Harari on Big Data and the Gap between Homo and Deus

In late August, just ahead of the publication of his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,Yuval Noah Harari wrote an article-length précis of his ideas. One can find it here. The first thing I appreciate about this article is that it reminds me of the phenomenon of big data and the need to think about it. I also like the link Harari makes between a critique of this phenomenon and that of the invisible hand of markets. He tacitly recognizes the limitations of economic determinism and the impoverishment of any reflection on what homo sapiens is when we start with the acquisitive self: the idea that my heart tells me what to do pleasantly glosses over my selfish or my greedy heart. Harari also puts on the table, as a phenomenon to be questioned, the strategy of putting all our eggs in the basket of free will, or perhaps better, leaving unquestioned what it is that is meant by freedom. Others deal better with this question than Harari does, not least George Grant, who has recently been a subject of reflection for the Communio group. The latter has written at length on the shift, through the development of technology, to the domination of nature and human nature and who would call us back to an alternative vision of participation in the good in platonic thought, subtly spun through his Christian lens. Harari is working within a tradition of exclusive humanism he does not question enough, but he draws attention to cracks in the humanist edifice.

I also like the way Harari at least back-handedly recognizes a distinction between what gets said in the name of religion, but really amounts to an appeal to the authentic self rather than to some other narrative framework. He seems to suggest that our choice as a species lies between either self or authority, but at least he recognizes a disconnection between what gets reported as being said on religious grounds and what might actually be going on within a framework that includes belief in a God who reveals himself. In a similar vein, he acknowledges the “hard problem of consciousness.” He uses this difficulty to problematize not only big data but, by implication, all our glib, easy (i.e. reductive) narratives about how things really work. I think there’s a problem with the way that he stays within the loop of privileging the self, as well as an epistemological construal of what matters most, but the move creates a useful space nonetheless.

But these allowances for the thought-provoking questions Harari asks make all the more vexing his immediate reductionist move of accepting biological materialism as his starting point, upon which we must continue to think to solve the hard problem of consciousness. He simply returns to the language of biological algorithms that he uses to describe and delimit dataism. There’s a pretty simple narrative at work here. Well, actually, that’s probably the first thing to notice: that he couches the whole piece in a narrative structure. In that all-too-familiar story, it is a given that Christianity is just like communism as an ideology and that both are equally passé. And he uses this narrative to suggest that only after Rousseau does the question of free will become a problem. It seems that Nietzsche’s critique of Rousseau is relevant here. There are other problems too with his story. He talks about how now medicine makes its decisions based on calculations, but this doesn’t ring true at all, at least not in the terms he suggests. PROMs, patient-reported outcome measures, take into account patient expectations, desires, and interpretations of surgical interventions. Patient-directed care is very much a part of the health scene. In one way, that’s a minor point, but in another, it creates a hesitation just when Harari ramps up his story of the place of dataism in the unfolding of events, which he implicitly characterizes as a juggernaut. When he then appeals to “Take this to its logical conclusion…,” it seems to me that his rhetoric is wrapped up in the kind of adulation of his own historical and metaphysical narrative that deserves ongoing critique. Calculation is indeed part of the problem, but is rooted in a view of the world that has separated facts from values, and left us with the illusion that we create our own values.

Harari seems anxious to leave out the incompleteness not only of his account but of all accounts. That very incompleteness could be part of what it means to reflect on “know thyself” and could suggest ecstatic being both within human relations and beyond them. I think of wonderful lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy: “The natural thirst, which cannot be satisfied but with the water of which the Samaritan woman demanded the boon, was tormenting me….” This medieval précis accords well with a theological understanding of creation and of humans as made in the image of God. The hard questions that Harari and others are asking create a space such that teleology, abandoned with the rise of modern science, should be back on the table. Harari says Google won’t have to be perfect, it’ll just have to be better than the choices one can come up with for acting within any given context. This gloomy outlook suppresses the possibility of ecstatic, teleologically oriented being, and repeats the old claim that the future is never anything more than the recurrence of the past. It is a claim dependent on massive ontological assumptions that are as problematic as the “hard problem of consciousness.”

Harari’s sketch has some standard features of a modern subtraction narrative that are both revealing and problematic. Nonetheless, he draws our attention to an important current issue, big data, and certain aporias in our popular philosophizing, not to say metaphysical reflection.

Norm Klassen

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