Is belief in free will dangerous? Yuval Harari’s take

I’m sure most of you have heard of Yuval Noah Harari, a historian at Israel’s Hebrew University who wrote the mega best-sellers Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016).  I haven’t yet read either book, though I intend to read Sapiens. Wikipedia notes, however, that while the popular reception of that book was wildly positive, scholarly reaction has been mixed and sometimes negative. (If you’ve read either, weigh in below.)

Harari also has a new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, that came out on September 4 and has starred reviews from all three major book-rating sites, as well as a glowing endorsement from Bill Gates. The topic of today’s post, Harari’s new Guardian article on free will, is either an excerpt from the book or a precis of one of its topics, since the book is apparently about what we should worry about in the future.

Click on the screenshot below to go to the article.

As you’ll see, the thesis of Harari’s piece is that liberalism, which he favors, is endangered by the “myth” of free will.

Harari’s implicit thesis, which he takes as confirmed, is that there is no such thing as free will. From the discussion you can see that by “free will” he means libertarian, you-could-have-done-otherwise free will, not compatibilist free will (i.e., free will is compatible with determinism). His refusal to discuss the semantic tricks involved in philosophical compatibilism is fine with me, for, after all, the great majority of people see free will as he and I do. You can argue with Harari if you wish, but his thesis rests on pure determinism, which he sees, as do I, as the negation of what most people think of as free will. And it is this determinism that drives his thesis and his Big Worry.

While I agree with Harari’s thesis that libertarian free will is a myth, and there are dangers in accepting it, we disagree about what the dangers are. My view, which I’ve amply espoused here, is that the dangers lie mainly in how we punish people—in the retributive and brutal justice system that, in many countries, is predicated on the view that criminals could have chosen to behave differently. My view is that embracing determinism will breed a kindler, gentler, and socially more useful system of justice.

Harari’s thesis is threefold:

a.) We don’t have free will because we are the products of our genes and environments, neither of which we choose “freely”, in a libertarian sense. Harari’s words:

Unfortunately, “free will” isn’t a scientific reality. It is a myth inherited from Christian theology. Theologians developed the idea of “free will” to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them? According to the theologians, it is reasonable for God to do so, because our choices reflect the free will of our eternal souls, which are independent of all physical and biological constraints.

This myth has little to do with what science now teaches us about Homo sapiens and other animals. Humans certainly have a will – but it isn’t free. You cannot decide what desires you have. You don’t decide to be introvert or extrovert, easy-going or anxious, gay or straight. Humans make choices – but they are never independent choices. Every choice depends on a lot of biological, social and personal conditions that you cannot determine for yourself. I can choose what to eat, whom to marry and whom to vote for, but these choices are determined in part by my genes, my biochemistry, my gender, my family background, my national culture, etc – and I didn’t choose which genes or family to have.

Well, I’m not sure about the origin of the free will myth. The fact is that all of us (including Harari and me) feel that we make libertarian choices, and that feeling may itself be a product of natural selection. (I won’t here go into the reasons why that kind of illusion may have been adaptive). If it is evolved, then the myth is inherited not from Christian theology, but from our evolutionary past. It’s certainly true, though, that libertarian free will is a bedrock of Abrahamic religions, and has been taken for granted by their theologians for millennia.

But never mind; I agree with Harari that “you cannot decide what desires you have.”

b.) Liberalism has historically depended on this notion of free will. Here’s how Harari justifies that claim:

Liberalism is founded on the belief in human liberty. Unlike rats and monkeys, human beings are supposed to have “free will”. This is what makes human feelings and human choices the ultimate moral and political authority in the world. Liberalism tells us that the voter knows best, that the customer is always right, and that we should think for ourselves and follow our hearts.

Well, I’m not so sure about this dependence. One can make the case that liberalism is a set of guidelines that has been shown through trial and error to create good societies: societies in which individuals are given equal opportunities and the widest possible amount of freedom is given to citizens. Unjustified inequities are supposed to be addressed and rectified.

I can see justifying the above on purely pragmatic grounds, and feel that even a nation of strict determinists like me can still support liberalism, for liberalism produces the kind of society that pleases me the most.

c.) The scientific advances of today have transformed the notion of government control from mere propaganda to actual hacking of our bodies. It is those who believe in libertarian free will who reject the notion of neuronal “hacking” and thus aren’t aware of its dangers.  Here’s what Harari says about that (it goes on longer, of course):

So we hope liberalism can reinvent itself yet again. But the main challenge it faces today comes not from fascism or communism, and not even from the demagogues and autocrats that are spreading everywhere like frogs after the rains. This time the main challenge emerges from the laboratories.

