Accepting Imaginary Orders

Accepting Imaginary Orders

“Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a preexisting imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. There is an incredibly wide range of possibilities for how we could live our lives. Throughout history, humans have lived in many different ways – in small tribal bands on tropical islands, in kingdoms ruled by divinely anointed tyrants, and in large cities across representative democracies. Truly thinking about why people have lived in such different ways and how it would be best for people to live today is difficult. It is much easier to accept the imagined order that directs modern society than to constantly question every decision and every possible way of life.

However, none of us want to appear as though we simply accept the way things are and only marginally change the world around us for a better fit. We want to believe that we have agency, that we chose to live in the world the way it is, and that the society that our families exist within are not organized in a random way, but are organized by rational and reasonable principals. We want to believe that we are constantly striving for a better way of living and that we have carefully thought through what needs to be done to reach the best social and economic order possible for humans.

There is substantial evidence to suggest that Harari is correct, and that we accept the myths we are born into rather than reach conclusions about the nature of reality and society after careful consideration and investigation. Most people adopt the religious or political beliefs of their family. This isn’t to discount people as unthinking or uncritical, but instead it demonstrates that there are many pressures and advantages to maintaining beliefs that are consistent with ones family. Additionally, terms such as conservative or liberal really don’t have any meaning. People do not have a consistent answer for what those terms mean, and it is easy to take those terms and demonstrate that many items within the platforms of Republicans, Democrats, and random people from the street seem to contradict the ideas of conservatism or liberalism.

It is much more plausible that people are signaling to the dominant group of their time and trying to fit in than to assume people are carefully thinking about the order that guides their societies and lives. The evidence does not suggest people are actively choosing how to live or what order to support based on careful judgment. It does happen, however most of us accept the myths we are born into and are ultimately shaped by those myths. Our lives are organized and our actions our mobilized by myths such as religious ideas, political systems, human rights, and other institutions that we may not even be aware of.

Imagined Orders Versus Natural Orders

Imagined Orders Versus Natural Orders

Imagined orders are myths that we agree upon and uphold through our actions and beliefs. There is no clear or objective basis to an imagined order to which everyone can agree at all times. Often, imagined orders exist on a continuum with numerous caveats and carve-outs as needed to maintain order and stability. They help shape our institutions and societies by creating a sense of common understanding and accepted beliefs and behaviors.
 
 
Natural orders, on the other hand, are the basis of the scientific theories and observations that humans can make. No matter where we are on the planet we can make the same observations of the speed of light, of protons and electrons, or of gravity. An important distinction is that natural orders exist whether we believe in them or want them to exist. Imagined orders only exist when we believe in them and want them to exist. Yuval Noah Harari describes it this way in his book Sapiens,
 
 
“A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that 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.”
 
 
We can ignore natural order, pretend it isn’t there, and abandon trust and belief in the scientific institutions that deliver knowledge regarding natural orders, but that doesn’t make the natural order itself go away. However, this is something that has occurred throughout human history with our imagined orders. The divine right of kings to rule is an institution that has been discredited and largely abandoned across the globe, but at one time was a powerful institution. Similarly, Roman and Greek religions were abandoned and were left for me to study in English class in high school as mythical stories. The myths which held the Soviet Union together also failed and were abandoned. Once a myth is no longer accepted, it is easily rejected as little more than fiction.
 
 
Harari argues that this fragility of myths is what drives us toward constant vigilance and ritual surrounding myths. Our judges wear long robes to appear more wise to help give credibility to their decisions. We hold large official and serious investigations around events such as the January 6th riot at the US Capitol to help preserve our electoral system. We play the national anthem ahead of sporting events to remind everyone of the fiction of our Nation. The reality, however, is that judges only have authority if we all recognize and agree that their words and declarations are important. Determining what was a violent riot and what was an impassioned plea for freedom can depend on perspective (though when it comes to January 6th and how objectively awful Trump was this one doesn’t seem defensible). And the United States isn’t a real thing. There is no clear reason why our country exists in the exact place that it does – indeed at one point the same territory existed but it was not the United States.
 
