the dominant ideology of the world at present is liberal humanism, or in short, liberalism.
Liberalism is a worldview, an ideology, that thinks that a source of all authority and all meaning in the universe is the individual human.
Liberalism has several core ideas.
First of all, it believes in the individual. It thinks that every Homo sapien is an individual, which literally means it cannot be divided. Within each individual there is kind of a seed of light, a spark that cannot be divided further. Within each of us there is this inner voice and this inner voice in each and every one of us is the source of all the meaning and all the authority in the world. Whenever we face a difficult question, a difficult dilemma, choice in life as individuals, or as collectives, liberalism tells us, listen to yourself, connect to yourself.
The second main idea or hypothesis of liberalism is that this inner voice within ourselves comes out of a space of complete freedom. Yes, there are influences, constraints from outside, physical, social, biological, but if we go deep enough within ourselves, we will come, eventually, to a space of complete freedom. And from the space we need to make our big decisions in life.
Thirdly, based on these two ideas or two assumptions, liberalism assumes that only I can really know myself. Nobody else, no outside person, no outside system can really know who I am because, again, who I am really is this inner voice which enjoys complete freedom. So I’m inaccessible from outside.
Based on these ideas the main value of liberalism, which gives it its name, is liberty, freedom.
We need to preserve the freedom of the individual to think, to feel, and to act according to what he or she thinks and feels because, again, this is the supreme and source of authority and meaning in the world.
You get a democracy with elections and so forth. If we want to know who should rule this country, what kind of economic policies to adopt, what kind of foreign policy to adopt, to make war or to make peace, who should we turn to in order to get answers? We should turn to the inner voices of each individual. So we have elections and on election day everybody goes by himself or by herself. And at least theoretically tries to connect, I try to connect to myself to listen, what are my deepest feelings? What’s are my deepest personal thoughts about this issue? And I vote accordingly. And this is how we know who should rule the country, whether to make peace or war, and so forth.
So this is liberal politics, which argues that the voter knows best. There is no source of authority higher than the voter.
Liberal economics is the view that the customer is always right. There is no higher authority than the authority of the individual customer. How do we know if a product is a good product? If the customers buy it. There is no other method. There is no higher authority that can say, yes, they didn’t buy it, but it’s still good.
In liberal economics the highest authority in economics is the customer.
You have the same ideas in the fields of art and aesthetics. Many times in history many periods, many cultures, people had ideas, what is art and what is beauty? And they thought that there are some objective definitions, objective yardsticks to determine whether something is art and whether something is good art. And then comes along liberal art and liberal aesthetics in the 19th, 20th century. And just as in politics the voter knows best.
And in economics the customer is always right. So in liberal art, also, the customer or the viewer, he is or she is the highest authority. According to liberal art, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, in the feelings of the person watching or seeing the painting, the architecture, the play, whatever it is.
In 1917, in a very, very famous gesture Marcel Duchamp took a urinal, said this art, called it “Fountain,” signed his name, Marcel Duchamp, put it in a museum in Paris, said this is art. This is beautiful. And ever since then in every introductory course to art, to art history in university they bring this image and the argument starts. Is it art? No, it’s not art. Who determines what is art? Is it beautiful? It’s not beautiful. And eventually, if you are liberals, you will reach the conclusion that art is whatever I define to be art and beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Whatever I think is beautiful, it’s beautiful. And nobody out there can come to me and say, you think it’s beautiful, but it’s not. There is some higher authority. If you think that this is beautiful art and you’re willing to pay millions of dollars for it, and it costs millions of dollars today, this fountain, then it’s art.
How do you know if an action is good or evil? If it’s ethical or unethical? Well, suppose I live in the Middle Ages. And I fall in love with another guy. And I go to the priest and tell him in confession this and this happened. So the priest will say, this is very evil, what you have done. You will go to hell for this. Why? Because God thinks it’s evil, because scriptures say it’s evil, because I, the priest, say this is evil. And then I say to the priest, but I feel very good about it. So the priest would say, but we don’t care what you feel. Your feelings are unimportant. You don’t determine what is good or evil by what you feel. Then came liberalism in the modern age and said no.
