Highlights: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari


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discussed the merger of infotech and biotech at length in my previous book Homo Deus. But whereas that book focused on the long-term prospects – taking the perspective of centuries and even millennia – this book concentrates on the more immediate social, economic and political crises. My interest here is less in the eventual creation of inorganic life, and more in the threat to the welfare state and to particular institutions such as the European Union.

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The book does not attempt to cover all the impacts of the new technologies. In particular, though technology holds many wonderful promises, my intention here is to highlight mainly the threats and dangers. Since the corporations and entrepreneurs who lead the technological revolution naturally tend to sing the praises of their creations, it falls to sociologists, philosophers and historians like myself to sound the alarm and explain all the ways things can go terribly wrong.

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from fiction? In the fifth and final part I gather together the different threads

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In the fifth and final part I gather together the different threads and take a more general look at life in an age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed, and no new story has emerged so far to replace them. Who are we? What should we do in life? What kinds of skills do we need? Given everything we know and don’t know about science, about God, about politics and about religion – what can we say about the meaning of life today?

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Perhaps most importantly, artificial intelligence and biotechnology are giving humanity the power to reshape and re-engineer life. Very soon somebody will have to decide how to use this power – based on some implicit or explicit story about the meaning of life. Philosophers are very patient people, but engineers are far less patient, and investors are the least patient of all. If you don’t know what to do with the power to engineer life, market forces will not wait a thousand years for you to come up with an answer. The invisible hand of the market will force upon you its own blind reply. Unless you are happy to entrust the future of life to the mercy of quarterly revenue reports, you need a clear idea what life is all about.

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Before embarking on this intellectual journey, I would like to highlight one crucial point. Much of the book discusses the shortcomings of the liberal world view and of the democratic system. I do so not because I believe liberal democracy is uniquely problematic, but rather because I think it is the most successful and most versatile political model humans have so far developed for dealing with the challenges of the modern world. While it may not be appropriate for every society in every stage of development, it has proved its worth in more societies and in more situations than any of the alternatives. Therefore, when examining the new challenges that lie ahead of us, it is necessary to understand the limitations of liberal democracy, and to explore how we can adapt and improve its current institutions.

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It is a mark of illiberal regimes that they make free speech more difficult even outside their borders. Due to the spread of such regimes, it is becoming increasingly dangerous to think critically about the future of our species. After some

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Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group and nation has its own tales and myths. But during the twentieth century the global elites in New York, London, Berlin and Moscow formulated three grand stories that claimed to explain the whole past and to predict the future of the entire world: the fascist story, the communist story, and the liberal story. The Second World War knocked out the fascist story, and from the late 1940s to the late 1980s the world became a battleground between just two stories: communism and liberalism. Then the communist story collapsed, and the liberal story remained the dominant guide to the human past and the indispensable manual for the future of the world – or so it seemed to the global elite.

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In the 1990s and 2000s this story became a global mantra. Many governments from Brazil to India adopted liberal recipes in an attempt to join the inexorable march of history. Those failing to do so seemed like fossils from a bygone era. In 1997 the US president Bill Clinton confidently rebuked the Chinese government that its refusal to liberalise Chinese politics puts it ‘on the wrong side of history’.

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The year 2016 – marked by the Brexit vote in Britain and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States – signified the moment when this tidal wave of disillusionment reached the core liberal states of western Europe and North America. Whereas a few years ago Americans and Europeans were still trying to liberalise Iraq and Libya at the point of the gun, many people in Kentucky and Yorkshire have now come to see the liberal vision as either undesirable or unattainable. Some discovered a liking for the old hierarchical world, and they just don’t want to give up their racial, national or gendered privileges. Others have concluded (rightly or wrongly) that liberalisation and globalisation are a huge racket empowering a tiny elite at the expense of the masses.

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The year 2016 – marked by the Brexit vote in Britain and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States – signified the moment when this tidal wave of disillusionment reached the core liberal states of western Europe and North America. Whereas a few years ago Americans and Europeans were still trying to liberalise Iraq and Libya at the point of the gun, many people in Kentucky and Yorkshire have now come to see the liberal vision as either undesirable or unattainable. Some discovered a liking for the old hierarchical world, and they just don’t want to give up their racial, national or gendered privileges. Others have concluded (rightly or wrongly) that liberalisation and globalisation are a huge racket empowering a tiny elite at the expense of the masses.

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In 1938 humans were offered three global stories to choose from, in 1968 just two, in 1998 a single story seemed to prevail; in 2018 we are down to zero. No wonder that the liberal elites, who dominated much of the world in recent decades, have entered a state of shock and disorientation.

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The sense of disorientation and impending doom is exacerbated by the accelerating pace of technological disruption. The liberal political system has been shaped during the industrial era to manage a world of steam engines, oil refineries and television sets. It finds it difficult to deal with the ongoing revolutions in information technology and biotechnology.

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Since the 1990s the Internet has changed the world probably more than any other factor, yet the Internet revolution was directed by engineers more than by political parties. Did you ever vote about the Internet? The

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If mosquitoes buzzed in our ears and disturbed our sleep, we knew how to kill the mosquitoes; but if a thought buzzed in our mind and kept us awake at night, most of us did not know how to kill the thought.

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In the past, we have gained the power to manipulate the world around us and to reshape the entire planet, but because we didn’t understand the complexity of the global ecology, the changes we made inadvertently disrupted the entire ecological system and now we face an ecological collapse. In the coming century biotech and infotech will give us the power to manipulate the world inside us and reshape ourselves, but because we don’t understand the complexity of our own minds, the changes we will make might upset our mental system to such an extent that it too might break down.

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This might be one of the reasons (though not the only one) why even voters in the heartlands of the liberal West are losing faith in the liberal story and in the democratic process. Ordinary people may not understand artificial intelligence and biotechnology, but they can sense that the future is passing them by. In 1938 the condition of the common person in the USSR, Germany or the USA may have been grim, but he was constantly told that he was the most important thing in the world, and that he was the future (provided, of course, that he was an ‘ordinary person’ rather than a Jew or an African). He looked at the propaganda posters – which typically depicted coal miners, steelworkers and housewives in heroic poses – and saw himself there: ‘I am in that poster! I am the hero of the future!’

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This might be one of the reasons (though not the only one) why even voters in the heartlands of the liberal West are losing faith in the liberal story and in the democratic process. Ordinary people may not understand artificial intelligence and biotechnology, but they can sense that the future is passing them by. In 1938 the condition of the common person in the USSR, Germany or the USA may have been grim, but he was constantly told that he was the most important thing in the world, and that he was the future (provided, of course, that he was an ‘ordinary person’ rather than a Jew or an African). He looked at the propaganda posters – which typically depicted coal miners, steelworkers and housewives in heroic poses – and saw himself

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The liberal story was the story of ordinary people. How can it remain relevant to a world of cyborgs and networked algorithms?

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In the twentieth century, the masses revolted against exploitation, and sought to translate their vital role in the economy into political power. Now the masses fear irrelevance, and they are frantic to use their remaining political power before it is too late.

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The Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions were made by people who were vital for the economy, but who lacked political power; in 2016, Trump and Brexit were supported by many people who still enjoyed political power, but who feared that they were losing their economic worth. Perhaps in the twenty-first century populist revolts will be staged not against an economic elite that exploits people, but against an economic elite that does not need them any more.6 This may well be a losing battle. It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.

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It triumphed over imperialism, over fascism, and over communism by adopting some of their best ideas and practices. In particular, the liberal story learned from communism to expand the circle of empathy and to value equality alongside liberty.

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Even in the wake of the Second World War, Western liberals still had a very hard time applying their supposedly universal values to non-Western people. Thus when the Dutch emerged in 1945 from five years of brutal Nazi occupation, almost the first thing they did was raise an army and send it halfway across the world to reoccupy their former colony of Indonesia. Whereas in 1940 the Dutch gave up their own independence after little more than four days of fighting, they fought for more than four long and bitter years to suppress Indonesian independence. No wonder that many national liberation movements throughout the world placed their hopes on communist Moscow and Beijing rather than on the self-proclaimed champions of liberty in the West.

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Gradually, however, the liberal story expanded its horizons, and at least in theory came to value the liberties and rights of all human beings without exception. As the circle of liberty expanded, the liberal story also came to recognise the importance of communist-style welfare programmes. Liberty is not worth much unless it is coupled with some kind of social safety net. Social-democratic welfare states combined democracy and human rights with state-sponsored education and healthcare. Even the ultra-capitalist USA has realised that the protection of liberty requires at least some government welfare services. Starving children have no liberties.

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This time, however, the liberal story is not faced by a coherent ideological opponent like imperialism, fascism, or communism. The Trump moment is far more nihilistic.

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Whereas the major movements of the twentieth century all had a vision for the entire human species – be it global domination, revolution or liberation – Donald Trump offers no such thing. Just the opposite. His main message is that it’s not America’s job to formulate and promote any global vision.

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The rising Chinese superpower presents an almost mirror image. It is wary of liberalising its domestic politics, but it has adopted a far more liberal approach to the rest of the world. In fact, when it comes to free trade and international cooperation, Xi Jinping looks like Obama’s real successor. Having put Marxism–Leninism on the back burner, China seems rather happy with the liberal international order.

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Resurgent Russia sees itself as a far more forceful rival of the global liberal order, but though it has reconstituted its military might, it is ideologically bankrupt. Vladimir Putin is certainly popular both in Russia and among various right-wing movements across the world, yet he has no global world view that might attract unemployed Spaniards, disgruntled Brazilians or starry-eyed students in Cambridge.

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Democracy is based on Abraham Lincoln’s principle that ‘you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time’. If a government is corrupt and fails to improve people’s lives, enough citizens will eventually realise this and replace the government. But government control of the media undermines Lincoln’s logic, because it prevents citizens from realising the truth. Through its monopoly over the media, the ruling oligarchy can repeatedly blame all its failures on others, and divert attention to external threats – either real or imaginary.

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Democracy is based on Abraham Lincoln’s principle that ‘you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time’. If a government is corrupt and fails to improve people’s lives, enough citizens will eventually realise this and replace the government. But government control of the media undermines Lincoln’s logic, because it prevents citizens from realising the truth. Through its monopoly

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Yet though enduring in practice, this oligarchic model appeals to no one. Unlike other ideologies that proudly expound their vision, ruling oligarchies are not proud of their practices, and they tend to use other ideologies as a smoke screen.

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Humans vote with their feet. In my travels around the world I have met numerous people in many countries who wish to emigrate to the USA, to Germany, to Canada or to Australia. I have met a few who want to move to China or Japan. But I am yet to meet a single person who dreams of emigrating to Russia.

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In this case, too, people vote with their feet. For every Muslim youth from Germany who travelled to the Middle East to live under a Muslim theocracy, probably a hundred Middle Eastern youths would have liked to make the opposite journey, and start a new life for themselves in liberal Germany.

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In the twentieth century, nationalist movements were an extremely important political player, but they lacked a coherent vision for the future of the world other than supporting the division of the globe into independent nation states.

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In the twentieth century, nationalist movements were an extremely important political player, but they lacked a coherent vision for the future of the world other than supporting the division of the globe into independent nation states. Thus Indonesian nationalists fought against Dutch domination, and Vietnamese nationalists wanted a free Vietnam, but there was no Indonesian or Vietnamese story for humanity as a whole. When it came time to explain how Indonesia, Vietnam and all the other free nations should relate to one another, and how humans should deal with global problems such as the threat of nuclear war, nationalists invariably turned to either liberal or communist ideas.

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discredited, maybe humans should abandon the very idea of a single global story? After all, weren’t all these global stories – even communism – the product of Western imperialism? Why should Vietnamese villagers put their faith in the brainchild of a German from Trier and a Manchester industrialist? Maybe each country should adopt a different idiosyncratic

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But if both liberalism and communism are now discredited, maybe humans should abandon the very idea of a single global story? After all, weren’t all these global stories – even communism – the product of Western imperialism? Why should Vietnamese villagers put their faith in the brainchild of a German from Trier and a Manchester industrialist? Maybe each country should adopt a different idiosyncratic path, defined by its own ancient traditions? Perhaps even Westerners should take a break from trying to run the world, and focus on their own affairs for a change?

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This is arguably what is happening all over the globe, as the vacuum left by the breakdown of liberalism is tentatively filled by nostalgic fantasies about some local golden past.

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Liberal elites look in horror at these developments, and hope that humanity will return to the liberal path in time to avert disaster. In his final speech to the United Nations in September 2016, President Obama warned his listeners against retreating ‘into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion’. Instead, he said, ‘the principles of open markets and accountable governance, of democracy and human rights and international law … remain the firmest foundation for human progress in this century’.

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For the first time in history, infectious diseases kill fewer people than old age, famine kills fewer people than obesity, and violence kills fewer people than accidents.

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For the first time in history, infectious diseases kill fewer people than old age, famine kills fewer people than obesity, and violence kills fewer people than accidents. But liberalism has no

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For the first time in history, infectious diseases kill fewer people than old age, famine kills fewer people than

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But liberalism has no obvious answers to the biggest problems we face: ecological collapse and technological disruption. Liberalism traditionally relied on economic growth to magically solve difficult social and political conflicts. Liberalism reconciled the proletariat with the bourgeoisie, the faithful with the atheists, the natives with the immigrants, and the Europeans with the Asians by promising everybody a larger slice of the pie. With a constantly growing pie, that was possible. However, economic growth will not save the global ecosystem – just the opposite, it is the cause of the ecological crisis. And economic growth will not solve technological disruption – it is predicated on the invention of more and more disruptive technologies.

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We are consequently left with the task of creating an updated story for the world. Just as the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the novel ideologies of the twentieth century, so the coming revolutions in biotechnology and information

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We are consequently left with the task of creating an updated story for the world. Just as the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the novel ideologies of the twentieth century, so the coming revolutions in biotechnology and information technology are likely to require fresh visions. The next decades might therefore be characterised by intense soul-searching and by formulating new social and political models. Could liberalism reinvent itself yet again, just as it did in the wake of the 1930s and 1960s crises, emerging as more attractive than ever before? Could traditional religion and nationalism provide the answers that escape the liberals, and could they use ancient wisdom to fashion an up-to-date world view? Or perhaps the time has come to make a clean break with the past, and craft a completely new story that goes beyond not just the old gods and nations, but even the core modern values of liberty and equality?

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At present, humankind is far from reaching any consensus on these questions. We are still in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, after people have lost faith in the old stories but before they have embraced a new one. So what next? The first step is to tone down the prophecies of doom, and switch from panic mode to bewilderment. Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the smug feeling that I know exactly where the world is heading – down. Bewilderment is more humble, and therefore more clear-sighted. If you feel like running down the street crying ‘The apocalypse is upon us!’, try telling yourself ‘No, it’s not that. Truth is, I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world.’

