High-Level Thoughts

Not as good as Sapiens, but an interesting look at where our species might go in the future and what we should watch for over the coming decades.

Summary Notes

The New Human Agenda

For the first time in history, more people die today 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 combined.

In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight, compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030. In 2010 famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.

Doctors, in contrast, count on more than mere luck. Though science owes a huge debt to serendipity, doctors don’t just throw different chemicals into test tubes, hoping to chance upon some new medicine. With each passing year doctors accumulate more and better knowledge, which they use in order to design more effective medicines and treatments. Consequently, though in 2050 we will undoubtedly face much more resilient germs, medicine in 2050 will likely be able to deal with them more efficiently than today.

In 2012 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.

Previously the main sources of wealth were material assets such as gold mines, wheat fields and oil wells. Today the main source of wealth is knowledge. And whereas you can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way.

Whereas in 2010 obesity and related illnesses killed about 3 million people, terrorists killed a total of 7,697 people across the globe, most of them in developing countries. For the average American or European, Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al - Qaeda.

Terrorists are like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot budge even a single teacup. So it finds a bull, gets inside its ear and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened in the Middle East in the last decade. Islamic fundamentalists could never have toppled Saddam Hussein by themselves. Instead they enraged the USA by the 9 / 11 attacks, and the USA destroyed the Middle Eastern china shop for them.

Success breeds ambition, and our recent achievements are now pushing humankind to set itself even more daring goals. Having secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, health and harmony, and given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity. Having reduced mortality from starvation, disease and violence, we will now aim to overcome old age and even death itself. Having saved people from abject misery, we will now aim to make them positively happy. And having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus.

Think for a moment about your own workplace. No matter whether you are a scholar, journalist, cook or football player, how would you feel if your boss were 120, his ideas were formulated when Victoria was still queen, and he was likely to stay your boss for a couple of decades more?

In truth, so far modern medicine hasn’t extended our natural life span by a single year. Its great achievement has been to save us from premature death, and allow us to enjoy the full measure of our years. Even if we now overcome cancer, diabetes and the other major killers, it would mean only that almost everyone will get to live to ninety – but it will not be enough to reach 150, let alone 500. For that, medicine will need to re- engineer the most fundamental structures and processes of the human body, and discover how to regenerate organs and tissues. It is by no means clear that we can do that by 2100.

People want to live for ever, so they compose an ‘immortal’ symphony, they strive for ‘eternal glory’ in some war, or even sacrifice their lives so that their souls will ‘enjoy everlasting bliss in paradise’. A large part of our artistic creativity, our political commitment and our religious piety is fuelled by the fear of death.

When Otto von Bismarck pioneered state pensions and social security in late nineteenth-century Germany, his chief aim was to ensure the loyalty of the citizens rather than to increase their well-being. You fought for your country when you were eighteen, and paid your taxes when you were forty, because you counted on the state to take care of you when you were seventy.

… extremely short life, and that was the end of the rare mutation. For the blissful squirrel would not have bothered to look for more nuts, let alone mates. The rival squirrels, who felt hungry again five minutes after eating a nut, had much better chances of surviving and passing their genes to the next generation.

For the blissful squirrel would not have bothered to look for more nuts, let alone mates. The rival squirrels, who felt hungry again five minutes after eating a nut, had much better chances of surviving and passing their genes to the next generation. For exactly the same reason, the nuts we humans seek to gather – lucrative jobs, big houses, good-looking partners – seldom satisfy us for long.

Perhaps the key to happiness is neither the race nor the gold medal, but rather combining the right doses of excitement and tranquillity; but most of us tend to jump all the way from stress to boredom and back, remaining as discontented with one as with the other.

Yet hitherto everybody still agreed on one thing: in order to improve education, we need to change the schools. Today, for the first time in history, at least some people think it would be more efficient to change the pupils’ biochemistry.

The state hopes to regulate the biochemical pursuit of happiness, separating ‘bad’ manipulations from ‘good’ ones. The principle is clear: biochemical manipulations that strengthen political stability, social order and economic growth are allowed and even encouraged (e.g., those that calm hyperactive kids in school, or drive anxious soldiers forward into battle). Manipulations that threaten stability and growth are banned.

Up till now increasing human power relied mainly on upgrading our external tools. In the future it may rely more on upgrading the human body and mind, or on merging directly with our tools. The upgrading of humans into gods may follow any of three paths: biological engineering, cyborg engineering and the engineering of non-organic beings.

When speaking of upgrading humans into gods, think more in terms of Greek gods or Hindu devas rather than the omnipotent biblical sky father. Our descendants would still have their foibles, kinks and limitations, just as Zeus and Indra had theirs. But they could love, hate, create and destroy on a much grander scale than us.

Every day millions of people decide to grant their smartphone a bit more control over their lives or try a new and more effective antidepressant drug. In pursuit of health, happiness and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human.

No clear line separates healing from upgrading. Medicine almost always begins by saving people from falling below the norm, but the same tools and know-how can then be used to surpass the norm. Viagra began life as a treatment for blood-pressure problems. To the surprise and delight of Pfizer, it transpired that Viagra can also overcome impotence. It enabled millions of men to regain normal sexual abilities; but soon enough men who had no impotence problems in the first place began using the same pill to surpass the norm, and acquire sexual powers they never had before.

