Customer Review

Reviewed in the United States on February 17, 2017
This book is a mixed bag. It has three parts. The first is a review of some of the concepts explored in Harari's earlier book Sapiens. It elaborates on the fascinating concept of "intersubjective reality", whereby concepts that are shared in our collective imagination have great power to shape our objective reality; examples given include money, corporations, pop-culture brands, and religions. Part 1 is engaging and insightful, and deserves 4/5 stars.

Part 2 is a critique of what Harari calls "humanism". He really dislikes humanism: he inaccurately states its tenets, and then repeatedly mocks it (for example, as promoting indulgent consumerism and sex). He claims that humanism is what is giving rise to an emerging cybernetic dystopia, described in Part 3.

Harari is abusing the word "humanism," as a canvas on which to paint his caricature of modern liberal culture ("liberal" in the classical sense, not in the sense of left-wing politics). He is not really interested in what humanist writers and philosophers have actually said, and does not reference their works. He claims that humanism promotes the belief in a supernatural free will (when in fact, humanists value agency and freedom, but have differing opinions on free will). He claims that humanism believes in an indivisible self/soul (when in fact, psychologists since Freud have a different understanding). And he claims that humanism believes that individuals always know best about their own needs (when in fact, many have emphasized the importance of education in our development--he does not even reference John Dewey). Harari also co-opts related terms that already have other established meanings, such as "evolutionary humanism" and "liberal humanism".

If you want to understand humanism or other social-political movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, Harari will lead you astray. Part 2 deserves only 2/5 stars.

Part 3 is a dire prediction for humanity's future, as genetic engineering, AI, and human-machine interface technologies advance. Harari gives several scenarios, each of which are described very plausibly as future extrapolations of current trends. These scenarios are thought provoking and disturbing--we as a society should be taking them more seriously. There is an interesting discussion of an emerging religion/ideology of "dataism", wherein moral worth depends on the ability to enhance data flow, rather than on consciousness. Part 3 deserves 4/5 stars.

For most of the book, Harari appears to be adopting a materialistic perspective, and one which is also extremely unsentimental and discounts the significance of human morale and character. He pretends to assume that human beings are nothing more than algorithms.

However, some of his arguments (against the existence of an indivisible self, against free-will) are similar to those in Buddhism. He also discusses how animals and people have consciousness and subjective experiences, and presumes that artificial intelligence will remain unconscious (the "weak AI" hypothesis of John Searle).

And on the very last page, he makes us wonder if his hardcore materialistic perspective has just been a long, extended ruse: he asks us to question a worldview that would deny the significance of consciousness. So it seems likely that in a future book he will focus on the nature of consciousness, and argue for non-theistic Buddhism (an understated agenda in Harari's writing--perhaps he thinks that this is the way for humanity to avoid the grim fate predicted here?).

The reader concerned about techno-dystopia may also be interested in "Weapons of Math Destruction," by Cathy O'Neil.

[Update 6/13/2017: see the comment below, by kaiser100, for further insight into Harari's perspective on consciousness and meditation. The comment begins with "Harari indeed believes that developing an understanding of consciousness, a science of mind, or however else one wishes to phrase it is the best and perhaps the only way to avert the grim fate that threatens humanity in this century."]
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