The highest authority in the field of ethics is also the feelings of individuals. There’s nothing beyond that. If it feels good, do it. If you feel good about it, if everybody feels good about it, then there is absolutely no reason in the world why it should be evil or bad. Now, there are, of course, problems.
What happens if a particular action causes some people to feel good and other people to feel bad? This is when you have arguments within liberal ethics. Say, for example, an extramarital affair. I have an affair outside of marriage. I feel very good about it, but if my spouse finds out he will feel bad about it. And probably I will also feel bad about it. And if we, say, we divorce as a result and we have children, they will feel bad about it. So what is more important, my good feelings at a particular time, or the bad feelings of my spouse, or my children? Different people have different views on this question, but as long as they are liberal, the argument will be done in terms of feelings. The question will be, what feeling is more important?
The main idea of liberal education is that the student or the pupil is the highest authority, not the teacher, not the professor. In liberal education the main thing you try to teach your pupils or your students is to think for themselves. They are the highest authority. You go from kindergarten to the university and you ask the teacher, you ask the professor, what are you trying to teach? And he or she will say, well, I try to teach history, or mathematics, or physics, but above all I try to teach my students to think for themselves.
This is the most important thing. If he or she are liberal educators it doesn’t always work, of course, not all the universities or schools manage to do it, but this is the general ideal accepted by all liberal institutions of education.
Now when we look at the world of today in 2015 we can say that the liberal package dominates most of the world. This liberal package contains human rights, which are these walls, defenses established to protect the inner freedom of each individual. This is the human rights. This package contains belief in individualism, in liberal democracy, in free market economy. And I think we can say that not everybody accepts this particular package, but it is the dominant ideological package of the world today. And there is very little viable alternatives, or real alternatives to this package at present. Over the last few years, we have seen a lot of social protests in different places in the world, but the vast majority of the protests were done in the name of the liberal values, not against them. People are coming to the governments and saying, you don’t live up to the liberal ideas. We want the politics to be more democratic. We want economics, the economy, to be more free. The vast majority of social protests did not have any alternative to this package. They simply wanted it to be implemented better than it is being implemented today.
Very big question, which emanates from this field of biotechnology is the possibility of, for the first time in history, real biological gaps opening between the rich and the poor. Previously in history there were always gaps between rich and poor, but these gaps were social, economic, legal, not biological.
There was no real biological difference between the king and the peasant. They had the same basic physical, cognitive, and emotional abilities. Now with the advent of biotechnology we are facing a possibility, it’s not a prophecy, it’s not certain, but there is a possibility of real biological gaps opening and Homo sapiens splitting into different biological castes, or even different species. These are the kinds of problems that we need to confront in the 21st century.
The crucial thing about Marx and Engels, and later Lenin and Trotsky, and all these fellows is that they did not just read old books from hundreds of centuries previously. They studied the technology and the economy of their own day. And they tried to create a new ideology, which will be suited to the new opportunities and challenges of 19th-century technology and 19th-century economics.
Communism and socialism are custom built for the world following the Industrial Revolution. This is why they’re so successful. In a way communism and socialism were the harbingers of the new religions we see today in the 21st century in the sense that they were based on technology and on the economy.
After thousands of years in which technology played almost no role at all in religious and ideological thought, communism was the first techno-religion, a religion or ideology if you prefer that promises roughly the same things that were promised by the traditional religions. It promised peace, prosperity, paradise, but here on Earth with the use of technology, not in the afterlife by the act of some divine power. This is the definition of a techno-religion.
It promises whatever it promises here on Earth with the help of technology. And communism was perhaps the first to show the way and it completely changed our entire ideological discourse.
Previously the main dividing lines between people and their beliefs concerned questions like, do we believe in God, what god? Do you believe in a soul? What kind of soul? What happens after death? These were the main questions that divided, say, Christians from Muslims and Shiites from Sunnis. After communism everything changed. Now people more and more began to define themselves by how they think about technology and economics. Sounds very strange, but not very long ago, years ago, humankind was almost destroyed in a nuclear war between two camps who were divided not in what they thought about soul, or God, or the afterlife.
