Opinion: Homo Deus — Apologia

Last week, this column was devoted to a prediction by Yuval Noah Harari, Professor of History at Hebrew University, that humankind would strive for immortality, happiness, and a sort of divinity in the twenty-first century. Naturally, I know that this idea will confuse, anger, and/or alienate a large number of people. Harari knows this, too.

Consequently, early in the book, he writes an “apologia.” Now, let’s be clear about two things: (1) Harari doesn’t call his exposition an apologia, and (2) an apologia is not an apology. In classical rhetoric, an apologia is a defense, an explanation for a belief, theory, or philosophy. When Socrates was brought before the court about 2,500 years ago, he was charged with denying the existence of the Greek gods and corrupting the young men who attended his school by causing them to question the status quo.

After he was sentenced to death, Socrates addressed the court, presenting his apologia. He did not apologize for expressing his ideas. Instead, he attempted to enlighten the judges with regard to the Socratic method and the need for questioning existing beliefs, attitudes, and institutions. Then, he committed suicide by drinking hemlock.

No modern Socrates

Dr. Harari offers no apology for his prediction; rather he elaborates on “a few clarifications.” I think of this section of the book as a CYA, a number of “cautions” to his readers and a bit of protection for himself.

First, attempting to achieve immortality in the twenty-first century is not what individuals will do; it is what “humankind as a collective” will do. He states that most people will play a very minor role, if any, in the quest. Barring some unexpected transformation, societies will move toward longer life expectancy and life spans, more peaceful coexistence, and a decrease in pestilence and famine. However, millions of individuals will continue to suffer from poverty, illness, and violence.

He argues that so long as a single child is in danger of dying of malnutrition, we should concentrate our energies on solving current problems rather than turning our attention to achieving immortality. But, he says, “history doesn’t work like that.” Who could have predicted even five years ago that multiple individuals would have their own space ships? As Harari says, “Those living in palaces have always had different agendas to those living in shacks….”

History is full of mistakes

Second, Harari is presenting a prediction based on historical data, not a political manifest. He admits that adopting an agenda that is aimed at achieving immortality and utopian living conditions may be a mistake. History, he says, is full of big mistakes. “Given our past record and our current values, we are likely to reach out for bliss, divinity, and immortality — even if it kills us.”

Third, “reaching out is not the same at attaining.” He says that his prediction is an expression of what society will try to achieve, not what it will succeed in obtaining. He reminds us that twentieth-century Russia adopted an economy that attempted to end inequality. It failed.

During this century, our attempts to cheat death will escalate. But that doesn’t mean that in 2100 people will be immortal. It’s possible that millions of young people are now trying to beat their personal bests at a wide variety of sports in hopes of becoming Olympians. The vast majority won’t make the cut, but they’ll all be better off for putting forth the effort.

Fourth, prediction is not a prophecy. His prediction is based on historical precedence. And that’s fallible. He writes, “…as we accumulate more data and increase our computing power, events become wilder and more unexpected. The more we know, the less we can predict.”

My last word

Sociologists, like me, don’t make predictions. We report trends and we extrapolate from them. We have an excellent record in demography, the subfield in which I chose to specialize during my active years in the field. We can look at birth rates, death rates, women’s preference for family size, cultural traditions, and so forth. Based on prevailing trends, we can say with a good deal of accuracy how large (or small) a population of people will be at some point in the future.

However, that projection is based on an assumption that trends will not change dramatically. With regard to Harari’s “prediction,” we must admit that we have already “cheated death.” Children who would have died during the past half century are with us today because of vaccination, enhanced nutrition, advances in medical care, and such seemingly inconsequential events as car manufacturers installing seat belts and governments disallowing lead in paint.

So, I’m going to keep reading Harari. In fact, I haven’t finished “Homo Deus.” I’m reading it between novels that I read every week for my “Book Talk” column that appears in the Wednesday edition of this paper. I can’t zoom through his book as I do with most crime mysteries and thrillers. Harari makes me stop and think in the middle of a paragraph. That’s a good thing.

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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.