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The age of disorder: why technology is the greatest threat to humankind

Disruptive technologies might change the very nature of humanity – and no nation can fight on its own.

Though human beings are social animals, for millions of years they lived in small, intimate communities numbering no more than a few dozen people. Even today, as the evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar has shown, most human beings find it impossible properly to know more than 150 individuals, irrespective of how many Face­book “friends” they boast. Human beings easily develop loyalty to small, intimate groups such as a tribe, an infantry company or a family business, but it is hardly natural for them to be loyal to millions of strangers. Such mass loyalties have appeared only in the past few thousand years as a means of solving practical problems that no single tribe could solve by itself. Ancient Egypt was created to help human beings gain control of the River Nile, and ancient China coalesced to help the people restrain the turbulent Yellow River.

Nations solved some problems and created new ones. In particular, big nations led to big wars. Yet people were willing to pay the price in blood, because nations provided them with unprecedented levels of security and prosperity. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the nationalist deal still looked very attractive. Nationalism was leading to horrendous conflicts on an unprecedented scale, but modern nation states also built systems of health care, education and welfare. National health services made Passchendaele and Verdun seem worthwhile.

Yet the invention of nuclear weapons sharply tilted the balance of the deal. After Hiroshima, people no longer feared that nationalism would lead to mere war: they began to fear it would lead to nuclear war. Total annihilation has a way of ­sharpening people’s minds, and thanks in no small measure to the atomic bomb, the impossible happened and the nationalist genie was squeezed at least halfway back into its bottle. Just as the ancient villagers of the Yellow River Basin redirected some of their loyalty from local clans to a much bigger nation that restrained the dangerous river, so in the nuclear age a global community gradually developed over and above the various nations because only such a community could restrain the nuclear demon.

In the 1964 US presidential campaign, Lyndon B Johnson aired the “Daisy” advertisement, one of the most successful pieces of propaganda in the annals of television. The advert opens with a little girl picking and counting the petals of a daisy, but when she reaches ten, a metallic male voice takes over, counting back from ten to zero as in a missile launch countdown. Upon it reaching zero, the bright flash of a nuclear explosion fills the screen, and Candidate Johnson addresses the American public: “These are the stakes – to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other. Or we must die.” We often associate the slogan “Make love, not war” with the late-1960s counterculture, but already in 1964 it was accepted wisdom, even among hard-nosed politicians such as Johnson.

During the Cold War, nationalism took a back seat to a more global approach to international politics, and when the Cold War ended, globalisation seemed to be the irresistible wave of the future. It was expected that humankind would leave nationalistic politics behind, as a relic of more primitive times that might appeal at most to the ill-informed inhabitants of a few under­developed countries. Events in 2016 proved, however, that nationalism still has a powerful hold even on the citizens of Europe and the United States, not to mention Russia, India and China. Alienated by the impersonal forces of global capitalism, and fearing for the fate of national systems of health, education and welfare, people all over the world seek reassurance and meaning in the bosom of the nation.

Yet the question raised by Johnson in the Daisy advertisement is even more pertinent today than it was in 1964. Will we make a world in which all human beings can live together, or will we all go into the dark? Can Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and their like save the world by appealing to our national sentiments, or is the current nationalist spate a form of escapism from the intractable global problems we face?

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Let’s start with nuclear war. When the Daisy advert aired, two years after the Cuban missile crisis, nuclear annihilation was a palpable threat. Pundits and laypeople alike feared that humankind did not have the wisdom to avert destruction, and that it was only a matter of time before the Cold War turned scorching hot. In fact, humankind successfully rose to the nuclear challenge. Americans, Soviets, Europeans and Chinese changed the way geopolitics had been conducted for millennia, so that the Cold War ended with little bloodshed, and a new internationalist world order fostered an era of unprecedented peace. Not only was nuclear war averted, but war of all kinds declined. Since 1945, surprisingly few borders have been redrawn through naked aggression, and most countries have ceased to use war as a standard political tool. In 2016, despite wars in Syria, Ukraine and other hot spots, fewer people died from human violence than from obesity, car accidents or suicide. This may well have been the greatest political and moral achievement of our times.

