You might argue that at least in some cases, it is possible to organise people effectively through consensual agreements rather than through fictions and myths. Thus in the economic sphere, money and corporations bind people together far more effectively than any god or holy book, even though everyone knows that they are just a human convention.
In the case of a holy book, a true believer would say “I believe that the book is sacred” while in the case of the dollar, a true believer would say only that “I believe that other people believe that the dollar is valuable”. It is obvious that the dollar is just a human creation, yet people all over the world respect it. If so, why can’t humans abandon all myths and fictions, and organise themselves on the basis of consensual conventions such as the dollar?
Such conventions, however, are not clearly distinct from fiction. The difference between holy books and money, for example, is far smaller than it may seem at first sight.
When most people see a dollar bill, they forget that it is just a human convention. As they see the green piece of paper with the picture of the dead white man, they see it is as something valuable in and of itself. They hardly ever remind themselves “Actually, this is a worthless piece of paper, but because other people view it as valuable, I can make use of it.”
If you observe a human brain in an fMRI scanner, you would see that as someone is presented with a suitcase full of hundred-dollar bills, the parts of the brain that start buzzing with excitement are not the sceptical parts (“Other people believe this is valuable”) but rather the greedy parts (“Holy shit! I want this!”). Conversely, in the vast majority of cases people begin to sanctify the Bible or the Vedas or the Book of Mormon only after long and repeated exposure to other people who view it as sacred. We learn to respect holy books in exactly the same way we learn to respect currency bills.
Hence in practice there is no strict division between “knowing that something is just a human convention” and “believing that something is inherently valuable”. In many cases, people are ambiguous or forgetful about this division. To give another example, if you sit down and have a deep philosophical discussion about it, almost everybody would agree that corporations are fictional stories created by human beings.
Microsoft isn’t the buildings it owns, the people it employs or the shareholders it serves – rather, it is an intricate legal fiction woven by lawmakers and lawyers. Yet for 99 per cent of the time, we aren’t engaged in deep philosophical discussions, and we treat corporations as if they were real entities in the world, just like tigers or humans.
Blurring the line between fiction and reality can be done for many purposes, starting with “having fun” and going all the way to “survival”.
You cannot play games or read novels unless you suspend disbelief at least for a little while. To really enjoy football, you have to accept the rules of the game, and forget for at least ninety minutes that they are merely human inventions. If you don’t, you will think it utterly ridiculous for twenty-two people to go running after a ball.
Football may begin with just having fun, but it can then become far more serious stuff, as any English hooligan or Argentinian nationalist will attest. Football can help formulate personal identities, it can cement large-scale communities, and it can even provide reasons for violence. Nations and religions are football clubs on steroids.
Humans have this remarkable ability to know and not to know at the same time. Or more correctly, they can know something when they really think about it, but most of the time they don’t think about it, so they don’t know it. If you really focus, you realise that money is fiction. But usually you don’t focus. If you are asked about it, you know that football is a human invention. But in the heat of the match, nobody asks you about it.
If you devote the time and energy, you can discover that nations are elaborate yarns. But in the midst of a war you don’t have the time and energy. If you demand the ultimate truth, you realise that the story of Adam and Eve is a myth. But how often do you demand the ultimate truth?
Truth and power can travel together only so far.
Sooner or later they go their separate ways. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power. You will have to admit things – for example about the sources of your own power – that will anger allies, dishearten followers or undermine social harmony.
Scholars throughout history faced this dilemma: do they serve power or truth? Should they aim to unite people by making sure everyone believes in the same story, or should they let people know the truth even at the price of disunity? The most powerful scholarly establishments – whether of Christian priests, Confucian mandarins or communist ideologues – placed unity above truth. That’s why they were so powerful.
As a species, humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it – and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it. Therefore, if you dream of a society in which truth reigns supreme and myths are ignored, you have little to expect from Homo sapiens. Better try your luck with chimps.
Excerpted with permission from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari, Jonathan Cape.
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