. . . But now the belief in “free will” suddenly becomes dangerous. If governments and corporations succeed in hacking the human animal, the easiest people to manipulate will be those who believe in free will.

In order to successfully hack humans, you need two things: a good understanding of biology, and a lot of computing power. The Inquisition and the KGB lacked this knowledge and power. But soon, corporations and governments might have both, and once they can hack you, they can not only predict your choices, but also reengineer your feelings. To do so, corporations and governments will not need to know you perfectly. That is impossible. They will just have to know you a little better than you know yourself. And that is not impossible, because most people don’t know themselves very well.

If you believe in the traditional liberal story, you will be tempted simply to dismiss this challenge. “No, it will never happen. Nobody will ever manage to hack the human spirit, because there is something there that goes far beyond genes, neurons and algorithms. Nobody could successfully predict and manipulate my choices, because my choices reflect my free will.” Unfortunately, dismissing the challenge won’t make it go away. It will just make you more vulnerable to it.

There’s more, including a long section about how accepting determinism can actually buttress liberal society as well as making you more personally comfortable (e.g., becoming less obsessed with your desires, growing curious about the origin of your thoughts, and so on); but this is the main thrust of his argument.

I don’t agree that personal hacking, with the government “engineering” your feelings and behaviors, is a clear and present danger, even for this century. It’s not even clear how Harari envisions this will happen—presumably through either genetic engineering or propaganda based on a better understanding of neurology and behavior. Maybe he’s thinking of the Russian manipulation of American voting in the last election. But his fear that we’ll be bio-hacked by fascists and authoritarians is deep. And this is one of the things that we’re supposed to be afraid of in this century.

Harari’s argument seems convoluted and unconvincing. (It’s also surprisingly poorly written, something I didn’t expect from a bestselling author). While I agree with him that we don’t have free will, I don’t agree that liberalism rests ineluctably on the the illusion of free will, and I’m not that worried about science-based hacking. Nor am I worried that belief in free will will make those who accept it the most susceptible to hacking, so dispelling the illusion of free will becomes especially pressing. That fear seems farfetched.

Several readers sent me the link to Harari’s article. After reading it twice, I’m convinced that had anybody else written it, it wouldn’t have been published, even in the mushy and increasingly tedious Guardian.

 

h/t: Mike

65 Comments

  1. Posted September 16, 2018 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I read Sapiens a couple of years ago and seem to remember it as being very well-written.

  2. Colin
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I’ve read both of his other books, and found his repeated assertions that humanism is a religion infuriating.

  3. Posted September 16, 2018 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Re the connection between belief in libertarian free will and susceptibility to manipulation, psychologist John Bargh says the following:

    “To my mind, one potential benefit to getting people to not believe so strongly in the power of their own personal agency or free will is that they might then be more concerned about external influences or even explicit attempts by advertisers, government, etc. to control what they do (eat, drink, buy, vote). Research by Tim Wilson and Nancy Brekke (Psychological Bulletin, 1994) has shown that people do not worry very much about these influence attempts because they believe they are the captains of their minds and in near-complete control over their judgments and behaviors. For example, people do not believe negative campaign advertising affects them, and so do not attempt to counteract or defend themselves from the effects of such ads, yet that variety of campaign advertising is in actuality so effective that it became nearly the exclusive form of campaign ads during the recent 2008 US presidential election. And Jennifer Harris and colleagues in our ACME lab have recently shown unconscious effects of television ads on snack food and cigarette consumption, such that these ads contribute to societal health problems of obesity and smoking (see http://www.yale.edu/acmelab/publications.html ). Thus I can see significant positive benefits in informing people of their (at least relative) lack of free will in the behavioral impulses triggered by the ads, both in their own health outcomes and in their ability to counteract presumed unwanted influences on their important decisions, such as who they want to lead their country. Indeed, given that [psychologist Roy] Baumeister has expressed his belief that telling people that free will may not exist is ‘irresponsible’, I can make the case that not telling them is perhaps even more irresponsible, because it leaves them at the mercy of corporations and governments who are not quite so naive.”

    – quoted in “Freedom from free will” at http://centerfornaturalism.blogspot.com/2009/07/freedom-from-free-will.html

    • Posted September 16, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      ” Baumeister has expressed his belief that telling people that free will may not exist is ‚irresponsible‘,”

      This is such a paternalistic, patronizing way to “protect” the common people from knowledge that is supposedly too dangerous for them, and to which only an elite (as psychologists like R. Baumeister should have access) is simply unbearable. D Dennett also cuts into the same notch and considers it irresponsible to explain to the common man on the street that free will is an illusion. He seems to think that Sodom and Gomorrah will move in. In the same way, many have thought (and still think today) without faith in a God, the world falls apart.

