Homo Deus: challenges for the 21st century

Emma Nicholls 17 Jan 20

‘For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than eating too little; more people die from old age than infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined… If we are indeed bringing famine, plague and war under control, what will replace them at the top of the human agenda?’ (p2)

Answering the question of what humans will do next is Yuval Noah Harari’s ambitious undertaking in his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. In Homo Deus, the follow-up to 2014 bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harari explores a vision for the 21st century in which humanity’s historic problems have largely been solved, and we’re left wondering what to do with all the spare time we find ourselves left with.

The new human agenda that Harari foresees encompasses three main goals: immortality, happiness and divinity. In this century, he suggests, biotechnology will provide us will the tools to overcome aging and prolong human life indefinitely. Simultaneously, advances in our understanding of the biochemical basis of conscious experience will allow us to manipulate emotions at will, unlocking the secret to perfect contentment. Ultimately, we will achieve a godlike level of control over our thinking selves, our bodies, and the world around us.

Harari presents the current moment as a turning point in human history, a definitive shift in our direction of travel towards a science-fiction-like future where humans themselves will either be upgraded, or become obsolete. But is it? The pursuit of immortality, happiness and divinity is nothing new. When the serpent tempts Eve in the garden, these are exactly the things he offers. ‘ ‘“You will not certainly die”, the snake said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”’ (Gen 3:4-5). Immortality, happiness and divinity have always been high on the human agenda.

Nonetheless, I think Harari is right to expect that the advent of new technologies directed at these age-old human goals will create a plethora of novel questions, dilemmas and avenues to be explored by scientists, politicians and philosophers alike. For Christians, the remainder of the 21st century is sure to bring countless new theological and ethical questions as we strive to apply gospel truth to each new area of science and technology that arises.

Though the modern world may look less and less like the world of the biblical authors at an ever-increasing pace, we can have total confidence that the Bible will continue to speak into the issues of the day with all the relevance and clarity that it always has. Though some may claim otherwise, the human agenda has not changed – and nor has the way God relates to humanity. Generations rise and fall, each with their own programme for achieving immortality, happiness and divinity, but God’s word of mercy and grace towards those who seek him stands firm throughout.

All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord endures for ever’.

1 Peter 1:24-25

Confident of this, we can engage with predictions about the future knowing that whatever comes, the gospel will guide us in navigating it well. Below, I’ve summarized some of the most interesting issues raised by Homo Deus, with some reflections on the questions that these topics may raise for Christians both now and in the future.

Upgrading humanity

As the title suggests, Homo Deus predicts a world in which humanity, or at least some of its members, is so much altered that the species designation Homo sapiens ceases to be adequate. This radical advance, according to Harari, will be the result of no gradual evolutionary progress, but a deliberate upgrade. The field of bioengineering won’t stop at correcting genetic or physical defects, but will commence projects aimed at creating ‘superhumans’ with greatly enhanced physical and mental capabilities. These superhumans will integrate themselves with the best of robotics and computing technology, until one day, ‘our descendants will look back and realise that they are no longer the kind of animal that wrote the Bible, built the Great Wall of China, and laughed at Charlie Chaplin’s antics.’ (p56)

Is this sci-fi scenario a likely outcome? You might say it’s happening already: what would our ancestors think of the smartphones to which we’ve outsourced much of our memory and mental processing, or regenerative medicine which allows us to grow a skin graft in a Petri dish for transplantation? Lasting modification of the human genome was performed for the first time in 2018 by a Chinese scientist who (illegally) used CRISPR/Cas9 technology to alter the DNA of twin girls to make them resistant to HIV infection.1 Are these just the first steps on the road to cyborgs and superhumans?

Well, maybe. These kind of predictions arouse a general sense of fear, particularly amongst religious people who are concerned that human enhancement amounts to ‘playing God’.

It’s important to be clear that in the context of God’s sovereignty, we have nothing to fear. No matter how drastic the impact of a technology may seem, we can achieve nothing beyond what God has already predetermined and allowed to happen. His authority as Creator is in no way diminished by what human beings may choose to do with his creation.