The were divided in what they thought about how economic production should be organized. So communism really changed the rules of the game. Even if you don’t accept what Marx said you started speaking in similar terms in the questions that you asked. And we see indeed that the traditional religions, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, they did not disappear. It’s not that people stopped believing in them. They just became less and less relevant, less influential. They were transformed essentially from a creative force into a reactive force.
In the Middle Ages they were very creative forces. Much of the new technological, economic, political, administrative techniques of the Middle Ages were pioneered by the Catholic church. But in the last 200 years they became reactive forces. They’re still there, but most of what they do is react to the changes, to the inventions, to the discoveries that other people make. Like somebody invents the contraceptive pill and completely changes the sexual sphere. And then the pope and the priests, they scratch their head, what do we do with this? What do you do? Is it OK? Is it not OK? They react.
Collapse of Liberalism
It seems that we are on the verge of the collapse of liberalism. And the collapse of liberalism will not happen because of things that people are doing now in Syria, or Iraq, or in Libya, but because of things that people are doing here in Silicon Valley, and in Universities
It starts with the life sciences. The basic problem of liberalism today in the early 21st century is that the life sciences are telling us that it is nonsense.
The basic beliefs on which liberalism are built or perhaps sounded sensible in the 18th century, in the era of Locke and Rousseau and these people. But there is a huge gap between what liberalism tells us about the world, and about Homo sapiens, and what the life sciences in the early 21st century are telling us about Homo sapiens.
Liberalism believes in individualism as we said earlier, that each one of us is an individual. We have this ray of light, this inner core which is individual. This is our real self. Well, according to the life sciences today there are no such things. All animals, including humans, are not individuals. They don’t have souls. They don’t have any essence. They don’t have any inner core.
They are basically a collection of biochemical algorithms, all kinds of algorithmic systems that build the brain, that build the human beings, the giraffe, the elephant, whatever it is. And if you peel all the layers, all the systems that make up an animal, an organism like an onion, you peel one layer after the other, one layer after the other, in the end you won’t get an inner core of light, or a soul. You will get nothing. There is just nothing left when you take out all these different biochemical algorithms, nothing is left. There is no individual.
Secondly, these biochemical algorithms that make up an organism are not free. There is no such thing as freedom according to the life sciences. All systems in nature, including these biochemical algorithms, they work according to just two possible principles. Either they are deterministic or they are random. Perhaps some events on the quantum level insert a certain randomness into the biochemical processes of our brain, of our nervous system, of our body, but that’s it.
The word “freedom” simply has no meaning in the life sciences of today. Taking these two ideas together that an organism, including Homo sapiens– which is just another animal like the chimpanzees, and giraffes, and so forth– if an organism is just a collection of algorithms, and these algorithms are not free in any sense, this means that at least potentially an external system, an external entity can understand me perfectly. It just needs to understand all the algorithms that come together to build this machine, this structure.
And the crucial insight is that even our sensations, even our emotions, even our feelings, liberalism believes above all else in our feelings, how you feel about politics, about art, about sexuality, this is the holy grail of liberalism, our feelings. But now come the life sciences and say, feelings? Feelings are just biochemical algorithms calculating what? Calculating either of two things, probabilities of survival and probabilities of reproduction. That’s it.
The Homo sapiens, like giraffes, like elephants, they are calculating all the time, all their body is just a calculating machine for calculating probabilities of survival and reproduction. This, again, may sound a bit abstract. So I will give two simple examples. First of all, problems of survival. Let’s say you are a baboon. And you are somewhere in the Savannah in Africa. And you see a tree with bananas on it. And you ask yourself, should I go and take these bananas? But you also see that there is a lion nearby. Now should I or shouldn’t I try and get these bananas and risk that while I eat the bananas the lion will eat me? Now in order to reach a good answer I basically, what I need to do, is to calculate probabilities and I need to take into account a lot of information in order to do it correctly.
I don’t take out a piece of paper and pen, or a calculator, or a computer. I don’t have it. And I don’t need it because my entire body is a calculator that was built for millions of years by natural selection to do exactly that. What we call emotions, sensations, feelings, are simply biochemical algorithms that take all that information, all the huge amounts of information from outside and inside, and within a split second reach a certain decision, a certain probability. Now the result does not show up as a number, like in some futuristic science fiction movie that the baboon or the person sees a number in front of his eyes, no. The result will come up simply as a feeling. This is what feelings are. They are the result of these calculations.
