A little while back I had a post about personal responsibility where I ultimately suggested that we live in a sort of dual reality. On the one hand, I suggested that we believe that we are personally responsible for our own outcomes, and that we work hard to put ourselves in positions to succeed. But on the other hand, I suggested that when we view other people and where they are in life we reduce the role of personal responsibility and see people as victims of circumstance. For viewing other people, I suggested we weigh outside factors more than internal factors, the opposite of how I encourage us to think about our own lives. This dual reality that I suggested felt strange, but I argued that it should work because it is something we do all the time in life.
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that viewing dual realities is central to our humanity. In fact, Harari would argue that being able to perceive dual (sometimes conflicting realities) helped drive our evolution to become modern Homo sapiens. He writes, “ever since the Cognitive Revolutions, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.” We are adept at seeing the objective reality, layering on narratives and myths, and then inhabiting a new reality that is shaped by both the objectivity underlying our narrative and the mystical nature of the narratives we create. The objective reality is incredibly complicated and our powerful brains are not enough to make sense of that objective reality independently. They need narratives and stories that can help simplify and bring order to the chaos of objective reality.
The question, as Harari ends up reaching – and as I hopelessly found out with my initial blog post on personal responsibility – is how to get people to all adopt the same myths in order to cooperate and bring about the best possible outcomes. “Much of history,” writes Harari, “revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies?” My blog post, which ended with a lukewarm suggestion of viewing personal responsibility differently based on whether you were viewing yourself or others, is certainly not going to influence millions of people to adopt a narrative that makes sense from one perspective but simultaneously requires a contradictory perspective. Yet nevertheless, humans throughout history have been able to get people to believe such stories.
In the history of human myths, deities have been all knowing and all powerful, yet humans still have free will and can make unpredictable choices that leave deities baffled and angered. In some myths, humans can influence the weather and climate, change the course of rivers and streams, but gods and spirits are the ones responsible for the productivity of such natural resources. And corporations can exist, dependent upon and comprised of individuals and material objects, yet those individuals are exempt from liability when things go wrong and the individuals don’t actually seem to own any of the material goods of the company. These contradictions exist and can make our brains hurt if we focus on them too much, but we accept them and move on despite the apparent fictions and contradictions. How this happens is beyond the scope of a single blog post, and really a bigger question that what Harari fully answers and explains in Sapiens.