What, then, do we mean by ‘playing God’? Does our mandate to rule and steward creation include the right to reengineer our bodies and minds in any manner we see fit? Or is messing around with God’s design fundamentally problematic? Is there a difference between using bioengineering to correct a defect, and using it to bestow a novel property or ability on a person?

The field of human enhancement also raises some big questions about justice and equality. Is it fair to alter the DNA of an embryo who cannot consent to such a procedure? How will attitudes to disabled people change when it’s possible to engineer solutions to most disabilities? If only the very highest earners can afford enhancement technology, will it drive an even greater wedge between the rich and poor in society? The Christian call to stand up for the vulnerable and oppressed means that answers to these questions are vital, and they mustn’t be overlooked in favour of debates about ‘playing God’.

The mystery of consciousness

Organisms are algorithms. These three words form one of the key assertions underpinning Harari’s view of the future. This reductionist view claims that all life boils down to ‘a methodical set of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems, and reach decisions.’ (p97) As such, humans are nothing more than biological data-processing machines, the result of complex networks of firing neurons. This kind of reductionism has great power in analyzing various aspects of human behaviour, but at present one hugely significant question remains unanswered: the problem of consciousness, or how physical brain processes create subjective experiences. This emergent property is, as far as we know, unique to the animal brain:

 ‘When thousands of cars slowly edge their way through London, we call that a traffic jam, but it doesn’t create some great Londonian consciousness… When trillions of water molecules coalesce in the sky we call that a cloud, but no cloud consciousness emerges to announce, ‘I feel rainy’. How is it, then, that when billions of electric signals move around in my brain, a mind emerges that feels ‘I am furious!’?’ (p128)

The natural temptation for Christians here is to jump to a ‘God of the gaps’ explanation – we don’t know how it works, so it must be down to God’s supernatural intervention. Of course, the problem with this approach comes when a natural explanation for consciousness is found (and we have every reason to think that it will be), making it seem like the bubble of God’s influence in the world has shrunk just a little bit further. We know that’s nonsense – the discovery of a natural mechanism for a phenomenon merely tells us how God is choosing to act, not whether he is acting at all. But the discovery of the mechanism of consciousness will require a thought-through Christian response. No doubt atheists both within and outside of science will use that finding as ‘proof’ that humans don’t have souls, that the spiritual dimension is mere fiction, and that God doesn’t exist.

To withstand this assault, we as Christians will need to have formed a clear picture of exactly what we mean when we talk about the emotional and spiritual aspects of human existence. Certainly our felt experiences are closely tied to the chemical balance of our brains (and we don’t need to be ashamed about that) – but are they more than that? How is our spiritual nature anchored to our physical being? The dualism of seeing body and soul as two separate entities derives more from Plato than from Scripture – can a combination of good biblical study and modern neuroscience lead us to a more nuanced view of what makes a human?

Subsequent questions arise about what makes humans different from animals, if we share common mechanisms of emotion and conscious experience. Genesis 1 tells us that humans alone are made in the image of God. In biological terms, does that just amount to being far more complex and capable of relationship than any of our animal neighbours? Or is there something unique about humans that puts us in an entirely different category of life?

From humanism to Dataism

Drawing on these concepts of upgrading humanity and organisms as algorithms, Harari predicts the emergence and eventual dominance of an entirely new religion. As we increasingly come to understand human beings to be nothing more than data processing units, so we will measure their value by that standard, transforming today’s pervading humanism into a new religion which Harari terms ‘Dataism’. Its creed is this: ‘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’. (p429)

Dataists will be obsessive measurers –  data will be collected on every aspect of life, from health to relationship satisfaction to performance at work, and fed into artificial intelligence software which will optimize all of our decisions for us. Wondering whether you should ask that girl on a date? Feed data about your personality, likes and past relationships into the algorithm and you’ll be given the percentage probability of your future long-term happiness together. Concerned about whether you have enough saved in your pension? Give the algorithm your genome sequence, current health data and information about your lifestyle and it’ll tell you how many years you have left to live, and hence how much money you need saved up for retirement.

