In challenging times, a trustworthy guide is always welcome. Unfortunately, Yuval Harari is not such a guide. Although a respected author with impeccable credentials, Dr. Harari ultimately disappoints, overconfidently promising but underdelivering.
My problem with this book is not its overwhelmingly pessimistic tone. For all I know about biotechnology and Artificial Intelligence (admittedly next to nothing), he may be spot on to warn of the dire future awaiting humanity when these two converge and take over the human race. “If we are not careful,” he writes, “we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world” (72).
He slams all other points of view—religious, political, cultural—with equanimity. I especially appreciated his courage, as a secular liberal, to point out the significant problems with secularism and liberalism.
At several points, I found Dr. Harari’s counsel insightful and well-expressed. His treatment of immigration and terrorism are some of the best I’ve found anywhere.
There were a few spots where overstatement mars the presentation, such as when he explains the split between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in 1054 as beginning from a single statement in a creed (286). Anyone who paid attention in World Civilization class in college knows there were a few other factors at work at that unfortunate moment.
Even his concluding advice—know yourself through meditation—follows logically from his thesis that we can know nothing except our own existence. Harari counsels us to “calm the mind and make it concentrate so it can start observing itself methodically and objectively” (322), counsel that arises from his own long-time practice of meditation.
My disappointment came from Dr. Harari’s unwillingness to follow his own advice, never a good sign in a guide. He concludes his chapter on secularism by challenging the reader to identify something that his or her religion, ideology, or worldview got wrong. “If you cannot come up with something serious,” he counsels, “I for one would not trust you” (218).
This is good advice, but Dr. Harari does not follow it. He extols the virtues of secularism: commitment to the truth based on evidence rather than faith and commitment to compassion. Where do we see these virtues in past proponents of secularism, such as Stalin, who killed millions of his own people? “That’s simple,” says Professor Harari, Stalin wasn’t secular. “He was the prophet of the godless but extremely dogmatic religion of Stalinism” (214). Problem solved!
Granted, no secularist would want to be lumped with a monster like Stalin, but his shadow cannot be escaped so easily. Professor Harari makes much of the mistakes of the Crusaders, but I suspect he would object if I dismissed them as worshiping, not Christ, but Crusaderism.
This is only one example of Professor Harari’s unwillingness to trace arguments to their proper end. He posits a commitment to truth “observation and evidence rather than mere faith” (208-209). Does he really believe in objective reason apart from a priori claims, that is, apart from faith?
He discourages young people from putting too much trust in adults (270), presumably except himself. He claims humans are biologically and culturally determined and lack free will (305), but advises us to accept his diagnosis and prescription for our problem. “Any story is wrong, simply for being a story,” he intones (285), while seeking to persuade us to accept his story.
I appreciate Professor Harari’s warnings about the dangers of biotechnology and Artificial Intelligence. If the future brings the challenges he anticipates, however, we shall need a more reliable guide.
I choose Christ and the story of the Gospel.