Book Review: Homo Deus

So,  I finished this book on war footing.  Standing, sitting – everywhere and everything I did, I continued to read. It helped to have kindle app on my mobile – so this is the only thing I do on mobile these days.

The book is neatly divided into three parts – Homo Sapiens conquers the World, Homo Sapiens gives meaning to the World and Homo Sapiens loses control.  He starts off saying that the three big problems Humanity faced all along : War, Famine and Death are no longer seen as wrath of Gods, but are technical problem waiting to be fixed or negligence of people responsible to maintain.  The first part of the book explains how Sapiens came to rule the world and whether other organisms have subjective feelings like us. Sapiens are capable of creating shared imaginations and believing in them. Because of shared imaginations – corporations, countries, currencies  : Large scale co-operation becomes possible. This is the single most important trait of Homo Sapiens.  Quotable Quotes –

History provides ample evidence for the crucial important of large scale co-operation.Victory almost went invariably to those who could co-operate better – not only in struggles between Homo Sapiens and other animals, but also in conflicts between different human groups.

Sapiens can rule the world because only they can weave an intersubjective web of meaning – a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination. This web alone allows humans to organize crusades, socialist revolutions and human rights movements.

During this process, the author explains in detail the kind of sorrow we have bestowed upon domesticated animals using the concept of evolutionary psychology.  It is a need shaped thousands of generations ago that is continued to be felt subjectively even though it’s no longer necessary for survival and reproduction in the present. Via the Agricultural revolution, Humans got the power to ensure the survival and reproduction of domesticated animals while ignoring their subjective needs.

One of the crucial things he brings up is that the theory of evolution doesn’t fit with the concept of unchanging soul.  Also, what is the importance of subjective experiences /feelings – when all the chemical reactions are all that happens for every single thing a human being does?  Why do we need consciousness and where is it stored? Our  memories, imaginations and thoughts are supposed to be stored in mind. But, if we are nothing but an organism operating via chemical reactions happening inside us – what is the use of mind? The question of Other Minds has been long alluring philosophers and biologists alike. Mind = Consciousness, an unsolved mystery.

Part Two is very interesting with the theme of explaining how Humanism became the most pre-dominant theme.

Humans think they make history,  but history actually  revolves around this web of stories.

70,000 years ago,  with Cognitive Revolution – Humans started talking things that existed only in their imagination.  We remained mostly in small groups, until 12,000 years ago. The Agricultural revolution – which began 12,000 years ago made it possible for stories to spread in groups of people faster than ever.  Then, the final and irreversible invention happened 5000 years ago when Sumerians invented writing and money. Kingdoms then started to be managed in the name of God by human priest-kings. Over time, the fiction which humans invented in the name of Gods worked, and reality was often distorted to match with the written word.

Yuval Noah then goes to de-bunk the most controversial of things in the world – RELIGION, giving classic examples on how science is way closer to religion and how a particular religious claim can be verified using science to prove it’s authenticity or otherwise.

The assertion that religion is a tool for preserving social order and for organizing large scale co-operation may vex those for whom it represents first and foremost a spiritual path. Religion is a deal, whereas Spirituality is a journey.

The book takes a detour on arriving at humanity – going via liberalism and socialism. How we thought liberalism lost it, and how it finally showed up everywhere. But, as the author argues – now it’s humanity’s party.

According to Humanism – humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of entire universe.  This is the primary commandment Humanism has given us – create meaning for a meaning less world.

Part-III  – the final one explains how we will destroy ourselves as a species. Firstly, as humanism defines in Part-II, are humans really have an inner voice, and can they act at free will? Is it one single voice or many voices? How do you decide which voice to listen? And do we really choose our desires in the first place ? Sure, we act on them. There is no “Free” choice, we all act as per our brain makeup and the electro chemical reactions inside it.

The part which scared me like hell is copy pasted from the book below –

The Liberal belief in Individualism is founded on three important assumptions –

  1. I am an in-dividual, that is, I have single essence that cannot be divided into parts or sub systems. True, this inner core is wrapped in many outer layers. But, if I make an effort to peel away these external crusts, I will find within myself a clear and single inner voice, which is my authentic self.
  2. My authentic self is completely free.
  3. It follows from first two assumptions that I can know things about myself that no body else can discover.  For only I have access to inner space of freedom, and only I can hear the whispers of my authentic self.This is why Liberalism grants the individual so much authority.  I cannot trust anyone else to  make choices for me, because no body else can know who I really am, how i feel and what I want. This is why voter knows the best, why the customer is always right and why beauty is in the eyes of beholder

However, Life Sciences challenges all the three assumptions. According to them –

  1. Organisms are algorithms,  and humans are not individuals – they are ‘dividuals’. That is, humans are an assemblage of many different algorithms lacking a single inner voice or a single self
  2. The algorithms constituting a human are not  free. They are shaped by genes and environmental pressures, and take decisions either deterministically or randomly – but not freely.
  3. It follows that an external algorithm could theoretically know me much better than I can ever know myself.  An algorithm that monitors each of the systems that comprise my body and my brain could know exactly who I am, how I feel and what I want. Once developed, such an algorithm could replace the voter, the customer and the beholder. Then the algorithm will know best, the algorithm will always be right, and beauty will be in the calculations of the algorithm.


Back to the book review. The author finally ends with this extensive definition of Dataism as a Religion.  It declares that the universe consists of data flows,  and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing. So far,  Humans are at the apex of this Dataism – hence consider themselves invaluable. Once Algorithms take over and humans become “the useless class” – what’s in store for us?

The book leaves us with three questions  –

  1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life just data processing?
  2. What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness?
  3. What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

Hard to comprehend, enough to chew on for next few weeks.

Rating : 5/5



Author: Saraswathi Pulluru

Aham Bhrahmasmi.

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