I have been reading Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari lately. I’ve been deliberately slow-reading it in order not to miss out on anything. In a nutshell, Harari explains where humanity is headed in the distant (or not so distant, depending on how you see it) future. He briefly recounts major human achievements and developments throughout the past couple of decades be them political, anthropological, social, or technological. He does this in an effort to purport one thing: where we are headed is something that humanity has never seen or predicted before. We’re headed into an ultra-technological hyper-engineered future where your very genes can be edited before you are born. Where AI becomes society’s nucleus. Where humanism becomes the only religion around replacing antiquated “myths” of heaven and God. Harari goes to argue that the ideology of liberalism may well be facing its very demise. Whereby liberalism argues that the individual is the ultimate source of authority, a new ideology by the name of Data-ism will prevail by controlling us through networks of endless information. Human beings will only be processors in the system and nothing more.
One of the things that make this book absolutely captivating is the way Harari weaves his arguments using fact and philosophy. Relentlessly, he drives his point across and you can’t help but get freaked out a little by the realness of it all.
In contesting the very core of liberalism’s foundations, Harari pokes holes in the idea of “free will”, a concept that has long been debated by philosophers since the days of Plato. But regardless of the philosophical debates, free will is quintessential to the school of liberalism. Harari says:
Liberals value individual liberty so much because they believe that humans have free will. According to liberalism the decisions of voters and customers are neither deterministic or random. People are of course influenced by external forces and chance events, but at the end of the day each of us can wave the magic wand of freedom and decide things for ourselves.
But what if that’s the view that we want to see? We want to be given the power to choose. We need someone to blame when something goes wrong. We’re not comfortable with the fact that we really have very limited freedom. But what if these decisions are being made for us? From waking up to brush your teeth in the morning to committing a heinous crime. Harari goes to argue that:
The electrochemical brain processes that result in murder are either deterministic or random or a combination of both — but they are never free … Decisions reached through a chain reaction of biochemical events, each determined by a previous event, are certainly not free. Decision resulting from random subatomic accidents aren’t free either; they are just random. And when random accidents combine with deterministic processes, we get probabilistic outcomes, but this too doesn’t amount to freedom.
How our brain operates plus the factoring in of outside elements leaves no space for this elusive entity of free will. Much like pinning a crime on the disability of the accused to clearly fathom what he/she is doing due to some mental illness, the exact same argument could be made for any action that we make. We don’t decide to do anything, our brain is wired to act after a certain chain of events given certain hormones and specific environmental factors.
We sanctify free will because it gives us the agency we crave; the control we wish to have over our lives.
Free will exists only in the imaginary stories we humans have invented.
The existence of free will has baffled many a philosopher. From Voltaire to Spinoza and Nietzsche, the source of action and thought had always been subject that few agreed on. Spinoza compared man’s conviction of free will with a deluded rock:
If a stone which has been projected through the air had consciousness, it would believe that it was moving of its own free will … The stone would be right. The impulse given it is for the stone what the motive is for me; and what in the stone appears as cohesion, rigidity, is in its inner nature the same as that which I recognize in myself as well, and what the stone also, if knowledge were given to it, would recognize as will.
Schopenhauer would later expound this theory by adding that what is essentially natural law is interpreted by us as “free will” much like the stone believing that the very result of its composition versus the velocity of the throw is its very own choosing.
Spinoza for example believed that all human action emanated from desire and desire was incited by instinct which was meant to preserve human beings. Henceforth, any decision we may think we are freely making is actually only instinct in play. Like Will Durant so articulately summarized it:
We do not desire things because they give us pleasure, but they give us pleasure because we desire them and we desire them because we must.
This brings to mind Black Mirror’s popular “Bandersnatch” episode. The episode puts the Netflix viewer in control by having him/her choose certain paths the main character, Stefan, should take in creating and promoting his video-game. At various points, Stefan finds himself scratching or biting his finger nails without meaning or deciding to, and he catches himself in the act. The scratching or biting action was left up to the viewer’s discretion. Stefan was only playing out that specific decision. The transcendent moment occurs when Stefan catches himself doing something that he had no hand in deciding. The theme is reminiscent of the theistic doctrine of predestination whereby God has preordained all things that were to happen to man and on earth. This very doctrine is the consolation of the devout. Whatever tragedies or misfortunes that may befall us, God has willed them to happen for a certain purpose that we’re too simple to be privy to.
The school of liberalism which has dominated our socio-political culture for the better of the past century has sanctified our ability to choose. I choose Apple over Samsung. I choose Stephen King over Dan Brown. I choose Islam over Hinduism. I am therefore I choose. But am I only being convinced of that? Is the very foundation of my being only a mechanism in-built over decades by the consumer culture?