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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Homo Transcendens

Is the future of our species to be gods? That's what Yuval Harari is saying in his new book Homo Deus. By "god" he means immortal life, unending happiness, and infinite knowledge. Heaven on earth.

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harari traced human evolution from the Cognitive Revolution at the beginning of the species as hunter-gatherers to the Agricultural Revolution and the rise of civilizations to the Industrial Revolution and into the Age of Information. In Homo Deus: A Brief History of the Future, he takes up the account and suggests where it may be going. It is a great story he is telling. A lot of it isn't new, but how he gathers the research and findings and tells it, is new, instructive, and suggestive for our personal and collective consideration.

Prelude it with Stephen Hawkins Brief History of Time, or an update by Lawrence Krauss (The Greatest Story Ever Told--So Far) including his story of the quantum fluctuation that birthed the Universe, and with Richard Dawkins the Selfish Gene, and we have a good rendition of the overarching myth, the extended metaphor, which gives meaning and direction to all us residents of the world in late modernity.

Cooperation among many became the crucial strategy for survival that humans shared with many other species. The genetic change that provided humanity with the ability to fashion and use images to identify, classify, and anticipate things and events in the world led to a most efficient means of cooperation and control of the environment. The exercise of thinking, communicating, and acting through categories and analogies, starting with mimetic and verbal gestures or language is the cognitive revolution that distinguishes homo sapiens. Knowledge through thinking and sharing thoughts intersubjectively through language and symbols gave humans power over their environment. Fo good and for ill. Such knowledge requires shared meaning among the members of the cooperating group. As Harari states, "meaning is created when many people weave together a common network of stories."

A clan or extended family has its own network of stories giving the origins, traditions, admonitions, and rules that hold the clan together for life's needs and survival of the group. The move to agriculture and civilization requires mass communication and an overarching story that underlies all clan and village traditions. Such a story provides the basis for order among various groups and classes of people by occupation and by function in the formation and preservation of the civilization. Industrialization is compatible to that story. And now advanced technology along with artificial intelligence is our history of the future.

Or is it? Might we create a different story than the one laid out by Harari and his technical informants? Are we willing to accept the increased inequality that would occur as those with means afford the designer babies and added implants to surpass those who could not or would not?  Do we want immortality, infinity, and eternal life?  If the old do not die, will creative innovation be killed. Will denying and overcoming death lead to stopping new birth and possibility? Are we substituting a boring commonality, a matrix or hive, for a vital and dynamic community? Instead of "weaving together a common network of stories," are we restricting ourselves to one story? If imperfections and limits are conditions for individuality, distinctiveness, and even relationships, will we sacrifice them for eternal bliss? How blissful will that eternity be? By denying death and our existence as being-towards-death and so becoming homo deus, do we lose our existence as homo transcendens?

And is that the final Faustian Devil's bargain by which the human experiment is ended?