Unfortunately, we are so used to this achievement that we take it for granted. This is partly why people allow themselves to play with fire, and that includes not only the latest Russian adventures in eastern Europe and the Middle East, but also the choices made by European and American voters.

The Brexit debate in Britain revolved mainly around questions of economics and immigration, while the EU’s vital contribution to European and global peace has largely been ignored. After centuries of terrible bloodshed, the French, Germans, Italians and Britons have finally built a mechanism that ensures continental harmony – only to have the British public throw a wrench into the miracle machine. Meanwhile, Donald Trump mixes calls for US isolationism with plans to strengthen the country’s nuclear arsenal and reignite a nuclear arms race, thereby threatening to undo the hard-won gains of the past decades and bring us back to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

It was extremely difficult to construct the internationalist regime that prevented nuclear war and safeguarded global peace. No doubt we need to adapt this regime to changing conditions in the world: for example, by relying less on the United States and giving a greater role to non-Western powers such as China and India. But abandoning this regime altogether and reverting to nationalist power politics would be an ­irresponsible gamble.

True, in the past, countries played the ­nationalist politics game without destroying human civilisation. But that was in the pre-Hiroshima era. Since then, nuclear weapons have raised the stakes and changed the fundamental nature of war and politics. No matter whom American voters elect to the presidency, the atom bomb is still there and E still equals MC². As long as human beings know how to enrich uranium and plutonium, their survival will depend on privileging the prevention of nuclear war over the interests of any particular nation. Zealous nationalists should ask themselves whether their nation by itself, without a robust system of international co-operation, can protect the world – or even itself – from nuclear destruction.

On top of nuclear war, in the coming decades humankind will face a new threat to its existence that hardly registered on the political radar in 1964: climate change. If we continue with our present course it is likely that global warming, ocean acidification and ecological degradation will result in unprecedented economic, political and social problems, and might well destroy the foundations of human prosperity. What is the nationalist answer to climate change? How can any nation, however powerful, stop global warming on its own? Will the US build a wall against rising oceans?

When it comes to climate, countries are not sovereign, but are at the mercy of actions taken by governments on the other side of the planet. As long as 200 governments pursue 200 different ecological strategies, shaped by their unique needs and interests, none is likely to succeed. With present-day technology, any serious measures to stop global warming are likely to slow down economic growth. Such a policy carries an unbearable political price if it is undertaken by a single country while others continue with business as usual. Any US administration that deliberately slowed down economic growth for environmental reasons would be bound to lose the next election; a Chinese administration that does so courts revolution tomorrow morning. In a nationalist and xenophobic world no government will sacrifice itself for the greater good of humanity, as Trump’s actions show.

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Indeed, nationalism is even more dangerous in the context of climate change than that of nuclear war. An atomic bomb is such an obvious and immediate threat that even the most ardent nationalist cannot ignore it. Global warming, by contrast, is a much more vague and protracted menace. Hence, whenever environmental considerations demand some painful sacrifice, nationalists will be tempted to put the national interest first, reassuring themselves that we can worry about the environment later, or just leave it to people elsewhere. Alternatively, as in the case of Trump, they may simply deny the problem. It isn’t a coincidence that scepticism about climate change is usually the preserve of nationalist politicians. They have no answer to the problem, and so they prefer to believe it does not exist.

The same dynamics are likely to spoil any nationalist antidote to the third large threat to human existence in the 21st century: technological disruption. New technologies, particularly in the fields of bioengineering and artificial intelligence, will soon give humankind unprecedented, godlike powers. Whereas previously human beings learned to produce food, weapons and vehicles, in the coming decades our main products will probably be bodies, brains and minds. However, it is extremely difficult to foresee the potential impact of such technologies. They open the door to an entire supermarket of doomsday scenarios.

If and when artificial intelligence (AI) surpasses human intelligence, it may be given control of weapon systems and crucial decisions, with potentially calamitous consequences. In addition, as AI outperforms human beings in ever more tasks, it might push billions of us out of the job market, creating a new “useless class” of people, devoid of both economic value and political power. Meanwhile, given enough biometric data and enough computing power, external algorithms could know us better than we know ourselves, and then governments and corporations could predict our decisions, mani­pulate our emotions and gain absolute control over our lives.