Fertilise several eggs, and choose the one with the best combination. Once stem-cell research enables us to create an unlimited supply of human embryos on the cheap, you can select your optimal baby from among hundreds of candidates, all carrying your DNA, all perfectly natural, and none requiring any futuristic genetic engineering. Iterate this procedure for a few generations, and you could easily end up with superhumans (or a creepy dystopia).

it would surely come in handy if the little girl had a stronger-than-normal immune system, an above-average memory or a particularly sunny disposition. And even if you don’t want that for your child – what if the neighbours are doing it for theirs? Would you have your child lag behind? And if the government forbids all citizens from engineering their babies, what if the North Koreans are doing it and producing amazing geniuses, artists and athletes that far outperform ours? And like that, in baby steps, we are on our way to a genetic child catalogue.

This is the paradox of historical knowledge. Knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless. But knowledge that changes behaviour quickly loses its relevance. The more data we have and the better we understand history, the faster history alters its course, and the faster our knowledge becomes outdated.

The idea of nurturing a lawn at the entrance to private residences and public buildings was born in the castles of French and English aristocrats in the late Middle Ages. In the early modern age this habit struck deep roots, and became the trademark of nobility.

Part 1: Homo sapiens Conquers the World

Altogether about 200,000 wild wolves still roam the earth, but there are more than 400 million domesticated dogs.1 The world contains 40,000 lions compared to 600 million house cats; 900,000 African buffalo versus 1.5 billion domesticated cows; 50 million penguins and 20 billion chickens.

Since 1970, despite growing ecological awareness, wildlife populations have halved (not that they were prospering in 1970).

At present, more than 90 per cent of the large animals of the world (i.e., those weighing more than a few pounds) are either humans or domesticated animals.

Yes, a big asteroid will probably hit our planet sometime in the next 100 million years, but it is very unlikely to happen next Tuesday. Instead of fearing asteroids, we should fear ourselves.

The expulsion from Eden bears a striking resemblance to the Agricultural Revolution. Instead of allowing Adam to keep gathering wild fruits, an angry God condemns him ‘to eat bread by the sweat of your brow’. It might be no coincidence, then, that biblical animals spoke with humans only in the pre-agricultural era of Eden.

In most Semitic languages, ‘Eve’ means ‘snake’ or even ‘female snake’. The name of our ancestral biblical mother hides an archaic animist myth, according to which snakes are not our enemies, but our ancestors.

In fact, modern Westerners too think that they have evolved from reptiles. The brain of each and every one of us is built around a reptilian core, and the structure of our bodies is essentially that of modified reptiles.

Why do modern humans love sweets so much? Not because in the early twenty-first century we must gorge on ice cream and chocolate in order to survive. Rather, it is because when our Stone Age ancestors came across sweet fruit or honey, the most sensible thing to do was to eat as much of it as quickly as possible.

Why do young men drive recklessly, get involved in violent arguments and hack confidential Internet sites? Because they are following ancient genetic decrees that might be useless and even counterproductive today, but that made good evolutionary sense 70,000 years ago. A young hunter who risked his life chasing a mammoth outshone all his competitors and won the hand of the local beauty, and we are now stuck with his macho genes.

This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped thousands of generations ago continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer necessary for survival and reproduction in the present. Tragically, the Agricultural Revolution gave humans the power to ensure the survival and reproduction of domesticated animals while ignoring their subjective needs.

Whereas the Agricultural Revolution gave rise to theist religions, the Scientific Revolution gave birth to humanist religions, in which humans replaced gods. While theists worship theos (Greek for ‘god’), humanists worship humans. The founding idea of humanist religions such as liberalism, communism and Nazism is that Homo sapiens has some unique and sacred essence that is the source of all meaning and authority in the universe. Everything that happens in the cosmos is judged to be good or bad according to its impact on Homo sapiens.

Current orthodoxy holds that consciousness is created by electrochemical reactions in the brain, and that mental experiences fulfil some essential data-processing function. However, nobody has any idea how a congeries of biochemical reactions and electrical currents in the brain creates the subjective experience of pain, anger or love. Perhaps we will have a solid explanation in ten or fifty years. But as of 2016, we have no such explanation, and we had better be clear about that.

The analogy [of consciousness] to other complex processes such as traffic jams and economic crises is flawed. What creates a traffic jam? If you follow a single car, you will never understand it. The jam results from the interactions among many cars. Car A influences the movement of car B, which blocks the path of car C, and so on. Yet if you map the movements of all the relevant cars, and how each impacts the other, you will get a complete account of the traffic jam. It would be pointless to ask, ‘But how do all these movements create the traffic jam?’ For ‘traffic jam’ is simply the abstract term we humans decided to use for this particular collection of events.

In contrast, ‘anger’ isn’t an abstract term we have decided to use as a shorthand for billions of electric brain signals. Anger is an extremely concrete experience which people were familiar with long before they knew anything about electricity. When I say, ‘I am angry!’ I am pointing to a very tangible feeling. If you describe how a chemical reaction in a neuron results in an electric signal, and how billions of similar reactions result in billions of additional signals, it is still worthwhile to ask, ‘But how do these billions of events come together to create my concrete feeling of anger?’

Ironically, the better we map this process, the harder it becomes to explain conscious feelings. The better we understand the brain, the more redundant the mind seems. If the entire system works by electric signals passing from here to there, why the hell do we also need to feel fear? If a chain of electrochemical reactions leads all the way from the nerve cells in the eye to the movements of leg muscles, why add subjective experiences to this chain? What do they do? Countless domino pieces can fall one after the other without any need of subjective experiences.

Philosophers have encapsulated this riddle in a trick question: what happens in the mind that doesn’t happen in the brain? If nothing happens in the mind except what happens in our massive network of neurons – then why do we need the mind? If something does indeed happen in the mind over and above what happens in the neural network – where the hell does it happen?

