The maturity of fiction awareness

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?

20 thoughts on “The maturity of fiction awareness

  1. I think things are simpler than the ideas proffered. Imagine a neolithic human who has a loved or respected member of his family who then dies. They have seen the dead body. They have seen the lack of response. maybe they did a vigil for a few days in case that person “woke up” from its slumber. In any case, they saw and knew dead animals when they encountered one, so Grandma, or whoever, was dead.

    But then Grandma appeared to one or more of them in a dream and spoke to them. But Grandma was dead, how could she be alive still? So, the idea was that Grandma was alive in “another place” or as a “spirit.”

    These ideas would be reinforced when people remembered things that person told them that were of use, even life saving, after their deaths. The ancestors were protecting them from that other place.

    All this requires to pull off is imagination. If people were able to communicate via language, if they discussed such events, if one person’s imagination was insufficient, maybe another’s was. And when a pleasing interpretation was made (Grandma was alive in another place!) other people would latch onto it as it made them feel better.

    An Aside: I believe the Celts believed that when they died they went to another land, and had an existence much like what they had here, and when they died there, they were reborn back into this world. (I think this is part and parcel of the dictum to all creative writers to “write what you know.”)

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    1. I see your point, but it’s focused just on the supernatural belief. It’s a plausible description of how some beliefs of that type arise. But foragers don’t appear to imagine big moralizing high gods. A need for that kind of organizing principle seems to be required first. And Harari is focused on that organizational level.

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  2. Hi Mike! I’m glad you’re reading Professor Harari’s “Sapiens”. I hope you will also read his other two books, “Homo Deus”, and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”. I think what Harari was getting at, in Sapiens, was that the cognitive revolution represented a structural genetic change/mutation in Homo Sapiens’ brains that allowed them to think about and express things that were not real; e.g., what will happen in the future if they do something different from what they’d done since time immemorial, what might happen to them in the future if they continue what they’d been doing, lighting a forest on fire to catch large prey running in panic straight into their traps (they did this in Australia first), planning military tactics and then strategies. This ability allowed Sapiens to leap from being nothing special among the other species of animals and humans to become the #1 predators in the world. A fiction is only a fiction until you make it into a reality. The ability to think of fictions represented the ability to imagine. I would say today that money, corporations, and nations are no longer strictly fictions, but are now virtual realities, in the same way that our consciousness is a virtual reality of sorts. Of course, fictions also allowed Sapiens to put one over on each other (the one because of his ability to change the truth and the other because of his gullibility), but Sapiens could not have lied to other human species, like Neanderthals, or to other animals. IMHO precedes everything I’ve written here.

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    1. Thanks Mike! There’s obviously a lot that Harari writes about that I’m not getting into. My little blog posts can only cover so much.

      I’m using the word “fiction” in the manner Harari uses it. I might have chosen a different word, although it does serve well to make the point he’s driving at. But definitely, our collective belief in things like money or nations make them real. His point is that they’re intersubjective realities rather than objective ones. If we all stopped believing in them, they would cease to exist.

      I’m not sure yet about his other books. He’s an excellent and engaging writer, but he has a tendency at times to present hypotheses as fact. But I’m still reading, so we’ll see.

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  3. I’m afraid I continue to be underwhelmed by (what you report of) Harari. (The comparison between ancient beliefs in gods and modern corporations seems a category error to me.)

    Our notion of fiction is as old as the stories we tell, and I suspect we’ve been telling stories for a very long time. I read a theory once suggesting language developed, in part, so we could tell jokes and humorous stories. (Intelligence and a sense of humor seem strongly correlated.) I quite agree fiction ties with the rise of symbolic thought.

    As an aside, just read a 2005 article in SciAm about infants developing symbolic thinking. Up until about the age of three (IIRC), children don’t grasp symbolic representation. They don’t understand a full-color photo of a shoe isn’t a shoe. (They’ll try to put it on.) When shown where a toy is hidden in a miniature of a room, they can’t translate that to the location in a full-size room.

