Evaluating the new influential philosophers

Sep 4, 2018 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Many Christians have been encouraged by the popularity of Canadian academic Jordan Peterson, who while not professing personal faith, is positive about the idea of God and some aspects of biblical teaching. Reportedly he is causing numbers of previously de-churched, cynical young men in particular to reconsider the gospel message.

The increasingly guru-like status of another university professor, Yuval Noah Harari, should give more cause for concern. The Israeli historian’s first two books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, have now sold more than 12 million copies worldwide; they have been endorsed by Bill Gates and Barack Obama, and have garnered numerous enthusiastic reviews.

While Peterson’s brand of Jungian analysis, self-help philosophy and critique of lazy ‘echo-chamber’ thought is not to everyone’s taste and needs to be carefully evaluated, some of his ideas are compatible with a Christian worldview. Harari, by contrast, puts forward an ideology that is not only explicitly and contemptuously atheist, but ultimately questions the value of human beings, and even the point of our existence in the cosmos. Why has this become so popular? Perhaps, where Peterson offers a contemporary book of Proverbs, Harari attempts an alternative whole Bible, by answering big, fundamental questions about our origins, our identity and our destiny.

According to his account, as Homo Sapiens, we are apes who have achieved global supremacy through accidents of evolution, developing unrivalled capacity for thought, organization and communication. In particular, human societies have grown and held together through shared beliefs in “communal fictions” or myths. These include (as one would expect), deities, religions and heteronormativity – Harari endorses the view that a binary view of gender is a human construct. But also, more controversially, he questions the reality of abstract principles considered “self-evident” since the enlightenment: human rights, the concept of justice, the unique dignity of individual people. Even nation states, money and corporations are, for Harari, part of “imagined reality”.

Harari’s appeal also stems from the immense erudition behind his ideas, expressed simply and compellingly enough for his books to sit alongside thrillers and romances in popular bookstores. He dazzles the reader with range of historical and scientific knowledge, from speculative theories of the evolutionary psychology of prehistoric tribes, through early agrarian societies, ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, 20th century global politics and contemporary economics. Azimov-like, he then issues prophecies of the future, displaying enough technical jargon about cutting edge research in artificial intelligence to intimidate the layman and bolster the plausibility of his secular eschatological vision.

For Harari, being a humanist in the sense of valuing and preserving who we are now is not good enough. While religion locates authority outside ourselves, in a spiritual realm, with commandments mediated to us through texts and traditions, humanism says we are only answerable to our individual inner being, our “hearts”. But according to the philosophy of Homo Deus (‘Man is God’), because there is no God ‘out there’ and no soul ‘in there’, and we are just cells and synapses, there is no “heart” in the sense of “authentic self”.

In the past, humanity tried to understand itself through theology, or drama and literature, and then most recently through biology and genetics. Now according to Harari, it is computer science, because all organisms are nothing more than algorithms (a philosophy he clunkily calls “dataism”.)

Technology means that we, or at least some of us, will be able to upgrade ourselves; our frail bodies through increasingly sophisticated medicines and nanobots, and our minds as well. “Once we can design and redesign our will”, says Harari, “we would no longer see it as the ultimate source of meaning and authority”.  We wouldn’t have to derive purpose and identity from our desires, or struggle against them, if we can re-shape them artificially. But what is ‘meaning’ anyway? Christianity invites us to see the universe from God’s perspective; humanism from the viewpoint of the conscious individual. Harari betrays his underlying Buddhist sympathies when he concludes that humanity is just “a ripple within the cosmic dataflow”; we are not important.

Many in Western society have rejected a theistic worldview and are increasingly becoming disillusioned with modernist humanism. Harari’s ideas are appealing and even compelling in this vacuum, with their blend of big picture historical perspective and exciting techno-futurist possibilities, deep guilt about human arrogance vis a vis the planet, and an attraction to Eastern ideas of integration with the cosmos.

Christian critics have pointed out Harari’s tendency to caricature and misrepresent other views (especially biblical faith). Others, including atheists, have questioned his view of the future of humanity. [eg A reductionist history of humankind, by John Sexton, The New Atlantis; Humanity Mark II: Why the future of humanity will be just as purposeless as the past, by John Gray, New Statesman].

On one level, Harari’s vision is absurdly optimistic. He claims at the start of Homo Deus that because fewer people die from disease, war and poverty than they did 100 years ago, we have nearly reach our goal of everlasting peace and plenty. Further exponential progress is inevitable. Humanity is one step away from solving death which he calls “a technical problem”; eternal life may be on the horizon, and those who still cry out to God instead of keeping calm and trusting in science are stupid and backward. But his is a very West-centric view, weirdly callous in its attitude to global suffering today, and questionable in its accuracy. Is it really true that more people die of being too fat than for example the 5 million deaths in the Eastern Congo over the past 20 years, let alone the more visible catastrophes in Syria, Western Myanmar and South Sudan?

On another level, Harari offers no hope: his picture of the future is curiously nihilistic rather than terrifying. We will end up with computers running everything, even our feelings; Homo Sapiens probably won’t exist any more in a few hundred years; it doesn’t matter because we have no intrinsic value anyway.

Should we be concerned? These ideas, while not yet mainstream, are gaining increasing support among our governing elites. Because of this, no doubt we will soon see some of our theologians and church leaders trying to synthesise Harari’s philosophy with forms of Christian discourse – if it’s not happening already. But it’s opposed to biblical Christianity, and need to be countered.

God does exist and is at the centre of all things; it’s not all about Me and my identity, or Big Data. God controls the future which will see the full glorification of the Son, and the full rewards for his people who have trusted in him, put his glory before their own during this earthly life. We are not the product of blind evolution but created in love, saved from self-destruction; given a back story that makes sense of who we are, and a future vision that provides a sure and certain hope for continued existence, not absorption into nothingness. We’re not supposed to look on suffering and turn our back, saying “science will sort it out”, but to get our hands dirty, serving the world in the power of the Holy Spirit.

It’s not the case that Harari’s worldview is based on fact and the Christian’s on faith – rather, both require faith to believe and act. Our story is no less plausible than his as we work out ways of telling it afresh to new generations.

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