Maybe the mind should join the soul, God and ether in the dustbin of science? After all, no one has ever seen experiences of pain or love through a microscope, and we have a very detailed biochemical explanation for pain and love that leaves no room for subjective experiences.

However, there is a crucial difference between mind and soul (as well as between mind and God). Whereas the existence of eternal souls is pure conjecture, the experience of pain is a direct and very tangible reality. When I step on a nail, I can be 100 per cent certain that I feel pain

Most modern people have ethical qualms about torture and rape because of the subjective experiences involved. If any scientist wants to argue that subjective experiences are irrelevant, their challenge is to explain why torture or rape are wrong without reference to any subjective experience.

Jet engines roar loudly, but the noise doesn’t propel the aeroplane forward. Humans don’t need carbon dioxide, but each and every breath fills the air with more of the stuff. Similarly, consciousness may be a kind of mental pollution produced by the firing of complex neural networks. It doesn’t do anything. It is just there. If this is true, it implies that all the pain and pleasure experienced by billions of creatures for millions of years is just mental pollution.

In the nineteenth century, scientists described brains and minds as if they were steam engines. Why steam engines? Because that was the leading technology of the day, which powered trains, ships and factories, so when humans tried to explain life, they assumed it must work according to analogous principles.

For all you know, the year might be 2216 and you are a bored teenager immersed inside a ‘virtual world’ game that simulates the primitive and exciting world of the early twenty-first century. Once you acknowledge the mere feasibility of this scenario, mathematics leads you to a very scary conclusion: since there is only one real world, whereas the number of potential virtual worlds is infinite, the probability that you happen to inhabit the sole real world is almost zero.

The Turing Test is simply a replication of a mundane test every gay man had to undergo in 1950s Britain: can you pass for a straight man? Turing knew from personal experience that it didn’t matter who you really were – it mattered only what others thought about you. According to Turing, in the future computers would be just like gay men in the 1950s. It won’t matter whether computers will actually be conscious or not. It will matter only what people think about it.

Similarly, say the sceptics, a male chimpanzee attacking a rival who hurt him weeks earlier isn’t really avenging the old insult. He is just reacting to a momentary feeling of anger, the cause of which is beyond him. When a mother elephant sees a lion threatening her calf, she rushes forward and risks her life not because she remembers that this is her beloved offspring whom she has been nurturing for months; rather, she is impelled by some unfathomable sense of hostility towards the lion. And when a dog jumps for joy when his owner comes home, the dog isn’t recognising the man who fed and cuddled him from infancy. He is simply overwhelmed by an unexplained ecstasy.

when a human mother sees her toddler wandering onto a busy road, she doesn’t stop to think about either past or future. Just like the mother elephant, she too just races to save her child. Why not say about her what we say about the elephant, namely that ‘when the mother rushed to save her baby from the oncoming danger, she did it without any self-consciousness. She was merely driven by a momentary urge’?

When Hans was asked what is four times three, he knew from past experience that the human was expecting him to tap his hoof a given number of times. He began tapping, while closely monitoring the human. As Hans approached the correct number of taps the human became more and more tense, and when Hans tapped the right number, the tension reached its peak. Hans knew how to recognise this by the human’s body posture and the look on the human’s face. He then stopped tapping, and watched how tension was replaced by amazement or laughter. Hans knew he had got it right.

To the best of our knowledge, only Sapiens can cooperate in very flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. This concrete capability – rather than an eternal soul or some unique kind of consciousness – explains our mastery of planet Earth.

This is bad news for psychologists, sociologists, economists and others who try to decipher human society through laboratory experiments. For both organisational and financial reasons, the vast majority of experiments are conducted either on individuals or on small groups of participants. Yet it is risky to extrapolate from small-group behaviour to the dynamics of mass societies. A nation of 100 million people functions in a fundamentally different way to a band of a hundred individuals.

Most people presume that reality is either objective or subjective, and that there is no third option. Hence once they satisfy themselves that something isn’t just their own subjective feeling, they jump to the conclusion it must be objective. If lots of people believe in God; if money makes the world go round; and if nationalism starts wars and builds empires – then these things aren’t just a subjective belief of mine. God, money and nations must therefore be objective realities.

However, there is a third level of reality: the intersubjective level. Intersubjective entities depend on communication among many humans rather than on the beliefs and feelings of individual humans. Many of the most important agents in history are intersubjective. Money, for example, has no objective value. You cannot eat, drink or wear a dollar bill. Yet as long as billions of people believe in its value, you can use it to buy food, beverages and clothing.

Yet we don’t want to accept that our God, our nation or our values are mere fictions, because these are the things that give meaning to our lives. We want to believe that our lives have some objective meaning, and that our sacrifices matter to something beyond the stories in our head. Yet in truth the lives of most people have meaning only within the network of stories they tell one another.

Why does a particular action – such as getting married in church, fasting on Ramadan or voting on election day – seem meaningful to me? Because my parents also think it is meaningful, as do my brothers, my neighbours, people in nearby cities and even the residents of far-off countries. And why do all these people think it is meaningful? Because their friends and neighbours also share the same view. People constantly reinforce each other’s beliefs in a self-perpetuating loop.

As human fictions are translated into genetic and electronic codes, the intersubjective reality will swallow up the objective reality and biology will merge with history. In the twenty-first century fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth, surpassing even wayward asteroids and natural selection. Hence if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must also decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.