If the result is that I should try and get the banana, it will come up as the emotion of courage. I will feel very courageous. My chest will be puffed up and I will run to the bananas. If the calculations reach the conclusion, reach the result that I shouldn’t risk my life, the chances are too small, then the result again, will not be a number. It will be a feeling. It will be the feeling, the emotion of fear. I will feel very frightened and run away. And sometimes the calculations are just in the middle. It’s not clear if it’s a good idea or a bad idea in terms of survival to reach for these bananas. And this too will show up as an emotion, as a feeling. I will feel confused. I will feel I don’t know what to do, to take the bananas, not to take them. This too will be a feeling.
The other type of calculation problems that this machine is built to calculate concerns not survival, but reproduction. And again, if you are a peacock, you look at the peacock. If you are a human, you look at a human. And you need to make up your mind, sometimes very quickly, is this a good mate or not? And again, lots of information floods in from the eyes, from the ears, from the nose, from within the body. And within a split second you get the result, not as a number, but as a feeling. You will feel this is beautiful, this is attractive, or, no, it’s not beautiful, it’s not attractive, it’s disgusting, whatever. All of these sexual feelings, again, they are biochemical algorithms. They are not some spiritual whatever that comes from the sky. They are the result of very, very complex biochemical algorithms that natural selection has evolved and selected for millions upon millions of generations until they came to us.
Now so far these biological insights actually supported liberalism because liberalism, as I said earlier, it believes in feelings as the supreme source of authority. What I feel, this is the supreme source of authority on the planet. And biologists could come and say, this is actually a very keen insight. This is true because if you want to make decisions about your life and you have two potential sources of authority, say the Bible or your own feelings, biologists will tell you, go with your feelings. The Bible contains the wisdom of a few priests in ancient Jerusalem. That’s it. Your feelings contain the wisdom of millions upon millions of years of evolution, the algorithms that are your feelings have passed the most rigorous tests of natural selection. Each one of your genes, and each one of your algorithms is here today because it has succeeded for millions of years to pass the most rigorous tests of natural selection. So if you need to make a decision you better go with your feelings. This was the situation maybe until today. But now things are changing.
In two ways things are changing. First of all, biologists decipher the biochemical algorithms that compose our body and that are responsible for our feelings. They are no longer mysterious entities as they were before. We understand them better and better. Why I feel this way in this particular situation. And secondly, we have computer scientists that are creating better and better electronic algorithms. Now the question that arises today is what will happen once we create an algorithm that knows me better, that understands me and my feelings better than I can understand myself? What will happen then is that authority will shift. It will shift away from the feelings of individuals to these outside algorithms.
Our feelings at present, you can say, are the best algorithms in the universe. But after all, they are becoming outdated. They appeared maybe the way that we have them today maybe a few tens of thousands of years ago in the African Savanna. So far they have been the best algorithms around, but we are now at the position to produce an updated version, something better. And when we have better algorithms then the authority will shift to them. This is already happening in at least a few fields of life, most clearly in the field of medicine and decisions about your own body, and your own health. I think it’s not far fetched to say that all of you are now listening to this talk, including myself, the most important decisions about our bodies during our lifetime will not to be taken by our feelings. They will be taken by external algorithms, algorithms that understand our own internal systems and that have statistics about millions upon millions of other humans, and therefore can make better predictions and better decisions about our bodies than just my own feelings. To give a concrete example I think it was a year ago, two years ago that this is very famous story came out with Angelina Jolie that she had a double mastectomy. Why? Not because she discovered she had breast cancer. She didn’t have breast cancer. But she went and did a genetic test scanning her DNA. And it showed that she carries a mutation in one of her genes that, according to the statistical database, means she has an 87% chance of getting breast cancer. Her feelings told her nothing, that she is sick, that she should do something. But the external algorithms told her you have an 87% chance of getting this disease.
