Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian who had a best-seller with Sapiens: A brief history of humankind (2014; both books appeared originally in Hebrew, 2011 and 2014). This follow-up, Homo Deus, suggests what the future may hold for our species; may, not will: Harari is not a prophet, though one has a passing thought of the Old Testament figure with whom he shares his middle name, inasmuch as he considers the possible fate of the human race.
These are not cut-off points; while no human groups now lack language, a dwindling few remain essentially pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers; and it is only in the present century that city-dwellers have become the majority of the human race. Similarly, the humanist revolution replaced deities as the final source of authority with human experience and thought, but though God is dead, as Nietzsche announced, in large parts of the world he shows little sign of lying down.
Perhaps confusingly, Harari uses the word “religion” very widely, to refer to prevailing systems of thought and belief, thus humanism is for him a religion, though many who regard themselves as humanists would see it as including a rejection of religion. In any case, Harari argues that this too will be, and indeed is already being, superseded. We humans, assuming god-like authority, dominate our world, to the extent that a “natural” environment no longer exists.
Harari suggests that from a distant perspective Homo sapiens might be looked at as a data processing system, with individuals in the role of chips. Our history would then appear as the process of improving the system by four basic methods: increase the use of the processors (via larger group sizes); increase ease of communication between processors (language); increase the number of connections between processors (travel and communication); increase ease of transmission along existing connections (safe and rapid travel, speed of communication).
The future, he argues, is overshadowed by three interlinked processes. One is that science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma: that organisms are algorithms and life is data processing (algorithm: a procedure or set of rules to be followed, here, for processing information). Second, intelligence is decoupling from consciousness. And third, non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves (you may forget what websites you browse, but your PC does not, let alone the truly world wide web of which it is part).
There seem to be two possibilities for new “techno-religions”, Harari says. One way lies in producing technologically advanced humans, who might closely resemble the gods of polytheistic religions (eg of classical Greece). Those deities were believed to enjoy not omnipotence but rather specific super-powers such as the ability to design and create living beings, to transform their own bodies, to control the environment and the weather, to read minds and communicate at a distance, to travel at very high speeds, and to escape death and live indefinitely. We can already, or will soon, do all of these (the last by regular systematic replacement of parts). Such superbeings might be only the few who could afford the technology, with the rest reduced to the status of cattle, or pets.
From the point of view of an atheist, freethinker or secularist, if either of these scenarios is close upon us, we too will be redundant. And one cannot be unaware of, on the one hand, a sharp and accelerating decline in religious belief, and on the other the even more dramatic advances of technology: both at least in our Western societies. At the moment of writing the latest British Social Attitudes Survey reports 53 percent of the population claiming they have no religion (from 31 percent in 1983; a majority for the first time). Children in perambulators carry mobile phones with which they can, in principle, speak around the globe. The first mobile is dated to 1973; some of those children’s parents were not born.
John Radford is Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of East London