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The revolutions in information technology and biotechnology are still in their infancy, and it is debatable to what extent they are really responsible for the current crisis of liberalism. Most people in Birmingham, Istanbul, St Petersburg and Mumbai are only dimly aware, if at all, of the rise of artificial intelligence and its potential impact on their lives. It is undoubtable, however, that the technological revolutions will gather momentum in the next few decades, and will confront humankind with the hardest trials we have ever encountered. Any story that seeks to gain humanity’s allegiance will be tested above all in its ability to deal with the twin revolutions in infotech and biotech. If liberalism, nationalism, Islam or some novel creed wishes to shape the world of the year 2050, it will need not only to make sense of artificial intelligence, Big Data algorithms and bioengineering – it will also need to incorporate them into a new meaningful narrative.

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However, AI is now beginning to outperform humans in more and more of these skills, including in the understanding of human emotions.2 We don’t know of any third field of activity – beyond the physical and the cognitive – where humans will always retain a secure edge.

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However, AI is now beginning to outperform humans in more and more of these skills, including in the understanding of human emotions.2 We don’t know of any third field of activity – beyond the physical and the cognitive – where humans will always retain a secure edge.

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The better we understand the biochemical mechanisms that underpin human emotions, desires and choices, the better computers can become in analysing human behaviour, predicting human decisions, and replacing human drivers, bankers and lawyers.

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It turned out that our choices of everything from food to mates result not from some mysterious free will, but rather from billions of neurons calculating probabilities within a split second. Vaunted ‘human intuition’ is in reality ‘pattern recognition’.3 Good drivers, bankers and lawyers don’t have magical intuitions about traffic, investment or negotiation – rather, by recognising recurring patterns, they spot and try to avoid careless pedestrians, inept borrowers and dishonest crooks. It also turned out that the biochemical algorithms of the human brain are far from perfect. They rely on heuristics, shortcuts and outdated circuits adapted to the African savannah rather than to the urban jungle. No wonder that even good drivers, bankers and lawyers sometimes make stupid mistakes.

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For how can a computer understand the divinely created human spirit? Yet if these emotions and desires are in fact no more than biochemical algorithms, there is no reason why computers cannot decipher these algorithms – and do so far better than any Homo sapiens.

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Hence the threat of job losses does not result merely from the rise of infotech. It results from the confluence of infotech with biotech. The way from the fMRI scanner to the labour market is long and tortuous, but it can still be covered within a few decades. What brain scientists are learning today about the amygdala and the cerebellum might make it possible for computers to outperform human psychiatrists and bodyguards in 2050.

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Two particularly important non-human abilities that AI possesses are connectivity and updateability.

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When considering automation it is therefore wrong to compare the abilities of a single human driver to that of a single self-driving car, or of a single human doctor to that of a single AI doctor. Rather, we should compare the abilities of a collection of human individuals to the abilities of an integrated network.

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catastrophic. In truth, however, an integrated computer system can maximise the advantages of connectivity without losing the benefits of individuality. You can run many alternative algorithms on the same network, so that a patient in a remote jungle village can access through her smartphone not just a single authoritative doctor, but actually a hundred different AI doctors, whose relative performance is constantly being compared. You don’t like what the IBM doctor told you? No problem. Even if you are stranded somewhere on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, you can easily contact the Baidu doctor for a second opinion.

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AI doctors could provide far better and cheaper healthcare for billions of people, particularly for those who currently receive no healthcare at all. Thanks to learning algorithms and biometric sensors, a poor villager in an underdeveloped country might come to enjoy far better healthcare via her smartphone than the richest person in the world gets today from the most advanced urban hospital.

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immense. AI doctors could provide far better and cheaper healthcare for billions of people, particularly for those who currently receive no healthcare at all. Thanks to learning algorithms and biometric sensors, a poor villager in an underdeveloped country might come to enjoy far better healthcare via her smartphone than the richest person in the world gets today from the most advanced urban hospital.

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Take healthcare, for example. Many doctors focus almost exclusively on processing information: they absorb medical data, analyse it, and produce a diagnosis. Nurses, in contrast, also need good motor and emotional skills in order to give a painful injection, replace a bandage, or restrain a violent patient. Hence we will probably have an AI family doctor on our smartphone decades before we have a reliable nurse robot.9 The human care industry – which takes care of the sick, the young and the elderly – is likely to remain a human bastion for a long time. Indeed, as people live longer and have fewer children, care of the elderly will probably be one of the fastest-growing sectors in the human labour market.

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In the modern world art is usually associated with human emotions. We tend to think that artists are channelling internal psychological forces, and that the whole purpose of art is to connect us with our emotions or to inspire in us some new feeling. Consequently, when we come to evaluate art, we tend to judge it by its emotional impact on the audience. Yet if art is defined by human emotions, what might happen once external algorithms are able to understand and manipulate human emotions better than Shakespeare, Frida Kahlo or Beyoncé?

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After all, emotions are not some mystical phenomenon – they are the result of a biochemical process. Hence, in the not too distant future a machine-learning algorithm could analyse the biometric data streaming from sensors on and inside your body, determine your personality type and your changing moods, and calculate the emotional impact that a particular song – even a particular musical key – is likely to have on you.

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Another possible objection is that it is unclear how the algorithm could establish its emotional goal. If you just fought with your boyfriend, should the algorithm aim to make you sad or joyful? Would it blindly follow a rigid scale of ‘good’ emotions and ‘bad’ emotions? Maybe there are times in life when it is good to feel sad? The same question, of course, could be directed at human musicians and DJs. Yet with an algorithm, there are many interesting solutions to this puzzle.

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Alternatively, if you don’t trust yourself, you can instruct the algorithm to follow the recommendation of whichever eminent psychologist you do trust. If your boyfriend eventually dumps you, the algorithm may walk you through the official five stages of grief, first helping you deny what happened by playing Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’, then whipping up your anger with Alanis Morissette’s ‘You Oughta Know’, encouraging you to bargain with Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne me quitte pas’ and Paul Young’s ‘Come Back and Stay’, dropping you into the pit of depression with Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ and ‘Hello’, and finally aiding you to accept the situation with Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’.

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It is often said that people connect with art because they find themselves in it. This may lead to surprising and somewhat sinister results if and when, say, Facebook begins creating personalised art based on everything it knows about you.

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By using massive biometric databases garnered from millions of people, the algorithm could know which biochemical buttons to press in order to produce a global hit which would set everybody swinging like crazy on the dance floors. If art is really about inspiring (or manipulating) human emotions, few if any human musicians will have a chance of competing with such an algorithm, because they cannot match it in understanding the chief instrument

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By using massive biometric databases garnered from millions of people, the algorithm could know which biochemical buttons to press in order to produce a global hit which would set everybody swinging like crazy on the

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By using massive biometric databases garnered from millions of people, the algorithm could know which biochemical buttons to press in order to produce a global hit which would set everybody swinging like crazy on the dance floors. If art is really about inspiring (or manipulating) human emotions, few if any human musicians will have a chance of competing with such an algorithm, because they cannot match it in understanding the chief instrument they are playing on: the human biochemical system.

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If beauty is indeed in the ears of the listener, and if the customer is always right, then biometric algorithms stand a chance of producing the best art in history.

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In order to enter the art market and displace many human composers and performers, algorithms won’t have to begin by straightaway surpassing Tchaikovsky. It will be enough if they outperform Britney Spears.

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The US armed forces need thirty people to operate every unmanned Predator or Reaper drone flying over Syria, while analysing the resulting harvest of information occupies at least eighty people more. In 2015 the US Air Force lacked sufficient trained humans to fill all these positions, and therefore faced an ironic crisis in manning its unmanned aircraft.

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If so, the job market of 2050 might well be characterised by human–AI cooperation rather than competition. In fields ranging from policing to banking, teams of humans-plus-AIs could outperform both humans and computers. After IBM’s chess program Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997, humans did not stop playing chess. Rather, thanks to AI trainers human chess masters became better than ever, and at least for a while human–AI teams known as ‘centaurs’ outperformed both humans and computers in chess. AI might similarly help groom the best detectives, bankers and soldiers in history.

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Creating new human jobs might prove easier than retraining humans to actually fill these jobs. During previous waves of automation, people could usually switch from one routine low-skill job to another.

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But in 2050, a cashier or textile worker losing their job to a robot will hardly be able to start working as a cancer researcher, as a drone operator, or as part of a human–AI banking team. They will not have the necessary skills. In the First World War it made sense to send millions of raw conscripts to charge machine guns and die in their thousands. Their individual skills mattered little. Today, despite the shortage of drone operators and data analysts, the US Air Force is unwilling to fill the gaps with Walmart dropouts. You wouldn’t like an inexperienced recruit to mistake an Afghan wedding party for a high-level Taliban conference.

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Consequently, despite the appearance of many new human jobs, we might nevertheless witness the rise of a new ‘useless’ class. We might actually get the worst of both worlds, suffering simultaneously from high unemployment and a shortage of skilled labour. Many people might share the fate not of nineteenth-century wagon drivers – who switched to driving taxis – but of nineteenth-century horses, who were increasingly pushed out of the job market altogether.

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Similarly, human–computer centaur teams are likely to be characterised by a constant tug of war between the humans and the computers, instead of settling down to a lifelong partnership. Teams made exclusively of humans – such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson – usually develop permanent hierarchies and routines that last decades. But a human detective who teams up with IBM’s Watson computer system (which became famous after winning the US TV quiz show Jeopardy! in 2011) will find that every routine is an invitation for disruption, and every hierarchy an invitation for revolution. Yesterday’s sidekick might morph into tomorrow’s superintendent, and all protocols and manuals will have to be rewritten every

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Similarly, human–computer centaur teams are likely to be characterised by a constant tug of war between the humans and the computers, instead of settling down to a lifelong partnership. Teams made exclusively of humans – such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson – usually develop permanent hierarchies and routines that last decades. But a human detective who teams up with IBM’s Watson computer system (which became famous after winning the US TV quiz show Jeopardy! in 2011) will find that every routine is an invitation for disruption, and every hierarchy an invitation for revolution. Yesterday’s sidekick might morph into tomorrow’s superintendent, and all protocols and manuals will have to be rewritten every

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It didn’t lose even once. Since AlphaZero learned nothing from any human, many of its winning moves and strategies seemed unconventional to human eyes. They may

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Since AlphaZero learned nothing from any human, many of its winning moves and strategies seemed unconventional to human eyes. They may well be considered creative, if not downright genius.

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One of the ways to catch cheats is to monitor the level of originality players display. If they play an exceptionally creative move, the judges will often suspect that this cannot possibly be a human move – it must be a computer move. At least in chess, creativity is already the trademark of computers rather than humans! Hence if chess is our coal-mine canary, we are duly warned that the canary is dying. What is happening today to human–AI chess teams might happen down the road to human–AI teams in policing, medicine and banking too.

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Even if we could constantly invent new jobs and retrain the workforce, we may wonder whether the average human will have the emotional stamina necessary for a life of such endless upheavals. Change is always stressful, and the hectic world of the early twenty-first century has produced a global epidemic of stress.21 As the volatility of the job market and of individual careers increases, would people be able to cope?

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In the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution created new conditions and problems that none of the existing social, economic and political models could cope with. Feudalism, monarchism and traditional religions were not adapted to managing industrial metropolises, millions of uprooted workers, or the constantly changing nature of the modern economy. Consequently humankind had to develop completely new models – liberal democracies, communist dictatorships and fascist regimes – and it took more than a century of terrible wars and revolutions to experiment with these models, separate the wheat from the chaff, and implement the best solutions. Child labour in Dickensian coal mines, the First World War and the Great Ukrainian Famine of 1932–3 constituted just a small part of the tuition fees humankind paid.

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Technology is never deterministic, and the fact that something can be done does not mean it must be done. Government regulation can successfully block new technologies even if they are commercially viable and economically lucrative. For example, for many decades we have had the technology to create a marketplace for human organs, complete with human ‘body farms’ in underdeveloped countries and an almost insatiable demand from desperate affluent buyers. Such body farms could well be worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Yet regulations have prevented free trade in human body parts, and though there is a black market in organs, it is far smaller and more circumscribed than what one could have expected.

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Hence, if despite all our efforts a significant percentage of humankind is pushed out of the job market, we would have to explore new models for post-work societies, post-work economies, and post-work politics. The first step is to honestly acknowledge that the social, economic and political models we have inherited from the past are inadequate for dealing with such a challenge.

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Some may argue that humans could never become economically irrelevant, because even if they cannot compete with AI in the workplace, they will always be needed as consumers. However, it is far from certain that the future economy will need us even as consumers. Machines and computers could do that too. Theoretically, you can have an economy in which a mining corporation produces and sells iron to a robotics corporation, the robotics corporation produces and sells robots to the mining corporation, which mines more iron, which is used to produce more robots, and so on. These corporations can grow and expand to the far reaches of the galaxy, and all they need are robots and computers – they don’t need humans even to buy their products.

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Algorithms obviously have no consciousness, so unlike human consumers, they cannot enjoy what they buy, and their decisions are not shaped by sensations and emotions. The Google search algorithm cannot taste ice cream. However, algorithms select things based on their internal calculations and built-in preferences, and these preferences increasingly shape our world. The Google search algorithm has a very sophisticated taste when it comes to ranking the Web pages of ice-cream vendors, and the most successful ice-cream vendors in the world are those that the Google algorithm ranks first – not those that produce the tastiest ice cream.

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know this from personal experience. When I publish a book, the publishers ask me to write a short description that they use for publicity online. But they have a special expert, who adapts what I write to the taste of the Google algorithm. The expert goes over my text, and says ‘Don’t use this word – use that word instead. Then we will get more attention from the Google algorithm.’ We know that if we can just catch the eye

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These models should be guided by the principle of protecting humans rather than jobs. Many jobs are uninspiring drudgery, not worth saving. Nobody’s life-dream is to be a cashier. What we should focus on is providing for people’s basic needs and protecting their social status and self-worth.

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Alternatively, governments could subsidise universal basic services rather than income. Instead of giving money to people, who then shop around for whatever they want, the government might subsidise free education, free healthcare, free transport and so forth. This is in fact the utopian vision of communism. Though the communist plan to start a working-class revolution might well become outdated, maybe we should still aim to realise the communist goal by other means? It is debatable whether it is better to provide people with universal basic income (the capitalist paradise) or universal basic services (the communist paradise). Both options have advantages and drawbacks. But no matter which paradise you choose, the real problem is in defining what ‘universal’ and ‘basic’ actually mean.

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The problem with such national and municipal schemes, however, is that the main victims of automation may not live in Finland, Ontario, Livorno or Amsterdam.

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What then will be the fate of the stragglers? American voters might conceivably agree that taxes paid by Amazon and Google for their US business could be used to give stipends or free services to unemployed miners in Pennsylvania and jobless taxi-drivers in New York. However, would American voters also agree that these taxes should be sent to support unemployed people in places defined by President Trump as ‘shithole countries’?

