Necessary Fictions, Their Sources and Utility

The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which can be Used as a Table, Salvador Dali. 1934.

Stumbled upon a fascinating TED talk this morning, by Yuval Noah Harari, entitled What explains the rise of humans? In a nutshell, his thesis is that we alone, among all the species on earth, are capable of flexible cooperation in large numbers, and that the chief galvanizing force behind this is our ability to create and believe in fictions. 

His recent book is now on my must-read list: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. From the author’s website:

Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.
Starting from this provocative idea, Sapiens goes on to retell the history of our species from a completely fresh perspective. It explains that money is the most pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised; that capitalism is the most successful religion ever invented; that the treatment of animals in modern agriculture is probably the worst crime in history; and that even though we are far more powerful than our ancient ancestors, we aren’t much happier.

In a recent post, I talked about the Paris Commune (1871) and how the early Russian evolutionists had a different view of things than Western Darwinists in that era. Harari’s talk doesn’t deal with that historical period directly, but I thought it fit overall. Under the rubric of our created and creative fictions, we’ve been led to believe that life is struggle, that competition, not cooperation, drives us, and that we survive because we see this. Ironically, it takes cooperation to maintain this particular fiction — both between rulers and the ruled, and among the ruled. It takes cooperation for us to settle upon unifying fictions, good, bad and indifferent. Without that cooperation the fictions die. Harari’s thesis is that we’re the only species which creates them in the first place, and our ability to flexibly believe in things that don’t exist defines us and our dominance. It makes sense that this flexibility is a major strength, especially if we’re able to see through those fictions, but a major curse if we can’t, if we hold onto them beyond their expiry date.

Fictions that once held millions together have vanished. Belief in old gods, old visions of the world, of empires, of the heavens, of the centrality of earth and human life, have faded away or disappeared entirely. But the creation of new fictions follows immediately upon the heels of the vanished, and all too often we actually believe our new fictions are factual and a major leap forward on the road to aletheia. Unlike those poor sods who believed in gods and goddesses, or the divine right of kings, we finally have it right — with our one god, our money, our nation-states, our conception of “democracy.” While there are certainly major benefits to cooperative, flexible belief, this can and often does lead to untold hubris and arrogance as well.

It also strikes me as ironic that we recognize novels, movies, TV shows and so on as “fiction,” and can laugh at our fellow humans who get too caught up in them, to the point where they seem to believe they’re real. Meanwhile, the same people who can see that a novel is a novel is a novel, can’t see that our religions, economic systems, nation-states and “natural rights” are also all works of fiction, for good or ill. Harari in his talk likes to contrast us with chimpanzees, and he would say of the above that chimps wouldn’t be able to understand the difference between our art and the rest. To the chimp, none of it would be “reality.” None of it would be concrete.

My favorite American poet, Wallace Stevens, had many things to say on the subject of truth:

“Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor.”
“Death is the mother of beauty. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.”
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
“The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.”
“The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.”

As an artist and writer, I (obviously) love that we create and keep creating. But I long for the day when humans recognize all of their fictional production for what it is, and that we can narrow down the list. As life gets more and more complex, it seems our production of necessary fictions grows along with it. For us to become far less dangerous to each other and the planet, we’re going to need to radically reduce them.


Necessary Fictions, Their Sources and Utility
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