Best-Selling Author Dehumanizes, Degrades, Self-Contradicts: Why Do Students Love Him So Much?
You want to trigger a student? Get shouted down on campus? Just try messing with people’s personal control over “reality.” That’s what I thought, anway, but it turns out it’s not always true. I saw video not long ago of a speaker absolutely shredding students at UC Santa Barbara, dehumanizing them, denying all their cherished freedoms, and as far as I can tell, they loved it. The professor who introduced him did too: He gave him more than 5 1/2 minutes of glowing praise.
Something strange is going on here, and it isn’t only about students and professors. This one surprising hour reveals a lot about the mess we’re all in these days.
Yuval Noah Harari, historian and best-selling author, was the speaker. For almost an hour he taught the crowd that they have no worth, no autonomy, no free will, nothing you could even call human. He wasn’t just targeting students: He dehumanized everyone. They should have thrown him out on his ear, but instead they ate it up.
That’s only first the only oddity in this lecture, though. Harari, whose brilliance the prof so adored, closed his talk by contradicting everything he’d just said, with no sign he was even aware of it.
“Organisms Are Algorithms”
Harari based this talk on his book Homo Deus, his view of humanity’s future. Like all historians, he sees the future as an extension of the past, but the past he’s thinking about isn’t human politics or art or love or war. He looks back and sees humans as algorithms. That’s where the dehumanizing begins. (It doesn’t end there.)
Algorithms are like recipes: Do this, do that, do this next thing, check this other input, and you’ll produce this result. A cookbook is a lot like pages of algorithms, but not exactly. The cook has freedom either to follow the recipe or to change it, whereas true algorithms have no room for that. There’s no place for freedom, no deviation from the plan, no openness to thought or to question.
Computer programs are algorithms piled upon algorithms. The machines that run them had better follow them exactly to the minutest detail, or else the plane they’re controlling will crash. Or a missile will launch against a city by mistake. You get the idea.
Computers don’t decide what to do with the rules their programmers give them. They just execute those rules. That’s true for the simplest pocket calculator, and it’s true for the secret computer programs that tell YouTube what video to show you next, or what Amazon thinks you’ll want to buy. It’s even true for AIs like ChatGPT. Programmers decide what they want the algorithm to accomplish, and users make their choices, too — what we want to search for on the web, maybe — but where the machine begins, freedom ends. It does what it’s instructed to do, period.
That’s how I’d put it. Harari disagrees. He says we’re slaves to algorithms ourselves, and in exactly the same way. “Organisms are algorithms, he says,” (26:20). That includes us.
Free Will is a “Myth”
Computers programs run under strict control of the laws of physics and chemistry. Humans are just as strictly controlled by the same laws (he claims), following programming indelibly etched into us by eons of evolution, whose only purpose (if you can call it that) is survival and reproduction.
That’s bad news if you think you have free will. Harari says (at 24:00), “Freedom has absolutely no meaning from a physical or biological perspective. It’s just another myth, another empty term that humans have invented. Humans have invented God, and humans have invented heaven and hell, and humans have invented free will. But there is no more truth to free will than there is to heaven and hell.”
If you don’t think he means that to be dehumanizing, hold on to your bananas. He explains it by saying our algorithms are functionally identical to those of a baboon, deciding whether the food in the tree is worth disturbing the lion sleeping under it. No different.
So if you thought feelings, emotions, thinking, deciding, and choosing were human activities, think again. Emotions in particular are “just a biochemical process of calculation in order to make decisions” (26:50). Note carefully: The process of “calculation” and decision-making is biochemical, not human. You don’t run your algorithms, they run you.
And every decision is ultimately about survival and reproduction, since that’s all evolution can manage to cook up for us. Or cook us up for. Now, this is all “according to standard theory in the life sciences,” he says repeatedly. (That particular direct quote is at 31:30).
So much for personal autonomy and decision-making. So much for human worth. And what happened to the typical student’s insistence on deciding his own “truth” or his own “reality”?
Algorithms Will Rule Us Even More
Humanity’s past is all about algorithms. Our future is too, but in new and unimagined forms. Massive data and immense computing power mean external algorithms will soon take control. We’re on that path already. Take Amazon, for example: Its computers know what we read (or don’t read) on Kindle. Someday it will watch our faces as we read. It will compile information on what bores us, what excites us, what motivates us. Someday, “Facebook or Google … will have the technology to understand exactly how you feel, and why you feel the way that you feel” (36:00).
They’ll have data on everyone, and statistics on everything. They’ll know us better than we know ourselves, so we’ll trust them more than we trust ourselves. Eventually (47:45), we’ll let Google tell us whom we should marry, too. Its massive, modern algorithms will do way better than our own, acquired “in the African savannah 100,000 years ago.” Likewise with other big tech.
So not only are we being dehumanized. Soon we’ll be begging big tech’s computers to take total charge over us all. In a later conversation Harari worries about the tyranny that could lead to. Nothing on that here. But why worry? There’s no such thing as freedom anyway!
But Wait! I Didn’t Mean Anything I Just Said!
Here, though, come to the next mystery, the closing, where he gives oddly self-contradictory advice on how to keep technology under control. “Technology is never deterministic,” he says, at the end of a talk on how everything is deterministic, you and me included.
He tells the “story” of two Koreas. The reason North Korea is different from South Korea is “because they chose to do very different things” with their technology (56:30). “And if you don’t like some of the scenarios, some of the possibilities that I have talked about tonight, you should know that you can still do something about it.”
Choosing? Free will after all? Suddenly he’s sounding as if he doesn’t believe a word he said.
Two Mysteries, One Explanation
Two mysteries in one campus event: Why weren’t the students triggered? And why did Harari not notice he was contradicting himself?
I believe one answer solves both mysteries. Harari and his audience believe the dehumanizing story because it fits the line they’ve been fed their whole lives: There is no truth but scientific truth. Science studies nothing but natural phenomena. The best science takes everything down to the smallest particles and discovers laws they follow. The best “truth,” then, comes from physics, and physics has zero room for free will. (Quantum indeterminacy isn’t free will either, for those who might quibble over that.) Therefore the “scientific truth,” the only “truth,” is that there is no free will.
The other “best” science, or at least the one we’re least allowed to question, is evolution. Couple that with the “truths” of physics, and we’re all just machines, along with every other organism. That’s the line. It comes at academics so consistently, they don’t know how to doubt it. In many places it’s wrong to doubt it. So they repeat it. And repeat it. And repeat it, until teachers believe it and students willingly sit through it.
But for all that message gets drilled into their heads, their heads remain human. Teachers still say, “Make choices that are good for the planet!” Students still demand freedom to determine their “reality.” Personal realities of that sort aren’t real, but human freedom is. The message cannot take away the reality.
Guard Yourself, Guard Your Loved Ones from the Insanity
So they believe it and disbelieve it, both at the same time, and even the best of them, like Harari, suffer something a lot like schizophrenia, a form of mass insanity that blinds them to the obvious contradictions in it. I mean that quite seriously: Not that I’m trying to make a technical diagnosis, but to say there’s something desperately wrong going on here.
Oblivious self-contradiction is just one symptom. Today’s students are the loneliest, most depressed, most anxious we’ve ever seen. This inhuman message has damaged them by the millions. Via suicide, drugs, and other self-destructive acts, I believe it has also killed many of them, via suicide, reckless drug use, and other self-destructive acts.
So please be careful where you send your child to college. Higher education is this disease’s most fertile breeding ground. And never forget: You are created in God’s image. That’s the only real preventive against this illness. It’s also the truth.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.