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To really achieve its goals, universal basic support will have to be supplemented by some meaningful pursuits, ranging from sports to religion. Perhaps the most successful experiment so far in how to live a contented life in a post-work world has been conducted in Israel. There, about 50% of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men never work. They dedicate their lives to studying holy scriptures and performing religious rituals. They and their families don’t starve partly because the wives often work, and partly because the government provides them with generous subsidies and free services, making sure that they don’t lack the basic necessities of life. That’s universal basic support avant la lettre.30 Although they are poor and unemployed, in survey after survey these ultra-Orthodox Jewish men report higher levels of life satisfaction than any other section of Israeli society. This is due to the strength of their community bonds, as well as to the deep meaning they find in studying scriptures and performing rituals. A small room full of Jewish men discussing the Talmud might well generate more joy, engagement and insight than a huge textile sweatshop full of hard-working factory hands. In global surveys of life satisfaction, Israel is usually somewhere near the top, thanks in part to the contribution of these jobless poor people.31 Secular Israelis often complain bitterly that the ultra-Orthodox don’t contribute enough to society, and live off other people’s hard work. Secular Israelis also tend to argue that the ultra-Orthodox way of life is unsustainable, especially as ultra-Orthodox families have seven children on average.32 Sooner or later, the state will not be able to support so many unemployed people, and the ultra-Orthodox will have to go to work. Yet it might be just the reverse. As robots and AI push humans out of the job market, the ultra-Orthodox Jews may come to be seen as the model of the future rather than as a fossil from the past.

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To really achieve its goals, universal basic support will have to be supplemented by some meaningful pursuits, ranging from sports to religion. Perhaps the most successful experiment so far in how to live a contented life in a post-work world has been conducted in Israel. There, about 50% of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men never work. They dedicate their lives to studying holy scriptures and performing religious rituals. They and their families don’t starve partly because the wives often work, and partly because the government provides them with generous subsidies and free services, making sure that they don’t lack the basic necessities of life. That’s universal basic support avant la lettre.30 Although they are poor and unemployed, in survey after survey these ultra-Orthodox Jewish men report higher levels of life satisfaction than any other section of Israeli society. This is due to the strength of their community bonds, as well as to the deep meaning they find in studying scriptures and performing rituals. A small room full of Jewish men discussing the Talmud might well generate more joy, engagement and insight than a huge textile sweatshop full of hard-working factory hands. In global surveys of life satisfaction, Israel is usually somewhere near the top, thanks in

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The liberal story cherishes human liberty as its number one value. It argues that all authority ultimately stems from the free will of individual humans, as it is expressed in their feelings, desires and choices. In politics, liberalism believes that the voter knows best. It therefore upholds democratic elections. In economics, liberalism maintains that the customer is always right. It therefore hails free-market principles. In personal matters, liberalism encourages people to listen to themselves, be true to themselves, and follow their hearts – as long as they do not infringe on the liberties of others. This personal freedom is enshrined in human rights.

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In particular, it is vital to remember that right-wing heroes such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were great champions not only of economic freedoms but also of individual liberties. In a famous interview in 1987, Thatcher said that ‘There is no such thing as society. There is [a] living tapestry of men and women … and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves.’

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You might object that people were asked ‘What do you think?’ rather than ‘What do you feel?’, but this is a common misperception. Referendums and elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality. If democracy were a matter of rational decision-making, there would be absolutely no reason to give all people equal voting rights – or perhaps any voting rights. There is ample evidence that some people are far more knowledgeable and rational than others, certainly when it comes to specific economic and political questions.2 In the wake of the Brexit vote, eminent biologist Richard Dawkins protested that the vast majority of the British public – including himself – should never have been asked to vote in the referendum, because they lacked the necessary background in economics and political science. ‘You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land.’3

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This reliance on the heart might prove to be the Achilles heel of liberal democracy. For once somebody (whether in Beijing or in San Francisco) gains the technological ability to hack and manipulate the human heart, democratic politics will mutate into an emotional puppet show.

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For thousands of years people believed that authority came from divine laws rather than from the human heart, and that we should therefore sanctify the word of God rather than human liberty. Only in the last few centuries did the source of authority shift from celestial deities to flesh-and-blood humans. Soon authority might shift again – from humans to algorithms. Just as divine authority was legitimised by religious mythologies, and human authority was justified by the liberal story, so the coming technological revolution might establish the authority of Big Data algorithms, while undermining the very idea of individual freedom.

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choices. For all practical purposes, it was reasonable to argue that I have free will, because my will was shaped mainly by the interplay of inner forces, which nobody outside could see. I could enjoy the illusion that I control my secret inner arena, while outsiders could never really understand what is happening inside me and how I make decisions.

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People will enjoy the best healthcare in history, but for precisely this reason they will probably be sick all the time. There is always something wrong somewhere in the body. There is always something that can be improved. In the past, you felt perfectly healthy as long as you didn’t sense pain or you didn’t suffer from an apparent disability such as limping.

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Most people don’t know themselves very well. When I was twenty-one, I finally realised that I was gay, after several years of living in denial. That’s hardly exceptional. Many gay men spend their entire teenage years unsure about their sexuality. Now imagine the situation in 2050, when an algorithm can tell any teenager exactly where he is on the gay/straight spectrum (and even how malleable that position is). Perhaps the algorithm shows you pictures or videos of attractive men and women, tracks your eye movements, blood pressure and brain activity, and within five minutes ejects a number on the Kinsey scale.6 It could have saved me years of frustration. Perhaps you personally wouldn’t want to take such a test, but then maybe you find yourself with a group of friends at Michelle’s boring birthday party, and somebody suggests you all take turns checking yourself on this cool new algorithm (with everybody standing around to watch the

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But Amazon won’t have to be perfect. It will just need to be better on average than us humans. And that is not so difficult, because most people don’t know themselves very well, and most people often make terrible mistakes in the most important decisions of their lives. Even more than algorithms, humans suffer from insufficient data, from faulty programming (genetic and cultural), from muddled definitions, and from the chaos of life.

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Just think of the way that within a mere two decades, billions of people have come to entrust the Google search algorithm with one of the most important tasks of all: searching for relevant and trustworthy information. We no longer search for information. Instead, we google. And as we increasingly rely on Google for answers, so our ability to search for information by ourselves diminishes. Already today, ‘truth’ is defined by the top results of the Google search.

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Just think of the way that within a mere two decades, billions of people have come to entrust the Google search algorithm with one of the most important tasks of all: searching for relevant and trustworthy information. We no longer search for information. Instead, we google. And as we increasingly rely on Google for answers, so our ability to search for information by ourselves diminishes. Already today, ‘truth’ is defined by the top results of the Google search.

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Every year millions of youngsters need to decide what to study at university. This is a very important and very difficult decision. You are under pressure from your parents, your friends and your teachers, who have different interests and opinions. You also have your own fears and fantasies to deal with. Your judgement is clouded and manipulated by Hollywood blockbusters, trashy novels, and sophisticated advertising campaigns. It is particularly difficult to make a wise decision because you do not really know what it takes to succeed in different professions, and you don’t necessarily have a realistic image of your own strengths and weaknesses. What does it take to succeed as a lawyer? How

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Once AI makes better decisions than us about careers and perhaps even relationships, our concept of humanity and of life will have to change. Humans are used to thinking about life as a drama of decision-making. Liberal democracy and free-market capitalism see the individual as an autonomous agent constantly making choices about the world. Works of art – be they Shakespeare plays, Jane Austen novels, or tacky Hollywood comedies – usually revolve around the hero having to make some particularly crucial decision. To be or not to be? To listen to my wife and kill King Duncan, or listen to my conscience and spare him? To marry Mr Collins or Mr Darcy? Christian and Muslim theology similarly focus on the drama of decision-making, arguing that everlasting

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Once AI makes better decisions than us about careers and perhaps even relationships, our concept of humanity and of life will have to change. Humans are used to thinking about life as a drama of decision-making. Liberal democracy and free-market capitalism see the individual as an autonomous agent constantly making choices about the world. Works of art – be they Shakespeare plays, Jane Austen novels, or tacky Hollywood comedies – usually revolve around the hero having to make some particularly crucial decision. To be or not to be? To listen to my wife and kill King Duncan, or listen to my conscience and spare him? To marry Mr Collins or Mr Darcy? Christian and Muslim theology similarly focus on the drama of decision-making, arguing that everlasting salvation or damnation depends on making the right choice.

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People might object that algorithms could never make important decisions for us, because important decisions usually involve an ethical dimension, and algorithms don’t understand ethics. Yet there is no reason to assume that algorithms won’t be able to outperform the average human even in ethics. Already today, as devices like smartphones and autonomous vehicles undertake decisions that used to be a human monopoly, they start to grapple with the same kind of ethical problems that have bedevilled humans for millennia.

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Human emotions trump philosophical theories in countless other situations. This makes the ethical and philosophical history of the world a rather depressing tale of wonderful ideals and less than ideal behaviour. How many Christians actually turn the other cheek, how many Buddhists actually rise above egoistic obsessions, and how many Jews actually love their neighbours as themselves? That’s just the way natural selection has shaped Homo sapiens. Like all mammals, Homo sapiens uses emotions to quickly make life and death decisions. We have inherited our anger, our fear and our lust from millions of ancestors, all of whom passed the most rigorous quality control tests of natural selection.

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This disjunction between the seminary and the road is one of the biggest practical problems in ethics. Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill and John Rawls can sit in some cosy university hall and discuss theoretical problems in ethics for days – but would their conclusions actually be implemented by stressed-out drivers caught in a split-second emergency?

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Which means that when designing their self-driving car, Toyota or Tesla will be transforming a theoretical problem in the

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Granted, the philosophical algorithms will never be perfect. Mistakes will still happen, resulting in injuries, deaths and extremely complicated lawsuits. (For the first time in history, you might be able to sue a philosopher for the unfortunate results of his or her theories, because for the first time in history you could prove a direct causal link between philosophical ideas and real-life events.) However, in order to take over from human drivers, the algorithms won’t have to be perfect. They will just have to be better than the humans. Given that human drivers kill more than a million people each year, that isn’t such a tall order. When all is said and done, would you rather the car next to you was driven by a drunk teenager, or by the Schumacher–Kant team?

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We cannot rely on the machine to set the relevant ethical standards – humans will still need to do that. But once we decide on an ethical standard in the job market – that it is wrong to discriminate against black people or against women, for example – we can rely on machines to implement and maintain this standard better than humans.

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If we allow a computer to evaluate job applications, and program the computer to completely ignore race and gender, we can be certain that the computer will indeed ignore these factors, because computers don’t have a subconscious.

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Yet once we discover such mistakes, it would probably be far easier to debug the software than to rid humans of their racist and misogynist biases.

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produce two models of the self-driving car: the Tesla Altruist and the Tesla Egoist. In an emergency, the Altruist sacrifices its owner to the greater good, whereas the Egoist does everything in its power to save its owner, even if it means killing the two kids. Customers will then be able to buy the car that best fits their favourite philosophical view. If more people buy the Tesla Egoist, you won’t be able to blame Tesla for that. After all, the customer is always right.

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Other lawmakers may be alarmed by such unprecedented and totalitarian responsibility. After all, throughout history the limitations of law enforcement provided a welcome check on the biases, mistakes and excesses of lawmakers. It was an extremely lucky thing that laws against homosexuality and against blasphemy were only partially enforced. Do we really want a system in which the decisions of fallible politicians become as inexorable as gravity?

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A ruthless dictator armed with such killer robots will never have to fear that his soldiers will turn against him, no matter how heartless and crazy his orders. A robot army would probably have strangled the French Revolution in its cradle in 1789, and if in 2011 Hosni Mubarak had had a contingent of killer robots he could have unleashed them on the populace without fear of defection. Similarly, an imperialist government relying on a robot army could wage unpopular wars without any concern that its robots might lose their motivation, or that their families might stage protests. If

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one tragicomic incident in October 2017, a Palestinian labourer posted to his private Facebook account a picture of himself in his workplace, alongside a bulldozer. Adjacent to the image he wrote ‘Good morning!’ An automatic algorithm made a small error when transliterating the Arabic letters. Instead of ‘Ysabechhum!’ (which means ‘Good morning!’), the algorithm identified the letters as ‘Ydbachhum!’ (which means ‘Kill them!’). Suspecting that the man might be a terrorist intending to use a bulldozer to run people over, Israeli security forces swiftly arrested him. He was released after they realised that the algorithm made a mistake. But the offending Facebook post was nevertheless taken down.

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In one tragicomic incident in October 2017, a Palestinian labourer posted to his private Facebook account a picture of himself in his workplace, alongside a bulldozer. Adjacent to the image he wrote ‘Good morning!’ An automatic algorithm made a small error when transliterating the Arabic letters. Instead of ‘Ysabechhum!’ (which means ‘Good morning!’), the algorithm identified the letters as ‘Ydbachhum!’ (which means ‘Kill them!’). Suspecting that the man might be a terrorist intending to use a bulldozer to run people over, Israeli security forces swiftly arrested him. He was released after they realised that the algorithm made a mistake. But the offending Facebook post was nevertheless taken down. You can never be too careful.29 What Palestinians are experiencing today in the West Bank might be just a primitive preview to what billions will eventually experience all over the planet.

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economy lagged far behind the American economy. However, soon

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However, soon AI might swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. AI makes it possible

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For example, if an authoritarian government orders all its citizens to have their DNA scanned and to share all their medical data with some central authority, it would gain an immense advantage in genetics and medical research over societies in which medical data is strictly private. The main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the twentieth century – the attempt to concentrate all information in one place – might become their decisive advantage in the twenty-first century.

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When discrimination is directed against entire groups, such as women or black people, these groups can organise and protest against their collective discrimination. But now an algorithm might discriminate against you personally, and you have no idea why. Maybe the algorithm found something in your DNA, your personal history or your Facebook account that it does not like. The algorithm discriminates against you not because you are a woman, or an African American – but because you are you. There is something specific about you that the algorithm does not like. You don’t know what it is, and even if you knew, you cannot organise with other people to protest, because there are no other people suffering the exact same prejudice. It is just you. Instead of just collective discrimination, in the twenty-first century we might face a growing problem of individual discrimination.

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When discrimination is directed against entire groups, such as women or black people, these groups can organise and protest against their collective discrimination. But now an algorithm might discriminate against you personally, and you have no idea why. Maybe the algorithm found something in your DNA, your personal history or your Facebook account that it does not like. The algorithm discriminates against you not because you are a woman, or an African American – but because you are you. There is something specific about you that the algorithm does not like. You don’t know what it is, and even if you knew, you cannot organise with other people to protest, because there are no other people suffering the exact same prejudice. It is just you. Instead of just collective discrimination, in the twenty-first century

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Science fiction tends to confuse intelligence with consciousness, and assume that in order to match or surpass human intelligence, computers will have to develop consciousness. The basic plot of almost all movies and novels about AI revolves around the magical moment when a computer or a robot gains consciousness. Once that happens, either the human hero falls in love with the robot, or the robot tries to kill all the humans, or both things happen simultaneously.

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There are simply several different paths leading to high intelligence, and only some of these paths involve gaining consciousness. Just as airplanes fly faster than birds without ever developing feathers, so computers may come to solve problems much better than mammals without ever developing feelings. True, AI will have to analyse human feelings accurately in order to treat human illnesses, identify human terrorists, recommend human mates and navigate a street full of human pedestrians. But it could do so without having any feelings of its own. An algorithm does not need to feel joy, anger or fear in order to recognise the different biochemical patterns of joyful, angry or frightened apes.