Part 2: Homo Sapiens Give Meaning to the World

When in due course the Europeans penetrated the African interior, armed with their agreed-upon map, they discovered that many of the borders drawn in Berlin did little justice to the geographic, economic and ethnic reality of Africa. However, to avoid renewed clashes, the invaders stuck to their agreements, and these imaginary lines became the actual borders of European colonies. During the second half of the twentieth century, as the European empires disintegrated and their colonies gained independence, the new countries accepted the colonial borders, fearing that the alternative would be endless wars and conflicts.

Our modern education systems provide numerous other examples of reality kowtowing to written records. When measuring the width of my desk, the yardstick I am using matters little. The width of my desk remains the same whether I say it is 200 centimetres or 78.74 inches. However, when bureaucracies measure people, the yardsticks they choose make all the difference. When schools began assessing people according to precise numerical marks, the lives of millions of students and teachers changed dramatically.

Originally, schools were supposed to focus on enlightening and educating students, and marks were merely a means of measuring success. But naturally enough schools soon began focusing on achieving high marks. As every child, teacher and inspector knows, the skills required to get high marks in an exam are not the same as a true understanding of literature, biology or mathematics. Every child, teacher and inspector also knows that when forced to choose between the two, most schools will go for the marks.

The system has sufficient authority to influence admission standards to colleges and hiring standards in government offices and in the private sector. Students therefore invest all their efforts in getting good marks. Coveted positions are occupied by people with high marks, who naturally support the system that brought them there. The fact that the education system controls the critical exams gives it more power, and increases its influence over colleges, government offices and the job market. If somebody protests that ‘The degree certificate is just a piece of paper!’ and behaves accordingly, he is unlikely to get very far in life.

The key question, though, is whether this is the right yardstick for measuring success. A school principal would say: ‘Our system works. During the last five years, exam results have risen by 7.3 per cent.’ Yet is that the best way to judge a school?

Human cooperative networks usually judge themselves by yardsticks of their own invention and, not surprisingly, they often give themselves high marks. In particular, human networks built in the name of imaginary entities such as gods, nations and corporations normally judge their success from the viewpoint of the imaginary entity. A religion is successful if it follows divine commandments to the letter; a nation is glorious if it promotes the national interest; and a corporation thrives if it makes a lot of money.

When examining the history of any human network, it is therefore advisable to stop from time to time and look at things from the perspective of some real entity. How do you know if an entity is real? Very simple – just ask yourself, ‘Can it suffer?’ When people burn down the temple of Zeus, Zeus doesn’t suffer. When the euro loses its value, the euro doesn’t suffer. When a bank goes bankrupt, the bank doesn’t suffer. When a country suffers a defeat in war, the country doesn’t really suffer. It’s just a metaphor. In contrast, when a soldier is wounded in battle, he really does suffer. When a famished peasant has nothing to eat, she suffers. When a cow is separated from her newborn calf, she suffers. This is reality.

It is often said that God helps those who help themselves. This is a roundabout way of saying that God doesn’t exist, but if our belief in Him inspires us to do something ourselves – it helps.

Antibiotics, unlike God, help even those who don’t help themselves. They cure infections whether you believe in them or not.

Religion cannot be equated with superstition, because most people are unlikely to call their most cherished beliefs ‘superstitions’. We always believe in ‘the truth’; only other people believe in superstitions.

Religion is any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values. It legitimises human social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.

If you tell communists or liberals that they are religious, they think you are 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 that humans must nevertheless obey. As far as we know, all human societies believe in this. Every society tells its members that they must obey some superhuman moral law, and that breaking this law will result in catastrophe.

Religion has nothing to say about scientific facts, and science should keep its mouth shut concerning religious convictions. If the Pope believes that human life is sacred, and abortion is therefore a sin, biologists can neither prove nor refute this claim. As a private individual, each biologist is welcome to argue with the Pope. But as a scientist, the biologist cannot enter the fray.

Take abortion, for example. Devout Christians often oppose abortion, whereas many liberals support it. The main bone of contention is factual rather than ethical. Both Christians and liberals believe that human life is sacred, and that murder is a heinous crime. But they disagree about certain biological facts: does human life begin at the moment of conception, at the moment of birth or at some intermediate point?

When we descend from the ethereal sphere of philosophy and observe historical realities, we find that religious stories almost always include three parts:

  1. Ethical judgements, such as ‘human life is sacred’.
  2. Factual statements, such as ‘human life begins at the moment of conception’.
  3. A conflation of the ethical judgements with the factual statements, resulting in practical guidelines such as ‘you should never allow abortion, even a single day after conception’.

To cut a long story short, most peer-reviewed scientific studies agree that the Bible is a collection of numerous different texts composed by different human authors centuries after the events they purport to describe, and that these texts were not assembled into a single holy book until long after biblical times. For example, whereas King David probably lived around 1000 BC, it is commonly accepted that the book of Deuteronomy was composed in the court of King Josiah of Judah, sometime around 620 bc, as part of a propaganda campaign aimed at strengthening Josiah’s authority. Leviticus was compiled at an even later date, no earlier than 500 BC.

Hence according to our best scientific knowledge, the Leviticus injunctions against homosexuality reflect nothing grander than the biases of a few priests and scholars in ancient Jerusalem. Though science cannot decide whether people ought to obey God’s commands, it has many relevant things to say about the provenance of the Bible. If Ugandan politicians think that the power that created the cosmos, the galaxies and the black holes becomes terribly upset whenever two Homo sapiens males have a bit of fun together, then science can help disabuse them of this rather bizarre notion.

Yet even if Harris is right, and even if all humans cherish happiness, in practice it would be extremely difficult to use this insight to decide ethical disputes, particularly because we have no scientific definition or measurement of happiness.

