Trading Meaning for Power

Three main problems faced people on a day-to-day basis: war, famine, and plague...

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari, is one of the most powerful, important, fascinating and disturbing books I’ve read in years. He argues that in the not-too-distant future, Homo sapiens will no longer exist. Instead, we will be aiming to create a new, upgraded type of being, Homo deus — a god-like being that aims to gain more and more control over its environment.

How will this happen? Or maybe, more importantly, why will this happen? Well, for most of human history, three main problems faced people on a day-to-day basis: war, famine, and plague. But as Harari explains,

[A]t the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up to an amazing realization. Most people rarely think about it, but in the last few decades, we have managed to rein in famine, plague, and war. Of course, these problems have not been completely solved, but they have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. We don’t need to pray to any god or saint to rescue us from them. We know quite well what needs to be done in order to prevent famine, plague, and war — and we usually succeed in doing it. (1-2)

Our attempts to eradicate those three ills have dominated most of human history. And while we may think that the world is getting worse, with terrorism, ultra-partisan politics, and billions of people living on less than $1 a day; in fact, the world has progressively been getting better, safer and healthier.

After all, we essentially eliminated the chance of dying from polio, smallpox or the measles. And while war and terrorism are still very much on our minds, in fact, the chance of dying in that way is basically zero. As Steven Pinker remarks in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, when it comes to society’s ills, we should follow the trend lines, not the headlines.

On one level, this improvement of people’s lives is an incredible success story. But it’s the result of a trade-off that we don’t think about all that often. It’s the result of the modern outlook, where, as Harari argues, “Humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.”

As he describes it,

[P]re-modern humans believed that their lives gained meaning. It really mattered whether they fought bravely on the battlefield, whether they supported the lawful king, whether they ate forbidden foods for breakfast or whether they had an affair with the next-door neighbor. This, of course, created some inconveniences, but it gave humans psychological protection against disasters. If something terrible happened — such as war, plague or drought — people consoled themselves that ‘We all play a role in some cosmic drama…”

Modern culture rejects this belief in a cosmic plan…[Instead, we] can do anything we want — provided we can find a way. We are constrained by nothing except our own ignorance. Plagues and droughts have no cosmic meaning — but we can eradicate them. Wars are not a necessary evil on the way to a better future — but we can make peace. No paradise awaits us after death — but we can create paradise here on earth and live in it forever if we just manage to overcome some technical difficulties. (200-202)

We tend to shy away from the power we have as human beings. When we think about humanity’s great power, we focus on our ability to launch nuclear weapons or to contaminate the earth. But power is what allows us to extend our lifespan, to raise people from poverty, and to ensure more and more rights for more and more people. I’d much rather have the power to influence my destiny than to submit myself to the pre-destined meaning of a “Grand cosmic plan.”

This also means that religion has had to play defense as knowledge advances. Religion was first the source of truth for most people, but as science gave us a more accurate read on the world, it lost that role. It then became a source of ethics, but as the Enlightenment and humanism gave us universal human rights, it lost that role. Its role today, more and more, is that of a source of meaning.

While some might pine for the power religion had in pre-modern times, I think it’s a great boon that religion needs to “play defense” by responding to ever-changing realities. Why? Because meaning is now created from the bottom-up, rather than top-down.

Meaning is contextual. It allows us to change the story. And that, too, is a source of power.

Religion is going to change as we strive to overcome the next set of challenges facing humanity’s future. And while we moderns have certainly traded meaning for power, as we push the boundaries of what humanity can do, let’s remember that we can also use our power to create meaning.

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