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Consciousness is not linked to organic biochemistry, but it is linked to intelligence in such a way that computers could develop consciousness, and computers will have to develop consciousness if they are to pass a certain threshold of intelligence.

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The economic system pressures me to expand and diversify my investment portfolio, but it gives me zero incentives to expand and diversify my compassion. So I strive to understand the mysteries of the stock exchange, while making far less effort to understand the deep causes of suffering.

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Following the Agricultural Revolution, property multiplied and with it inequality. As humans gained ownership of land, animals, plants and tools, rigid hierarchical societies emerged, in which small elites monopolised most wealth and power for generation after generation. Humans came to accept this arrangement as natural and even divinely ordained. Hierarchy was not just the norm, but also the ideal. How can there be order without a clear hierarchy between aristocrats and commoners, between men and women, or between parents and children? Priests, philosophers and poets all over the world patiently explained that just as in the human body not all members are equal – the feet must obey the head – so also in human society equality will bring nothing but chaos.

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It was partly due to the rise of the new ideologies of communism and liberalism. But it was also due to the Industrial Revolution, which made the masses more important than ever before. Industrial economies relied on masses of common workers, while industrial armies relied on masses of common soldiers. Governments in both democracies and dictatorships invested heavily in the health, education and welfare of the masses, because they needed millions of healthy labourers to operate the production lines and millions of loyal soldiers to fight in the trenches.

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To make an already ominous situation even worse, as the masses lose their economic importance and political power, the state might lose at least some of the incentive to invest in their health, education and welfare. It’s very dangerous to be redundant. The future of the masses will then depend on the goodwill of a small elite. Maybe there is goodwill for a few decades. But in a time of crisis – like climate catastrophe – it would be very tempting and easy to toss the superfluous people overboard.

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Ordinary humans will find it very difficult to resist this process. At present, people are happy to give away their most valuable asset – their personal data – in exchange for free email services and funny cat videos. It is a bit like African and Native American tribes who unwittingly sold entire countries to European imperialists in exchange for colourful beads and cheap trinkets. If, later on, ordinary people decide to try and block the flow of data, they might find it increasingly difficult, especially as they might come to rely on the network for all their decisions, and even for their healthcare and physical survival.

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Private ownership of one’s own data may sound more attractive than either of these options, but it is unclear what it actually means. We have had thousands of years of experience in regulating the ownership of land. We know how to build a fence around a field, place a guard at the gate, and control who can go in. Over the past two centuries we have become extremely sophisticated in regulating the ownership of industry – thus today I can own a piece of General Motors and a bit of Toyota by buying their shares. But we don’t have much experience in regulating the ownership of data, which is inherently a far more difficult task, because unlike land and machines, data is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, it can move at the speed of light, and you can create as many copies of it as you want.

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He further explained that ‘We started a project to see if we could get better at suggesting groups that will be meaningful to you. We started building artificial intelligence to do this. And it works. In the first six months, we helped 50 per cent more people join meaningful communities.’ His ultimate goal is ‘to help 1 billion people join meaningful communities … If we can do this, it will not only turn around the whole decline in community membership we’ve seen for decades, it will start to strengthen our social fabric and bring the world closer together.’ This is such an important goal that Zuckerberg vowed ‘to change Facebook’s whole mission to take this on’.

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Unfortunately, over the past two centuries intimate communities have indeed been disintegrating. The attempt to replace small groups of people who actually know one another with the imagined communities of nations and political parties could never succeed in full. Your millions of brothers in the national family and your millions of comrades in the Communist Party cannot provide you with the warm intimacy that a single real sibling or friend can. Consequently people live ever more lonely lives in an ever more connected planet. Many of the social and political disruptions of our time can be traced back to this malaise.

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Humans lived for millions of years without religions and without nations – they can probably live happily without them in the twenty-first century, too. Yet they cannot live happily if they are disconnected from their bodies. If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.

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Yet it is extremely difficult to know each other as ‘whole’ people. It takes a lot of time, and it demands direct physical interaction. As noted earlier, the average Homo sapiens is probably incapable of intimately knowing more than 150 individuals. Ideally, building communities should not be a zero-sum game. Humans can feel loyal to different groups at the same time. Unfortunately, intimate relations probably are a zero-sum game. Beyond a certain point, the time and energy you spend on getting to know your online friends from Iran or Nigeria will come at the expense of your ability to know your next-door neighbours.

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quarterly reports also has a bearing on Facebook’s taxation policies. Like Amazon, Google, Apple and several other tech-giants, Facebook has been repeatedly accused of tax evasion.11 The difficulties inherent in taxing online activities make it easier for these global corporations to engage in all sorts of creative accounting. If you think that people live mainly online, and that you provide them with all the necessary tools for their online existence, you can view yourself as a beneficial social service even as you avoid paying taxes to offline governments. But once you remember that humans have bodies, and that they therefore still need roads, hospitals and sewage systems, it becomes far more difficult to justify tax evasion. How can you extol the virtues of community while refusing to financially support the most important community services?

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You find nothing like that among humans. Yes, human groups may have distinct social systems, but these are not genetically determined, and they seldom endure for more than a few centuries. Think of twentieth-century Germans, for example. In less than a hundred years the Germans organised themselves into six very different systems: the Hohenzollern Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the German Democratic Republic (aka communist East Germany), the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany), and finally democratic reunited Germany. Of course the Germans kept their language and their love of beer and bratwurst. But is there some unique German essence that distinguishes them from all other nations, and that has remained unchanged from Wilhelm II to Angela Merkel? And if you do come up with something, was it also there 1,000 years ago, or 5,000 years ago?

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Human tribes, in contrast, tend to coalesce over time into larger and larger groups. Modern Germans were created from the merger of Saxons, Prussians, Swabians and Bavarians, who not so long ago wasted little love on one another. Otto von Bismarck allegedly remarked

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The process of human unification has taken two distinct forms: establishing links between distinct groups, and homogenising practices across groups.

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This may be true of economic globalisation, but it ignores the different but equally important dynamic of military globalisation. War spreads ideas, technologies and people far more quickly than commerce. In 1918 the United States was more closely linked to Europe than in 1913, the two then drifted apart in the interwar years, only to have their fates meshed together inextricably by the Second World War and the Cold War. War also makes people far more interested in one another. Never had the US been more closely in touch with Russia than during the Cold War, when every cough in a Moscow corridor sent people scrambling up and down Washington staircases. People care far more about their enemies than about their trade partners. For every American film about Taiwan, there are probably fifty about Vietnam.

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No wonder that even neighbouring human groups had trouble agreeing on common diplomatic procedures, not to mention international laws. Each society had its own political paradigm, and found it difficult to understand and respect alien political concepts.

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Today, in contrast, a single political paradigm is accepted everywhere. The planet is divided between about 200 sovereign states, which generally agree on the same diplomatic protocols and on common international laws. Sweden, Nigeria, Thailand and Brazil are all marked on our atlases as the same kind of colourful shapes; they are all members of the UN; and despite myriad differences they are all recognised as sovereign states enjoying similar rights and privileges. Indeed, they share many more political ideas and practices, including at least a token belief in representative bodies, political parties, universal suffrage and human rights. There are parliaments in Tehran, Moscow, Cape Town and New Delhi as well as in London and Paris. When Israelis and Palestinians, Russians and Ukrainians, Kurds and Turks compete for the favours of global public opinion, they all use the same discourse of human rights, state sovereignty and international law.

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Global politics thus follows the Anna Karenina principle: successful states are all alike, but every failed state fails in its own way, by missing this or that ingredient of the dominant political package.

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No group rejecting the principles of global politics has so far gained any lasting control of any significant territory.

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There are still some minor cultural differences, but Canadian, Japanese, Iranian and Israeli physicians hold much the same views about the human body and human diseases. After the Islamic State captured Raqqa and Mosul, it did not tear down the local hospitals. Rather, it launched an appeal to Muslim doctors and nurses throughout the world to volunteer their services there.15 Presumably, even Islamist doctors and nurses believe that the body is made of cells, that diseases are caused by pathogens, and that antibiotics kill bacteria.

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People still have different religions and national identities. But when it comes to the practical stuff – how to build a state, an economy, a hospital, or a bomb – almost all of us belong to the same civilisation. There are disagreements, no doubt, but then all civilisations have their internal disputes. Indeed, they are defined by these disputes. When trying to outline their identity, people often make a grocery list of common traits. That’s a mistake. They would fare much better if they made a list of common conflicts and dilemmas.

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That does not mean there is anything wrong with national bonds. Huge systems cannot function without mass loyalties, and expanding the circle of human empathy certainly has its merits. The milder forms of patriotism have been among the most benevolent of human creations. Believing that my nation is unique, that

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That does not mean there is anything wrong with national bonds. Huge systems cannot function without mass loyalties, and expanding the circle of human empathy certainly has its merits. The milder forms of patriotism have been among the most benevolent of human creations. Believing that my nation is unique, that it deserves my allegiance, and that I have special obligations towards its members inspires me to care about others and make sacrifices on their behalf. It is a dangerous mistake to imagine that without nationalism we would all be living in a liberal paradise. More likely, we would be living in tribal chaos. Peaceful, prosperous and liberal countries such as Sweden, Germany and Switzerland all enjoy a strong sense of nationalism. The list of countries lacking robust national bonds includes Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo and most other failed states.

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Thus the Brexit debate in Britain – a major nuclear power – revolved mainly around questions of economics and immigration, while the vital contribution of the EU to European and global peace has largely been ignored. After centuries of terrible bloodshed, French, Germans, Italians and Britons have finally built a mechanism that ensures continental harmony – only to have the British public throw a spanner into the miracle machine.

Location 1851-1852

Zealous nationalists who cry ‘Our country first!’ should ask themselves whether their country by itself, without a robust system of international cooperation, can protect the world – or even itself – from nuclear destruction.

Location 1915-1921

Nationalist isolationism is probably even more dangerous in the context of climate change than of nuclear war. An all-out nuclear war threatens to destroy all nations, so all nations have an equal stake in preventing it. Global warming, in contrast, will probably have a different impact on different nations. Some countries, most notably Russia, might actually benefit from it. Russia has relatively few coastline assets, hence it is far less worried than China or Kiribati about rising sea levels. And whereas higher temperatures are likely to turn Chad into a desert, they might simultaneously turn Siberia into the breadbasket of the world. Moreover, as the ice melts in the far north, the Russian-dominated Arctic sea lanes might become the artery of global commerce, and Kamchatka might replace Singapore as the crossroads of the world.

Location 1941-1946

There is no nationalist answer. As in the case of climate change, so also with technological disruption, the nation state is simply the wrong framework to address the threat. Since research and development are not the monopoly of any one country, even a superpower like the USA cannot restrict them by itself. If the US government forbids genetically engineering human embryos, this doesn’t prevent Chinese scientists from doing so. And if the resulting developments confer on China some crucial economic or military advantage, the USA 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,

Location 1976-1983

In turn, technological disruptions might increase the danger of apocalyptic wars, not just by increasing global tensions, but also by destabilising the nuclear balance of power. Since the 1950s, superpowers avoided conflicts with one another because they all knew that war meant mutually assured destruction. But as new kinds of offensive and defensive weapons appear, a rising technological superpower might conclude that it can destroy its enemies with impunity. Conversely, a declining power might fear that its traditional nuclear weapons might soon become obsolete, and that it had better use them before it loses them. Traditionally, nuclear confrontations resembled a hyper-rational chess game. What would happen when players could use cyberattacks to wrest control of a rival’s pieces, when anonymous third parties could move a pawn without anyone knowing who is making the move – or when AlphaZero graduates from ordinary chess to nuclear chess?

Location 1992-1994

A much better path is the one outlined in the European Union’s Constitution, which says 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’.

Location 2009-2014

In previous centuries national identities were forged because humans faced problems and opportunities that were far beyond the scope of local tribes, and that only countrywide cooperation could hope to handle. In the twenty-first century, nations find themselves in the same situation as the old tribes: they are no longer the right framework to manage the most important challenges of the age. We need a new global identity because national institutions are incapable of handling a set of unprecedented global predicaments. 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 effectively countering our main problems.

Location 2018-2023

Nationalist sentiments are unlikely to be of much help in that. Perhaps, then, we can rely on the universal religious traditions of humankind to help us unite the world? Hundreds of years ago, religions such as Christianity and Islam already thought in global rather than local terms, and they were always keenly interested in the big questions of life rather than just in the political struggles of this or that nation. But are traditional religions still relevant? Do they retain the power to shape the world, or are they just inert relics from our past, tossed here and there by the mighty forces of modern states, economies and technologies?

Location 2044-2047

Almost every prophet, guru and shaman doubled as a healer. Thus Jesus spent much of his time making the sick well, the blind see, the mute talk, and the mad sane. Whether you lived in ancient Egypt or in medieval Europe, if you were ill you were likely to go to the witch doctor rather than to the doctor, and to make a pilgrimage to a renowned temple rather than to a hospital. In recent times the biologists

Location 2053-2056

The victory of science has been so complete that our very idea of religion has changed. We no longer associate religion with farming and medicine. Even many zealots now suffer from collective amnesia, and prefer to forget that traditional religions ever laid claim to these domains. ‘So what if we turn to engineers and doctors?’ say the zealots. ‘That proves nothing. What has religion got to do with agriculture or medicine in the first place?’

Location 2060-2065

Yet it is precisely their genius for interpretation that puts religious leaders at a disadvantage when they compete against scientists. Scientists too know how to cut corners and twist the evidence, but in the end, the mark of science is the willingness to admit failure and try a different tack. That’s why scientists gradually learn how to grow better crops and make better medicines, whereas priests and gurus learn only how to make better excuses. Over the centuries, even the true believers have noticed the difference, which is why religious authority has been dwindling in more and more technical fields. This is also why the entire world has increasingly become a single civilisation. When things really work, everybody adopts them.

Location 2074-2080

When Ayatollah Khamenei needs to make a crucial decision about the Iranian economy, he will not be able to find the necessary answer in the Quran, because seventh-century Arabs knew very little about the problems and opportunities of modern industrial economies and global financial markets. So he, or his aides, must turn to Karl Marx, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and the modern science of economics to get answers. Having made up his mind to raise interest rates, lower taxes, privatise government monopolies or sign an international tariff agreement, Khamenei can then use his religious knowledge and authority to wrap the scientific answer in the garb of this or that Quranic verse, and present it to the masses as the will of Allah. But the garb matters little. When you compare the economic policies of Shiite Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia, Jewish Israel, Hindu India and Christian America, you just don’t see that much of a difference.

Location 2083-2085

Well, they have been given quite a few chances, and the only noticeable change they have made to the edifice of modern economies is to redo the paintwork and place a huge crescent, cross, Star of David or Om on the roof.

Location 2086-2091

No matter which economic policy Khamenei chooses, he could always square it with the Quran. Hence the Quran is degraded from a source of true knowledge to a source of mere authority. When you face a difficult economic dilemma, you read Marx and Hayek closely, and they help you understand the economic system better, see things from a new angle, and think about potential solutions. Having formulated an answer, you then turn to the Quran, and you read it closely in search of some surah that, if interpreted imaginatively enough, can justify the solution you got from Hayek or Marx. No matter what solution you found there, if you are a good Quranic scholar you will always be able to justify it.

