On Reading “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus” by Yuval Noah Harari


Over the weekend, I finished reading Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. I read it immediately after finishing Sapiens by the same author. Homo Deus is, essentially, a follow-up to and expansion upon Sapiens.

I’m the type of person who thinks about the books I read. Because, avocationally, I am first and foremost a writer, I want to understand a book’s ideas because they help me to understand and articulate my own ideas. I read for entertainment, but I also read as a writing prompt. I am constantly putting information in so that there is never a shortage of information coming out.

Although I am still digesting a lot of these two books, I think I’m prepared to give an initial reaction.

Harari is trained as an historian. Together, the substantive text of these two books occupies just over 800 or so pages. And for most of those pages, Harari writes in the style of historical narrative. He’s telling us a story. But neither Sapiens nor Homo Deus are, strictly speaking, works of history. They are, rather, works of philosophy. But this presents somewhat of a problem.

The problem is that it is difficult for a reader to parse out what the author actually believes versus what the author is just reporting. Certainly, a lot of what Harari writes is just reportage — he’s simply telling us things as they were or are or (in the second book) how they might come to be. But interspersed throughout these factual presentations, he makes assertions which — at times — seem to be what he really believes to be true, but is he just reporting what “everyone” believes, or is it what he believes?

This problem of interpretation made for interesting internal reactions. Over the course of these books, inside my head, the following (approximate) sequence ran:

“What?”

“No!”

“What?”

“He doesn’t really believe that!?”

“What?”

“Wrong!”

“What?”

Ultimately, I ended up with just an “okaaaay.”

To be clear, I’m certain that Harari holds many presuppositions that I disagree with. For starters, there’s the presupposition that all religious beliefs are just fiction. Or, extrapolating that thought further, that all the socio-cultural methods of group organization are just fiction (religion, economics, political structures). In this sense, I find the author to be a firm disciple (intentionally or unintentionally) of Wittgenstein, to the extent that he appears to believe that our reality and our world as we understand it are nothing more than linguistically constructed motifs.

This level of disagreement is not surprising. I am a Christian theist. Harari, I judge based on his writings, is an atheist and unrepentant postmodernist.

And that’s fine. Although we disagree on those points, I do not wish to take him to task on these disagreements. Rather, I found his work in these two volumes to be a brilliant form of argumentation.

Again, these two volumes together come to around 800 pages. For 790-plus pages, Harari tells his reader how humans have constructed fictitious cooperation structures that have advanced technology at an increasingly rapid pace, so rapid that the future might not be as nice as the present. And in the closing pages, he flips the script to say, “If we built a nice world, and we don’t like where it’s now going, all we have to do is recreate a new cooperation structure.” Or, in his own words:

If you don’t like some of these possibilities you are welcome to think and behave in new ways that will prevent these particular possibilities from materializing.

What Harari seems to be saying, in true Wittgensteinian fashion, is that we’ve been artificially constructing reality for centuries and millennia. If we don’t agree with the results of reality as it’s currently constructed, then only we humans are to blame when the future is not what we wanted it to be.

I think this is brilliant because Harari is making an argument for objectively moral goals by using inter-subjective (his term) lines of thought. But herein lies the rub.

If modern reality is only the inter-subjective construct of an evolved human consciousness, then what possible objective basis could anyone have for opposing any one of the possible futures Harari outlines?

In the final lines of Homo Deus, Harari asks his reader a series of questions, all with possible, objectively true answers. One of those questions is this: “What’s more valuable — intelligence or consciousness?”

I think there’s an objective answer to that question. The problem is, Harari, by arguing against postmodernism with postmodernism, doesn’t give himself or his reader any basis on which to arrive at an objective answer. Which, in his system (and the system of a large portion of the modern, educated West), effectively means that there is no answer.

Ultimately, what these two volumes show is that postmodern methodology is incapable of solving the hard questions and tough problems that postmodern thought has created.

Thankfully, there are alternatives.

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