Most of the big decisions we will make about our lives in our lifetime will actually be taken by such external algorithms, not based on our inner feelings. Now when this will spread to more and more fields of life, liberalism will collapse, not necessarily violently, but it will simply become outdated. People will move authority to a different place. This has happened before in history. In the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern age, in the Middle Ages at the time when the dominance was of religions, when people had faced a decision, a problem, the practical guideline they received was listen to scriptures. Read what is written in scriptures. This will give you an answer.
Now the rise of liberalism was not a theoretical change. It was not just a matter of philosophy. It was a practical matter of how people actually make decisions in their daily lives. If previously, when they faced a problem, say, who to marry, they opened scriptures and looked for the answer. Now, with the rise of liberalism, the guidance was listen to your feelings. Now we move to the next stage. When people say, don’t listen to your feelings, what do they know? Listen to Google, or listen to Amazon, or to Facebook, or whatever. They understand how you feel better than you know how you feel because they have much more information. And they have much better algorithms than what natural selection gave you. They have information not only about your emails and your books and so forth, but the latest rage is all these biometric devices that you wear on your body, and that gets a constant stream of information about your blood pressure and your sugar levels, and whatever. And, of course, do a DNA test, and so forth and so forth. And if you have all this information and these superbly built algorithms you can get much better answers than from your feelings, or certainly from the Bible.
So we see the potential rise of a new kind of religion, a data religion. If previously God was in the center of events and then humans were in the center of events. Now data or information becomes the supreme source of authority and of meaning in the world. It starts with simple things like, you’ve got to an intersection in the road to turn left or to turn right, don’t listen to your feelings. Listen to navigation system. It knows much better than your gut intuition whether to go this way or that way.
And eventually we will reach even questions like, whom to marry. In the lives of most individuals perhaps one of the most important questions is the question of who to marry. And now instead of going to the priest and asking, Father, who should I marry, or going to my parents, or trying to connect to my feelings, and making bad decisions, I can ask Google, dear Google, who should I marry? And Google will answer, well, I know you from the moment you were born, at least sometime in the future. I’ve read every email you’ve ever written. I’ve listened to every phone call you’ve ever made. I remember every failed date you went to. If you want, I can show you the graphs of your sugar level and blood pressure during every date and every sexual encounter you had in your lifetime. And of course, I also know your potential mates, like if I have to choose between two people. So yes, I know him and I know him, or her and her just as I know you. And based on all this information and not only on all this information, but based on databases off millions and millions of successful and unsuccessful relationships, I can recommend to you at a probability of 87% that you had better go with A and not with B. And one more thing. I know you so well that I also know that you are disappointed by what I just told you. I told you to choose A, but secretly you actually prefer B. And I also understand why you make this mistake. You give too much importance to physical appearances, to external beauty. Now I’m not saying that beauty’s not important. Beauty is very important. But you give it too much weight. In my calculations, which are based on these enormous statistical databases, I know that beauty counts for 9.62% of the success of a relationship. But your old-fashioned biochemical algorithms, because of things that happened in the African Savanna, give this data, beauty, they give it which is far too high. So believe me, even though you feel that B is the right answer, go for A. And this is an empirical question. If enough people enough times will consult and get a good answer that they will be happy with, then with time more and more decisions about small things and about big things will be done in such a way.
Authority will shift from the feelings, from the inner feelings of the individuals to the wisdom of these external algorithms. This is a very favorite topic in many science fiction movies, and books, and whatever. The usual plot of science fiction movies or books goes like this. Computers or robots become very powerful. Then there is a big war between humans and the robots, or humans and computers. And the computers are so powerful, they know everything. They can do anything, but they don’t understand the inner spirit of humanity. They don’t understand love or whatever. And this is why humanity wins in the end. This is a very common plot in many of these movies because their audience is humans. So they have to sell this kind of fiction. Otherwise people won’t buy it. People won’t like it. But there is a fallacy here. And the fallacy is that why do you think that computers or robots will not understand the emotions, the feelings, love, whatever? It’s not some otherworldly spiritual thing. It’s, at least according to the life sciences, it’s an algorithm. So why think that a computer will not be able to understand an algorithm? OK, it’s a biochemical algorithm. It’s not an electronic algorithm. But what’s the difference? The mathematics is the same. The calculations are basically the same. Why does it matter how it is done?