      • Posted September 16, 2018 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        Agreed, and another offender in this regard is philosopher Saul Smilansky who argues we have to maintain the fiction of contra-causal free will lest we become demoralized. “Smilansky boldly claims that we could not live adequately with a complete awareness of the truth about human freedom and that illusion lies at the center of the human condition.” – from Amazon description of his book Free Will and Illusion

  4. Posted September 16, 2018 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I’m sure all those priests who buggered children will be relieved and happy to hear they couldn’t have done otherwise and so deserve kindlier, gentler treatment. Me, not so much.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted September 16, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      Whether we derive emotional satisfaction from punishing a person as blameworthy seems not be be evidence one way or the other for the existence of free will, Gary.

      • Posted September 16, 2018 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        The actions of free will OR NOT, is irrelevant after the fact, the act has been committed and it is time to support
        the victim, which we don’t hear so much about and deal with the perpetrator.
        The point is, the actions are the same whether you believe it be free will or determined .
        How we go about justice is something that makes my head hurt. But justice systems to me don’t stand alone, it is part of the solution.
        What is going to help the acceptance of zero free will?
        when the threat of perceived chaos has receded and the air is cleared to see it makes no difference, it is what we do that does.

  5. Posted September 16, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    The fact is that all of us (including Harari and me) feel that we make libertarian choices, …

    Just for the record, I don’t feel that way, I feel that I make deterministically-computed choices, where the computation is done by my brain.

    Of course I’m not consciously aware of all the computation going on, only the end result.

    That lack of awareness may lead some to interpret their choice-making in a contra-causal, physics-is-irrelevant manner (so what’s the brain for then, just for show?), but not being aware of the computation going on doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

    • Posted September 16, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think, that you “feel” that you make deterministically-computed choices, I think that you “know” that you are doing so based on neuronal computation. That would be like saying, I feel that I consist of atoms, in which electrons and neutrons are rushing around …
      Since feelings are a product of evolution that took millions of years it is just impossible that your feelings have already altered due to the new knowledge of our deterministic brains.
      I like to compare the situation with watching the sunset: You say to yourself or to others: Oh the sun’s about to set. You know that is not the case but you can’t get rid of this way of perception so very soon.

      • Posted September 16, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        The “reference frame” of a stationary Earth, and thus the idea that the Sun “sets”, is a sensible and useful one. We all adopt a stationary-Earth frame when, for example, considering how long it will take to walk to the shops.

        The idea of an un-caused “choice” doesn’t have any utility over the idea that choices are computed. There’s no reason, other than theology, to think or “feel” that that’s what’s happening, so I don’t.

        When I do things like think of what I’m trying to say, but my fingers type another word instead (do other people do that?) it feels to me as though various messages are whizzing around a neural network, and that the feed to the fingers isn’t necessarily fully compatible with what the consciousness is thinking.

        • Posted September 16, 2018 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          Certainly there are neuron units in competition with each other. They have even found an error-related negativity wave in the brain (ERN). This is a voltage wave that always occurs when the brain registers that it has made a mistake. The ERN signal even becomes apparent when the test person is not even aware that he has made a mistake.

          I don’t believe that it was religion that first brought the belief in man’s free responsibility into the world; it only cultivated this evolutionary intuition and developed it into a religious system of power.
          If animals could speak, they would tell us that they would hold both their species and nonspecies fully responsible for their actions.
          “This wicked wolf who snatched my sister sheep in the night.”
          “This sneaky chimpanzee who defeated me silverback and who now owns the whole harem.”
          The belief in responsibility is less important for one’s own thoughts and actions (one usually justifies oneself for one’s own deeds anyway) but the belief that there is free will, makes it possible to append guilt to others, so that one can treat and condemn them as one would like.

          • Posted September 16, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

            For that sort of thing compatibilist free will works fine. We don’t need the illusion of contra-causal free will.

            • peepuk
              Posted September 18, 2018 at 11:03 am | Permalink

              I believe his point is that our believe in free will may be better exploited then it has been in the past. If machines or big corporations know you better than you know yourself we might have a problem. Our believe in Free Will may also be used to deny the problem.

              Like all far reaching generalizations it’s easy to point out errors. Still could be a very useful thought.

              • peepuk
                Posted September 18, 2018 at 11:03 am | Permalink

                Sorry, wrong place.

    • Posted September 17, 2018 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      I don’t feel that I make libertarian choices, and I don’t feel that I make causally determined choices – that’s completely outside the purview of what my immediate sensations tell me. I can’t see how anybody else manages to feel differently – and I suspect they don’t, they just have various thoughts that they’ve come to take for granted.

