Fiction - The Foundation of our Social Structure

 Patrick Quanten


Forming relationships is not a privilege of humankind. Lots of animals live in communities too and these communities have very strict structures based on a hierarchy, a ranking order within the group. When we compare the size of such groups that exists in other mammals then there is a striking difference between mammals and humans in the sheer size of those communities. Mammals only live in small intimate groups of about 50 individuals on average, with large herds only arising under very specific conditions like migration and resulting in a lot of conflicts. This is in sharp contrast of humans who are, apparently, capable of living together in cities with millions of inhabitants, operating as one unit.

In natural communities the ties between coalition members are based on intimate daily contact which involves hugging, touching, kissing, grooming and mutual favours. Members of such a group spend a lot of time together. They share food and help one another in times of trouble. This means that in order for such a group to function all members must know each other intimately so that they are  able to rely on one another. It is easy to see that when the size of this kind of group, society, increases it will destabilize the group and in nature we observe, under these condition, very often a split into two separate groups. Separate groups, however, tend to compete for food and territory.

Similar patterns probably dominated the social lives of early humans, which resulted in small intimate groups. Here also a group would split when it became too large. even when a fertile valley could feed 500 humans, there is no way that so many strangers could live together in harmony. There would be constant disagreement over who would be leader, who could mate with whom, or who was allowed to hunt, and a democratic or other process to make those decisions had not yet been 'invented'. For a larger size community to establish itself and to thrive we need something else, and that something else is the ability to gossip.

All living organisms communicate. They share information about their surroundings, about food supplies and dangers. However, for human beings it does not suffice to share information about the immediate and real dangers such as the presence of lions or other predatory animals, but they also needed to share information about who can be trusted, who is honest and who cheats. These new linguistic skills, acquired by human beings, enabled them to gossip for hours, to talk behind someone's back, to talk about someone I don't know. Sharing this kind of information allowed groups to become larger because humans could now develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation. They can share the information about other members capabilities and worthiness without personally having to know that individual. But also, now we have introduced the ability to transmit information about things that do not exists at all! And as far as we know only human beings can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled. Here lies the seed for legends and myths.

It's relatively easy to agree that only humans can speak about things that don't really exist. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. This distinction is extremely important and constitutes a potentially dangerous condition as fiction can be misleading and distracting. And another important difference is that fiction enables us not merely to imagine things but to do so collectively. It allows us to cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers who believe the same stories. Nations of strangers join up to support "their" national sports team. Charity events bring people together because they all believe the story behind the charity such as the story that a particular approach to cancer is the best one or that a specific way of suffering can be alleviated with one specific approach to the problem. We accept from a total stranger a piece of paper with a value printed on it (money) in exchange for some real goods because we believe that others will believe in the value of that piece of paper too.

But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum natural size of a group is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, or gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings. Even today, a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere around this magic number. Below this threshold communities, businesses and social networks can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance and rumour mongering. There is no need for formal ranking, titles and law books to keep order. In our modern networking life of face-book and twitter mayhem breaks out when opinions and belief systems within a much larger group clash. Hence, when that threshold is crossed things can no longer work in the same way. So how did humans manage to cross this critical threshold in order to establish cities of tens of thousands or even millions of inhabitants or to found nations of hundreds of millions of people all ruled by the same laws? The answer we find is the emergence of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully as long as they believe in common myths.

Any large scale human cooperation is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imagination. Two people who don't know each other at all can meet and work together for a common purpose when they believe in the same thing, be it in God created human beings, or in being members of a common nation or a common judicial system. The reality, however, is that there are no angels in heaven, no nations, no money, no human rights, no human laws outside the imagination of human beings. We laugh about primitive tribes believing in ghosts and spirits and all joining up to worship but modern men are doing exactly the same, only their tales are even stranger.

A company that manufactures things, distributes them across the world, gains financial benefits but none of those actions is the actual company. The products are not the company because if we scrap all products at once then the company will still exist. It would continue to manufacture products. Everything the company owns, such as machinery, factories and retail outlets, and everybody they employ does not comprise the company. When all employees are wiped out by some freak disaster and all factories with everything in it are destroyed and no retail outlets are left standing, the company could borrow money, hire new employees, build new factories and start again. The company did not disappear. The board of directors does not constitute the company. They can be replaced without the company disappearing.  And the other way around. If a judge were to order the dissolution of the company all their factories and outlets would remain and all their employees, shareholders and accountants and managers would continue to live, whilst the company will have vanished. A company is nothing more than a figment of our collective imagination. It is like a child's imaginary friend. A company, as an example, is not a physical object but it exists as a legal entity. It can do the same things any person can, living in that particular country, and it is bound by the same laws of that country. The fiction of a company falls under the term 'limited liability companies' which ensures that an individual no longer has to take responsibility for his or her personal actions as now the company becomes legally responsible. People began to imagine these companies in order to escape personal liability as this did not encourage people to start up businesses and engage in trading. If something went wrong you were personally responsible and were in danger of losing everything you had in compensation for the victim. We collectively imagine these companies, give them legal status, and make them come alive.