Location 2094-2100

Not that there aren’t any economic ideas in the Bible, the Quran or the Vedas – it is just that these ideas are not up to date. Mahatma Gandhi’s reading of the Vedas caused him to envision independent India as a collection of self-sufficient agrarian communities, each spinning its own khadi cloths, exporting little and importing even less. The most famous photograph of him shows him spinning cotton with his own hands, and he made the humble spinning wheel the symbol of the Indian nationalist movement.1 Yet this Arcadian vision was simply incompatible with the realities of modern economics, and hence not much has remained of it save for Gandhi’s radiant image on billions of rupee notes.

Location 2111-2114

Of course religious groups might harden their views on particular issues, and turn them into allegedly sacred and eternal dogmas. In the 1970s theologians in Latin America came up with Liberation Theology, which made Jesus look a bit like Che Guevara. Similarly, Jesus can easily be recruited to the debate on global warming, and make current political positions look as if they are eternal religious principles.

Location 2119-2124

You will see the difference even in their cars. Evangelicals will drive huge gasoline-guzzling SUVs, while devout Catholics will go around in slick electric cars with a bumper sticker reading ‘Burn the Planet – and Burn in Hell!’ However, though they may quote various biblical passages in defence of their positions, the real source of their difference will be in modern scientific theories and political movements, not in the Bible. From this perspective, religion doesn’t really have much to contribute to the great policy debates of our time. As Karl Marx argued, it is just a veneer.

Location 2125-2131

Yet Marx exaggerated when he dismissed religion as a mere superstructure hiding powerful technological and economic forces. Even if Islam, Hinduism or Christianity may be colourful decorations over a modern economic structure, people often identify with the decor, and people’s identities are a crucial historical force. Human power depends on mass cooperation, mass cooperation depends on manufacturing mass identities – and all mass identities are based on fictional stories, not on scientific facts or even on economic necessities. In the twenty-first century, the division of humans into Jews and Muslims or into Russians and Poles still depends on religious myths. Attempts by Nazis and communists to scientifically determine human identities of race and class proved to be dangerous pseudo-science, and since then scientists have been extremely reluctant to help define any ‘natural’ identities for human beings.

Location 2136-2143

In order to draw firm lines in the shifting sands of humanity, religions use rites, rituals and ceremonies. Shiites, Sunnis and Orthodox Jews wear different clothes, chant different prayers, and observe different taboos. These differing religious traditions often fill daily life with beauty, and encourage people to behave more kindly and charitably. Five times a day, the muezzin’s melodious voice rises above the noise of bazaars, offices and factories, calling Muslims to take a break from the hustle and bustle of mundane pursuits, and try to connect to an eternal truth. Their Hindu neighbours may reach for the same goal with the help of daily pujas and the recitation of mantras. Every week on Friday night, Jewish families sit down for a special meal of joy, thanksgiving and togetherness. Two days later, on Sunday morning, Christian gospel choirs bring hope to the life of millions, helping to forge community bonds of trust and affection.

Location 2143-2146

Other religious traditions fill the world with a lot of ugliness, and make people behave meanly and cruelly. There is little to be said, for example, in favour of religiously inspired misogyny or caste discrimination. But whether beautiful or ugly, all such religious traditions unite certain people while distinguishing them from their neighbours.

Location 2146-2147

Freud ridiculed the obsession people have about such matters as ‘the narcissism of small differences’.

Location 2157-2164

To that end, Japan upheld the native religion of Shinto as the cornerstone of Japanese identity. In truth, the Japanese state reinvented Shinto. Traditional Shinto was a hodge-podge of animist beliefs in various deities, spirits and ghosts, and every village and temple had its own favourite spirits and local customs. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the Japanese state created an official version of Shinto, while discouraging many local traditions. This ‘State Shinto’ was fused with very modern ideas of nationality and race, which the Japanese elite picked from the European imperialists. Any element in Buddhism, Confucianism and the samurai feudal ethos that could be helpful in cementing loyalty to the state was added to the mix. To top it all, State Shinto enshrined as its supreme principle the worship of the Japanese emperor, who was considered a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and himself no less than a living god.

Location 2168-2173

The best-known symbol of the success of State Shinto is the fact that Japan was the first power to develop and use precision-guided missiles. Decades before the USA fielded the smart bomb, and at a time when Nazi Germany was just beginning to deploy dumb V-2 rockets, Japan sank dozens of allied ships with precision-guided missiles. We know these missiles as the kamikaze. Whereas in present-day precision-guided munitions the guidance is provided by computers, the kamikaze were ordinary airplanes loaded with explosives and guided by human pilots willing to go on one-way missions. This willingness was the product of the death-defying spirit of sacrifice cultivated by State Shinto. The kamikaze thus relied on combining state-of-the-art technology with state-of-the-art religious indoctrination.

Location 2188-2190

Religions, rites and rituals will remain important as long as the power of humankind rests on mass cooperation and as long as mass cooperation rests on belief in shared fictions.

Location 2192-2195

Though many traditional religions espouse universal values and claim cosmic validity, at present they are used mainly as the handmaid of modern nationalism – whether in North Korea, Russia, Iran or Israel. They therefore make it even harder to transcend national differences and find a global solution to the threats of nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption.

Location 2206-2206

Some cultures might be better than others

Location 2210-2212

As more and more humans cross more and more borders in search of jobs, security and a better future, the need to confront, assimilate or expel strangers strains political systems and collective identities that were shaped in less fluid times.

Location 2214-2216

Ironically, it has been Europe’s very success in building a prosperous multicultural system that drew so many migrants in the first place. Syrians want to emigrate to Germany rather than to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia or Japan not because Germany is closer or wealthier than all the other potential destinations – but because Germany has a far better record of welcoming and absorbing immigrants.

Location 2221-2226

To clarify matters, it would perhaps be helpful to view immigration as a deal with three basic conditions or terms: Term 1: The host country allows the immigrants in. Term 2: In return, the immigrants must embrace at least the core norms and values of the host country, even if that means giving up some of their traditional norms and values. Term 3: If the immigrants assimilate to a sufficient degree, over time they become equal and full members of the host country. ‘They’ become ‘us’.

Location 2229-2233

Debate 1: The first clause of the immigration deal says simply that the host country allows immigrants in. But should this be understood as a duty or a favour? Is the host country obliged to open its gates to everybody, or does it have the right to pick and choose, and even to halt immigration altogether? Pro-immigrationists seem to think that countries have a moral duty to accept not just refugees, but also people from poverty-stricken lands who seek jobs and a better future. Especially in a globalised world, all humans have moral obligations towards all other humans, and those shirking these obligations are egoists or even racists.

Location 2240-2245

Anti-immigrationists stress that one of the most basic rights of every human collective is to defend itself against invasion, whether in the form of armies or migrants. The Swedes have worked very hard and made numerous sacrifices in order to build a prosperous liberal democracy, and if the Syrians have failed to do the same, this is not the Swedes’ fault. If Swedish voters don’t want more Syrian immigrants in – for whatever reason – it is their right to refuse them entry. And if they do accept some immigrants, it should be absolutely clear that this is a favour Sweden extends rather than an obligation it fulfils.

Location 2250-2253

What complicates matters is that in many cases people want to have their cake and eat it. Numerous countries turn a blind eye to illegal immigration, or even accept foreign workers on a temporary basis, because they want to benefit from the foreigners’ energy, talents and cheap labour. However, the countries then refuse to legalise the status of these people, saying that they don’t want immigration. In the long run, this could create hierarchical societies in which an upper class of full citizens exploits an underclass of powerless foreigners,

Location 2250-2254

What complicates matters is that in many cases people want to have their cake and eat it. Numerous countries turn a blind eye to illegal immigration, or even accept foreign workers on a temporary basis, because they want to benefit from the foreigners’ energy, talents and cheap labour. However, the countries then refuse to legalise the status of these people, saying that they don’t want immigration. In the long run, this could create hierarchical societies in which an upper class of full citizens exploits an underclass of powerless foreigners, as happens today in Qatar and several other Gulf States.

Location 2262-2265

Debate 2: The second clause of the immigration deal says that if they are allowed in, the immigrants have an obligation to assimilate into the local culture. But how far should assimilation go? If immigrants move from a patriarchal society to a liberal society, must they become feminist? If they come from a deeply religious society, need they adopt a secular world view? Should they abandon their traditional dress codes and food taboos? Anti-immigrationists tend to place the bar high, whereas pro-immigrationists place it much lower.

Location 2270-2271

If Europe has any real core values, then these are the liberal values of tolerance and freedom, which imply that Europeans should show tolerance towards the immigrants too, and allow them as much freedom as possible to follow their own traditions, provided

Location 2270-2272

If Europe has any real core values, then these are the liberal values of tolerance and freedom, which imply that Europeans should show tolerance towards the immigrants too, and allow them as much freedom as possible to follow their own traditions, provided these do not harm the freedoms and rights of other people.

Location 2272-2276

Anti-immigrationists agree that tolerance and freedom are the most important European values, and accuse many immigrant groups – especially from Muslim countries – of intolerance, misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism. Precisely because Europe cherishes tolerance, it cannot allow too many intolerant people in. While a tolerant society can manage small illiberal minorities, if the number of such extremists exceeds a certain threshold, the whole nature of society changes. If Europe allows in too many immigrants from the Middle East, it will end up looking like the Middle

Location 2294-2298

Pro-immigrationists tend to demand a speedy acceptance, whereas anti-immigrationists want a much longer probation period. For pro-immigrationists, if third-generation immigrants are not seen and treated as equal citizens, this means that the host country is not fulfilling its obligations, and if this results in tensions, hostility and even violence – the host country has nobody to blame but its own bigotry. For anti-immigrationists, these inflated expectations are a large part of the problem. The immigrants should be patient. If your grandparents arrived here just forty years ago, and you now riot in the streets because you think you are not treated as a native, then you have failed the test.

Location 2299-2302

The root issue of this debate concerns the gap between personal timescale and collective timescale. From the viewpoint of human collectives, forty years is a short time. It is hard to expect society to fully absorb foreign groups within a few decades. Past civilisations that assimilated foreigners and made them equal citizens – such as Imperial Rome, the Muslim caliphate, the Chinese empires and the United States – all took centuries rather than decades to accomplish the transformation.

Location 2302-2306

From a personal viewpoint, however, forty years can be an eternity. For a teenager born in France twenty years after her grandparents immigrated there, the journey from Algiers to Marseilles is ancient history. She was born here, all her friends have been born here, she speaks French rather than Arabic, and she has never even been to Algeria. France is the only home she has ever known. And now people say to her it’s not her home, and that she should go ‘back’ to a place she never inhabited?

Location 2315-2317

more of them in, and create an even bigger problem? Pro-immigrationists reply that it is the host country that fails to fulfil its side of the deal. Despite the honest efforts of the

Location 2316-2319

Pro-immigrationists reply that it is the host country that fails to fulfil its side of the deal. Despite the honest efforts of the vast majority of immigrants to assimilate, the hosts are making it difficult for them to do so, and worse still, those immigrants who successfully assimilate are still treated as second-class citizens even in the second and third generations. It is of course possible that both sides are not living up to their commitments, thereby fuelling each other’s suspicions

Location 2316-2319

Pro-immigrationists reply that it is the host country that fails to fulfil its side of the deal. Despite the honest efforts of the vast majority of immigrants to assimilate, the hosts are making it difficult for them to do so, and worse still, those immigrants who successfully assimilate are still treated as second-class citizens even in the second and third generations. It is of course possible that both sides are not living up to their commitments, thereby fuelling each other’s suspicions and resentments in an increasingly vicious circle.

Location 2320-2326

This fourth debate cannot be resolved before clarifying the exact definition of the three terms. As long as we don’t know whether absorption is a duty or a favour; what level of assimilation is required from immigrants; and how quickly host countries should treat them as equal citizens – we cannot judge whether the two sides are fulfilling their obligations. An additional problem concerns accounting. When evaluating the immigration deal, both sides give far more weight to violations than to compliance. If a million immigrants are law-abiding citizens, but one hundred join terrorist groups and attack the host country, does it mean that on the whole the immigrants are complying with the terms of the deal, or violating it? If a third-generation immigrant walks down the street a thousand times without being molested, but once in a while some racist shouts abuse at her, does it mean that the native population is accepting or rejecting immigrants?

Location 2327-2330

Yet underneath all these debates lurks a far more fundamental question, which concerns our understanding of human culture. Do we enter the immigration debate with the assumption that all cultures are inherently equal, or do we think that some cultures might well be superior to others? When Germans argue over the absorption of a million Syrian refugees, can they ever be justified in thinking that German culture is in some way better than Syrian culture?

Location 2334-2339

At the same time, however, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, behavioural economists and even brain scientists have accumulated a wealth of data for the existence of significant differences between human cultures. Indeed, if all human cultures were essentially the same, why would we even need anthropologists and historians? Why invest resources in studying trivial differences? At the very least, we should stop financing all those expensive field excursions to the South Pacific and the Kalahari Desert, and be content with studying people in Oxford or Boston. If cultural differences are insignificant, then whatever we discover about Harvard undergraduates should be true of Kalahari hunter-gatherers

Location 2339-2345

Upon reflection, most people concede the existence of at least some significant differences between human cultures, in things ranging from sexual mores to political habits. How then should we treat these differences? Cultural relativists argue that difference doesn’t imply hierarchy, and we should never prefer one culture over another. Humans may think and behave in various ways, but we should celebrate this diversity, and give equal value to all beliefs and practices. Unfortunately, such broad-minded attitudes cannot stand the test of reality. Human diversity may be great when it comes to cuisine and poetry, but few would see witch-burning, infanticide or slavery as fascinating human idiosyncrasies that should be protected against the encroachments of global capitalism and coca-colonialism.

Location 2345-2349

Or consider the way different cultures relate to strangers, immigrants and refugees. Not all cultures are characterised by exactly the same level of acceptance. German culture in the early twenty-first century is more tolerant of strangers and more welcoming of immigrants than Saudi culture. It is far easier for a Muslim to emigrate to Germany than it is for a Christian to emigrate to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, even for a Muslim refugee from Syria it is probably easier to emigrate to Germany than to Saudi Arabia, and since 2011 Germany has taken in many more Syrian refugees than has Saudi Arabia.

Location 2351-2352

Hence if you think that it is good to tolerate strangers and welcome immigrants, shouldn’t you also think that at least in this regard, German culture is superior to Saudi culture, and Californian culture is better than Japanese culture?

Location 2353-2355

Moreover, even when two cultural norms are equally valid in theory, in the practical context of immigration it might still be justified to judge the host culture as better. Norms and values that are appropriate in one country just don’t work well under different circumstances.

Location 2402-2405

The shift from biology to culture is not just a meaningless change of jargon. It is a profound shift with far-reaching practical consequences, some good, some bad. For starters, culture is more malleable than biology. This means, on the one hand, that present-day culturists might be more tolerant than traditional racists – if only the ‘others’ adopt our culture, we will accept them as our equals. On the other hand, it could result in far stronger pressures on the ‘others’ to assimilate, and in far harsher criticism of their failure to do so.