  6. Posted September 16, 2018 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know anything about Harari but I am skeptical based on the quotes I read here. First, as our host points out, the idea that free will is a myth inherited from Christian theology is just wrong. Much more important though is his belief that the free will under consideration is something that humans may have but rats and monkeys do not. I guess that comes for free if you believe free will originates with Christian theology. Bottom line is that I find I don’t care what Harari things about free will.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    … a historian at Israel’s Hebrew University who wrote the mega best-sellers Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016).

    From those titles, doesn’t sound like ol’ Prof. Harari is shy about setting his sights high. 🙂

    (And good for you, using the article “a” before a word beginning with an articulated “h”; bugs me when people slavishly insist on “an.”)

    • Posted September 16, 2018 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      Far be it from me to pass up a chance to bug you, Ken, especially since we’ve been accused of being too polite to each other.

      My practice is to use “a” before an articulated “h” if the stress is on the first syllable but “an” if it isn’t. Hence “a homebody” and “a history” but “an harmonica” and “an historian.” That said, I’d break this “rule” if it didn’t sound right. It’s really a matter of ear, not grammar.

      Gary

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 16, 2018 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        At the risk of continuing our Alphonse-and-Gaston politeness, let me say I don’t disagree with you, Gary: it is a matter of ear over grammar (but, then, when it comes to matters of grammar, I tend to be descriptivist, so it’d be OK anyway, even if it bugs me a bit). 🙂

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted September 16, 2018 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

        I would break that rule for a harmonica and a harpoon, but keep it for an historian – it sounds better that way to me.

  8. dd
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand the idea that there is no such thing as free will. So, I will ask a pretty bombastic question, and maybe a kind fellow reader will respond patiently to it and shed some light on my ignorance:

    If free will does not exist, does that mean that there are no such things, as lets’ say, war criminals, since they can’t help themselves? And even if there are, Should punishment go lightly for them?

    And the above question can be applied to any crime or transgression, slight or not.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted September 16, 2018 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      My answer to your question would be no. You remain responsible for your actions even though your genetics and environment drive your actions. The only thing that should change is the reaction to your actions and now the possibilities that you can be helped.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted September 16, 2018 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        Must report breaking news…Looks like Kavanaugh is toast. The woman accusing him has come out.

      • Posted September 16, 2018 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        +1

    • Posted September 16, 2018 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      A faulty spark plug still exists even if it had no choice in being faulty. We don’t say “poor thing, it didn’t choose to be faulty, so we won’t swap it out”.

      As for punishment, that is primarily for deterrence. Computation of likely consequences is one of the things affecting a “choice”, so using punishment to deter is a valid concept in a deterministic world.

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted September 16, 2018 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

        >> As for punishment, that is primarily for deterrence.

        Often it’s not. Vague concepts like “justice” are often used to determine punishment and a rational analysis of deterrent value is completely absent from the lawmaking process.

        • Posted September 16, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

          But if we ask why we have notions such as “justice”, they are, de facto, products of evolution that are there because we can thereby influence how others behave. So deterrence is the underlying reason; “justice” is a higher-level commentary.

          • Mike Anderson
            Posted September 16, 2018 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

            The pursuit of “justice” often is a very useful deterrent, but all too often things like “fairness” and “closure for the victims family” are driving forces in the system. In other words, the system is optimized for “fairness” and not deterrence.

            The system kind of works, but lots of room for improvement if deterrence is the goal.

  9. Historian
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Go the search box of this site and type in “free will.” You will find the answers to your questions.

    • Historian
      Posted September 16, 2018 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      Sorry. This is in response to comment #8.

  10. nwalsh
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I have read both of Hararis recent books, both Sapien and Homo Deus. I found Sapien somewhat similar to Pinker’s Better angels, but Harari dealt more in depth with the plight of our fellow creatures.

  11. Posted September 16, 2018 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Belief in free will can’t possibly do any harm. After all, if you’re right, then you’re simply believing something that’s true, and if you’re wrong, there’s not a thing you can do about it, since you would have no free will.

    • Posted September 17, 2018 at 4:47 am | Permalink

      You clearly haven’t read my writings on this topic. One can be persuaded that there is no free will and then do something to fix the justice system. There is nothing in this whole debate that says that you cannot change people’s minds about free will and that change can then motivate them to fix society.

