Yuval Noah Harari ends his book Sapiens by asking his readers to consider the following, “the only thing we can try to do is to influence the direction scientists are taking. … the real question facing us is not what do we want to become?, but what do we want to want?“
For all of human existence, up to this point, human lives have been defined by scarcity and physical limitations. The vast majority of humans who have ever lived were only able to do a limited amount with the objects available to them in their environment. But modern humans may be on the cusp of effectively becoming gods. We are at a point where we can build both real and imagined (virtual) worlds where we are no longer limited in meaningful ways by resources. We are harnessing huge amounts of energy, figuring out how to do so in a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way, and we may be able to soon engineer human beings to be whatever we want them to be. Harari describes our current path as guiding us to become “self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one.”
And so Harari’s initial question becomes ever more important. What do we want to want? Suppose that we can geo-engineer the planet to always have the weather conditions and hospitable planetary needs for human survival. Suppose we can get a surplus of cheap energy from renewable sources without damaging the planet. Suppose we can conquer biology and even death. What will it mean to be human? What will we want, and what should we want when the only limits are the limits of the extremes of space?
Harari continues, “is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?” This is a question that I cannot answer on my own in a single blog post. I can hardly decide what I want to want in my own personal life. I certainly cannot think about what other people should want in their own lives. It is easy to say we should all want happiness, peace, and flourishing for all humans on the planet, but that is so broad that it means nothing. A scientist engineering the human mind could say that is what they work toward while creating something that makes humans something other than human. An engineer moving mountains could believe they are doing it for all the reasons I laid out, but who is to say that moving mountains is really what we want or should want? Humans are on the cusp of merging with machine, controlling our biology, and becoming gods, but we don’t even have a way to think about whether we should want to be doing these things. We certainly can’t accurately judge whether the outcomes will be in the best interest of humans. It is also possible that none of this will matter if the future of humanity is to become something other than humans. However, it is dangerous for humans to amass essentially unlimited power and to not know what to want to do with it.