Location 2411-2414

A second key difference between talking about biology and talking about culture is that unlike traditional racist bigotry, culturist arguments might occasionally make good sense, as in the case of Warmland and Coldia. Warmlanders and Coldians really have different cultures, characterised by different styles of human relations. Since human relations are crucial to many jobs, is it unethical for a Warmlander firm to penalise Coldians for behaving in accordance with their cultural legacy?

Location 2417-2423

Of course, even if we accept the validity of some culturist claims, we do not have to accept all of them. Many culturist claims suffer from three common flaws. First, culturists often confuse local superiority with objective superiority. Thus in the local context of Warmland, the Warmland method of conflict resolution may well be superior to the Coldian method, in which case a Warmland firm operating in Warmland has a good reason to discriminate against introverted employees (which will disproportionally penalise Coldian immigrants). However, that does not mean that the Warmland method is objectively superior. The Warmlanders could perhaps learn a thing or two from the Coldians, and if circumstances change – e.g. the Warmland firm goes global and opens branches in many different countries – diversity could suddenly become an asset.

Location 2423-2431

Second, when you clearly define a yardstick, a time, and a place, culturist claims may well be empirically sound. But all too often people adopt very general culturist claims, which make little sense. Thus saying that ‘Coldian culture is less tolerant of public angry outbursts than Warmland culture’ is a reasonable claim, but it is far less reasonable to say that ‘Muslim culture is very intolerant’. The latter claim is just far too hazy. What do we mean by ‘intolerant’? Intolerant of whom, or what? A culture can be intolerant towards religious minorities and unusual political views, while simultaneously being very tolerant towards obese people or the elderly. And what do we mean by ‘Muslim culture’? Are we talking about the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century? The Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century? Pakistan in the early twenty-first century? Finally, what is the benchmark? If we care about tolerance towards religious minorities, and compare the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century with western Europe in the sixteenth century, we would conclude that Muslim culture is extremely tolerant. If we compare Afghanistan under the Taliban to contemporary

Location 2432-2435

Yet the worst problem with culturist claims is that despite their statistical nature they are all too often used to prejudge individuals. When a Warmlander native and a Coldian immigrant apply for the same position in a Warmlander firm, the manager may prefer to hire the Warmlander because ‘Coldians are frosty and unsociable’. Even if statistically this is true, maybe this particular Coldian is actually far more warm and outgoing than this particular Warmlander?

Location 2437-2443

this, however, modifies particular culturist claims without discrediting culturism as a whole. Unlike racism, which is an unscientific prejudice, culturist arguments may sometimes be quite sound. If we look at statistics and discover that Warmlander firms have few Coldians in senior positions, this may result not from racist discrimination, but from good judgement. Should Coldian immigrants feel resentment at this situation, and claim that Warmland is reneging on the immigration deal? Should we force Warmlander firms to hire more Coldian managers through ‘affirmative action’ laws, in the hope of cooling down Warmland’s hot-tempered business culture? Or perhaps the fault lies with Coldian immigrants failing to assimilate into the local culture, and we should therefore make a greater and more forceful effort to inculcate in Coldian children Warmlander norms and values?

Location 2501-2504

Hence terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 911, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. And there is no shortage of short-tempered bulls in the world.

Location 2531-2534

Like terrorists, those combating terrorism should also think more like theatre producers and less like army generals. Above all, if we want to combat terrorism effectively we must realise that nothing the terrorists do can defeat us. We are the only ones who can defeat ourselves, if we overreact in a misguided way to the terrorist provocations.

Location 2534-2537

Terrorists undertake an impossible mission: to change the political balance of power through violence, despite having no army. To achieve their aim, terrorists present the state with an impossible challenge of their own: to prove that it can protect all its citizens from political violence, anywhere, any time. The terrorists hope that when the state tries to fulfil this impossible mission, it will reshuffle the political cards, and hand them some unforeseen ace.

Location 2548-2551

States find it difficult to withstand these provocations because the legitimacy of the modern state is based on its promise to keep the public sphere free of political violence. A regime can withstand terrible catastrophes, and even ignore them, provided its legitimacy is not based on preventing them. On the other hand, a regime may collapse due to a minor problem, if it is seen as undermining its legitimacy.

Location 2552-2553

Nobody back then thought that preventing plagues was part of a king’s job. On the other hand, rulers who allowed religious heresy to spread in their dominions risked losing their crowns, and even their heads.

Location 2558-2561

In contrast, the much rarer cases of terrorism are viewed as a deadly threat to the French Republic, because over the last few centuries modern Western states have gradually established their legitimacy on the explicit promise to tolerate no political violence within their borders. Back in the Middle Ages, the

Location 2558-2560

In contrast, the much rarer cases of terrorism are viewed as a deadly threat to the French Republic, because over the last few centuries modern Western states have gradually established their legitimacy on the explicit promise to tolerate no political violence within their borders.

Location 2560-2564

Back in the Middle Ages, the public sphere was full of political violence. Indeed, the ability to use violence was the entry ticket to the political game, and whoever lacked this ability had no political voice. Numerous noble families retained armed forces, as did towns, guilds, churches and monasteries. When a former abbot died and a dispute arose about the succession, the rival factions – comprising monks, local strongmen and concerned neighbours – often used armed force to decide the issue.

Location 2571-2572

Command of trillions of dollars, millions of soldiers, and thousands of ships, airplanes and nuclear missiles pass from one group of politicians to another without a single shot being fired. People quickly got used to this, and consider it their natural right.

Location 2601-2603

If tiny organisations representing a handful of fanatics could destroy entire cities and kill millions, there would no longer be a public sphere free of political violence.

Location 2615-2620

We can be certain, however, that in pursuing the War on Terror the Americans and their allies not only caused immense destruction across the globe, but also incurred what economists call ‘opportunity costs’. The money, time and political capital invested in fighting terrorism were not invested in fighting global warming, AIDS and poverty; in bringing peace and prosperity to sub-Saharan Africa; or in forging better ties with Russia and China. If New York or London eventually sink under the rising Atlantic Ocean, or if tensions with Russia erupt into open warfare, people might well accuse Bush, Blair and Obama of focusing on the wrong front. It is hard to set priorities in real

Location 2615-2619

We can be certain, however, that in pursuing the War on Terror the Americans and their allies not only caused immense destruction across the globe, but also incurred what economists call ‘opportunity costs’. The money, time and political capital invested in fighting terrorism were not invested in fighting global warming, AIDS and poverty; in bringing peace and prosperity to sub-Saharan Africa; or in forging better ties with Russia and China. If New York or London eventually sink under the rising Atlantic Ocean, or if tensions with Russia erupt into open warfare, people might well accuse Bush, Blair and Obama of focusing on the wrong front.

Location 2653-2655

In particular, in 1914 war had great appeal to elites across the world because they had many concrete examples of how successful wars contributed to economic prosperity and political power. In contrast, in 2018 successful wars seem to be an endangered species.

Location 2658-2663

Thus in 1882 Britain invaded and occupied Egypt, losing a mere fifty-seven soldiers in the decisive Battle of Tel el-Kebir.3 Whereas in our days occupying a Muslim country is the stuff of Western nightmares, following Tel el-Kebir the British faced little armed resistance, and for more than six decades controlled the Nile Valley and the vital Suez Canal. Other European powers emulated the British, and whenever governments in Paris, Rome or Brussels contemplated putting boots on the ground in Vietnam, Libya or Congo, their only fear was that somebody else might get there first.

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Even the United States owed its great-power status to military action rather than economic enterprise alone. In 1846 it invaded Mexico, and conquered California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming and Oklahoma. The peace treaty also confirmed the previous US annexation of Texas. About 13,000 American soldiers died in the war, which added 2.3 million square kilometres to the United States (more than the combined size of France, Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy).4 It was the bargain of the millennium.

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The USSR reached its zenith in the mid twentieth century, when heavy industry was the locomotive of the global economy, and the Soviet centralised system excelled in the mass production of tractors, trucks, tanks and intercontinental missiles. Today, information technology and biotechnology are more important than heavy industry, but Russia excels in neither. Though it has impressive cyberwarfare capabilities, it lacks a civilian IT sector, and its economy relies overwhelmingly on natural resources, particularly oil and gas. This may be good enough to enrich a few oligarchs and keep Putin in power, but it is not enough to win a digital or biotechnological arms race.

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Even more importantly, Putin’s Russia lacks a universal ideology. During the Cold War the USSR relied on the global appeal of communism as much as on the global reach of the Red Army. Putinism, in contrast, has little to offer Cubans, Vietnamese or French intellectuals. Authoritarian nationalism may indeed be spreading in the world, but by its very nature it is not conducive to the establishment of cohesive international blocs.

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Why is it so difficult for major powers to wage successful wars in the twenty-first century? One reason is the change in the nature of the economy. In the past, economic assets were mostly material, so it was relatively straightforward to enrich yourself by conquest. If you defeated your enemies on the battlefield, you could cash in by looting their cities, selling their civilians in the slave markets, and occupying valuable wheat fields and gold mines. Romans prospered by selling captive Greeks and Gauls, and nineteenth-century Americans thrived by occupying the gold mines of California and the cattle ranches of Texas.

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With an annual GDP of more than $20 trillion, China is unlikely to start a war for a paltry billion. As for spending trillions of dollars on a war against the USA, how could China repay these expenses and balance all the war damages and lost trade opportunities? Would the victorious People’s Liberation Army loot the riches of Silicon Valley? True, corporations such as Apple, Facebook and Google are worth hundreds of billions of dollars, but you cannot seize these fortunes by force. There are no silicon mines in Silicon Valley.

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Cyberwarfare makes things even worse for would-be imperialists. In the good old days of Queen Victoria and the Maxim gun, the British army could massacre the fuzzy-wuzzies in some far-off desert without endangering the peace of Manchester and Birmingham. Even in the days of George W. Bush, the USA could wreak havoc in Baghdad and Fallujah while the Iraqis had no means of retaliating against San Francisco or Chicago. But if the USA now attacks a country possessing even moderate cyberwarfare capabilities, the war could be brought to California or Illinois within minutes. Malwares and logic bombs could stop air traffic in Dallas, cause trains to collide in Philadelphia, and bring down the electric grid in Michigan.

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In the great age of conquerors warfare was a low-damage, high-profit affair. At the Battle of Hastings in 1066 William the Conqueror gained the whole of England in a single day for the cost of a few thousand dead.

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Nuclear weapons and cyberwarfare, by contrast, are high-damage, low-profit technologies.

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Of course, if somebody does find a formula to wage successful wars under twenty-first-century conditions, the gates of hell might open with a rush. This is what makes the Russian success in Crimea a particularly frightening omen. Let’s hope it remains an exception.

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In the 1930s Japanese generals, admirals, economists and journalists concurred that without control of Korea, Manchuria and the Chinese coast, Japan was doomed to economic stagnation.8 They were all wrong. In fact, the famed Japanese economic miracle began only after Japan lost all its mainland conquests.

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Human stupidity is one of the most important forces in history, yet we often discount it. Politicians, generals and scholars treat the world as a great chess game, where every move follows careful rational calculations. This is correct up to a

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Morality, art, spirituality and creativity are universal human abilities embedded in our DNA. Their genesis was in Stone Age Africa. It is therefore crass egotism to ascribe to them a more recent place and time, be they China in the age of the Yellow Emperor, Greece in the age of Plato, or Arabia in the age of Muhammad.

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Such questions come naturally to Israeli Jews, who are educated from kindergarten to think that Judaism is the superstar of human history. Israeli children usually finish twelve years of school without receiving any clear picture of global historical processes. They are taught almost nothing about China, India or Africa, and though they learn about the Roman Empire, the French Revolution and the Second World War, these isolated jigsaw pieces do not add up to any overarching narrative. Instead, the only coherent history offered by the Israeli educational system begins with the Hebrew Old Testament, continues to the Second Temple era, skips between various Jewish communities in the Diaspora, and culminates with the rise of Zionism, the Holocaust, and the establishment of the state of Israel.

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Yet the truth is that Judaism played only a modest role in the annals of our species. Unlike such universal religions as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, Judaism has always been a tribal creed. It focuses on the fate of one small nation and one tiny land, and has little interest in the fate of all other people and all other countries. For example, it cares little about events in Japan or about the people of the Indian subcontinent. It is no wonder, therefore, that its historical role was limited.

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Scientists nowadays point out that morality in fact has deep evolutionary roots pre-dating the appearance of humankind by millions of years. All social mammals, such as wolves, dolphins and monkeys, have ethical codes, adapted by evolution to promote group cooperation.3 For example, when wolf cubs play with one another, they have ‘fair game’ rules. If a cub bites too hard, or continues to bite an opponent that has rolled on his back and surrendered, the other cubs will stop playing with him.

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This suspicion is greatly strengthened by the fact that the Bible commands Jews to exterminate certain people such as the Amalekites and the Canaanites: ‘Do not leave alive a single soul’, decrees the holy book, ‘Completely destroy them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – as the Lord your God has commanded you’ (Deuteronomy 20:16–17). This is one of the first recorded instances in human history when genocide was presented as a binding religious duty.

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It was only the Christians who selected some choice morsels of the Jewish moral code, turned them into universal commandments, and spread them throughout the world. Indeed, Christianity split from Judaism precisely on that account. While many Jews to this day believe that the so-called ‘chosen people’ are closer to God than other nations are, the founder of Christianity – St Paul the Apostle – stipulated in his famous Epistle to the Galatians that ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).

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But the real problem with the idea that Judaism contributed monotheism to the world is that this is hardly something to be proud of. From an ethical perspective, monotheism was arguably one of the worst ideas in human history.

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What monotheism undoubtedly did was to make many people far more intolerant than before, thereby contributing to the spread of religious persecutions and holy wars. Polytheists found it perfectly acceptable that different people will worship different gods and perform diverse rites and rituals. They rarely if ever fought, persecuted, or killed people just because of their religious beliefs. Monotheists, in contrast, believed that their God was the only god, and that He demanded universal obedience. Consequently, as Christianity and Islam spread around the world, so did the incidence of crusades, jihads, inquisitions and religious discrimination.

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Beloved-of-the-Gods, the king who regards everyone with affection, honours both ascetics and the householders of all religions … and values that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause … Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought ‘Let me glorify my own religion’, only harms his own religion. Therefore contact between religions is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, the king who regards everyone with affection, desires that all should be well learned in the good doctrines of other religions.

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As part of their campaign to cleanse the empire of all infidel heritage, the Christian emperors also suppressed the Olympic Games. Having been celebrated for more than a thousand years, the last ancient Olympiad was held sometime in the late fourth or early fifth century.

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Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries do we see Jews make an extraordinary contribution to humankind as a whole, through their outsized role in modern science. In addition to such well-known names as Einstein and Freud, about 20 per cent of all Nobel Prize laureates in science have been Jews, though Jews constitute less than 0.2 per cent of the world’s population.16 But it should be stressed that this has been a contribution of individual Jews rather than of Judaism as a religion or a culture. Most of the important Jewish scientists of the past 200 years acted outside the Jewish religious sphere. Indeed, Jews began to make their remarkable contribution to science only once they had abandoned the yeshivas in favour of the laboratories.