    (p.s. This post, so far, has not shown up in the Reader.)

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    1. I’m a little puzzled by this study you mention, Wyrd. My kids grasped abstractions from an early age. They would never have imagined that a picture of a shoe was a shoe. Children appear to be very comfortable with abstractions from an early age – perhaps about one year old.

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    2. If I keep this up, Harari’s name will end up being a curse word for you. 🙂

      I actually think his overall insight about gods and corporations has a lot going for it. It matches some stuff I’ve seen from other writers. What categories do you see him conflating? What distinction is he overlooking? (Other than the one I point out.)

      Children usually start learning the original form of symbolic thought by the end of their first year: language. But I imagine it takes a while to understand all the ways it gets used in society.

      Yeah, WordPress, the last time I contacted them, basically told me not to contact them again unless 48 hours had passed since the post went up. Which I took as an admission that their product sucks and they don’t want to be bothered with supporting it. The Reader is becoming a curse word for me.

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      1. Your post hasn’t shown up in the Reader as of yet, but it does show up on the SelfAwarePatterns Reader feed. Which I think is so weird. (This is why the time it happened to me, the tech was grumpy about it. My post showed up on the Logos con carne Reader feed, but not in the Followed Sites feed.) I find it suspicious; my post suddenly showed while the tech was off “speaking to someone” and it sounds like that happened in your case, too.

        Theory: There’s a known bug, the techs do have some way of “freeing” a post, but it happens often enough to be a support burden. So there’s a script that runs (every night maybe) that does fix up. (If your post shows up tomorrow, it’ll be a data point in favor.) But now that the script is in place, they pretty much refuse to take calls on stuck posts.

        I dug the SciAm (Aug 2005) out of the recycle. I wrote “(IIRC)” because a lot of age ranges were mentioned and as it turns out I didn’t RC. The skills in question develop from 18 to 24 months. (The three years was about something else.)

        What interested me was that the skills in question are on another level than learning the symbols behind language. The children in the study did have some language skills. What they lacked was the ability to recognize a map as relating to the territory. That requires a dual notion of the map as a map and the map as representing the territory.

        They did contrasting tests in which a child witnesses a toy being hidden in a tent. They brought out a “shrink ray” (that needed to operate in private, so the child had to be escorted out of the room) and “shrank” the tent (replaced it with a miniature). Upon returning to the room, the child usually has no problem finding the hidden toy. Similarly aged children usually fail tests involving separate maps and territories (e.g. a photo of a room and the room).

        Corporations are concrete entities, and our “fictions” about them are reflections of their actual realities. The category error is in seeing this as a fiction. Corporations belong to the same ontological category as the rules of baseball, which might also mistakenly be called a “fiction.”

        Stories about gods are attempts to create a sensible framework for reality. They’re not recognized as fictions until after the fact. The religious often recognize them as fact. In this sense, they’re not “fictions” either and do resemble the constructed realities of corporations. When they are recognized as fiction, they’re usually recognized as mistakes.

        Mythology is also different from corporations in that mythology is the early grasping at what first becomes philosophy and then science. Corporations are discoveries and inventions, mythology is description and investigation.

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        1. On the Reader, I like that theory. Unfortunately I messed up the test. I sent an email to WordPress help this afternoon. So unless they explicitly refuse to help, if it shows tomorrow, we won’t know if it was because of a scheduled script, or something they did. Very annoying, because in any case it will have scrolled past many people’s view.

          On corporations, Harari’s point is that a corporation is an intersubjective thing. If everyone stops believing in IBM, IBM no longer exists. There might still be documents, equipment, buildings, and shirts with logos, etc, all lying around, but the entity we call “IBM” would cease to be an organizing force in the world.

          On gods, obviously Harari is approaching this from an atheistic view. But from the standpoint of a modern believer, the ancient pagan gods were all fiction, even if it wasn’t realized at the time.

