In an ongoing series, I’m covering topics that catch my interest as I read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. One topic that Harari returns to often is the idea of imagined worlds. Homo sapiens acquired the ability to create imagined worlds in what he called “the cognitive revolution”. Most anthropologists see this as arising with symbolic thought.
Harari compares our modern notions of something like a corporation to ancient beliefs in gods and their mandates. He points out that these are both fictions. They both serve as organizing principles. In ancient societies, gods, particularly big cosmic gods, mandated institutions and how people were supposed to live.
Many today look at this from the angle of the elites pulling a fast one on the populations they wanted to control. But elites often were just as much true believers as the populace, and often what the gods wanted people to do just made good sense, such as not killing each other, or working for the common good. In that light, they could be seen as organizing principles, cooperation frameworks.
Harari’s point is that our current notions of corporations, nation states, money, and many other things are also fictions we use as organizing principles. It’s the collective belief in these fictions that allow large numbers of strangers to cooperate in a manner that no other species accomplishes.
I think he makes a good point here, but I also think he overlooks an important development. Ancient humans created imaginary worlds, but they either didn’t realize they were imaginary, or weren’t willing to admit it.
The TV show Rome had a scene where a character was alarmed when he realized that the election he was participating in was rigged in his favor, because the elections were supposed to be sacred, an activity prescribed by the gods. Surely there would be consequences for messing with them. I have no idea if Roman gods mandating electoral processes is historically accurate, but it fits with the way ancient cultures worked, where most, if not all, organizing principles were prescribed by cosmic powers.
Of course, today we have elections, which we take very seriously. And we regard the idea that they should be run fairly as pretty sacred. Yet no one claims they’re a procedure prescribed by God. And that’s my point. We have a crucial organizing principle, one we know is a type of fiction, and we’re okay with it.
The most ancient stories never admit to being fiction. Whatever morality messages they convey had the appearance, to those who first heard them, of being rooted in reality. The ancient Greeks may have been the first people to tell stories that they admitted up front were fiction. Plato told stories just to make a point without claiming them to be true, and everyone knew the events in most plays were fiction. Today we enjoy fictitious stories all the time, and even see life lessons in them, while never believing for a moment that they’re true.
When the American constitution was being formed, centuries of sectarian warfare in Europe, not to mention a lot of deists in their ranks, made the founding parents leery of tying our organizing principles to any particular theology. So aside from oblique references, God isn’t mentioned. The constitution is a creation of humans for humans. We all know it. Yet today its principles are regarded as sacred by most people in the United States.
This reality shows up in a number of other areas, such as money. Money was once rooted in things with intrinsic value, such as barley. Eventually it became associated with gold, with little utilitarian value, but something we could all agree to value. Today it’s not even based on that. It’s just a system for keeping score of acquired value. Yet we all accept it. Despite many seeing it as evil, society would collapse without it.
All of which is to say, we’ve learned to accept our fictions as fictions, and still see value in them, to be entertained by them, or to use them as cooperation frameworks. This seems to me like an important development.
Unless of course I’m missing something?