 
This doesn’t mean that these myths are bad or are not useful. They help us live our lives, cooperate, and coexist. They are useful fictions, even if they are fragile, built on little more than vague concepts and ideas, and require silly rituals like singing a special song before playing sports. 
Fiction as a Technology - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - Joe Abittan

Fiction As A Technology

In nerdy circles, on some podcasts and in discussions among people who look at the world in complex ways, you may hear people refer to human institutions as technologies. The idea is that human institutions are designed and created to help further specific goals, just as the things we typically think of as technologies are, such as cell phones and automatic coffee makers. Forms of governance, religions, and social organizations can all be thought of as technologies – they are tools we create to help us live as social creatures in complex societies. Through this lens, we can also view fictional stories as a technology.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari looks at fictions as a type of technology and explains how the evolution of the human brain and an increased capacity for language unlocked this technology. He writes:
“Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, careful! A Lion! Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, the lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe. This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens’ language.”
Fictions allow us to imagine things that don’t exist. It allows us to transmit ideas that are hard to put into concrete, real world terms and examples. Memes often exist in fictional form, transmitting through people once a critical mass has been reached. Myths, the show Friends, and concepts like the American Dream help us think about how we should live and behave. As Harari writes, “fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.”
Fiction as a technology functions as a type of social bond. We spend our time constantly creating fictions, imaging what is taking place inside another person’s head, what our future will look like if we do one thing rather than another, and what the world would look like if some of us had special powers. What is incredible about the human brain is that these fictions don’t just exist in isolation within individual brains. They are often shared, shaped, and constructed socially. We share fictions and can find meaning, belonging, and structures for living our lives through our shared fictions. The power of the mind to create fictional stories and to then live within collective fictions is immense, sometimes for the betterment of human life, and sometimes for the detriment.
Are Humans Really Hunters?

Are Humans Really Hunters?

One skill that I have is the ability to see the narrative in the way that people understand the world. I think there is some level of an objective reality in the world, but it is often hard to see and understand because we layer so many narratives together to define the reality around us. I think I do a pretty good job of seeing the narratives that people tell themselves and of understanding why people are attracted to certain narratives. One such narrative that I think deserves to be questioned is the idea that humankind are natural hunters, that we are apex animals, and as such, our men (in particular) should be dominant and should exercise their natural urge to hunt and kill.
This is a narrative that has lost a lot of appeal in the United States and other WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic – countries, but still has a lot of power. People who gravitate toward such a narrative tend to be described as more traditionally conservative than people who eschew such a label in cultures like ours. In other cultures across the globe, the narrative is still a lot stronger, and countries like China are cracking down against sissy men who seem to violate the narrative. But are humans natural hunters? Are we really such powerful apex predators with urges to hunt and kill? Yuval Noah Harari argues that this narrative doesn’t seem to fit the evidence and leading scientific thoughts on exactly where humans have fit within the food chain for most of our evolutionary past.
“Humans who lived a million years ago, despite their big brains and sharp stone tools, dwelt in constant fear of predators, rarely hunted large game, and subsisted mainly by gathering plants, scooping up insects, stalking small animals, and eating the carrion left behind by other more powerful carnivores,” writes Harari. What is important to note is that for humans, who date back about 2 million years, a majority of our evolutionary past was not spent at the top of the food chain. There was a very long evolutionary past where humans were vulnerable, and rarely did any hunting that we would like to associate with early humans if we hold the narrative of humans being natural hunters and the most powerful animal on the planet. Harari continues, “one of the most common uses of early stone tools was to crack open bones in order to get to the marrow.” For much of human evolution, we were more scavengers than hunters, waiting for more dangerous predators (lions, hyenas, and such) to clear a carcass before we came along with our smart brains, deft hands, and insightful tool use to access the bone marrow the animals couldn’t easily get to.
I think it reveals a lot to note that the narrative of man as tough, aggressive, hunter-killers is common, while the narrative of man as a ingenious scavenging coward is not a narrative that anyone adopts. It may be more accurate to say that we are clever and find ways to pick up the scraps that other animals left behind, but no one wants to view themselves or humans broadly as scavengers. No one considers it “natural” to eat road kill, yet many diets are based on eating “natural” caveman diets that are based around the idea of hunting and killing our food.
“Genus Homo‘s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all while being hunted by larger predators,” writes Harari. The idea that man needs to hunt, that men need to be aggressive and kill, and that our survival is dependent on how tough our men are, is largely a narrative. I realize I am leaving out inter-human conflict and combat, but at least in terms of what humans evolved to eat, it is more narrative than objective reality that we need to eat lots of meat and kill animals for our diets. Humans evolved as scavengers, and only recently jumped to the top of the food chain.
A Useful Myth