          When people believed in Zeus, he was an intersubjective causal force in the world. His commandments influenced people’s actions throughout the Mediterranean world. He provided a cooperative framework for strangers to trust each other, since believing in him and his pantheon ensured a similar worldview. No one believes in Zeus anymore (except possibly for a few neo-pagans), except as a mythological character. He no longer exists as the organizing principle he once was.

          Of course, we could go platonic here, and insist that all these things still exist in the platonic realm. Obviously Harari is not a platonist.

          I do agree the word “fiction” here is a bit clumsy, since IBM, when people believe in it, isn’t fictional. But then, the mores mandated by Zeus were also not fictional while people believe in them.

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          1. “If everyone stops believing in IBM, IBM no longer exists.”

            I’m sorry, I don’t agree with that at all. An IBM by any other name would still have the physical reality you mentioned. The organizational force there is in the physical corporation — it’s not something one can sanely not believe in.

            The existence of gods, on the other hand, can sanely be denied.

            I think the word “fiction” is overly reductive and misleading. One phrase I think captures meaning is “social construct” — belief in gods, and the protocols of corporations, are social constructs. (Along with courts, government, most forms of money, etc.)

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          2. On the Reader situation, support responded that the post comes up for them when they search for it, so no problem. I pointed out that it still doesn’t show up this morning when I scroll down to that point in the timeline in my Followed Sites feed. So, no actions from them, and apparently no nightly script to fix things. 😦

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          3. Thanks. I’m pretty sure it’s because I published a new one last night. Support wrote back and noted they were seeing it now. But I had expressed frustration in my previous message, so they seem interested in gathering data so they could report something back to Development. I gave them everything I know about it, including its intermittent nature.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. Heard back from support again. Thought you might find it interesting:

            Thank you for all of the insights you collected. When a new WordPress.com post is published, we queue the site for feed indexing. This works in the vast majority of cases, but doesn’t always succeed and unfortunately we haven’t tracked down why it fails intermittently.

            There are a few occasions when we try and fetch an RSS feed from a site:

            During feed routine crawl of all sites. This process can take a while (24hrs+).
            Immediately after a new post is published.
            Sometimes a timing issue can create a situation where feed crawl tries to fetch the new post before it is actually available in the RSS feed. At the next feed crawl, the post is eventually fetched. Unfortunately, we don’t a way to change this behavior at the moment, but I hope it clarifies things for you.

            Come back if you have questions. We are here to help you anytime 🙂

            At least they were honest.

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          5. I guess that’s something. (Weird they pull the RSS feed; you’d think that came from their database.)

            ((The Reader is so buggy. The part you put in (I assume) {blockquote} tags doesn’t show up in the Reader. I’ve had that happen, but sometimes stuff I put in {blockquote} tags does show up. I haven’t figured out WTF on that one.))

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          6. That is weird. Yeah, just straight blockquote tag. Just checked it in the admin UI. Nothing unusual about the content.

            Except that it mentions a certain vendor’s name and site. Hmmm. Nahhhh! (I hope nahhhh.)

            One nice thing about this info. Since publishing a post causes it to do a pull, maybe I can do a short bump post to make a missing one show up, then delete the bump. Wouldn’t be the first time I have to engage in chicanery to get software to work right.

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  4. My reading of ancient civilizations is that the earliest religions were not based on fiction, but on truth. There was no requirement for our ancestors to “believe” in the sun god – they needed only to look up and see the god in the sky. It was only much later, and perhaps for a relatively brief historical period, that religious people created abstract gods.

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    1. Certainly the earliest religions were animist, personifying everything in nature. But they seem, from the beginning, to have concluded that those forces could be mollified with libations, or angered with incorrect actions. In foraging cultures, these fictions didn’t amount to that much.

      But as societies started to scale up, the abstract gods became a crutch for organizing principles. It’s only in the last few centuries that we’ve started realizing we can get by without the crutch.

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