Indeed, are happiness and misery mathematical entities that can be added or subtracted in the first place? Eating ice cream is enjoyable; finding true love is more enjoyable. Do you think that if you just eat enough ice cream, the accumulated pleasure could ever equal the rapture of true love?

If you had travelled to Cairo or Istanbul around 1600, you would find there a multicultural and tolerant metropolis, where Sunnis, Shiites, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Armenians, Copts, Jews and even the occasional Hindu lived side by side in relative harmony. Though they had their share of disagreements and riots, and though the Ottoman Empire routinely discriminated against people on religious grounds, it was a liberal paradise compared with Europe. If you had then sailed on to contemporary Paris or London, you would have found cities awash with religious extremism, in which only those belonging to the dominant sect could live. In London they killed Catholics, in Paris they killed Protestants, the Jews had long been driven out, and nobody in his right mind would dream of letting any Muslims in. And yet, the Scientific Revolution began in London and Paris rather than in Cairo and Istanbul.

Religion is interested above all in order. It aims to create and maintain the social structure. Science is interested above all in power. Through research, it aims to acquire the power to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food. As individuals, scientists and priests may give immense importance to the truth; but as collective institutions, science and religion prefer order and power over truth.

It would accordingly be far more accurate to view modern history as the process of formulating a deal between science and one particular religion – namely, humanism. Modern society believes in humanist dogmas, and uses science not in order to question these dogmas, but rather in order to implement them.

Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

Modern culture rejects this belief in a great cosmic plan. We are not actors in any larger-than-life drama. Life has no script, no playwright, no director, no producer – and no meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

Funds were scarce because there was little credit in those days; there was little credit because people had no belief in growth; and people didn’t believe in growth because the economy was stagnant. Stagnation thereby perpetuated itself.

Today Hindu revivalists, pious Muslims, Japanese nationalists and Chinese communists may declare their adherence to very different values and goals, but they have all come to believe that economic growth is the key to realising their disparate goals.

In Singapore, as befits that no-nonsense city-state, they pursue this line of thinking even further, and peg ministerial salaries to the national GDP. When the Singaporean economy grows, government ministers get a raise, as if that is what their jobs are all about.

Take, for example, a software engineer earning $100 per hour working for some hi-tech start-up. One day her elderly father has a stroke. He now needs help with shopping, cooking and even bathing. She could move her father to her own house, leave for work later in the morning, come back earlier in the evening and take care of her father personally. Both her income and the start-up’s productivity would suffer, but her father would enjoy the care of a respectful and loving daughter. Alternatively, the engineer could hire a Mexican carer who, for $12 per hour, would live with the father and provide for all his needs. That would mean business as usual for the engineer and her start-up, and even the carer and the Mexican economy would benefit. What should the engineer do?

When some people specialise in software engineering while others devote their time to care of the elderly, we can no doubt produce more software and give old people more professional care. Yet 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.

This lesson is hammered home even to children and teenagers through ubiquitous capitalist games. Premodern games such as chess assumed a stagnant economy. You begin a game of chess with sixteen pieces, and you never finish a game with more.

Particularly telling are civilisation-style strategy games, such as Minecraft, The Settlers of Catan or Sid Meier’s Civilization. The game may be set in the Middle Ages, the Stone Age or some imaginary fairy land, but the principles always remain the same – and are always capitalist.

Yet the creed of growth firmly objects to such a heretical idea. Instead, it suggests we should run even faster. If our discoveries destabilise the ecosystem and threaten humanity, then we should discover something to protect ourselves.

After centuries of economic growth and scientific progress, life should have become calm and peaceful, at least in the most advanced countries. If our ancestors knew what tools and resources stand ready at our command, they would have surmised that we must be enjoying celestial tranquillity, free of all cares and worries. The truth is very different. Despite all our achievements, we feel a constant pressure to do and produce even more.

Even if you are quite satisfied with your current conditions, you should strive for more. Yesterday’s luxuries become today’s necessities. If once you could live well in a three-bedroom apartment with one car and a single desktop computer, today you need a five-bedroom house with two cars and a host of iPods, tablets and smartphones.

What, then, rescued modern society from collapse? Humankind was salvaged not by the law of supply and demand, but rather by the rise of a revolutionary new religion – humanism.

The modern deal offers us power, on condition that we renounce our belief in a great cosmic plan that gives meaning to life. Yet when you examine the deal closely, you find a cunning escape clause. If humans somehow manage to find meaning without predicating it upon some great cosmic plan, this is not considered a breach of contract.

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

is anything people think is art, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ If people think that a urinal is a beautiful work of art – then it is. What higher authority is there to tell people they are wrong?

if some multinational corporation wants to know whether it lives up to its ‘Don’t be evil’ motto, it need only take a look at its bottom line. If it makes loads of money, it means that millions of people like its products, which implies that it is a force for good.

Heaven and hell too ceased to be real places somewhere above the clouds and below the volcanoes, and were instead interpreted as internal mental states. You experience hell every time you ignite the fires of anger and hatred within your heart; and you enjoy heavenly bliss every time you forgive your enemies, repent your own misdeeds and share your wealth with the poor.

In medieval Europe, the chief formula for knowledge was: Knowledge = Scriptures × Logic. If people wanted to know the answer to an important question, they would read scriptures and use their logic to understand the exact meaning of the text.

The Scientific Revolution proposed a very different formula for knowledge: Knowledge = Empirical Data × Mathematics. If we want to know the answer to some question, we need to gather relevant empirical data, and then use mathematical tools to analyse them.

No amount of data and no mathematical wizardry can prove that it is wrong to murder. Yet human societies cannot survive without such value judgements.