The second fallacy, which is part of it is that most of these movies, not all of them, but most of them imagine it as a kind of war between humans and computers, or humans and robots. When the far more likely scenario, which we are already seeing now, is not a war but a wedding. We are talking about a merger of the two kinds of algorithms, the biochemical and the electronic, not a struggle, or not necessarily a struggle. Now there is one question that still hovers over this entire discussion. And this is whether the life sciences are right. Does life really mean nothing more than information processing? It may seem like it when you read the latest articles and books on the discovery of the life sciences, but there is still one big hole in the story.
And this is the question of consciousness, of subjective experiences. What is called in philosophy the hard problem of consciousness. We now understand very well, we know how to find correlations between particular biochemical or electrochemical patterns in the brain, and certain subjective experiences. But we are very, very far from being able to understand how is it that a particular pattern of electrochemical signals in the brain creates a subjective experience of love, or anger, or hate, or whatever.
The life sciences– or currently most of them– have this dogma that, OK, we don’t know how to explain it, but in 20, or 30, or 50 years with more experiments, more knowledge we will understand how electrochemical signals are transformed into subjective experiences. But at present in 2015 this is just dogma. Still today we don’t have a clue how electrochemical patterns can turn into subjective experiences. Maybe the life sciences have got it wrong. Maybe humans and other animals are not reducible to algorithms. This is an open question. However, in historical terms, it’s not as important as you might think because a religion or an ideology does not have to be correct in what it says in order to take over the world. We have many cases previously in history when religions and ideologies, which said what we think today to be completely erroneous things about the world, nevertheless managed to take it over. In scientific terms the story, for example, that Christianity tells about the world, how the world was created, how humans were created, how things work in the world, it’s not true. It’s simply not true, at least according to science. But this did not prevent Christianity from taking over most of the world. So you don’t need the truth to take over the world. Similarly with these new data religions, maybe they are based on a misunderstanding of life, but this will not necessarily prevent them from taking over the world.
When you look at how people actually make decisions liberalism is wrong. We don’t really go and connect to ourselves and decide from there. The impact of society and culture is enormous. But, again, as I said before, the thing with religions and ideology is they don’t have to be true. When they tell us connect to yourself, follow your heart, and make your decisions from there. And this is how we build our economy, our politcs– it’s not true. But in terms of ideology, and this is what they are selling us and this is what many of us believe, that we go to the supermarket and we buy whatever we want to buy. The fact that our brain was washed for hours and hours by commercials and so forth, liberalism discounts it. Liberalism says no. Within yourself there is an inner core of freedom. And nothing can really touch it. Nothing can really change it. Now, we know that it’s not true. But this is why it’s an ideology or a religion.
Now I will also say a few words about why I call it a religion and not just an ideology. It’s really a question of semantics, of how you define things. Many people define religion as belief in God or supernatural powers. Nobody defines it as believing irrationality. Religious people think they are very rational. They never say, I’m religious, I’m irrational. Maybe a few of them do, but the vast majority of them don’t think that religion is superstition or irrationality. Now, if you define religion as belief in gods, then, yes, liberalism or communism, no, they are not religions. And certainly data religion is not a religion. But this is a very narrow definition of religion. There have been religions in history in which gods played a very minor role like Buddhism and Confucianism. And we still call them religion. For me the basic definition of religion is in terms of the function it plays in history and in society. Religion gives legitimacy to human lows and norms by hanging on to some super human power or law of entity. We come to people and we say, you have to behave like this. And they ask, why? So you don’t answer, because I said so or because a couple of people invented this law and now you must obey. This won’t work. You must go to some super human authority. Now there are two kinds of superhuman authorities we find throughout story. One kind is gods. They are these superior beings with personalities. If you don’t do this, they’ll become angry. They’ll punish you. But there is another option, which was common throughout history and this is to turn to natural laws. The argument is human laws, of society were not invented by humans. They reflect the laws of nature. Therefore they are not arbitrary. They are not random and you can’t change them. You have to follow them. So this is the case with Buddhism and Confucianism. This is the case also with communism or with Nazism. The Nazis come and say, look, it’s not Hitler that invented this whole racial theory and then that they should be exterminated and so forth. This is the laws of nature. Natural selection, you’ve read Darwin. There are different biological groups and so forth. Now we can say that the Nazis misunderstood Darwin and the theory of evolution. But in their eyes, the laws, like the Nuremberg Laws did not reflect some whim of Hitler and the party. It reflected the ultimate laws of nature. And if we don’t follow these laws we will disappear, like other species that have disappeared before us. So in this sense I think that we can speak about these ideologies actually as religions because they fulfill the same function. They give legitimacy to human laws and norms.