Whereas humanism elevates human desires and needs to godlike importance in the universe, Dataism, in the pursuit of divinity, strips humanity of its sacredness.

Dataism adopts a strictly functional approach to humanity, appraising the value of human experiences according to their function in data-processing mechanisms. If we develop an algorithm that fulfils the same function better, human experiences will lose their value…. When cars replaced horse-drawn carriages, we didn’t upgrade the horses – we retired them. Perhaps it is time to do the same with Homo sapiens.’ (p452)

It’s debatable whether a religion that suggests humanity will become obsolete will ever really take hold. But if it does, we’ll need to develop a strong apologetic that argues for the truth and goodness of Christianity in a world that worships data. Many writers and speakers have shown the flaws of secular humanism, that ultimately it depends on a theistic worldview to give a basis for human rights and the value of life. We’ll need to do the same for Dataism. Here are my thoughts on some directions we might take in pushing back against data religion.

First, worship of data comes from a desire to have someone, or something, more reliable than ourselves make our decisions for us. It acknowledges that humans have a limited ability to make good choices for ourselves: even knowing all the facts, we frequently make bad decisions. It reveals a longing to be fully known, to surrender ourselves to the power of a higher intelligence who understands us better than we understand ourselves, and can make perfect decisions about the direction our lives should take. Doesn’t that sound a lot like Christian faith in an all-knowing God? God isn’t subject to the programming biases or errors of a man-made algorithm. His decisions are always right, and they’re for our good. Can an algorithm really have your best interests at heart in the way a loving God can?

Second, data processing is never devoid of purpose. Computer algorithms don’t just spontaneously appear, process data and disappear again. They are devised and coded by a programmer, who has a specific goal he or she is trying to achieve by designing this computer program. If the universe is one big data processing machine, what is the goal it’s working towards? Where did the data come from? What question is the universe trying to answer – and who asked the question? In a universe that arose spontaneously from nothing, there are no answers to these questions – but in a world designed for a purpose by a creative God, things fall into place.

Those two thoughts are just the beginning: I’m sure that over time, many more creative arguments for the truth of Christianity will arise from society’s obsession with data. The rise of Dataism, if it indeed happens, may result in new opportunities for sharing the gospel!

The challenges of tomorrow

Perhaps you’re thinking that some of Harari’s claims are a little far-fetched, to put it mildly. Historically, predictions about the future have tended to be wildly unrealistic – we don’t have the telepathic abilities, flying houses or personal helicopters that some predicted would exist by 2020.2 But we need to be prepared for at least some of the prophesies of Homo Deus to become reality, if not in the immediate future, then in the centuries that may still lie between the present day and Jesus’s return.

Some of these issues are already live ones: already, we are turning more and more of our decision making over to computer algorithms. Some will be inevitable: brain research will almost certainly reveal the neurological basis of consciousness in this century. For some, we will have choice over how much they influence our society: will we allow forms of biotechnology that will facilitate human enhancement?

For Christians, who are sadly known for being on the back foot when it comes to issues of progress, this is an opportune moment to get ahead of the curve, to develop our theology on questions that haven’t even been asked yet. That way, when the future arrives, we’ll be ready to stand up for the gospel and present it in all its beautiful, life-giving glory to a future world that looks different, but needs Jesus just as much as it does today.

To do that, we’ll need courageous Christians on the front lines of society, tackling these new challenges. We need Christian neuroscientists and software developers and biotechnologists and policymakers who can influence those spheres for Christ. If you take away one thing from Homo Deus, let it be this: the future needs you!

1 https://www.newscientist.com/article/2186911-crispr-babies-more-details-on-the-experiment-that-shocked-the-world/
2 https://bestlifeonline.com/2020-predictions/

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