As humans gained confidence in themselves, a new formula for acquiring ethical knowledge appeared: Knowledge = Experiences × Sensitivity. If we wish to know the answer to any ethical question, we need to connect to our inner experiences, and observe them with the utmost sensitivity. In practice, this means that we seek knowledge by spending years collecting experiences, and sharpening our sensitivity so we can understand these experiences correctly.

All humanist sects believe that human experience is the supreme source of authority and meaning, yet they interpret human experience in different ways. Humanism split into three main branches.

The more liberty individuals enjoy, the more beautiful, rich and meaningful is the world. Due to this emphasis on liberty, the orthodox branch of humanism is known as ‘liberal humanism’ or simply as ‘liberalism’.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as humanism gained increasing social credibility and political power, it sprouted two very different offshoots: socialist humanism, which encompassed a plethora of socialist and communist movements, and evolutionary humanism, whose most famous advocates were the Nazis.

Liberals will tend to say that the experiences of the musicology professor, of the young driver and of the Congolese hunter are all equally valuable, and all should be equally cherished. Every human experience contributes something unique, and enriches the world with new meaning.

Socialists will probably agree with the liberals that the wolf’s experience is of little value. But their attitude towards the three human experiences will be quite different. A socialist true-believer will explain that the real value of music depends not on the experiences of the individual listener, but on the impact it has on the experiences of other people and of society as a whole. As Mao said, ‘There is no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics.’

Whereas liberals tiptoe around the minefield of cultural comparisons, fearful of committing some politically incorrect faux pas, and whereas socialists leave it to the party to find the correct path through this minefield, evolutionary humanists gleefully jump right in, setting off all the mines and relishing the mayhem.

There is an unambiguous hierarchy of human experiences, and we shouldn’t be apologetic about it. The Taj Mahal is more beautiful than a straw hut, Michelangelo’s David is superior to my five-year-old niece’s latest clay figurine, and Beethoven composed far better music than Chuck Berry or the Congolese pygmies. There, we’ve said it!

Liberal democracy was saved only by nuclear weapons. NATO adopted the MAD doctrine (Mutual Assured Destruction), according to which even conventional Soviet attacks would be answered by an all-out nuclear strike. ‘If you attack us,’ threatened the liberals, ‘we will make sure nobody comes out alive.’

While it is a favourite pastime of Western academics and activists to find fault with the liberal package, they have so far failed to come up with anything better.

Why did Marx and Lenin succeed where Hong and the Mahdi failed? Not because socialist humanism was philosophically more sophisticated than Islamic and Christian theology, but rather because Marx and Lenin devoted more attention to understanding the technological and economic realities of their time than to scrutinising ancient texts and prophetic dreams.

The socialists created a brave new religion for a brave new world. They promised salvation through technology and economics, thus establishing the first techno-religion in history, and changing the foundations of ideological discourse. Before Marx, people defined and divided themselves according to their views about God, not about production methods. Since Marx, questions of technology and economic structure became far more important and divisive than debates about the soul and the afterlife.

Islam, Christianity and other traditional religions are still important players in the world. Yet their role is now largely reactive.

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.

Part 3: Homo Sapiens Loses Control

like every other religion, liberalism too is based not only on abstract ethical judgments, but also on what it believes to be factual statements. And these factual statements just don’t stand up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.

The last nail in freedom’s coffin is provided by the theory of evolution. Just as evolution cannot be squared with eternal souls, neither can it swallow the idea of free will. For if humans are free, how could natural selection have shaped them?

If, thanks to its fit genes, an animal chooses to eat a nutritious mushroom and copulate with healthy and fertile mates, these genes pass on to the next generation. If, because of unfit genes, an animal opts for poisonous mushrooms and anaemic mates, these genes become extinct. However, if an animal ‘freely’ chooses what to eat and with whom to mate, then natural selection has nothing to work with.

If by ‘free will’ we mean the ability to act according to our desires – then yes, humans have free will, and so do chimpanzees, dogs and parrots. When Polly wants a cracker, Polly eats a cracker. But the million-dollar question is not whether parrots and humans can act upon their inner desires – the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place.

Scientists observing neural activity in the brain can predict which switch the person will press well before the person actually does so, and even before the person is aware of their own intention.

When a biochemical chain reaction makes me desire to press the right switch, I feel that I really want to press the right switch. And this is true. I really do want to press it. Yet people erroneously jump to the conclusion that if I want to press it, I choose to want to. This is of course false. I don’t choose my desires. I only feel them, and act accordingly.

The single authentic self is as real as the eternal soul, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. If I look really deep within myself, the seeming unity that I take for granted dissolves into a cacophony of conflicting voices, none of which is ‘my true self’. Humans aren’t individuals. They are ‘dividuals’.

In yet another experiment the non-verbal right hemisphere was shown a pornographic image. The patient reacted by blushing and giggling. ‘What did you see?’ asked the mischievous researchers. ‘Nothing, just a flash of light,’ said the left hemisphere, and the patient immediately giggled again, covering her mouth with her hand. ‘Why are you laughing then?’ they insisted. The bewildered left-hemisphere interpreter – struggling for some rational explanation – replied that one of the machines in the room looked very funny.

So what do the patients prefer: to have a short and sharp colonoscopy, or a long and careful one? There isn’t a single answer to this question, because the patient has at least two different selves and they have different interests. If you ask the experiencing self, it would probably choose a short colonoscopy. But if you ask the narrating self, it would prefer a long colonoscopy because it remembers only the average between the worst moment and the last moment. Indeed, from the viewpoint of the narrating self, the doctor should add a few completely superfluous minutes of dull aches at the very end of the test, because it would make the entire memory far less traumatic.

