Updated: Mar 1
By Mike Flood
Chair of Milton Keynes Humanists and the Future of Humanism Group
In this article, Mike explores the worrying appropriation and corruption of words such as 'humanism' and 'humanistic' to make AI developments seem non-threatening.
The award-winning Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari has been arguing for some time that 'traditional humanism, which focuses on the inherent value and agency of human beings, is becoming outdated in light of technological advancements such as artificial intelligence and biotechnology... these advancements will lead to a new era in which non-human entities such as artificial intelligence will have greater agency and power than humans, and traditional humanist values will no longer be relevant.' Harari may be right, but he promotes a rather eccentric definition of humanism which is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the way modern humanists use the term. His version is more akin to what ‘humanism’ meant back in the 15th century (Renaissance humanism). This is a problem for humanists because of the popularity of his books, such as Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016), which explores our relationship with AI. Indeed, Humanists UK reports that 'misconceptions about humanism have increased' and that a number of teachers and other educators have contacted them for help.
'Humanism has a new fight on its hands... the humanist movement thinks too much in terms of the old battles, while neglecting the new battles.' Yuval Noah Harari
I started with a quotation but it’s not by Harari! I asked OpenAI’s popular ChatGPT 'What do you think of Yuval Harari's use of the term humanism?' and this was the answer provided. But here’s the real Harari speaking: 'In the twenty-first century, humanism is in a double bind. It still has to fight the old battles against the biases and delusions of traditional religions such as Christianity. But it also has a new fight on its hands, against the dangerous potential of new technologies such as bioengineering and AI. My impression is that the humanist movement thinks too much in terms of the old battles, while neglecting the new battles.' I think there’s more than a grain of truth in this.
Humanism - how can we protect the meaning of our moniker?
In 2018, Free Enquiry magazine published an exchange between Harari and humanist philosopher Andy Norman. Norman pleaded with Harari to refrain from defining humanism as a family of 'religions (that) worship humanity, or more correctly, homo sapiens' because 'it is so potentially damaging to the humanist movement.' As Norman points out: 'hundreds of thousands of well-meaning progressive reformers have [come to find] a sustaining and motivating identity in humanism... this too is part of the history of humanism. This new usage extends far beyond a small circle of academic historians — it’s out there in the world, shaping people, movements, and trends. Given that the term has acquired these uses, you can’t responsibly characterize humanists as advocating the blind worship of humanity... It’s inaccurate because humanists have always emphasized critical reflection; they’ve worked to end the practice of showing blind obedience to anything... To characterize [the millions of people who now identify as humanist] — your natural allies — in this way does them a great disservice.' Sadly, Harari shows no sign of changing his terminology, and he is far from alone in taking liberties with our moniker! You don’t need to look far on the internet to find ‘Christian humanists’, ‘pro-life humanists’, ‘liberal humanists’, ‘scientific humanists’, ‘Marxist humanists’ and ‘evolutionary humanists’ sitting uncomfortably alongside ‘secular humanists’. And what about ‘digital humanists’? (see box below).
And then there’s the rhetoric around artificial intelligence emanating from big business, which publisher Scott Douglas Jacobsen points out 'amounts to the utilization of the terms "humanism" and "humanistic" or "human-centered" to substantiate the mission of the AI development.' He cites a number of examples including Apple’s Tom Gruber describing Siri as 'humanistic AI — artificial intelligence designed to meet human needs by collaborating [with] and augmenting people'. There’s even an AI consultancy that calls itself ‘Humanism’! Jacobsen goes further by posing the question: 'What if these human-values and humanistic values purported to represent all humankind simply reflect the orientations of the billionaires and technology companies?' He has a point! And how do people feel about the term ‘humAInism’? According to its practitioners, humAInism 'combines the concept of humanism with AI - one of the most exciting technological developments of our time.' Oh dear...
It is understandable that the AI fraternity wants to use terms like these. They are ‘intuitively comprehensible’ and sound 'nonthreatening’, especially in contrast to alienating jargon such as ‘machine learning’ (Washington Post article cited in Jacobsen), but it is deeply problematic for humanists. It presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that it will (further) confuse people about the nature and practice of 21st century humanism. The opportunity is for humanists to get actively involved in the debate. And in this respect Humanists UK's recent statement on AI is very much to be welcomed. Let’s hope it leads to a rethink of its campaign priorities in preparation for the ‘new battles’ ahead.
The graphic image on the thumbnail is from the OpenAI website
Britannica: What ‘humanism’ meant in the 15th Century
Yuval Noah Harari and ‘secularism’ Humanists UK article
The Meaning and Legacy of Humanism: A Sharp Challenge from a Potential Ally Yuval Noah Harari and A. P. Norman in Free Enquiry magazine
Humanism and AI by Scott Douglas Jacobsen
How AI can enhance our memory, work and social lives - Tom Gruber TED talk
Humanism equity investment platform
Humanists UK's recent statement on AI
Vienna workshop on Digital Humanism
Digital Humanism in Vienna brochure