The most interesting tension and connection is between biology and computer science. Very often when people think about the ideas that I raised in the last part of the lecture, they give all the importance to the advances in computer science to our ability to create better and better algorithms and computer programs. But in my eyes the real revolution is actually from the life sciences. The really big revolution is when the life sciences are telling us that animals are basically biochemical algorithms. If they didn’t tell us this then you can have all the advances you want in computer science. It won’t impinge on humanity. You will still have humans, which are something completely different. And all the advances in robotics and computers, OK, we’ll have better computers. We’ll have better robots, but it won’t really make much of a difference to us. Where it becomes really amazing and really frightening is that once you realize– and this is a contribution of the life sciences– that actually humans working in the same way, then you can make the connections. And this is the really frightening stuff. This is also why I think more and more companies like Google that started simply as, in the computer business, are moving more and more to the biotechnology business. And then the two industries are merging into one. The most fundamental idea in this respect comes from the life sciences, which says, organisms are algorithms. This is the most important, I think, insight of our age. And also the most important question because we don’t have any proof of it. Currently, it’s just dogma.
We don’t have any explanation of how any kind of algorithm can create subjective experiences. Indeed, in the field of computers we are, as far as I know, we’re not even close to creating subjective experiences in computers. It’s just a dogma that people will say, yes. It’s the same. To give another historical reference, back in the 19th century when they tried to understand humans, and the human mind, and the human soul, or whatever you would like to call it, one of the main theories was that humans were not algorithms. Humans were steam engines. This is the basic metaphor that stands at the basis of Freudian psychology. Humans usually try to explain themselves in terms of the most sophisticated technology of the day. Ah, we are like this because this is the most sophisticated thing I know. In 1900, the most sophisticated machine, the most sophisticated technology, which was the basis for the whole economy, was the steam engine. So people came and said, ah, the brain is like a steam engine. There are valves and there are pressures and so forth. So even today we say that when we want to unload our angst, like we pick up the telephone and we release some steam. The idea is that the human being is built like a steam engine. It has all these pressures inside. And if you block it here it goes there. And much of Freudian psychology is built on this. So today this sounds childish and silly. Oh, the human being is like a steam engine? We have a much better technology is the computer. So we say, ah, humans are not like steam engines. They are like computers. But at present at least this is just a dogma. We don’t have the hard facts to actually prove it. AUDIENCE: This is sort of, I believe, a personal question. So you may skip if you don’t want to answer. But reading your book it appeared to me and one of friends in India that you have absolutely no bias when I read your book. Is that really true? Do you have any attachments [INAUDIBLE] of any nation, religion? You may skip that. YUVAL HARARI: Well, it’s a very big compliment. Maybe the highest compliment you can give a scientist is that he or she has no bias. I tried to write the book with as little bias as I can. I think you can read between the lines that there are some things I like more than others, some ideologies, religions, and so forth that I like more than others. But I think that my aim as a historian is above all to describe reality, not to judge it. It’s very important afterwards to make judgments, to decide what is good, what is bad, where we should progress. But the most basic challenge is first of all to describe reality. And if you start with a certain agenda then very quickly you become blind to much of reality because one thing almost certain about reality is that it’s complex. You take any historical development, the agricultural revolution, the Industrial Revolution, you will always find some bad things, and some good things, and some neutral things about it. So if you start with the idea of this is bad, you can’t see at least half the story. AUDIENCE: Thank you very much, Yuval. It was really, really– APPLAUSE] Published on Feb 8, 2015