Furthermore, the experiencing self is often strong enough to sabotage the best-laid plans of the narrating self. I might, for instance, make a New Year’s resolution to start a diet and go to the gym every day. Such grand decisions are the monopoly of the narrating self. But the following week when it’s gym time, the experiencing self takes over. I don’t feel like going to the gym, and instead I order pizza, sit on the sofa and turn on the TV.

Priests discovered this principle thousands of years ago. It underlies numerous religious ceremonies and commandments. If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable. The more painful the sacrifice, the more convinced they will be of the existence of the imaginary recipient.

giving citizens political rights is good, because the soldiers and workers of democratic countries perform better than those of dictatorships. Allegedly, granting political rights to people increases their motivation and their initiative, which is useful both on the battlefield and in the factory.

A similar rationale favoured the enfranchisement of women in the wake of the First World War. Realising the vital role of women in total industrial wars, countries saw the need to give them political rights in peacetime.

In the twenty-first century liberalism will have a much harder time selling itself. As the masses lose their economic importance, will the moral argument alone be enough to protect human rights and liberties? Will elites and governments go on valuing every human being even when it pays no economic dividends

at least for armies and corporations, the answer is straightforward: intelligence is mandatory but consciousness is optional.

Some economists predict that sooner or later, unenhanced humans will be completely useless. Robots and 3D printers are already replacing workers in manual jobs such as manufacturing shirts, and highly intelligent algorithms will do the same to white-collar occupations. Bank clerks and travel agents, who a short time ago seemed completely secure from automation, have become endangered species. How many travel agents do we need when we can use our smartphones to buy plane tickets from an algorithm?

The training of a human doctor is a complicated and expensive process that lasts years. When the process is complete, after a decade or so of studies and internships, all you get is one doctor. If you want two doctors, you have to repeat the entire process from scratch. In contrast, if and when you solve the technical problems hampering Watson, you will get not one, but an infinite number of doctors, available 24/7 in every corner of the world.

In its first year of operation the robotic pharmacist provided 2 million prescriptions, without making a single mistake.

The most important question in twenty-first-century economics may well be what to do with all the superfluous people. What will conscious humans do, once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better?

In 2004 Professor Frank Levy from MIT and Professor Richard Murnane from Harvard published thorough research of the job market, listing those professions most likely to undergo automation. Truck driving was given as an example of a job that could not possibly be automated in the foreseeable future. It is hard to imagine, they wrote, that algorithms could safely drive trucks on a busy road. A mere ten years later Google and Tesla can not only imagine this, but are actually making it happen.

As algorithms push humans out of the job market, wealth and power might become concentrated in the hands of the tiny elite that owns the all-powerful algorithms, creating unprecedented social and political inequality.

However, once millions of human drivers are replaced by a single algorithm, all that wealth and power will be cornered by the corporation that owns the algorithm, and by the handful of billionaires who own the corporation. Alternatively, the algorithms might themselves become the owners.

At the end of the performance, a vote was taken. The result? The audience thought that EMI’s piece was genuine Bach, that Bach’s piece was composed by Larson, and that Larson’s piece was produced by a computer.

Annie does not restrict itself to music composition but also explores other art forms such as haiku poetry. In 2011 Cope published Comes the Fiery Night: 2,000 Haiku by Man and Machine. Some of the haiku were written by Annie, and the rest by organic poets. The book does not disclose which are which. If you think you can tell the difference between human creativity and machine output, you are welcome to test your claim.

The likelihood that computer algorithms will displace archaeologists by 2033 is only 0.7 per cent, because their job requires highly sophisticated types of pattern recognition, and doesn’t produce huge profits. Hence it is improbable that corporations or government will make the necessary investment to automate archaeology within the next twenty years.

Google could do it in minutes. It needs to merely monitor the words Londoners type in their emails and in Google’s search engine and cross-reference them with a database of disease symptoms. Suppose on an average day the words ‘headache’, ‘fever’, ‘nausea’ and ‘sneezing’ appear 100,000 times in London emails and searches. If today the Google algorithm notices they appear 300,000 times, then bingo! We have a flu epidemic. There is no need to wait till Mary goes to her doctor. On the very first morning she woke up feeling a bit unwell and before going to work she emailed a colleague, ‘I have a headache, but I’ll be there.’ That’s all Google needs.

Indeed, in some fields the Facebook algorithm did better than the person themself. Participants were asked to evaluate things such as their level of substance use or the size of their social networks. Their judgements were less accurate than those of the algorithm.

People might abandon their own psychological judgements and rely on computers when making important life decisions, such as choosing activities, career paths, or even romantic partners. It is possible that such data-driven decisions will improve people’s lives.’

On a more sinister note, the same study implies that in future US presidential elections Facebook could know not only the political opinions of tens of millions of Americans, but also who among them are the critical swing voters, and how these voters might be swung.

The third threat to liberalism is that some people will remain both indispensable and undecipherable, but they will constitute a small and privileged elite of upgraded humans.

Techno-humanism agrees that Homo sapiens as we know it has run its historical course and will no longer be relevant in the future, but concludes that we should therefore use technology in order to create Homo deus – a much superior human model.

whereas Hitler and his ilk planned to create superhumans by means of selective breeding and ethnic cleansing, twenty-first-century techno-humanism hopes to reach that goal far more peacefully, with the help of genetic engineering, nanotechnology and brain–computer interfaces.

today we have a detailed albeit imperfect map of the sub-normative mental spectrum: the zone of human existence characterized by less-than-normal capacities to feel, think or communicate.

