There is no Escape from Imagined Orders

There is No Escape from Imagined Orders

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that humans are forever trapped in imagined orders. Whether it is the American Dollar, human rights, or nations, we are trapped within agreed upon institutions for organizing our lives. The reason we are stuck with the imagined orders we have created is because they are what enable billions of humans to cooperate and interact without dissolving into lawless violence. What exists in a single person’s head is combined with what exists in the minds of others to form real institutions, practices, and patterns that shape our interactions and understandings of the world. Our imagined orders are social constructs, and they cannot be eliminated – they can only be replaced.
 
 
“In order to change an existing imagined order,” writes Harari, “we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.” Harari’s quote is not completely accurate. We can dismantle an imagined order without replacing it through lawless chaos, but it is unlikely that a state of lawless chaos will remain for long. In order to get many humans to cooperate together, especially to commit violence and destruction which is likely not in their own best interest, you often need some sort of imagined order to serve as the motivating impetus for the violence and destruction. You might get a sufficient number of people to riot and burn the system down without really knowing what will replace it, but eventually, a new imagined order will take over. More common, however, is the situation Harari explains, that one imagined order is slowly replaced by another.
 
 
“There is no way out of the imagined order,” writes Harari. Escaping one imagined order simply leads to a new imagined order. The divine right of kings was dismantled and replaced by ideas of human rights, which encouraged and supported the development of representative democracies. Imagined orders exist together and can build upon one another, but they cannot be escaped altogether. One way or another, for humans to live and cooperate together, we need large-scale imagined orders which prescribe and  proscribe certain behaviors, responses, and relationships across the billions of people living on earth.
Imagined Orders

Imagined Orders

Humans evolved from small social tribes that ranged from roughly a dozen individuals to tribes upward of 3 or 4 dozen individuals. From that very basic starting place as a species, social groups and tribes grew to be possibly as large as 250 individuals until eventually humans began to cultivate crops, live in a single place, and form larger communities. Much of our modern psychology as humans seems to still be connected back to these early days when humans lived in small tribes or small communities. This historical time stamp in our psychology creates a lot of challenges for living in large technologically advanced societies.
 
 
Our societies today are held together by what Yuval Noah Harari calls imagined orders in his book Sapiens. Imagined orders are ideas, concepts, and constructs that we as a society agree to. They anchor the institutions we build, the interactions we have as individuals and groups, and how we organize our social world. Without them, we would be in chaos and wouldn’t be able to cooperate on a global scale, or even a national, regional, or local scale. Indeed, I think Harari would argue, we couldn’t live together in social groups of any size if we could not coalesce around imagined orders.
 
 
Some primates are able to live in relatively large social groups with some level of complex political and social interactions, but physical force and violence often play a role in how order is maintained. Consequently, that is a limiting factor for how large a social group or tribe can become. Our early human ancestors solved this problem by inventing imagined orders. Early religions and social practices allowed groups and tribes to adopt customs and beliefs that everyone could (more or less) agree to. This set the foundation for human institutions to order life without resulting to violence (at least not all the time). As far as we have come in terms of technology and our knowledge about ourselves and our universe, we still rely on imagined orders to keep our society in order without resulting to violence and genocide.
 
 
When writing about imagined orders and using the concept of human rights as an example, Harari writes, “we believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.” Whether the order we believe in is the Divine Right of Kings, human rights, capitalism, or whatever you want to call the economic and political system of modern China, there is no objective truth and reality at the heart of the system. There are ideas and concepts that are intuitive, that are agreeable to some extent of the population over a certain range of circumstances, and that help people live and cooperate within a society. Without imagined orders we wouldn’t be able to trust strangers, wouldn’t be able to coordinate actions, and wouldn’t be able to exist in complex societies. Imagined orders help us construct a world where we can live together in a mostly peaceful and cooperative manner. We can change what we believe and why over time, but we need to have some agreed upon and (mostly) accepted imagined order around which we can organize ourselves and our societies.
Cooperation Through Beliefs in Common Myths

