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Notes politics

Chapter 1: The New Human Agenda (Homo Deus)

The End of Homo Sapiens

Across time, wars have become responsible for less deaths. Sugar has become more dangerous than gunpowder.

Whereas in ancient agricultural societies human violence caused about 15 per cent of all deaths, during the twentieth century violence caused only 5 per cent of deaths, and in the early twenty-first century it is responsible for about 1 per cent of global mortality.

Before, the main source of wealth was material assets. Today, it is knowledge. But you cannot invade Silicon Valley and loot them.

Success breeds ambition. Our recent achievements have pushed humans to set more ambitious goals. Our next grand ambition is to upgrade ourselves into gods, to turn Homo sapiens to Homo deus.

More thinkers and scientists address this openly today. Gerontologist Aubrey de Grey and inventor Ray Kurzweil are examples. In 2012, Kurzweil was appointed as director of engineering at Google, a year later the company launched a Calico, who mission was to solve death. Google is investing 36 percent of its 2-billion-dollar portfolio in life science businesses, including many ambitious life-extending projects.

We will always strive to conquer death.

The Pursuit of Happiness

Epicureanism was rejected in the past, but today is the default view. Epicurus saw the pursuit of happiness as an individual’s quest, but modern thinkers saw it as a collective effort.

Bentham wanted the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He called on society to collaborate not for the glory of the king, but so that everyone would be better off.

It is tempting to think that peace and prosperity will bring happiness, but Epicurus warned us of this – he told us that becoming happy was hard work. The blind pursuit of fame and wealth will bring misery, he called for moderation in everything.

Despite the many technological and the political breakthroughs that took place over the last 50 years, the reported subjective well-being of Americans was the same in the 1950’s and the 1990’s.

We have a psychological and biological ceiling for happiness. Psychologically, we are only happy when reality meets our expectations, not when we live in peace and prosperity. In fact, the better our conditions, the greater our expectations become.

Biologically, we are limited by our capacity to feel pleasure and pain. In fact, it doesn’t matter what happens in the external world, but only what happens biochemically within our brains. We don’t feel angry because something bad happened in the world, we feel angry because that event created a biochemical reaction that made us feel angry. We are reacting to our own anger.

Yet, being dependent on pleasure is risky, since the more we crave it, the more it controls our lives, and prompts us to get more of it – often at the expense of more important things.

Some people think it’s the journey, and not the experience itself, that makes us happy, but this hardly matters, since all it means is that our experience of pleasure is varied.

Because our biochemical system is central to our happiness, so much effort has been invested in rigging this system – through psychiatric drugs.

2,300 years ago, Epicurus warned about the extreme pursuit of pleasure, saying that it would lead to misery. Later, Buddha made a more radical claim, that the pursuit of pleasure was itself the root of suffering – that our feelings were ephemeral vibrations that left us craving for more, instead of satisfying us.

To become happy, we need to slow down our pursuit of pleasure, not accelerate it.

To the capitalist, happiness is pleasure, and any lack of pleasure is pain.

The Human Experience

Over thousands of years, we have discovered new tools and knowledge, but our deep brain structures are the same. We can relate to Biblical stories and Shakespeare because they still resemble our own experiences. But the turning point will come when technology enables us to engineer human minds. That is when human history will come to an end.

But we cannot hit the brakes on progress. First, we don’t know where the brakes are. Second, hitting the right brakes would collapse the economy. Third,

 The paradox of knowledge is this: when Marx’s diagnosis was adopted, capitalist countries in the west improved the conditions of their workers – thus Marx’s predictions did not come true. Knowledge that doesn’t change behavior is useless, and knowledge that does change behavior is quickly forgotten.

Read Homo Deus

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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