This has been done before. Priests and sorcerers have created gods and demons and the power lies in making others believe in it. For instance, if a Catholic priest dressed in the right garments, solemnly spoke the right words at the right time, mundane bread and cheap wine magically turned into the flesh and blood of Christ. Collective imagination makes people join together around that belief. Telling effective stories, however, is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story but in convincing everyone else to believe it.

An imagined reality is not a lie, let's be clear about this. Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something everybody believes in, which allows this reality to exert a force, to mean something, in the world, for as long as this communal belief persists. Most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money and in limited liability companies. Most human-rights activists sincerely believe in the existence of human rights. All of this means that we are living in a dual reality. First there is the objective reality of forests and lakes and bears, and secondly, there is the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. Over time the imagined reality has taken over in importance and the survival of even the objective reality now depends on imagined entities like the United Nations, Unicef, Google or the World Health Organisation.

Since large scale human cooperation is based on myths and stories, the way people behave can be altered by changing those stories. The behaviour of other animals is determined mainly by their genes and to a lesser degree by their learned behaviour. Humans can change their behaviour very quickly because the influence of the outside environment is far greater than the genetic influence. Human behaviour is for the most part determined not by genes but by learned behaviour. When most of the human environment becomes an imagined world these changes can happen very quickly by altering the stories and the common imagined world. Within a couple of decades humans have been able to transform their social structures, the nature of their interpersonal relationships, their economics and a whole host of other behaviours. Consider the impact of trading.

Trade may seem a very pragmatic activity, one that does not need a fictive basis. Yet trade cannot exist without trust and it is difficult to trust strangers. The global trade network of today is based on our trust in such fictional entities as currencies, banks and corporations.

The immense diversity of imagined realities that humans invented, which resulted in a wide variety of behavioural patterns, are the main components of what we call cultures. Cultures never cease to change and develop because of alterations to the stories they are built on. Comparing humans and mammals on a one to one basis or in small groups it is clear that we don't differ that much. We are animals and still exude our animalistic behaviour pattern but when we look at much larger groups the differences are astounding. Packed together, humans create orderly patterns like trade networks, mass celebrations and political institutions held together by a mythical glue. Mammals simply fight for space, for food and to procreate.

In contrast, a natural order is a stable order, independent of belief systems. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. An imagined order, however, is always in danger of collapsing because it depends upon myths and myths vanish when people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts to maintain and feed the myth are imperative. Some of these efforts may take the shape of violence and coercion. Fighting groups such as police force and armies, backed by a judicial system of courts and prisons, are ceaselessly at work forcing people to comply and to act in accordance with the imagined order. However, such an order cannot be sustained by violence alone. It also requires some hardcore believers. Of all human collective activities the one most difficult to organise is violence. It is impossible to organise an efficient army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must believe passionately in something the violence is suppose to defend, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money. A more efficient way is education. From the moment of birth onwards you bombard the new arrival with information that creates the kind of world you would like them to believe in. Schools, from primary to university, are the most effective way of shaping and maintaining the imagined order. In other circumstances we call this propaganda and advertising and we are urged not to believe that information. The only reason one kind of information is seen as truth and the other as fiction is because we believe them to be different. We believe in one imagined reality and another group of human beings believe in an other imagined reality. The truth is that both are fiction!

How do you get people to believe in an imagined order? First of all, never admit that the order is an imagination. You act as if the order is sustaining an objective reality created by gods or by the laws of nature. So you consider people to be equal not because it is written in the constitution by the founding fathers but because you maintain that God created them equal. You consider free markets to be the best economic system because you state that these are the immutable laws of nature. Then you will have to educate people strictly according to these 'truths'. From birth onwards you constantly remind them of the principles of the imagined order, which you incorporate in anything and everything. On top of that, you organise humanities and social sciences to devote most of their energy to explaining exactly how the imagined order is woven into the tapestry of life. There are three main reasons that prohibit people from realising that the order organising their lives exists only in their imagination (according to Yuval Harari):

 1.     The imagined order is embedded in the material world: Our belief in individualism is expressed in classroom teaching, in architecture and art.

 2.     The imagined order shapes our desires: We are born into a pre-existing imagined order, that shapes our desires from birth.

 3.     The imagined order is inter-subjective: It exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. 

In the end, a company exists in the shared imagination of millions of people. Similarly, the dollar, human rights, the United Kingdom and medical treatments exist in the shared imagination of billions and no single individual can threaten their existence. Not a single person who stops believing in these things will make one iota of difference to the world of the imagined order. The reason is that these imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people. It is only doubt about the truth of an imagined reality that will begin the natural process of changing the imagined reality. You can see the world we live in as a giant advertising bowl. Everything they tell us is advertising, is making us believe a certain reality. Just the fact that someone tells us should be your clue. That, in fact, is an opinion, not a fact. Believing in opinions as if they are a natural objective reality is the beginning of the collective illusion. And simply because our lives are now dominated by what we have been taught to believe, what they have made us believe, there is no real way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and create freedom for ourselves, we are in fact simply replacing one fiction for another, albeit a larger spaced one.

Finding the objective reality again will involve you personally experiencing life in all its facets and only believing what you yourself have learned from your own experiences. Downsizing is an essential part of beginning the process of separating truth from fiction. Simplifying life, stripping it down its bare essentials will you give more opportunities to find bits that belong in the objective reality of nature.




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