On the bioengineering front, breakthroughs in genetics, nanotechnology and direct brain/computer interfaces could unleash deadly new epidemics or disturb our internal mental balance. In past centuries we have gained control of the world outside us and reshaped the planet, but because we didn’t understand the complexity of the global ecology, the changes we made inadvertently disrupted the entire ecological system. In the coming century we will gain control of the world inside us and reshape our bodies and brains, but because we don’t understand the complexity of our own minds, the changes we will make might disrupt our mental system. In addition, bioengineering might for the first time in history translate economic inequality into biological inequality, creating an upper caste of enhanced superhumans, and relegating the poor to the dustbin of evolution.

What is the nationalist answer to these menaces? As in the case of global warming, so, too, with technological disruption: the nation state is the wrong framework to address the threat. Given that research and development are not the monopoly of any one country, even a superpower such as the US or China cannot restrict them by itself. If the US government forbids the genetic engineering of human embryos, it won’t prevent North Korean scientists from doing such work. And if the resulting developments confer on North Korea some crucial economic or military advantage, the US will be tempted to break its own ban. Particularly in a xenophobic, dog-eat-dog world, if even a single country chooses to pursue a high-risk, high-gain technological path, other countries will be forced to do the same, because nobody can afford to remain behind. In order to avoid such a race to the bottom, humankind will probably need some kind of global identity and loyalty.

Whereas nuclear war and climate change threaten only the physical survival of humankind, disruptive technologies might change the very nature of humanity, and are therefore entangled with human beings’ deepest ethical and religious beliefs. Although everyone agrees that we should avoid nuclear war and ecological meltdown, people have widely differing opinions about using bioengineering and AI to upgrade human beings and to create new life forms. If we fail to cobble together globally accepted ethical guidelines, it will be open season for Dr Frankenstein.

When it comes to formulating such ethical guidelines, nationalism suffers above all from a failure of the imagination. Nationalists think in terms of territorial conflicts lasting centuries, whereas the technological revolutions of the 21st century should be understood in cosmic terms. Ever since its appearance on Earth, four billion years ago, life has been governed by the laws of natural selection. During those aeons, whether you were a virus or a dinosaur, you evolved according to the principles of natural selection. No matter what strange shapes life took, it remained confined to the organic realm. Whether a cactus or a whale, you were made of organic compounds. Now science might replace natural selection with intelligent design, and might even start creating non-organic life forms. After four billion years of organic life shaped by natural selection, science is ushering in an era of inorganic life shaped by intelligent design. What has Israeli, Russian or French nationalism got to say about this? In order to make wise choices about the future of life we need to go way beyond the nationalist viewpoint and look at things from a much wider perspective.

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The nationalist wave sweeping across the world cannot turn the clock back to 1939 or 1914. Technology has changed everything by creating a set of global threats to human existence that no nation can fight on its own. A common enemy is the best catalyst for forging a common identity, and humankind now has three such enemies – nuclear war, climate change and disruptive technology. If, despite these threats, we choose to privilege our particular national loyalties above everything else, the results may be far worse than in 1914 and 1939.

A much better path is the one outlined in the EU’s constitution, which states that “while remaining proud of their own national identities and history, the peoples of Europe are determined to transcend their former divisions and, united ever more closely, to forge a common destiny”. There is still plenty of room in the world for the kind of patriotism that celebrates the uniqueness of my nation and stresses my special obligations towards it. Yet, if we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement such local loyalties with substantial obligations towards a global community.

In previous centuries national identities were forged because human beings faced problems and discovered opportunities that went far beyond the scope of ­local tribes, and which only countrywide co-operation could hope to handle. In the 21st century, nations find themselves in the same situation as the old tribes.

We need a new global identity, because national institutions are incapable of managing a set of unprecedented global challenges. We now have a global ecology, a global economy and a global science – but we are still stuck with only national politics. This mismatch prevents the political system from countering our main problems effectively.

To have effective politics, we must either de-globalise the ecology, the economy and the march of science, or we must globalise our politics. As it is impossible to ­de-globalise the ecology and the march of science, and as the cost of de-globalising the economy will probably be ruinous, the only solution is to globalise politics.

Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His latest book is “Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

A 1907 painting of Spinoza, who was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656. Credit: SAMUEL HIRSZENBERG
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Why atheists are true believers too

How atheisms are imitating the religions they claim to reject.