      • Posted September 17, 2018 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

        I’ve read what you’ve said about free will, and it seems to me nothing in my comment contradicts it. Let’s suppose I have no free will. Then if, in spite of that, I continue to believe that I have free will, there’s nothing I can do about it, since I don’t actually have free will. In other words, my continued belief that I have free will can do no avoidable harm. Again, if I have no free will, your arguments may change my mind and convince me that you’re right, but what difference would it make? Just as a physicist knows that a ball will eventually change direction and fall back to earth if someone throws it in the air, and a meteorologist can predict in advance that a weathercock will change direction because of previous knowledge that the wind will shift, the fact that my opinion has changed will have been predictable to some hypothetical omniscient spirit, and preordained. I would have no conscious choice in the matter, just as you would have had no conscious choice about whether to argue with me about it or not. Under the circumstances, it seems to me unreasonable to be upset or anxious about what the actual outcome will be one way or the other.

        Regarding the question of whether we have free will or not, I think that any decision on the matter is premature. I’m aware of the neuroscience experiments that demonstrate that, in some cases, we make decisions unconsciously before we are conscious we made the decision, etc., but these experiments do not prove that we lack free will in all cases. We cannot explain how a human mind or human consciousness can exist (in spite of all the clever arguments to the contrary), so how can we know with certainty whether we have free will or not? We don’t even understand the basic physics of the universe we live in. We know that quantum field theory explains what we observe at some level, and general relativity explains what we observe at another level, but these theories contradict each other. They cannot possibly both be true at the same time. String theory offers a way out of the dilemma, but we lack the ability to do experiments that would confirm or falsify it. If it were confirmed, it would probably raise more questions than it solves. Under the circumstances, it seems to me reasonable to wait until we fill in some of these gaping holes in our knowledge before we form any hard and fast conclusions about free will. Under the circumstances, I will continue to assume I have free will because, as I pointed out in my comment, if I am wrong it cannot possibly do any (avoidable) harm.

      • Posted October 27, 2018 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        It seems to me that, FWIW, the best foundational justification for liberalism is the proposition that no one is more morally deserving than anyone else. While there is admittedly no proof for this proposition, there is likewise no evidence that any actual person is more morally deserving than anyone else—or, for that matter, that anyone is morally deserving at all. Assuming, however, the human beings indeed are morally deserving, the next default position would seem to be that any given person’s claim of superior moral desert is “unproved.” (To be sure, some may be morally “better” than others, but it does not follow that they are more morally deserving; that is a separate question.)

        Anyway, assuming that no one is more morally deserving than anyone else, liberalism would be justified as the only system of social organization and governance that does not presuppose or institute permanent or systematically irrevocable differences in the power of individuals to decide the fate of others or to control the limited resources. The idea is that, since none can hold these special advantages as a matter of moral desert, it follows that no system of social organization and governance can be just if it unconditionally and indefinitely accords them to some persons to the exclusion of others.

        On another point, I agree with you that the dangers of free-will beliefs “lie mainly in how we punish people.” I do not see, however, that responsibility is the same thing as blameworthiness. The snake may be responsible for the bitten hiker’s death, but it is something else again to think the snake is blameworthy. The earthquake may be responsible for the building’s collapse, but we would not call it blameworthy. Of course, one can choose to use the word “responsibility” to mean both responsibility and blame, just as the ancient Chinese chose to use the word qing (青) to mean both green and blue, but engaging in such polysemy—stacking multiple distinct meanings into a single word—does not contribute to clarity of thought. As fundamental concepts, responsibility and blameworthiness are different, and confusing them has been a source of great hardship and misery over the generations.

        Concededly, the snake analogy suggests the possibility that individuals could be considered blameworthy based not just on what they do but also based on what they “are”—based on not just their acts but also on their features or characteristics The snake, with its propensity to deliver venomous bites, may thus be viewed as having an intrinsic feature of wickedness that makes it deserving of smiting on sight, just as people swat mosquitoes without remorse. It is not hard to think of evolutionary-psychology reasons why it would have been adaptive for our ancestors to evolve character-based retributive behaviors along these lines—to smite on sight those among them who were excessively disposed to “cheat.”

        At any rate, by parity of reasoning, a human being with an elevated propensity to harm others might be viewed as intrinsically wicked and, therefore, blameworthy based on propensity alone, once that propensity has been evidenced by conduct. There are traces of this thinking in the law—for example, in the law governing so-called “malignant heart” (unintentional) murder.

        All that said, however, my own position is to reject the notion of character-based blameworthiness for the same reason I reject will-based blameworthiness, namely, because I do not believe that wicked people ultimately have the power to choose their character of being wicked.

        JAH

  12. Mike Anderson
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    This “hacking” has been going on since…forever. My god is the one true god; Marlboros are better than Camels; Donald Trump cares about the black community.

    I agree the technological leverage that’s coming into play in this hacking game is very, very worrisome, and it’s fair to characterize it as a “game changer”, but it’s the same game we’ve been playing for millenia.