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The central value of education in Jewish culture was one of the main reasons for the extraordinary success of Jewish scientists. Other factors included the desire of a persecuted minority to prove its worth, and the barriers that prevented talented Jews from advancement in more anti-Semitic institutions such as the army and the state administration.

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Yet while Jewish scientists brought with them from the yeshivas strong discipline and a deep faith in the value of knowledge, they did not bring any helpful baggage of concrete ideas and insights.

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In the case of scholars from the humanities and social sciences – such as Freud – their Jewish heritage probably had a deeper impact on their insights. Yet even in these cases, the discontinuities are more glaring than the surviving links. Freud’s views about the human psyche were very different from those of Rabbi Joseph Caro or Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, and he did not discover the Oedipus complex by carefully perusing the Shulhan Arukh (the code of Jewish law).

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Personally I like the idea of descending not from brutal world-conquerors, but from insignificant people who seldom poked their noses into other people’s business. Many religions praise the value of humility – but then imagine themselves to be the most important thing in the universe. They mix calls for personal meekness with blatant collective arrogance. Humans of all creeds would do well to take humility more seriously.

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And among all forms of humility, perhaps the most important is to have humility before God. Whenever they talk of God, humans all too often profess abject self-effacement, but then use the name of God to lord it over their brethren.

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Does God exist? That depends on which God you have in mind. The cosmic mystery or the worldly lawgiver? Sometimes when people talk about God, they talk about a grand and awesome enigma, about which we know absolutely nothing. We invoke this mysterious God to explain the deepest riddles of the cosmos. Why is there something rather than nothing? What shaped the fundamental laws of physics? What is consciousness, and where does it come from? We do not know the answers to these questions, and we give our ignorance the grand name of God. The most fundamental characteristic of this mysterious God is that we cannot say anything concrete about Him. This is the God of the philosophers; the God we talk about when we sit around a campfire late at night, and wonder what life is all about.

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people see God as a stern and worldly lawgiver, about whom we know only too much. We know exactly what He thinks about fashion, food, sex and politics, and we invoke this Angry Man in the Sky to justify a million regulations, decrees and conflicts.

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The most fundamental characteristic of this worldly lawgiver is that we can say extremely concrete things about Him. This is the God of the crusaders and jihadists, of the inquisitors, the misogynists and the homophobes. This is the God we talk about when we stand around a burning pyre, hurling stones and abuses at the heretics being grilled there.

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When the faithful are asked whether God really exists, they often begin by talking about the enigmatic mysteries of the universe and the limits of human understanding. ‘Science cannot explain the Big Bang,’ they exclaim, ‘so that must be God’s doing.’ Yet like a magician fooling an audience by imperceptibly replacing one card with another, the faithful quickly replace the cosmic mystery with the worldly lawgiver. After giving the name of ‘God’ to the unknown secrets of the cosmos, they then use this to somehow condemn bikinis and divorces.

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The deeper the mysteries of the universe, the less likely it is that whatever is responsible for them gives a damn about female dress codes or human sexual behaviour.

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The missing link between the cosmic mystery and the worldly lawgiver is usually provided through some holy book. The book is full of the most trifling regulations, but is nevertheless attributed to the cosmic mystery. The creator of space and time supposedly composed it, but He bothered to enlighten us mainly about some arcane temple rituals and food taboos. In truth, we haven’t got any evidence whatsoever that the Bible or the Quran or the Book of Mormon or the Vedas or any other holy book was composed by the force that determined that energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared, and that protons are 1,837 times more massive than electrons. To the best of our scientific knowledge, all these sacred texts were written by imaginative Homo sapiens. They are just stories invented by our ancestors in order to legitimise social norms and political structures.

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The third of the biblical Ten Commandments instructs humans never to make wrongful use of the name of God. Many understand this in a childish way, as a prohibition on uttering the explicit name of God (as in the famous Monty Python sketch ‘If you say Jehovah …’). Perhaps the deeper meaning of this commandment is that we should never use the name of God to justify our political interests, our economic ambitions or our personal hatreds. People hate somebody and say, ‘God hates him’; people covet a piece of land and say, ‘God wants it’. The world would be a much better place if we followed the third commandment more devotedly. You want to wage war on your neighbours and steal their land? Leave God out of it, and find yourself some other excuse.

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When all is said and done, it is a matter of semantics. When I use the word ‘God’, I think of the God of the Islamic State, of the Crusades, of the Inquisition, and of the ‘God hates fags’ banners. When I think of the mystery of existence, I prefer to use other words, so as to avoid confusion. And unlike the God of the Islamic State and the Crusades – who cares a lot about names and above all about His most holy name – the mystery of existence doesn’t care an iota what names we apes give

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People often argue that we must believe in a god that gave some very concrete laws to humans, or else morality will disappear and society will collapse into primeval chaos.

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Yet though gods can inspire us to act compassionately, religious faith is not a necessary condition for moral behaviour. The idea that we need a supernatural being to make us act morally assumes that there is something unnatural about morality. But why? Morality of some kind is natural. All social mammals from chimpanzees to rats have ethical codes that limit things such as theft and murder. Among humans, morality is present in all societies, even though not all of them believe in the same god, or in any god. Christians act with charity even without believing in the Hindu pantheon, Muslims value honesty despite rejecting the divinity of Christ, and secular countries such as Denmark and the Czech Republic aren’t more violent than devout countries such as Iran and Pakistan.

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Morality doesn’t mean ‘following divine commands’. It means ‘reducing suffering’. Hence in order to act morally, you don’t need to believe in any myth or story. You just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering.

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People nevertheless murder, rape and steal because they have only a superficial appreciation of the misery this causes. They are fixated on satisfying their immediate lust or greed, without concern for the impact on others – or even for the long-term impact on themselves. Even inquisitors who deliberately inflict as much pain as possible on their victim, usually use various desensitising and dehumanising techniques in order to distance themselves from what they are doing.

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You might object that every human naturally seeks to avoid feeling miserable, but why would a human care about the misery of others, unless some god demands it? One obvious answer is that humans are social animals, therefore their happiness depends to a very large extent on their relations with others. Without love, friendship and community, who could be happy? If you live a lonely self-centred life, you are almost guaranteed to be miserable. So at the very least, to be happy you need to care about your family, your friends, and your community members.

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Yet we do not really need such complex long-term theories to find a natural basis for universal compassion. Forget about commerce for a moment. On a much more immediate level, hurting others always hurts me too. Every violent act in the world begins with a violent desire in somebody’s mind, which disturbs that person’s own peace and happiness before it disturbs the peace and happiness of anyone else. Thus people seldom steal unless they first develop a lot of greed and envy in their minds. People don’t usually murder unless they first generate anger and hatred. Emotions such as greed, envy, anger and hatred are very unpleasant. You cannot experience joy and harmony when you are boiling with anger or envy. Hence long before you murder anyone, your anger has already killed your own peace of mind.

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For some people, a strong belief in a compassionate god that commands us to turn the other cheek may help in curbing anger. That’s been an enormous contribution of religious belief to the peace and harmony of the world. Unfortunately, for other people religious belief actually stokes and justifies their anger, especially if someone dares to insult their god or ignore his wishes. So the value of the lawgiver god ultimately depends on the behaviour of his devotees. If they act well, they can believe anything they like. Similarly, the value of religious rites and sacred places depends on the type of feelings and behaviours they inspire. If visiting a temple makes people experience peace and harmony – that’s wonderful. But if a particular temple causes violence and conflicts, what do we need it for? It is clearly a dysfunctional temple.

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Few people would adopt such a negative identity. Self-professing secularists view secularism in a very different way. For them, secularism is a very positive and active world view, which is defined by a coherent code of values rather than by opposition to this or that religion. Indeed, many of the secular values are shared by various religious traditions. Unlike some sects that insist they have a monopoly over all wisdom and goodness, one of the chief characteristics of secular people is that they claim no such monopoly.

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Religious leaders often present their followers with a stark either/or choice – either you are Muslim, or you are not. And if you are Muslim, you should reject all other doctrines. In contrast, secular people are comfortable with multiple hybrid identities. As far as secularism is concerned, you can go on calling yourself a Muslim and continuing to pray to Allah, eat halal food and make the haj to Mecca – yet also be a good member of secular society, provided you adhere to the secular ethical code. This ethical code – which is indeed accepted by millions of Muslims, Christians and Hindus as well as by atheists – enshrines the values of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility. It forms the foundation of modern scientific and democratic institutions. Like all

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Religious leaders often present their followers with a stark either/or choice – either you are Muslim, or you are not. And if you are Muslim, you should reject all other doctrines. In contrast, secular people are comfortable with multiple hybrid identities. As far as secularism is concerned, you can go on calling yourself a Muslim and continuing to pray to Allah, eat halal food and make the haj to Mecca – yet also be a good member of secular society, provided you adhere to the secular ethical code. This ethical code – which is indeed accepted by millions of Muslims, Christians and Hindus as well as by atheists – enshrines the values of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility. It forms the foundation of modern scientific and democratic institutions.

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What then is the secular ideal? The most important secular commitment is to the truth, which is based on observation and evidence rather than on mere faith. Seculars strive not to confuse truth with belief. If you have a very strong belief in some story, that may tell us a lot of interesting things about your psychology, about your childhood, and about your brain structure – but it does not prove that the story is true. (Often, strong beliefs are needed precisely when the story isn’t true.)

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In addition, seculars do not sanctify any group, any person or any book as if it and it alone has sole custody of the truth. Instead, secular people sanctify the truth wherever it may reveal itself – in ancient fossilised bones, in images of far-off galaxies, in tables of statistical data, or in the writings of various human traditions.

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The other chief commitment of secular people is to compassion. Secular ethics relies not on obeying the edicts of this or that god, but rather on a deep appreciation of suffering. For example, secular people abstain from murder not because some ancient book forbids it, but because killing inflicts immense suffering on sentient beings. There is something deeply troubling and dangerous about people who avoid killing just because ‘God says so’. Such people are motivated by obedience rather than compassion, and what will they do if they come to believe that their god commands them to kill heretics, witches, adulterers or foreigners?

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What then about bestiality? I have participated in numerous private and public debates about gay marriage, and all too often some wise guy asks ‘If marriage between two men is OK, why not allow marriage between a man and a goat?’ From a secular perspective the answer is obvious. Healthy relationships require emotional, intellectual and even spiritual depth. A marriage lacking such depth will make you frustrated, lonely and psychologically stunted. Whereas two men can certainly satisfy the emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs of one another, a relationship with a goat cannot. Hence if you see marriage as an institution aimed at promoting human well-being – as secular people do – you would not dream of even raising such a bizarre question. Only people who see marriage as some kind of miraculous ritual might do so. So

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The twin commitments to truth and compassion result also in a commitment to equality. Though opinions differ regarding questions of economic and political equality, secular people are fundamentally suspicious of all a priori hierarchies. Suffering is suffering, no matter who experiences it; and knowledge is knowledge, no matter who discovers it. Privileging the experiences or the discoveries of a particular nation, class or gender is likely to make us both callous and ignorant. Secular people are certainly proud of the uniqueness of their particular nation, country and culture – but they don’t confuse ‘uniqueness’ with ‘superiority’.

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We cannot search for the truth and for the way out of suffering without the freedom to think, investigate, and experiment. Secular people cherish freedom, and refrain from investing supreme authority in any text, institution or leader as the ultimate judge of what’s true and what’s right. Humans should always retain the freedom to doubt, to check again, to hear a second opinion, to try a different path. Secular people admire Galileo Galilei who dared to question whether the earth really sits motionless at the centre of the universe; they admire the masses of common people who stormed the Bastille in 1789 and brought down the despotic regime of Louis XVI; and they admire Rosa Parks who had the courage to sit down on a bus seat reserved for white passengers only.

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It takes a lot of courage to fight biases and oppressive regimes, but it takes even greater courage to admit ignorance and venture into the unknown. Secular education teaches us that if we don’t know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging our ignorance and looking for new evidence. Even if we think we know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of doubting our opinions and checking ourselves again. Many people are afraid of the unknown, and want clear-cut answers for every question. Fear of the unknown can paralyse us more than any tyrant.

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People afraid of losing their truth tend to be more violent than people who are used to looking at the world from several different viewpoints. Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.

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Finally, secular people cherish responsibility. They don’t believe in any higher power that takes care of the world, punishes the wicked, rewards the just, and protects us from famine, plague or war. We flesh-and-blood mortals must take full responsibility for whatever we do – or don’t do. If the world is full of misery, it is our duty to find solutions. Secular people take pride in the immense achievements of modern societies, such as curing epidemics, feeding the hungry, and bringing peace to large parts of the world. We need not credit any divine protector with these achievements – they resulted from humans developing their own knowledge and compassion.

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The secular world judges people on the basis of their behaviour rather than of their favourite clothes and ceremonies. A person can follow the most bizarre sectarian dress code and practise the strangest of religious ceremonies, yet act out of a deep commitment to the core secular values.

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Most people just cannot live up to such a demanding code, and large societies cannot be run on the basis of the open-ended quest for truth and compassion. Especially in times of emergency – such as war or economic crisis – societies must act promptly and forcefully, even if they are not sure what is the truth and what is the most compassionate thing to

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difficult to send soldiers into battle or impose radical economic reforms in the name of doubtful conjectures, secular movements repeatedly mutate into dogmatic creeds.

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Whether one should view Stalin as a secular leader is therefore a matter of how we define secularism. If we use the minimalist negative definition – ‘secular people don’t believe in God’ – then Stalin was definitely secular. If we use a positive definition – ‘secular people reject all unscientific dogmas and are committed to truth, compassion and freedom’ – then Marx was a secular luminary, but Stalin was anything but.

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sometimes abandon it in favour of comforting dogmas. Thus when

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Thus when confronted by the mess of brutal dictatorships and failed states, liberals often put their unquestioning faith in the awesome ritual of general elections. They fight wars and spend billions in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Congo in the firm belief that holding general elections will magically turn these places into sunnier versions of Denmark. This despite repeated failures, and despite the fact that even in places with an established tradition of general elections these rituals occasionally bring to power authoritarian populists, and result in nothing grander than majority dictatorships.

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This is particularly true of the doctrine of human rights. The only place rights exist is in the stories humans invent and tell one another. These stories were enshrined as a self-evident dogma during the struggle against religious bigotry and autocratic governments. Though it isn’t true that humans have a natural right to life or liberty, belief in this story curbed the power of authoritarian regimes, protected minorities from harm, and safeguarded billions from the worst consequences of poverty and violence. It thereby contributed to the happiness and welfare of humanity probably more than any other doctrine in history.

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As long as you define yourself as ‘an individual possessing inalienable natural rights’, you will not know who you really are, and you will not understand the historical forces that shaped your society and your own mind (including your belief in ‘natural rights’).

