In his fascinating book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (my short review) one of the ideas Yuval Harari presents is that large human societies are not possible without the ability of us humans to share stories and believe in those stories as a group. This gift humans have is so powerful that without it the world would look nothing like it does today.
The journey Yuval takes us on to come to this conclusion looks like this: all animals (and he includes Sapiens, as he calls us humans, in this group) cooperate through communication. Sapiens do so using amazingly supple languages that allow us to socialize and we do so because social cooperation is key for our survival and reproduction. While animals from bees and ants to monkeys and elephants communicate about the whereabouts of food, for people it is also important to know who in their group hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat (Harari, 20). Gossip, a much maligned social practice, has in fact been used to pass reliable information about who could be trusted and enabled groups of people to develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation (“gossip theory” is a real thing). This is all well and good but talking about people and stuff happening in the world around us is not the truly unique feature of our languages. What makes us Sapiens downright amazing is that we can talk about things that don’t exist at all. And we do it all the time. I’ll hand it to Yuval to drive home this point because he does it so well:
It’s relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don’t really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting. People who go to the forest looking for fairies and unicorns would seem to have less chance of survival than people who go looking for mushrooms and deer. And if you spend hours praying to non-existing guardian spirits, aren’t you wasting precious time, time better spent foraging, fighting and fornicating?
But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the [origin of man] story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories. (Harari, 25)
So gossip helps us build large and stable groups but it has its limits. The amount of information an individual must store to keep track of even a few dozen individuals is quite staggering. For example, in a group of fifty people there are 1,225 one-on-one relationships and countless more complex social combinations. Sociological research has shown that the maximum “natural” size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings (Harari, 24). So how do we work in large groups? How do the individuals in cities, states, nations, and religions manage to cooperate effectively together as strangers? We do so by believing in common myths. The myths we believe in come in many disguises such as “shared values”, “patriotism”, and “legal entities” but the one thing they all have in common is that objectively, many of the things we believe, important things that underpin our society, only really exist in our minds.
This is not The Matrix
Let me back up a second and say two things. First, I love this idea – it explains so many things about our world. More on that in a minute. Second, this is not an “Are we really living in The Matrix?” position. To be clear – I am not suggesting (and neither is Yuval) that reality is a dream or anything of that sort (I put myself in the “pragmatic-skeptic” metaphysics camp). Rather, large groups of people believe in and base their actions on things that have no existence in the world outside of human minds. The example Yuval provides should help explain. Peugoet is one of the oldest and laregest of Europe’s carmakers…
Peugeot began as a small family business in the village of Valentigney [Germany]. Today the company employs about 200,000 people worldwide, most of whom are complete strangers to each other. These strangers cooperate so effectively that in 2008 Peugeot produced more than 1.5 million automobiles, earning revenues of about [68 billion dollars].
In what sense can we say that Peugeot SA (the company’s official name) exists? There are many Peugeot vehicles, but these are obviously not the company. Even if every Peugeot in the world were simultaneously junked and sold for scrap metal, Peugeot SA would not disappear. It would continue to manufacture new cars and issue its annual report. The company owns factories, machinery and showrooms, and employs mechanics, accountants and secretaries, but all these together do not comprise Peugeot. A disaster might kill every single one of Peugeot’s employees, and go on to destroy all of its assembly lines and executive offices. Even then, the company could borrow money, hire new employees, build new factories and buy new machinery. Peugeot has managers and shareholders, but neither do they constitute the company. All the managers could be dismissed and all its shares sold, but the company itself would remain intact.
It doesn’t mean that Peugeot SA is invulnerable or immortal. If a judge were to mandate the dissolution of the company, its factories would remain standing and its workers, accountants, managers and shareholders would continue to live – but Peugeot SA would immediately vanish. In short, Peugeot SA seems to have no essential connection to the physical world. Does it really exist?
Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a ‘legal fiction’. It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. Just like you or me, it is bound by the laws of the countries in which it operates. It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it.
Peugeot belongs to a particular genre of legal fictions called ‘limited liability companies’. The idea behind such companies is among humanity’s most ingenious inventions. Homo sapiens lived for untold millennia without them. (Harari, 27)
Show it to Sophie
I find this fascinating – humans have created corporations and given them real power out of our imaginations. Corporations are not naturally occurring entities that you can point at and say, “See, there it is – it is right there.” From this insight we can derive a powerful method to find the common myths humans believe in – show it to something not human.
This is a “Humu Humu” triggerfish, officially the state fish of Hawaii and her name is Sophie. How would we show a corporation to Sophie? Would we show her the legal papers of incorporation? The company headquarters? We covered this ground in describing Peugeot as an entity born of human imagination and so we recognize that Sophie would not see the corporation in a legal document nor the company headquarters. Indeed there is nothing we can show her that is the corporation.
How about we show Sophie Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam. Would we show her the canonical written texts revered by these religions? We could show Sophie the Buddhist temples and monasteries of Thailand or the Vatican in Rome or take her to Mecca on the Arabian Peninsula. Would we in fact be showing these religions her? If not, what would we need to show Sophie if we wanted to show her these or any religion?