    But there’s an arms race aspect to this that Harari doesn’t mention (perhaps because he’s framed this as a new phenomenon) – tobacco industry influence has been neutered by government, religious arguments have been neutered by knowledge, fake news is combated by fact checkers, and very few people fall for Nigerian Prince scams (but new scams emerge rapidly).

    We need to examine the historical patterns of these arms races to fight the upcoming battles.

    And I highly recommend reading up on Tristan Harris to gain understanding of the “mind hacking” that’s going on right now.

  13. FB
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I think Harari is thinking about companies like Youtube, Netflix, Facebook or Twitter, that are not only constantly learning about us: they are, too, more interested in how you feel and think that, I suspect, any human being (including your mother, boyfriend or daughter).

    And maybe in a few decades it will be unreasonable not to ask Siri whom should we vote for, and why.

  14. Ruthann L. Richards
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    I have read Sapiens and also found Harari’s constant insistence that humanism is a religion both infuriating and ignorant. The statement that “all humanists worship humanity” (p. 230) aptly demonstrates that. His ignorance extends to his claims that liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism, and Nazism are all religions. Moreover, he basically ignores the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. If he understood them better, he would know that humanism is not a religion, nor are some of the other ideologies he lumps together.

  15. eric
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t yet read either book, though I intend to read Sapiens…
    …Harari’s argument [about biohacking] seems convoluted and unconvincing…

    I thought Sapiens was a very mixed bag. Lot’s of good, thorough research that enlightened subjects I didn’t know about, interspersed with such boneheaded extrapolations and social commentary that it makes you want to throw the book (or in my case, kindle) across the room.

    From your reading of his editorial, it sounds like the new book is much the same.

  16. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    I was gifted “Sapiens”. While Harari was refreshingly up to date on the then known human evolution and history, he is notably a historian. As Colin noted, Harari is repeatedly infuriating by asserting that humanism – and everything else useful such as currency and markets- are broadly speaking “religion” instead of making empirical sense. It comes over as pomo in that sense though I suspect Harari does not realize what he is doing.

    After reading this article and Colin’s comment my tentative hypothesis is that Harari has a religion problem that he may try to weaken by conflating religion with his history based world view.

    In order to successfully hack humans, you need two things: a good understanding of biology, and a lot of computing power. The Inquisition and the KGB lacked this knowledge and power. But soon, corporations and governments might have both, and once they can hack you, they can not only predict your choices, but also reengineer your feelings. To do so, corporations and governments will not need to know you perfectly. That is impossible. They will just have to know you a little better than you know yourself. And that is not impossible, because most people don’t know themselves very well.

    Harari makes it sound so mighty. But “the evolutionary algorithm” embodied in the simplest of our viruses can hack our body and – as someone quipped – ‘know our body better than we [our immune system] know it’.

  17. Eric
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I’m concerned with Professor Coyne’s statement that libertarian free will is a myth. This seems to contradict his comments about the Control Left (which I agree with) that certain groups of people just can’t be held responsible for any of their actions or circumstances, i.e. it’s all the fault of the big, bad system, or hierarchy if you prefer.

    • Posted September 16, 2018 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      You don’t seem to have read my earlier discussions about free will, in which I argue that determinism can still lead you to hold people responsible for what they do (not that they had a choice, but that they are the proper recipients of opprobrium or praise)–just not morally responsible. If somebody shoots someone, you hold them responsible for several reasons, even if they never had a choice about whether they shot someone. Think about it.

      • Posted September 16, 2018 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

        I have trouble splitting that hair. What’s the point of giving someone opprobrium or praise if they weren’t morally responsible for the act that deserved it? Don’t opprobrium and praise require that the agent had a choice? If they had a choice, why would society not hold them morally responsible for that choice?

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted September 16, 2018 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

          >> What’s the point of giving someone opprobrium or praise if they weren’t morally responsible for the act that deserved it?

          Because your response to another’s actions can influence their future actions (whether or not determinism is the case).

          • Posted September 16, 2018 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I agree with that but what exactly absolves the influenced individual from morally responsibility? Or the influencer for that matter? Seems to me that morality, free will, responsibility, influence are all terms at the same level of discourse. Determinism, true or false, has nothing do with them and operates at an entirely different level.

            Anyway, we’ve all been over this before. I don’t want to bore people.

  18. Posted September 16, 2018 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    “the retributive and brutal justice system that, in many countries, is predicated on the view that criminals could have chosen to behave differently.”

    Is there a single country in the world whose penal system is not based on the assumption that the criminal could have acted differently? I cannot really imagine it.