In 1995 Richard Dawkins became the first ever “professor for the public understanding of science” at Oxford University. By the time he retired, 13 years later, it looked as if he had privately renegotiated his contract; for he was now functioning as Oxford’s very own professor for the public misunderstanding of religion.

In The God Delusion (2006) he argued that the existence of God was a scientific hypothesis which was almost – almost – demonstrably false. Miracles were scientifically impossible (yes, professor, I think we knew that: the clue was in the word “miracles”). And the creation story in the Book of Genesis was very bad science indeed. Opposing the stupidities of modern “creationism”, and all the other pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific dogmas of the fundamentalists, is one thing. Criticising the moral evils committed by religious fanatics is another, and no less worthwhile. Yet to treat religion itself as merely a defective form of science is a strangely crude error, rather like thinking that poetry is just a way of conveying factual statements that are to be tested for their truth or falsehood.

In his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray – who, I should mention, is no more a religious believer than I am – has little time for the so-called New Atheism of Dawkins and Co. The confusion of religion with science is only one of the points he objects to. Even if it can be shown that religion involves the creation of illusions, he argues, that does not mean that religion can or should be dispensed with; for “there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life”. As for the idea of the American New Atheist Sam Harris that we can develop “a science of good and evil” which will contain all the correct liberal values: Gray sees this as a piece of astonishing and culpable naivety, ignoring nearly two centuries’ worth of evidence that scientism in ethics and illiberalism go happily hand-in-hand.

If this short book were just another intervention in the Dawkinsian “God debate”, it would be very short indeed. In fact it would get no further than page 23 where, at the end of his brief opening chapter, Gray concludes damningly that “the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon, and best appreciated as a type of entertainment”.

But the New Atheism is the least of the seven varieties that make up the subject-matter of this book. The others are all much more interesting, being connected with significant elements in our culture. And if the phrase “our culture” sounds parochial, well, that is an issue Gray deals with explicitly, pointing out that what we call “atheism” is something much more specific than just a rejection or absence of religion as such. It is a rejection of certain religious beliefs – and that narrows the field already, as many religions of the world are not primarily belief-systems at all. In particular, Gray argues, it is a rejection of belief in an omnipotent creator-god, which means that while atheism is Christianity’s close relative, it bears no relation to Hinduism or Buddhism at all.

So this is a book about post-Christian thinking – most of it, in Gray’s view, pretty bad thinking, too. One of his targets is secular humanism, which he describes as “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation through history”. Another is what he calls “making a religion from science”, a delusion which he traces all the way from Mesmerism in the late 18th century, via dialectical materialism in the 19th and 20th, to those futurist thinkers today who dream of uploading a human being’s consciousness to computer circuits, thereby rendering it immortal. And another is political religion, “from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism”.

Obviously there are overlaps between these three varieties of modern atheism; dialectical materialism, for instance, has also formed part of the creed of Marxist political religion. The one fundamental thing they have in common, on Gray’s account, is that they are all doctrines of progress, of an onwards and upwards march of humanity through history. Whether he is right to say that secular humanism is committed to this view, I am not so sure; doubtless, those who believe in humanist ethics will also think that if more and more people adopt their ethical system the world will become a better place, yet it’s not clear why they should regard that as inevitable.

But one thing at least is clear: John Gray regards all belief in human progress as the most pernicious of delusions. Despite all his eloquence on this subject, some readers may feel that his argument runs away with him, taking him further than he needs to go. It would be enough, surely, to say that the basic moral qualities of human beings have not changed over time, and that there’s no reason to think that any improvements in human behaviour that have taken place are part of a pattern of inevitable progress. Yet Gray goes further, claiming that there has been no real improvement at all.

The abolition of slavery? Slave auctions in “Islamic State” territory have been advertised on Facebook. The abandonment of torture? It has persisted at Guantanamo Bay. Well, yes; but having pockets of slavery here and there in the world is not the same as the situation 200 years ago, when it was a huge and entrenched institution, questioned only by a small minority. Yes, torture continues, but not as a standard judicial procedure. And in many countries there have been substantial, long-term changes in attitude and treatment where female subjugation, child labour and the criminalisation of homosexuality are concerned. Surely there must be some way of acknowledging this, without relapsing into Pollyannaish Steven Pinkerism?