What if we want to show Sophie Canada, Spain, or America? We could drive around the physical territories these nations currently hold by fiat and while I’m sure she would enjoy the beauty of the landscapes, I don’t know that any one would agree that we were doing anything more than looking at the land that is occupied by the people of these nations. Could we show her these nations by taking her to meet the heads of state? Is President Trump America? It should be clear that like corporations and religions, nations are only meaningful in the minds of humans. Nation-states allow massive groups of strangers to work together because everyone agrees to believe in and abide by the power the fiction accords.
Can we show Sophie money? Think it through – the majority of the wealth in the world only exists as 1s and 0s on computers. What about human rights? What would we show Sophie if we wanted to show her human rights?
Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.
Over the years, people have woven an incredibly complex network of stories. Within this network, fictions such as Peugeot not only exist, but also accumulate immense power…
Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world. (Harari, 31-32)
Collective fictions work so well because they allow complete strangers to trust and work together. We can go to war with strangers to protect the “shard values” we hold as citizens of the United States. If a Muslim were to meet a Muslim in Brazil or Russia or Kenya they will immediately have a connection and a shared understanding of the world through their faith. Common myths are powerful and ubiquitous because they allow us to work together in groups that would otherwise be impossible.
Back to Yuval:
It’s likely that more than a few readers squirmed in their chairs while reading the preceding paragraphs. Most of us today are educated to react in such a way. It is easy to accept that Hammurabi’s Code [which enforced a three-tier society of ‘Superior’ men & women, ‘Commoners’ and ‘Slaves’] was a myth, but we do not want to hear that human rights are also a myth. If people realise that human rights exist only in the imagination, isn’t there a danger that our society will collapse? …
Such fears are well justified. A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them…
American democracy would not have lasted almost 250 years if the majority of presidents and congressman failed to believe in human rights. The modern economic system would not have lasted a single day if the majority of investors and bankers failed to believe in capitalism.
How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk [his gods] decreed it. People are equal, not because Thomas Jefferson said so, but because God created them that way. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are immutable laws of nature…
Even if by some superhuman effort I succeed in freeing my personal desires from the grip of the imagined order, I am just one person. In order to change the imagined order I must convince millions of strangers to cooperate with me. For the imagined order is not a subjective order existing in my own imagination – it is rather an inter-subjective order, existing in the shard imagination of thousands and millions of people…
An objective phenomenon exist independently of human consciousness and human beliefs. Radioactivity, for example, is not a myth…
The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual. It disappears or changes if that particular individual changes his or her beliefs….
The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear. Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, god, nations.
Peugeot, for example, is not the imaginary friend of Peugeot’s CEO. The company exists in the shared imagination of millions of people. The CEO believes in the company’s existence because the board of directors also believes in it, as do the company’s lawyers, the secretaries in the nearby office, the tellers in the bank, the brokers on the stock exchange, and the car dealers from France to Australia. If the CEO alone were suddenly to stop believing in Peugeot’s existence, he’d quickly land in the nearest mental hospital and someone else would occupy his office.
Similarly, the dollar, human rights and the United States of America exist in the shared imagination of billions, and no single individual can threaten their existence. If I alone stop believing in the dollar, in human rights, or in the United States, it wouldn’t much matter. These imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organistion, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult. However, in order to establish such complex organisations, it’s necessary to convince many strangers to cooperate with one another. And this will happen only if these strangers believe in some shared myths. It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagine order.
In order to dismantle Peugeot, for example, we need to imagine something more powerful, such as the French legal system. In order to dismantle the French legal system we need to imagine something even more powerful, such as the French state. And if we would like to dismantle that too, we will have to imagine something yet more powerful.
There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison. (excerpts from Harari, 109-117)
To be sure, our common myths have real consequences and derivative implications in the world. We live in an objective reality of rivers, trees and lions as well as an imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time has ticked by, the imagined reality has become ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States, the Catholic church and Google (Harari, 32).
Breaking it all apart with God
I’ve no doubt that the idea that corporations only really exist in our heads can be arrived at through reason and most people will be generally accepting of that idea. But the idea that your religion or human rights or nation exist only in our imaginations many, if not most, people will likely find objectionable if not offensive. Take comfort in this: if God exists, then Yuval is wrong about all of this. More generally, if something superhuman establishes values, morals, justice and human rights then these things are real outside of human imaginations. But it can only be one way or the other: either justice, fairness, human rights and equality are just stories humans agree to or they are established by something other than humans. This raises an interesting dilemma for atheists and agnostics – if there is no God (or gods… or even a real, unifying, transcendental glue) then there cannot be anything outside of human minds that objectively establishes anything as truth and the collective fictions are just that.
Either the most powerful forces and values we have in our lives are based purely on Sapiens collective fictions and nothing else or you must believe in the existence of a power as-yet undiscovered by science that dictates human behavior. You cannot have it both ways. What truth is behind your stories?