    ” My view is that embracing determinism will breed a kindler, gentler, and socially more useful system of justice.”

    I can’t fully agree here. I think there is a possibility of a more friendly approach to criminals but this way depends very much on the economic ressources a country has to offer.
    And on the other side there is this possibility too: If people are only bio robots in the same way animals are why shouldn’t we treat them in relation to the pleasure, or the usefulness or the damage they bring to society as we do with animals?
    People treat their pets with all kindness and care so much about them, but they care much less about the animals in livestock buildings and they don’t care at all about animals, which are threating the life of human beings by damaging supplies as mice and rats do. Although criminals are not responsible for their actions (like rats and mice), they can be locked away forever simply because one can and because they are seen as a danger
    This is also a possible approach from the knowledge of the non-existent free will.

  19. AC Harper
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    If determinism really is true (and I think it is) then it *should* have an effect on the treatment of criminals. It would probably increase the scope of penalties.

    So, non violent crime penalties need only be long enough to discourage other like minded people if the convicted can be removed from employment/circumstances allowing criminal opportunity for the rest of their life. Short time in jail (or fine) long term effect on life.

    So, violent crime… short time in jail if the convicted can be rehabilitated, removed from future opportunity, old enough to know better.

    So, violent crime… rest of their life in jail if they cannot be rehabilitated. It need not be a harsh jail (why punish them for something they cannot help) but they need ‘storing’ where they cannot harm others.

    But how you decide the success of rehabilitation is a puzzle, and the methods could be very difficult.

  20. Greg Geisler
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Have read Sapiens and Homo Deus and while they are not perfect books they are both worth the read. I just dived into his latest book. I regard him as a great thinker and at least he is “thinking” as opposed to most sapiens.

  21. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    It is true that libertarian free will is essential to Abrahamic religions, but so also is the idea that we are addicted to wrong-doing and need outside help to break the addiction.
    This is expressed in a deeply confused and not entirely coherent way in the notion of “original sin”.
    The way a similar concept appears in many world religions and in Greek philosophy is explored by Jacob Needleman in a book called “Why Can’t We Be Good?”

    So in such an understanding we do not in fact have full and complete free will, but the more virtuous and personally well-integrated we are, the more free will we have.

  22. FB
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    A company like DeepMind could write a computer program to beat us at voting for the candidate that best aligns with our values. That’s the problem for democracy.

    Free will an human hacking are irrelevant in that case. Harari made it too complicated.

  23. Giancarlo
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the Professor’s take on the muddle of Harari’s article. It’s as if he set out to write about the increasing sophistication and danger of the art of persuasion but decided that wasn’t enough, so he had to open the freedom of will and liberalism cans of worms. I doubt that it is whether you believe in freedom of will or not that will immunize you against influencers, it is the ability to think critically that will help. And I never viewed liberalism as founded on freedom of will, but rather on freedom from oppression. Whether or not we have freedom of will, or believe we do, we can always hope to use our critical thinking capacities to have a system that keeps us all free from oppression by others.

  24. Posted September 16, 2018 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Yes if the government both had enough facts about human behavior and had enough control to properly institue ways to manipulate them they could influence us in serious ways but….Americans nearly go on shooting sprees after waiting 34 minutes in the DMV, so I don’t think the government has much control.

  25. Hempenstein
    Posted September 16, 2018 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    I read Nick Lane’s The Vital Question, and recommended it to my former mentor. In return, he recommended Sapiens. A lot of it was no surprise, while I found other parts irritating, as have been noted above.

    I continue to recommend The Vital Question, and just did again last night, but have largely forgotten about Sapiens.

  26. Posted September 17, 2018 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    “My view is that embracing determinism will breed a kindler, gentler, and socially more useful system of justice.”

    Respectfully, the issue is not whether espousing free will is dangerous, but whether it coincides with reality. Free will is not a practice, like torture, that you support or condemn; it’s either an objective reality or it isn’t. To take the stand that it doesn’t exist in the hope that such a stand will result in a more humane and useful justice system is like claiming that gender differences don’t exist in the hope that such a claim will result in more equitable pay between the sexes. Neither claim is true and, moreover, neither is necessary to achieve the desired result. IMO.

    • Posted September 17, 2018 at 4:55 am | Permalink

      Respectfully, there is a ton of evidence that we don’t have libertarian free will, and much of that consists of the laws of physics. Even Sean Carroll and Dan Dennett, both compatibilists, accept that determinism is an objective reality.

      I’ve written about this at length on this website so what you say here seems to be a misunderstanding of my position. Or perhaps you doubt determinism because you believe in some kind of dualism?