One reason for Gray’s emphasis on the theme of temporal progress is that it fits these various secular atheisms into a larger pattern – that of salvation through history. And this brings us to the core of his argument: out of the whole range of major religions, only Christianity works in a historical dimension like this, which means that the secular atheisms are imitating, or unconsciously reproducing, a central feature of the very religion they claim to reject.

He makes this point again and again. These modern atheists’ view of the world is “inherited” from Christianity. Their belief in progress is “a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption”. Jacobinism and Bolshevism were “channels” for the millenarian myths of Christianity. Bolshevism was in a “lineage” going back to medieval millenarianism. The apocalyptic myths of radical Christian movements “renewed themselves” in secular, political forms.

Having watched Gray wield his scalpel so effectively on other writers’ arguments, I can’t help thinking that this one deserves a few incisions. What does it mean to say that a communist who yearns for the coming of the classless society is really expressing just the same view as a millenarian looking to the reign of Christ on earth? The form of the belief may be roughly similar, but the content is entirely different. And if these are “inherited” ideas standing in a “lineage”, what is the evidence of a continuous chain of transmission – from, say, the 16th-century radical Anabaptists of Münster (whose chaotic quasi-communist experiment Gray describes in graphic detail) to the Bolsheviks of Petrograd and Moscow? As for the religious myths “renewing themselves” in a secular guise: this seems perilously close to the mindset of Dawkins’s theory of “memes”, which Gray has scornfully dismissed as hardly a theory at all.

Gray also mentions a Gnostic “impulse” that has recurred, unchanged, over two millennia. But if the same impulse can produce a religious idea in one period and a secular one in another, it seems that the impulse is something that stands behind both, itself neither secular nor religious. In which case, the modern atheisms may be not so much reproducing religious beliefs as expressing some basic yearnings that are pre-religious or non-religious in themselves. These are dark theoretical waters, and I am not convinced that Gray has got to the bottom of them.

Yet what he has done is to produce a marvellously stimulating account of some major currents of post-Christian thought, in which ideas and arguments leap constantly off the page like white-hot sparks from an anvil. The dismissals are concise and often devastating; but there are also wonderfully funny details, lovingly accumulated by a wry observer of human foolishness. It is nice to learn, for example, that Auguste Comte’s secular religion of Positivism imposed on its followers “special types of clothing, with buttons placed on the back so that they could not be worn without the help of others – thereby promoting altruism”. And I would challenge anyone to read Gray’s account of the cult of Ayn Rand, with its compulsory cigarette-smoking and rational tap-dancing, and not laugh out loud.

But what of Gray’s own post-religious beliefs? He certainly does not belong in the fifth category discussed here, that of “misotheists” – the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky and William Empson – whose views were shaped by a positive hatred of God. (Here, at least, he has no difficulty in showing that some kinds of atheism are dependent intimately and inseparably on Christian theology.) Gray’s own sympathies are divided between his two final varieties: the naturalistic, undogmatic and guaranteed progress-free atheism of the philosopher George Santayana; and the philosophico-theological theories of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, which argued obscurely both that a greater reality, possibly to be identified as Spirit or God, existed, and that to talk about it as a god who created the world, or intervened in it, or issued commands to humans, was to misunderstand it entirely.

Santayana was himself an admirer of Spinoza, and towards the end of the book, Gray quotes his characterisation of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher as follows: “By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honouring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom.” I am not sure that this is quite the image that readers should take away of Gray, whose tolerance of human weaknesses – at the personal level, if not the intellectual one – seems admirably generous. Nor can it be guaranteed that people will acquire unruffled superhuman wisdom by reading this book. More likely they will find themselves tremendously, even painfully, ruffled. And I mean that as high praise, for an author who is one of the greatest intellectual provocateurs of our time. 

Noel Malcolm is editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes and a fellow of All Souls, Oxford

John Gray will appear in conversation with Jason Cowley at Waterstones Trafalgar Square, London WC2, on 2 May (newstatesman.com/events)

Seven Types of Atheism
John Gray
Allen Lane, 176pp, £17.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder