I just heard a fascinating TED talk, due to the recommendation of a friend. The young Israeli historian Yuval Harari gives a short and fascinating account of how human beings, of all creatures, rose to rule the world. The talk is reportedly a shortened version of his book Sapiens, which I have not yet read. The book is widely praised as not only historically astute but also deeply philosophical. I’m no historian, so I can’t judge that. I think his talk showed some interesting psychological and anthropological insight, but that it also displayed some overly simplistic and sloppy philosophy. We need to be able to disentangle the two.
Harari claims that we’re able to do two things that other species can’t manage. We can organize ourselves to work together (1) flexibly, and (2) on a large scale. Ant and bees can organize on a large scale, but their behavior seems determined, and not flexible in any robust sense. They don’t ever decide to displace the Queen and substitute a democratic form of governance, for example. They do what they’ve always done. Other species, like chimpanzees, can do things together flexibly, but not on a large scale. Harari gives the example of filling a large stadium with 100,000 people who come together in an orderly way to watch an event, as juxtaposed to what chaos would result with 100,000 chimpanzees in the same space.
He then claims that we are able to do both these things because of the power of the imagination. He says we imagine a God and a heaven with rewards after death for good behavior during life, and get a lot of people to believe this imaginative conception, and thereby bring about large scale order and cooperation. He calls any such story an imaginative fiction that brings people together. In his talk, he contrasts realities like a banana or a coconut or a mountain with what he calls the fictions that allow us to live in a distinctively human way. Another big example is what he calls the fiction of money. We are told that a dollar bill or a hundred dollar bill has value, and we all accept this fiction, and that’s what allows modern economies to work. We also buy into another fiction that people have rights, natural human rights, and that’s what allows modern democracies to work. But, Harari vividly and imaginatively suggests, cut open a human body and you’ll find a brain and a heart and lungs, but no human rights. Rights are a fiction, he says. But when enough of us accept the story, we can organize and do things we couldn’t otherwise have done. Chimps don’t buy into fictions. They deal with realities. But that severely constrains their possibilities.
Many others have talked about “the social construction of reality.” The great sociologist Peter Berger was the first I ever read on this topic, in his book of the same name. We do spin out stories, simple or elaborate narratives to make sense of the world and our lives, and when we come to believe them, that helps us live and work together in new ways. But why call these stories fictions? Harari’s examples seem to indicate that he accepts as realities only things that are manifest to the five physical senses, like human body parts, bananas, and mountains. But what of the postulated entities of physics that account for the manifest realities around us? What of the realities discerned by animals with senses other than ours? What of such things as love and friendship? Add up the manifest physical attributes of two people. Where is the friendship? Does it not exist? Is it a mere fiction? Why should our physical senses be in such a simplistic way the sole arbiters of reality? This isn’t science, at all, or even a sophisticated scientism, but what’s more widely known as a crude empiricism that we have no good reason to think is other than itself a fiction.
Does the imagination only invent? Or does it sometimes discover? Often, the advance of science and technology consists in someone, or many people, imagining something and then subsequently finding it to be true, or to be feasible because of what is now discovered to be true. The imagination in such cases seems to be as much an apparatus of discovery as of invention. It builds stories, yes, and in that sense, it fabricates. But are all its fabrications fictions? Of course not. The idea of a fiction, or a concocted falsehood that many people are somehow made to believe isn’t at all necessary or crucial for the story Harari is telling. Some of the imaginative narratives we tell bring us together to create conventions of usage, as in the case of money, and other stories may limn realities invisible to the crude senses on which we otherwise depend. Harari gives us no evidence or argument to the contrary. He merely asserts. But what might make us suppose that's ever been a reliable path of discovery, or a good sign of truth?
When we do think flexibly and on a large scale, we discover logic and the many dynamics of evidence assessment related to truth. And we come to see that assumptions like those Harari makes are more than merely questionable. They’re simply indefensible. Unless you want to think like a chimp.
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