quarta-feira, dezembro 20, 2017

Reiterated Popperian Non-Fiction: "Homo Deus - A Brief History of Tomorrow" by Yuval Noah Harari


When I was little, I believed (sort of) that Santa Claus existed. It was a working hypothesis that worked, and I didn't look behind it until it became untenable. Now I effectively assume my continuing identity as a person - because that works, sort of, too. In me, and most people I know, the baton of consciousness, of awareness of one's I-ness, is repeatedly exchanged at unimaginable speeds between the two hemispheres. That baton seems to get dropped by people suffering certain forms of dementia - with increasing frequency as their condition worsens, being eventually only picked up and handed to and fro for brief, sometimes apparently fortuitous periods, if at all. How cruel (alongside other pains and indignities) to lose the working hypothesis that everyone else lives by. But perhaps, isolated in the permanently unfamiliar and frightening. Now they may be closer to the reality of the human condition than the rest of us. As with Santa, the mere fact that a working hypothesis produces a desirable and convenient result does not make it correct.

Take famine. We are told that "famine is rare". But across what data-set is that claim true? Across the data-set of what we actually know, about what is actually happening, at the present time? But that is a profoundly-inadequate data-set. We ought to consider also what we don't know about what is happening right now (Do we know whether or not, even right now, a serious famine is underway in under-reported/remote in parts of Africa?). More important, we ought to consider what might have happened, in recent history; has humanity quite possibly been merely lucky not to have experienced a mega-famine, in recent times (we may have come close, for instance, in 2007-9, during which period most of the world's countries resorted to banning food exports? If so, then we can take very little consolation from the fact that it didn't happen). Most importantly of all, we ought to consider what might be about to happen (Can we really be confident that we’re not in the position of the turkey who claims loudly to any other turkeys that will listen to have ever-increasing evidence that famine is a thing of the past, the closer it gets to Christmas? Perhaps in a decade's time, historians will look back on casual remarks along the lines of some people I know as some kind of cruel or bizarre joke. (Assuming that there are historians to look back, at all).

The so-called 'evidence' of our power isn't really statistically-significant evidence, once we take into account the vast seas of our ignorance. In order to be (justifiably) confident that "famine is rare", we would need to be justifiably confident that our systems are not fragile. That we have enough resilience to weather the storms of misfortune, which might for instance be about to hit us by way of unprecedented climate-disasters, now that our weather appears to be tipping into an unprecedented state. We would need a data-set that covered the three categories of unknowns that I outlined in the previous paragraph.

Of course, the vastly-greater 'data-set' of which I speak here is in principle unavailable to us, stuck as we are in highly-limited epistemic horizons, unable to experience history's counter-factuals, let alone those of the future. The thoroughly counter-factual nature of the 'data-set' that would be needed in order to undergird Harari's claims ensures that we will never become the kinds of masters of the universe that it is so tempting to imagine ourselves being or becoming.

So what can we do? For starters, we can stop patting ourselves on the back that we are living in a safe and secure world, when we simply don't know that. Harari tells us that we have "conquered nature" (my reading); on the contrary, in the very act of struggling to outgrow (our) nature we are unleashing terrifying new post-natural forces that are quite likely to unravel the complex systems and long-supply lines we have created. We are radically fragilising ourselves and our one and only home. What can we do? We can stop doing this. But only if we adopt a radically different vision from the widespread complacent 'progressivism' of Harari and a million other well-fed intellectuals. The real, Janus-faced evidence of our power is in the extent to which we have created a world that is hurtling ever further out of our control. The only way to turn this around is to stop pretending that we have evidence that we are in control, and start taking a properly precautionary attitude. That means starting to radically 'build down' the level of our impacts upon the world around us. Rather than self-defeatingly fantasising ourselves a 'God-species', we need to start acting as if we are what we are: one species, with a responsibility not to destroy our descendants and ourselves -- and not to take most of the other species with us.

What I sense behind the Data driven mindset is the age old human need to eradicate uncertainty. Just to stop having to live in an uncertain world. So no surprises, nothing off the wall, everything predicted, containable, knowable in all its parts. Yet the problem to be dealt with is not really social life and data, the problem is existential and profound, it's intrinsically unmanageable, something functioning entirely within what in the end is an open-ended universe of possibilities (predict that Jimmy) also known to us all as human self-consciousness. I sympathise with the drive (I have one too, a consciousness solid until searched for then turning to air) but no sympathy for the infantile drive of the methodology. There is now way out of our predicament, if there is a way through it may be to live deeply enjoyably, with deep uncertainty.

Bottom-line:  I enjoy the way that Harari considers big issues, but so far a number of the ideas seem to reiterate Karl Popper's notion of "world 3", and other themes have been covered in previous SF by Olaf Stapledon (“First and Last Men”), and Isaac Asimov, passim. A bigger problem is that by writing this book Harari has highlighted a problem with the "big history" approach, promoted by people such as Bill Gates. His previous book, “Sapiens”, was a good example of the genre and sought to see human history both in how it fits into the history of the cosmos, biological life, mammal physiology, and the long period in which modern humans existed but wrote nothing. From that Olympic perspective "big history" seeks to move away from both the modern academic resistance to "grand narratives" and from the antiquarianism and micro-history into which some modern academics have retreated. The problem for Harari is that once you have written one "big history" book, there is not really a need to write another, or at least not until new information (from science, diligent archivists, or even intelligent algorithms) changes the big picture. Hence this book is a mix of shitty philosophy, Alvin Toffler-style futurism, and a whole jumble of the author's personal fads and prejudices. Whatever it is, it is not "history".


And that presents a problem. If even author the greatest recent publishing success in "big history" cannot produce a second book on the subject, the whole area does not look that promising for other authors. Provocative book? Not in the least. If you want “provocative” you should instead read “The Trouble with Physics” by Lee Smolin.


SF = Speculative Fiction.

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