A Useful Myth

Autonomy, free will, and self-control combine to create a useful myth. The myth is that we control our own destinies, that we are autonomous actors with rights, freedoms, and the opportunity to improve our lives through our own effort. The reality is that the world is incredibly complex, that we don’t get to chose our genes, our parents, or the situations in life that we are born and raised within. A huge number of factors based on random chance and luck contribute to whether we are successful or not, but nevertheless, the belief that we are autonomous actors with control over our own free will is still a useful myth.

 

In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer writes, “people who report more internal control tend to fare better in life than those who don’t. They play a more active role in their communities, take better care of their health, and get better jobs. We may have no control about whether people find our clothes or skills or appearance attractive. But we do have control over internal goals such as acquiring languages, mastering a musical instrument, or taking responsibility for small children or our grandparents.”

 

This quote shows why the idea of internal control and agency is such a useful myth. If we believe we have the power to shape our lives for the better, then we seem to be more likely to work hard, persevere, and stretch for challenging goals. A feeling of helplessness, as though we don’t have control, likely leads to cynicism and defeatism. Why bother trying if you and your actions won’t determine the success or failure you experience in life?

 

This myth is at the heart of American meritocracy, but it is important to note that it does appear to be just a myth. EKGs can detect electrical activity in the brain and predict an action before a person becomes aware of a conscious desire to perform an action. Split brain experiments and the research of Kahneman and Tversky show that our brains are composed of multiple competing systems that almost amount to separate people and personalities all within our singular consciousness. And as I wrote earlier, luck is a huge determining factor in whether we have the skills and competencies for success, and whether we have a supportive environment and sufficient opportunities to master those skills.

 

Recently, on an episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia Galef interviewed Michael Sandel about our meritocracy. One fear that Sandel has about our system of meritocracy is that people who succeed by luck and chance believe that they succeeded because of special qualities or traits that they possess. Meanwhile, those who fail are viewed as having some sort of defect, a mindset that people who fail or live in poverty may come to believe is true and embrace, thus creating another avenue for defeatism to thrive.

 

If internal control is a useful myth, it is because it encourages action and flourishing for individuals. My solution therefore is to blend the two views, the view of internal agency and the view of external forces shaping the future we have. These are contradictory views on the surface, but I believe they can be combined and live in harmony (especially given the human ability to peacefully and ignorantly live with contradictory beliefs). We need to believe we have agency, but also believe that success is essentially a matter of luck and that we are dependent on society and others to reach great heights. This should encourage us to apply ourselves fully, but to be humble, and take steps to help ensure others can also apply themselves fully to reach greater levels of success. When people fail, we shouldn’t look at them as morally inept, as lacking skills and abilities, but as people who happened to end up in a difficult place. We should then take steps to help improve their situations and to give them more opportunities to find the space that fits their skills and abilities for growth and success. Internal control can still be a useful myth if we tie it to the right structures and systems to ensure everyone can use their agency appropriately and avoid the overwhelming crush of defeatism when things don’t go well.