Cooperation Through Beliefs in Common Myths

“Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. Outside of insects, and I don’t know enough to write any thoughts on insects, it is rare to see any animals cooperating in large groups of more than a few dozen individuals. There is evidence that ancient human tribes used to consist of upwards of 150 to 250 individuals, and those large tribes were outliers within the animal world. Few animals cooperate in large groups, and outside humans (and those insects I don’t understand) no animals effectively cooperate across millions or billions of individuals. Many animals migrate together and schools of fish will swim together, but they seem to largely be moving and reacting to the world around them as a pack, and not deliberately coordinating their efforts and actions in a social manner.
As social beings, humans have figured out how to coordinate actions and lives together between huge numbers of individuals. As Harari’s quote suggests, we have done this largely through the invention of myths. The myths which hold us together come in a lot of varieties. We have had myths about deities, myths about certain family lineages, and myths about special objects that can be used as trade. Myths create stories that we can build upon to form trust between each other. They help us establish institutions that can be used as the foundation for modern societies. Myths allow us to invent something that didn’t exist before, doesn’t truly exist in the real world, and make it real across the minds of billions of people so that we can orient ourselves and our action accordingly.
The kinds of myths that Harari discusses, and that I reference above, are not just myths about gods and creators of the universe. Those myths exist and can clearly give humans the feeling that they have a reason for existing, but we also have more tangible myths that drive our society. Harari compares modern corporations, humans rights, and nations, and currencies to myths. The company you work for isn’t a real thing, it is just an organization that we agree exists because it has a name and because some employees come together to organize their efforts under that name. The organization pays you money that isn’t tangible. Even if you take physical money out of the bank, that money isn’t useful on its own. We rely on and believe in myths about corporations and currencies, and those myths consequentially help us live in a complex world. Going even further, Harari explains that even nations are little more than myths. There is no clear reason why the United States has to exist between what we call Canada and what we call Mexico. We all agree that it does exist, but only because history has decided it does. And if you take an American, who has human rights that the government and society has decided exist, and autopsy them, you won’t find human rights. They don’t exist the way a stomach or liver exist, they are myths that help us organize our society.
Humans have large brains and create myths. Because we do, we are able to live in huge numbers, coordinating the actions, movements, and behaviors of humans across the globe. Myths are in some ways a super power that has allowed humans to become the most powerful species on the planet.
The Illusion of Free Will & Soccer

The Illusion of Free Will & Soccer

My previous post was about post-action rationalization, the idea that we often do things at an instinctual level and then apply a rationalization to them upon reflection, after the action has been completed. Our rationalization sounds logical and supports the idea that we have free will, that our decision was based on specific factors we identified, and that we consciously chose to do something. An understanding of post-action rationalization helps reveal the illusion of free will.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl uses the example of a soccer player to demonstrate how post-action rationalization works. The soccer player reacts to situations in the game as they develop. They don’t do complex math to calculate the best angle to kick a ball, they don’t paus to work out the probability of successfully scoring a goal based on passing to one player over another, and they don’t pause to think about all the alternatives available to them in any given moment. Their minds pick up on angles, speeds, past experiences, and other unknown factors unique to each situation and players respond instinctively, without conscious thought guiding how they move and what choices they make. According to Pearl, this instinctive and intuitive processing should challenge the idea that we have free will. It should challenge the idea that we consciously chose our actions and behaviors and cause us to think that we respond to situations without a real knowledge of why we are responding. Nevertheless, we all feel that we have free will, even if we know the feeling described in the sporting event example.
This illusion of free will has some benefits. Pearl writes, “the illusion of free will gives us the ability to speak about our intents and to subject them to rational thinking, possibly using counterfactual logic.” Free will helps us talk about the stimuli around us and how we respond to them, and it helps us by providing reinforcements for outcomes that go well and admonishment for outcomes that should be avoided in the future. It is useful by creating a sense of agency and feedback between us.
Pearl continues, “I would conjecture, then, that a team of robots would play better soccer if they were programmed to communicate as if they had free will. No matter how technically proficient the individual robots are at soccer, their team’s performance will improve when they can speak to each other as if they are not preprogrammed robots but autonomous agents believing they have options.”
As artificial intelligence and robotic capabilities progress Pearl may come to regret this quote. However, it is a helpful lens to apply to human evolution and how we arrived at our current mental states. Matter arranged itself to become self-reproducing and eventually became self-observant. By being able to attribute agency and free will to its own actions, matter became even better at self-replicating and self-preserving. This is the argument that Pearl ultimately makes through his soccer analogy. Robots might in the future be the most proficient at soccer without a sense of self, but at least at times in human history we have been served well by our illusion of free will. It has helped us organize and collaborate in complex social and political societies, and it has helped us work together to create the world we now inhabit. Free will may not truly exist, but the illusion of free will has helped us do everything from play soccer to launch satellites so that we can watch other people play soccer from the other side of the planet.