      If you think determinism is wrong, give me the evidence (leaving aside the fundamental indeterminacy of quantum mechanics which cannot be part of “agency” and “free will.” Everything I write about free will is predicated on the fact that we cannot somehow influence the movement of our own molecules. And that is accepted by nearly everyone who writes on the topic.

      If you think there is an iota of evidence that libertarian free will coincides with reality, I want to hear it.

      • Posted September 17, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        “If you think determinism is wrong, give me the evidence.”

        I could try to answer your challenge, but we would inevitably be talking past each other. Why? Because we fundamentally disagree about what constitutes “evidence” and about the ways by which we arrive at knowledge. I don’t for a moment denigrate scientific/empirical evidence or knowledge gained through observation and reason, but I put far more weight than you do on experiential evidence, including emotions and empathy, that we gain through the exercise of imagination.

        As I noted elsewhere, “most of what I know about anything comes from writing poetry, so I’m naturally inclined to think that one can react to nature in roughly the same ways one can react to art.” While I eschew labels as inherently simplistic, if forced to put one on my world view I’d have to say that I’m a pantheist. I believe that there is one spirit in the universe that is shared by all things, both animate and inanimate. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I do believe in the conservation of spirit. I believe in both evolution and creationism, though my view of creationism, again, comes from my experience of art, which is inseparable from my experience of nature. Art, like nature, is spirit incarnate. Michelangelo’s “David” could be described as purely material, a large block of marble, and this description would not be wrong. But neither would it account for the totality of my (and others) experience of it. Ditto for nature. I believe that the universe is in the process of being created, a work in progress, and that we all participate in that act of creation through our exercise of, yes, free will.

        I’ve gone far beyond what you asked me to do, and even at that my answer is woefully inadequate. You would call the above“woo.” That’s your prerogative, and I’m not overly concerned about what you would call it (those pesky labels again!). What amazes me, frankly, is how two people with such incompatible world views see eye-to-eye on matters political. I can honestly say that anything I’ve ever read of your political views coincides entirely with my own and, in fact, that you’ve expressed those views better than I could have myself—something my authorial pride would not permit me to say about many other writers. So kudos on that.

        • Posted September 17, 2018 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for the explanation. I will let the readers judge your views for themselves.

          • Posted September 18, 2018 at 10:22 am | Permalink

            “I will let the readers judge your views for themselves.”

            Thanks for the reply, Jerry. Judging from the silence I have to assume everyone agrees with me. Who would have thought there were so many pantheists on this site. 😊

  27. dani
    Posted September 17, 2018 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    I would really like to know waht do you think of Sapiens. Regarding the religion thing, he clearly states “If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is based on the belief of a superhuman order, then Soviet communism is a religion as well as islam”. Although there are some differences, it is still an interesting point of view.

  28. Posted September 17, 2018 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I have finished Sapiens and have started Deus. I find Harari’s writing to be very, very good, almost Pinkeresque, but I also found him to be alternately illuminating and infuriating. IN various spots he almost seems to be willfully ignorant. I think I wrote three blog posts describing a number of these irritating points so I will not go on at length here.

  29. Posted September 17, 2018 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    I have to confess I read the dust jacket of both books in Chapters and a page or two of each and then, yes, I judged a book by its cover. The “humanism is a religion” bugged me.

  30. Posted September 17, 2018 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    b.) Liberalism has historically depended on this notion of free will.

    Liberalism has indeed depended on a notion of free will, but not the libertarian one. First major failure of Harari’s argument.

    In order to successfully hack humans, you need two things: a good understanding of biology, and a lot of computing power.

    Wrong. You also need the gory details: the location of every synapse, the motion of every potassium ion – not to mention the relevant part of the environment. Anything less gives you a piss poor predictive ability. (To say that the brain is a highly nonlinear dynamical system is an understatement.) And that level of detailed knowledge is nowhere near on the technological horizon. It’s probably not even physically possible in our universe.

    Now, if you’re satisfied with a 70 or 80% success rate, then you can “hack humans” with offers or threats that many will accept. But you can do that with an intuitive grasp of human nature. Advanced biology and computing help, but don’t radically change the nature of the marketing game.

  31. Nick Smit
    Posted September 19, 2018 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    Soon we will be seeing “electrode therapy” for mental ailments. Next there will be “electrode enhancement” of mental capabilities. Unless we devise adequate, universal controls on this activity, hacking and controlling of the mind become feasible and tempting for some.

  32. Zetopan
    Posted September 19, 2018 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    “If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them?”

    So all of the plants and essentially all of the animals, including humans, made “wrong” choices so the Hebrew weather deity killed them all with a year long world wide flood?

    Is this “sophisticated” theology? It’s hard to keep track with so many theologians saying nonsensical things.


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