However, most scientific research about the human mind and the human experience has been conducted on people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic (WEIRD) societies, who do not constitute a representative sample of humanity.

in papers published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology – arguably the most important journal in the subfield of social psychology – 96 per cent of the sampled individuals were WEIRD, and 68 per cent were Americans. Moreover, 67 per cent of American subjects and 80 per cent of non-American subjects were psychology students!

Western culture is therefore unique in lacking a specialised class of people who seek to experience extraordinary mental states. It believes anyone attempting to do so is a drug addict, mental patient or charlatan.

archaic humans probably made extensive use of their sense of smell. Hunter-gatherers are able to smell from a distance the difference between various animal species, various humans and even various emotions. Fear, for example, smells different from courage. When a man is afraid he secretes different chemicals compared to when he is full of courage. If you sat among an archaic band debating whether to start a war against the neighbours, you could literally smell public opinion.

Modern humanity is sick with FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – and though we have more choice than ever before, we have lost the ability to really pay attention to whatever we choose.

If we start using the attention helmet in more and more situations, we may end up losing our ability to tolerate confusion, doubts and contradictions, just as we have lost our ability to smell, dream and pay attention. The system may push us in that direction, because it usually rewards us for the decisions we make rather than for our doubts. Yet a life of resolute decisions and quick fixes may be poorer and shallower than one of doubts and contradictions.

The number one humanist commandment – listen to yourself! – is no longer self-evident. As we learn to turn our inner volume up and down, we give up our belief in authenticity, because it is no longer clear whose hand is on the switch. Silencing annoying noises inside my head seems like a wonderful idea, provided it enables me to finally hear my deep authentic self. But if there is no authentic self, how do I decide which voices to silence and which to amplify?

Once we can design and redesign our will, we could no longer see it as the ultimate source of all meaning and authority. For no matter what our will says, we can always make it say something else.

Dataism declares that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing.

Dataism puts the two together, pointing out that exactly the same mathematical laws apply to both biochemical and electronic algorithms. Dataism thereby collapses the barrier between animals and machines, and expects electronic algorithms to eventually decipher and outperform biochemical algorithms.

Dataists are sceptical about human knowledge and wisdom, and prefer to put their trust in Big Data and computer algorithms.

Data-processing considerations also explain why capitalists favour lower taxes. Heavy taxation means that a large part of all available capital accumulates in one place – the state coffers – and consequently more and more decisions have to be made by a single processor, namely the government.

The NSA may be spying on our every word, but to judge by the repeated failures of American foreign policy, nobody in Washington knows what to do with all the data.

Republicans have accused Barack Obama of being a ruthless despot hatching conspiracies to destroy the foundations of American society – yet in eight years of his presidency he barely managed to pass a minor health-care reform.

in the early twenty-first century politics is bereft of grand visions. Government has become mere administration. It manages the country, but it no longer leads it. Government ensures that teachers are paid on time and sewage systems don’t overflow, but it has no idea where the country will be in twenty years.

Ruthless billionaires and small interest groups flourish in today’s chaotic world not because they read the map better than anyone else, but because they have very narrow aims. In a chaotic system, tunnel vision has its advantages, and the billionaires’ power is strictly proportional to their goals.

From a Dataist perspective, we may interpret the entire human species as a single data-processing system, with individual humans serving as its chips. If so, we can also understand the whole of history as a process of improving the efficiency of this system through four basic methods:

  1. Increasing the number of processors.
  2. Increasing the variety of processors.
  3. Increasing the number of connections between processors.
  4. Increasing the freedom of movement along existing connections.

If humankind is indeed a single data-processing system, what is its output? Dataists would say that its output will be the creation of a new and even more efficient data-processing system, called the Internet-of-All-Things. Once this mission is accomplished, Homo sapiens will vanish.

On 11 January 2013, Dataism got its first martyr when Aaron Swartz, a twenty-six-year-old American hacker, committed suicide in his apartment. Swartz was a rare genius. At fourteen, he helped develop the crucial RSS protocol. Swartz was also a firm believer in the freedom of information. In 2008 he published the ‘Guerilla Open Access Manifesto’, which demanded a free and unlimited flow of information.

Writing a private diary – a common humanist practice in previous generations – sounds to many present-day youngsters utterly pointless. Why write anything if nobody else can read it? The new motto says: ‘If you experience something – record it. If you record something – upload it. If you upload something – share it.’

Dataism finds such scenarios utterly ridiculous. ‘Come on,’ it admonishes the Hollywood screenwriters, ‘is that all you could come up with? Love? And not even some platonic cosmic love, but the carnal attraction between two mammals? Do you really think that an all-knowing super-computer or aliens who contrived to conquer the entire galaxy would be dumbfounded by a hormonal rush?’

It is equally doubtful whether life boils down to mere decision-making. Under Dataist influence both the life sciences and the social sciences have become obsessed with decision-making processes, as if that’s all there is to life. But is it so? Sensations, emotions and thoughts certainly play an important part in making decisions, but is that their sole meaning? Dataism is gaining a better and better understanding of decision-making processes, but it might be adopting an increasingly skewed view of life.

Yet once authority shifts from humans to algorithms, the humanist projects may become irrelevant. Once we abandon the homo-centric world view in favour of a data-centric world view, human health and happiness may seem far less important.

Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that

  1. Organisms are algorithms and life is data processing.
  2. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
  3. Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.

These three processes raise three key questions, which I hope will stick in your mind long after you have finished this book:

  1. Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really 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?

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