The Benefits of Joining a Choir?

I have never been much of a singer, and the last memory I have of singing in a group (besides a happy birthday here or there) is from elementary school, when I got in trouble and had a parent teacher conference with my mother and the music teacher because I was inserting inappropriate lyrics into the song You Are My Sunshine (I’ll let you guess what kind of lyrics a fourth grade boy came up with for that one on your own).

 

Public singing, however, might be something that is really good for human beings, especially when done in a group. Dan Pink highlights the benefits of choral singing in his book When, “The research on the benefits of singing in groups is stunning. Choral singing calms heart rates and boosts endorphin levels. It improves lung function. It increases pain thresholds and reduces the need for pain medication. It even alleviates symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Group singing – not just performances but also practices – increases the production of immunoglobulin, making it easier to fight infections. In fact, cancer patients who sing in choirs show and improved immune response after just one rehearsal.”

 

That is a huge range of benefits from something as simple as just singing in tune and rhythm with other people. Pink presents the study in his book when talking about synchronicity with other people. He also highlights rowing competitions and the benefits that individuals receive when working in concert with other people. Being part of a group engaged in a singular activity and actively synchronizing your physical body in time with others seems to be something that brings humans a lot of benefits.

 

When specifically looks at choirs and row teams, but I would not be surprised if you saw similar benefits from people who run together in groups, play Hungry Hungry Hippos together, or engage in flash mob dances. I would expect that anything involving social interactions and coordination among people will begin to build the types of health benefits that researchers have found with choral singing. Physical activities probably boost our health more than board games, but I would not be surprised if studies of social board games would show reduced stress and improved physical health markers as well.

 

I think this is an under-explored area, especially in the United States. We really like our individual super heroes, who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. We subscribe to the Great Man of History view and if you look at this year’s presidential election you will see arguments from the Democrats about which candidate is the one who can deliver and unseat the current president, but you won’t hear arguments about who can bring together the best team of thinkers and policy makers. Our country, with a foundation of Protestant work-ethic and a capitalistic culture that tells you that you can purchase everything to make your life fulfilling, is stuck on individual interventions and choices to health and happiness.

 

Choral singing and rowing and Hungry Hungry Hippos (ok no research on that last one) shows us that we need groups and benefit from social interactions and synchronicity. Despite the way we think about ourselves and our role in society in the United States, we depend on others and when we coordinate with social groups, we feel better. My suspicion is that any research into the health benefits of activities done socially will yield positive health results. This is an area we should explore more broadly, and in our individual lives, I believe we all need to take more steps to join choirs, do our exercising with other people when we can, and set up our own Hungry Hungry Hippo board game groups. It is not just our individual selves who will benefit and who need these groups, but all of society.

Ground Level Problem Solving

Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, in their 2017 book The New Localism, argue that problem solving and policy solutions to our pressing problems will not be found at the national level as we move forward, but rather at the local level. Large, established, and nationalized organizations will be less able to take on the problems of our new economy and evolving societies, but smaller, more responsive, and more local organizations and arrangements can address these challenges.

 

The authors write, “problem solving close to the ground rather than policy-making from a remote national or state capital has the tangible benefit of customization. A local solution can be a more efficient use of resources since it is more aligned with the distinctive needs of a particular place.”

 

Cities and states across the nation have competing and conflicting problems. What might be a major challenge in your city may not be a problem at all in another city. The solutions that would work to address a problem in your city might be completely ineffective someplace else. Economic structures, environmental concerns, resources, and human capital will all shape how a problem can be addressed, and every city and metropolitan region in the nation has a different mix of these variables to use to address challenges.

 

Even within a state, conditions can be drastically different from one region or county to another. I live in Reno, Nevada, and we are having major housing challenges as we receive an influx of companies and employees from the Bay Area in California. Our housing challenges, and the resources we have to address our problem is completely different than the problems being faced in Las Vegas. Introducing policy on a state level to address the issues we face in Reno may cause entirely different problems in Las Vegas housing markets.