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If we are committed to the right to liberty, should we empower algorithms that decipher and fulfil our hidden desires? If all humans enjoy equal human rights, do superhumans enjoy super-rights? Secular people will find it difficult to engage with such questions as long as they are committed to a dogmatic belief in ‘human rights’.

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Every religion, ideology and creed has its shadow, and no matter which creed you follow you should acknowledge your shadow and avoid the naïve reassurance that ‘it cannot happen to us’. Secular science has at least one big advantage over most traditional religions, namely that it is not terrified of its shadow, and it is in principle willing to admit its mistakes and blind spots. If you believe in an absolute truth revealed by a transcendent power, you cannot allow yourself to admit any error – for that would nullify your whole story. But if you believe in a quest for truth by fallible humans, admitting blunders is an inherent part of the game.

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It is the mark of dogmatic ideologies that due to their excessive self-confidence they routinely vow the impossible. Their leaders speak all too freely about ‘eternity’, ‘purity’ and ‘redemption’, as if by enacting some law, building some temple, or conquering some piece of territory they could save the entire world in one grand gesture.

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If you want your religion, ideology or world view to lead the world, my first question to you is: ‘What was the biggest mistake your religion, ideology or world view committed? What did it get wrong?’ If you cannot come up with something serious, I for one would not trust you.

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Not only rationality, but individuality too is a myth. Humans rarely think for themselves. Rather, we think in groups. Just as it takes a tribe to raise a child, it also takes a tribe to invent a tool, solve a conflict, or cure a disease. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, an atom bomb, or an aircraft. What gave Homo sapiens an edge over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet was not our individual rationality, but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups.

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Similarly, the liberal belief in individual rationality may itself be the product of liberal groupthink. In one of the climactic moments of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a huge crowd of starry-eyed followers mistakes Brian for the Messiah. Brian tells his disciples that ‘You don’t need to follow me, you don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals! You’re all different!’ The enthusiastic crowd then chants in unison ‘Yes! We’re all individuals! Yes, we are all different!’ Monty Python were parodying the counterculture orthodoxy of the 1960s, but the point may be true of the belief in rational individualism in general. Modern democracies are full of crowds shouting in unison, ‘Yes, the voter knows best! Yes, the customer is always right!’

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Power is all about changing reality rather than seeing it for what it is. When you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks

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for what it is. When you have a hammer in your hand, everything

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The guardians of the old order usually determine who gets to reach the centres of power, and they tend to filter out the carriers of disturbing unconventional ideas.

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One can try to evade the problem by adopting a ‘morality of intentions’. What’s important is what I intend, not what I actually do or the outcome of what I do. However, in a world in which everything is interconnected, the supreme moral imperative becomes the imperative to know. The greatest crimes in modern history resulted not just from hatred and greed, but even more so from ignorance and indifference.

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In fact, humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.

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We have zero scientific evidence that Eve was tempted by the Serpent, that the souls of all infidels burn in hell after they die, or that the creator of the universe doesn’t like it when a Brahmin marries an Untouchable – yet billions of people have believed in these stories for thousands of years. Some fake news lasts for ever.

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equating religion with fake news, but that’s exactly the point. When

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I am aware that many people might be upset by my equating religion with fake news, but that’s exactly the point. When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month – that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years – that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it ‘fake news’ in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath). Note, however, that I am not denying the effectiveness or potential benevolence of religion. Just the opposite. For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s toolkit.

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Again, some people may be offended by my comparison of the Bible with Harry Potter. If you are a scientifically minded Christian you might explain away all the errors, myths and contradictions in the Bible by arguing that the holy book was never meant to be read as a factual account, but rather as a metaphorical story containing deep wisdom. But isn’t that true of Harry Potter too?

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Well, some fake news lasts only 700 years.

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Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda maestro and perhaps the most accomplished media-wizard of the modern age, allegedly explained his method succinctly by stating that ‘A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.’7 In Mein Kampf Hitler wrote that ‘The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.’8 Can any present-day fake-news peddler improve on that?

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The truth is that truth was never high on the agenda of Homo sapiens. Many people assume that if a particular religion or ideology misrepresents reality, its adherents are bound to discover it sooner or later, because they will not be able to compete with more clear-sighted rivals. Well, that’s just another comforting myth. In practice, the power of human cooperation depends

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The truth is that truth was never high on the agenda of Homo sapiens. Many people assume that if a particular religion or ideology misrepresents reality, its adherents are bound to discover it sooner or later, because they will not be able to compete with more clear-sighted rivals. Well, that’s just another comforting myth. In practice, the power of human cooperation depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction.

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On the other hand, you cannot organise masses of people effectively without relying on some mythology. If you stick to unalloyed reality, few people will follow you. Without myths, it would have been impossible to organise not just the failed Maji Maji and Jewish revolts, but also the far more successful rebellions of the Mahdi and the Maccabees.

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In fact, false stories have an intrinsic advantage over the truth when it comes to uniting people. If you want to gauge group loyalty, requiring people to believe an absurdity is a far better test than asking them to believe the truth.

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Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate ways. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power. You will have to admit things – for example about the sources of your own power – that will anger allies, dishearten followers or undermine social harmony. Scholars throughout history faced this dilemma: do they serve power or truth? Should they aim to unite people by making sure everyone believes in the same story, or should they let people know the truth even at the price of disunity? The most powerful scholarly establishments – whether of Christian priests, Confucian mandarins or communist ideologues – placed unity above truth. That’s why they were so powerful.

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As a species, humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it – and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it. Therefore, if you dream of a society in which truth reigns supreme and myths are ignored, you have little to expect from Homo sapiens. Better try your luck with chimps.

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For as the pace of change increases, not just the economy, but the very meaning of ‘being human’ is likely to mutate. Already in 1848 the Communist Manifesto declared that ‘all that is solid melts into air’. Marx and Engels, however, were thinking mainly about social and economic structures. By 2048, physical and cognitive structures

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For as the pace of change increases, not just the economy, but the very meaning of ‘being human’ is likely to mutate. Already in 1848 the Communist Manifesto declared that ‘all that is solid melts into air’. Marx and Engels, however, were thinking mainly about social and economic structures. By 2048, physical and cognitive structures will also melt into air, or into a cloud of data bits.

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So the best advice I could give a fifteen-year-old stuck in an outdated school somewhere in Mexico, India or Alabama is: don’t rely on the adults too much. Most of them mean well, but they just don’t understand the world. In the past, it was a relatively safe bet to follow the adults, because they knew the world quite well, and the world changed slowly. But the twenty-first century is going to be different. Due to the growing pace of change you can never be certain whether what the adults are telling you is timeless wisdom or outdated bias.

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One popular story, told for thousands of years to billions of anxious humans, explains that we are all part of an eternal cycle that encompasses and connects all beings. Each being has a distinctive function to fulfil in the cycle. To understand the meaning of life means to understand your unique function, and to live a good life means to accomplish that function.

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All stories are incomplete. Yet in order to construct a viable identity for myself and give meaning to my life, I don’t really need a complete story devoid of blind spots and internal contradictions. To give meaning to my life, a story needs to satisfy just two conditions: first, it must give me some role to play. A New Guinean tribesman is unlikely to believe in Zionism or in Serbian nationalism, because these stories don’t care at all about New Guinea and its people. Like movie stars, humans like only those scripts that reserve an important role for them.

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Second, whereas a good story need not extend to infinity, it must extend beyond my horizons. The story provides me with an identity and gives meaning to my life by embedding me within something bigger than myself. But there is always a danger that I might start wondering what gives meaning to that ‘something bigger’. If the meaning of my life is to help the proletariat or the Polish nation, what exactly gives meaning to the proletariat or to the Polish nation? There is a story of a man who claimed that the world is kept in place by resting on the back of a huge elephant. When asked what the elephant stands on, he replied that it stands on the back of a large turtle. And the turtle? On the back of an even bigger turtle. And that bigger turtle? The man snapped and said: ‘Don’t bother

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Second, whereas a good story need not extend to infinity, it must extend beyond my horizons. The story provides me with an identity and gives meaning to my life by embedding me within something bigger than myself. But there is always a danger that I might start wondering what gives meaning to that ‘something bigger’. If the meaning of my life is to help the proletariat or the Polish nation, what exactly gives meaning to the proletariat or to the Polish nation? There is a story of a man who claimed that the world is kept in place by resting on the back of a huge elephant. When asked what the elephant stands on, he replied that it stands on the back of a large turtle. And the turtle? On the back of an even bigger turtle. And that bigger turtle? The man snapped and said: ‘Don’t bother about it. From there onwards it’s turtles all the way down.’

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considered a counter-revolutionary waste of breath. Though some stories go to the trouble of encompassing the entirety of space and time, the ability to control attention allows many other successful stories to remain far more modest in scope. A crucial law of storytelling is that once a story manages to extend beyond the audience’s horizon, its

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Though some stories go to the trouble of encompassing the entirety of space and time, the ability to control attention allows many other successful stories to remain far more modest in scope. A crucial law of storytelling is that once a story manages to extend beyond the audience’s horizon, its ultimate scope matters little. People may display the same murderous fanaticism for the sake of a thousand-year-old nation as for the sake of a billion-year-old god. People are just not good with large numbers. In most cases, it takes surprisingly little to exhaust our imagination.

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Most people who go on identity quests are like children going treasure hunting. They find only what their parents have hidden for them in advance.

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The stories that provide us with meaning and identity are all fictional, but humans need to believe in them. So how to make the story feel real? It’s obvious why humans want to believe the story, but how do they actually believe? Already thousands of years ago priests and shamans discovered the answer: rituals. A ritual is a magical act that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real. The essence of ritual is the magical spell ‘Hocus pocus, X is Y!’

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men sacrifice their lives for a colourful ribbon. Perhaps

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Perhaps nobody understood the political importance of rituals better than Confucius, who saw the strict observance of rites (li) as the key to social harmony and political stability. Confucian classics such as The Book of Rites, The Rites of Zhou and The Book of Etiquette and Rites recorded in the minutest details which rite should be performed at which state occasion,

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In the modern West, the Confucian obsession with rituals has often been seen as a sign of shallowness and archaism. In fact, it probably testifies to Confucius’ profound and timeless appreciation of human nature. It is perhaps no coincidence that Confucian cultures – first and foremost in China, but also in neighbouring Korea, Vietnam and Japan – produced extremely long-lasting social and political structures. If you want to know the ultimate truth of life, rites and rituals are a huge obstacle. But if you are interested – like Confucius – in social stability and harmony, truth is often a liability, whereas rites and rituals are among your best

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Indeed, the very cost of the flag makes the ritual more effective. Of all rituals, sacrifice is the most potent, because of all the things in the world, suffering is the most real. You can never ignore it or doubt it. If you want to make people really believe in some fiction, entice them to make a sacrifice on its behalf. Once you suffer for a story, it is usually enough to convince you that the story is real. If you fast because God commanded you to do so, the tangible feeling of hunger makes God present more than any statue or

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This is of course a logical fallacy. If you suffer because of your belief in God or in the nation, that does not prove that your beliefs are true. Maybe you are just paying the price of your gullibility? However, most people don’t like to admit that they are fools. Consequently, the more they sacrifice for a particular belief, the stronger their faith becomes. This is the mysterious alchemy of sacrifice. In order to bring us under his power, the sacrificing priest need not give us anything – neither rain, nor money, nor victory in war. Rather, he needs to take away something. Once he convinces us to make some painful sacrifice, we are trapped.

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Alternatively, if martyrs are scarce and people are unwilling to sacrifice themselves, the sacrificing priest may get them to sacrifice somebody else instead. You might sacrifice a human to the vengeful god Ba’al, burn a heretic at the stake for the greater glory of Jesus Christ, execute adulterous women because Allah said so, or send class enemies to the Gulag. Once you do that, a slightly different alchemy of sacrifice begins to work its magic on you. When you inflict suffering on yourself in the name of some story, it gives you a choice: ‘Either the story is true, or I am a gullible fool.’ When you inflict suffering on others, you are also given a choice: ‘Either the story is true, or I am a cruel villain.’ And just as we don’t want to admit we are fools, we also don’t want to admit we are villains, so we prefer to believe that the story is true. In March 1839, in the Iranian city of Mashhad, a

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Alternatively, if martyrs are scarce and people are unwilling to sacrifice themselves, the sacrificing priest may get them to sacrifice somebody else instead. You might sacrifice a human to the vengeful god Ba’al, burn a heretic at the stake for the greater glory of Jesus Christ, execute adulterous women because Allah said so, or send class enemies to the Gulag. Once you do that, a slightly different alchemy of sacrifice begins to work its magic on you. When you inflict suffering on yourself in the name of some story, it gives you a choice: ‘Either the story is true, or I am a gullible fool.’ When you inflict suffering on others, you are also given a choice: ‘Either the story is true, or I am a cruel villain.’ And just as we don’t want to admit we are fools, we also don’t want to admit we are villains, so we prefer to believe that the story is true.

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Unable to live up to the ideal, people turn to sacrifice as a solution. A Hindu may engage in tax frauds, visit the occasional prostitute and mistreat his elderly parents, but then convince himself that he is a very pious person, because he supports the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya and has even donated money to build a Hindu temple in its stead. Just as in ancient times, so also in the twenty-first century, the human quest for meaning all too often ends with a succession of sacrifices.

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Consider a typical Tea Party supporter who somehow squares an ardent faith in Jesus Christ with a firm objection to government welfare policies and a staunch support for the National Rifle Association. Wasn’t Jesus a bit more keen on helping the poor than on arming yourself to the teeth? It might seem incompatible, but the human brain has a lot of drawers and compartments, and some neurons just don’t talk to one another. Similarly, you can find plenty of Bernie Sanders supporters who have a vague belief in some future revolution, while also believing in the importance of investing your money wisely. They can easily switch from discussing the unjust distribution of wealth in the world to discussing the performance of their Wall Street investments.

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In practical terms, those who believe in the liberal story live by the light of two commandments: create, and fight for liberty. Creativity can manifest itself in writing a poem, exploring your sexuality, inventing a new app, or discovering an unknown chemical. Fighting for liberty includes anything that frees people from social, biological and physical constraints, be it demonstrating against brutal dictators, teaching girls to read, finding a cure for cancer, or building a spaceship. The liberal pantheon of heroes houses Rosa Parks and Pablo Picasso alongside Louis Pasteur and the Wright brothers.

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Hence if you really want to understand yourself, you should not identify with your Facebook account or with the inner story of the self. Instead, you should observe the actual flow of body and mind. You will see thoughts, emotions and desires appear and disappear without much reason and without any command from you, just as different winds blow from this or that direction and mess up your hair. And just as you are not the winds, so also you are not the jumble of thoughts, emotions and desires you experience, and you are certainly not the sanitised story you tell about them with hindsight. You experience all of them, but you don’t control them, you don’t own them, and you are not them. People ask ‘Who am I?’ and expect to be told a story. The first thing you need to know about yourself, is that you are not a story.

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The Buddha taught that the three basic realities of the universe are that everything is constantly changing, nothing has any enduring essence, and nothing is completely satisfying. You can explore the furthest reaches of the galaxy, of your body, or of your mind – but you will never encounter something that does not change, that has an eternal essence, and that completely satisfies you.