite his analytical brilliance and the breadth of his thinking. Harari is a classic academic who, in particular as a representative of the humanities, was trained to never ever mingle with spirituality or religion apart from describing these subjects from a very distanced POV. I got to know Harari in Sapiens as pessimistic atheist and felt in particular in the last chapters on the future of mankind most alienated from his thinking. Homo Deus, I assume, is a continuation of that style. On a personal note, I recommend to Yuval to listen to author Pico Iyer talking about The Beauty of What We’ll Never Know.
If we are to develop visions for the future of our species and of the creation as such, then we are well advised to develop positive scenarios and focus on them. Harari’s atheist pessimism does not convince and it fails to provide such a scenario. Chris Anderson says that we need a different kind of conversation, one that’s based on – I don’t know, on reason, listening, on understanding, on a broader context. He is right. But its not about listening to yet another government from without. Its about listening to the government within.
Harari points at the solution for governance himself by – again brilliantly – explaining the difference between intelligence and consciousness, a difference I have noticed, most people don't understand.
Well, I certainly think that the most interesting question today in science is the question of consciousness and the mind. We are getting better and better in understanding the brain and intelligence, but we are not getting much better in understanding the mind and consciousness. People often confuse intelligence and consciousness, especially in places like Silicon Valley, which is understandable, because in humans, they go together. I mean, intelligence basically is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things, to feel joy and sadness and boredom and pain and so forth. In Homo sapiens and all other mammals as well — it's not unique to humans -- in all mammals and birds and some other animals, intelligence and consciousness go together. We often solve problems by feeling things. So we tend to confuse them. But they are different things.
What's happening today in places like Silicon Valley is that we are creating artificial intelligence but not artificial consciousness. There has been an amazing development in computer intelligence over the last 50 years, and exactly zero development in computer consciousness, and there is no indication that computers are going to become conscious anytime soon.
So first of all, if there is some cosmic role for consciousness, it's not unique to Homo sapiens. Cows are conscious, pigs are conscious, chimpanzees are conscious, chickens are conscious, so if we go that way, first of all, we need to broaden our horizons and remember very clearly we are not the only sentient beings on Earth, and when it comes to sentience -- when it comes to intelligence, there is good reason to think we are the most intelligent of the whole bunch. But when it comes to sentience, to say that humans are more sentient than whales, or more sentient than baboons or more sentient than cats, I see no evidence for that. So first step is, you go in that direction, expand.
And then the second question of what is it for, I would reverse it and I would say that I don't think sentience is for anything. I think we don't need to find our role in the universe. The really important thing is to liberate ourselves from suffering. What characterizes sentient beings in contrast to robots, to stones, to whatever, is that sentient beings suffer, can suffer, and what they should focus on is not finding their place in some mysterious cosmic drama. They should focus on understanding what suffering is, what causes it and how to be liberated from it.
Well spoken, but in regard to the first step that Harari recommends, expansion of the sentience horizon, we can not stop at other mammals or creatures we can perceive with our five senses, with the scientific method respectively. Harari should probably down a mushroom and read Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. It would help him tremendously to acquire a transcendental POV, one which conceives his mind as part of the mind at large, and thus to understand his place in the universe. It would help him to see, that he has a responsibility to draft an optimistic vision for the history of the future.
In regard to the second step, which he proposes, I am all dumbfounded that he can not see the plan which he has laid out himself: sentience, which implies compassion, is key to the reduction of suffering.