 

If you are not going to address problems purely with policy from a state legislature or from Congress, then you need to address problems with local stakeholders and organizations. This includes philanthropic organizations who can back projects that don’t have a clear ROI and would be risky for a government agency to support. Local problem solving also includes local businesses and organizations that can coordinate and align on development goals. Public agencies have a role to play by ensuring that expertise and resources are being used in a way that is consistent with state law and policy. Each group of actors can help coordinate and push different parts of the solutions that individually they could not propel forward. This is what allows local problem solving to be efficient, effective, and innovative in tackling today’s problems.

Defining New Leadership

Leaders today are not what we have always thought of. Both in public spheres and in private businesses, leaders are those who can pull lots of strings together, without being a commanding drill sergeant type of personality. When I think back on historical leaders that influenced and shaped the world, I think of dictators who took control of their land and directed society in their own way. I  think of pharaohs who ruled over their subjects and drove them to great accomplishments. However, today’s leaders are flexible, inspiring visionaries of what we can be as a collective, rather than generals who drive society toward their own aim.

 

In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write about this new form of leadership and what it means in our new economies and new governance structures, “The exercise of power is also not what it used to be. The ability to get things done has shifted from command-and-control systems to the collective efforts of civil society, government, and private institutions. It is vested in an affected by leaders and institutions that convert market and civic power into fiscal, financial, and political power.”

 

In order to get things done in today’s complex world, multiple factors have to come together. Government has to align with private actors and pro-social groups need to join to help fill the gaps where for profit businesses and public agencies cannot play a role. Leaders must understand the challenges that each of these groups face and find ways to build bridges between them. Leaders develop a shared goal of what is possible, but allow actors to find the path forward, without micromanaging everyone’s actions. In this way, there is no single individual who is calling all the shots. There is no system that drives all actors toward the same end. There are multiple goals, multiple desires, and multiple streams to reach various ends. Leadership’s role is one of coordination, working to figure out what each actor wants, who has the ability to push for new directions, and finding ways to get actors to mesh together, make compromises, and align on plans for the future.

Norms and Productive Coordination

In my previous post I wrote about wasteful competition that occurs between animals within the same species, including us humans. To try to be impressive, we do a lot of things that are relatively wasteful. We might spend hours and hours focusing on developing a single skill, some animals will spend lots of time building an impressive dwelling, and some animals grow brightly colored plumage that puts them at risk of being seen by prey and requires energy to maintain. All of these examples are things that are done to impress others, attract a mate, and pass along our genes.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson wrote about this phenomenon in The Elephant in the Brain, and they also wrote about a phenomenon that goes in the other direction, productive coordination. The authors write, “humans are different. Unlike the rest of nature, we can sometimes see ahead and coordinate to avoid unnecessary competition. This is one of our species’ super powers – that we’re occasionally able to turn wasteful competition into productive cooperation.”

 

The method that we follow to get to productive cooperation the authors call norms. We are all familiar with norms and know what they are, even if we don’t recognize most of the norms around us and can’t perfectly define what norms are. Rules are the laws, guidelines, and standards that we follow in our day to day lives. Some are written down and formalized. Some have strict and explicit penalties if violated, and some are unwritten, a bit fuzzy, and sometimes don’t include obvious consequences when violated.

 

I find norms interesting in the context of Simler and Hanson’s book because they show the ways we get to well functioning societies with fewer costly and wasteful externalities from our signaling and self-interested behaviors. Norms create a way for us to compete with each other without having to go to war with every person who might have a higher status, greater wealth, or more social and political power than we have. Many norms help all of us, as a group, function a bit better together even if they get in the way of our individual self-interest from time to time. In many ways, norms are what create the elephant in the brain.

 

The idea that our self-interest is constantly at work, hiding in plain sight and influencing our behavior while being consciously ignored comes about because of norms. We have many unwritten rules against openly bragging about ourselves and against openly disregarding others in the pursuit of our self-interest. If we did not have norms that made us feel guilty, that caused people to look down upon us, and that isolated us socially when we bulldozed our way toward the things we wanted, then we would have no reason to hide our self-interested motives and we would openly and directly compete for the things we want. Norms shape our lives by defining acceptable behaviors, and they limit our direct pursuit of our self-interest to cut out some wasteful and damaging behaviors while pushing us to be more cooperative and peaceful.