Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, talks about the importance of making the effort to distinguish between reality and fiction.
In the UK and USA we’re seeing the rise of nationalism and intolerance, often driven by fake news stories and politicians skilled in psychological manipulation and repeating simplistic soundbites about building walls and being “strong and stable”.
In a wide-ranging discussion with Russell Brand, Harari points out that our realities are so saturated in stories that we may not recognise them for the man-made constructions that they are.
Understanding that many of our society’s stories are man-made is important for a number of reasons. One that Harari highlights is that advances in technology are leading to capitalism and humanism divorcing. Now that capitalism (a fiction) requires less people, it’s important that we recognise that our stories can be rewritten to avoid the destruction of millions of lives.
Yuval Noah Harari:
“All large scale human cooperation is based on shared fictions. Most obvious in the case of religion. If you want to get millions of people together to build a cathedral or a mosque you tell them a fictional story about god and heaven and so forth. As long as everybody believes the same story, everybody follows the same norms, the same values and then they can cooperate effectively. You couldn’t have large scale human cooperation without some shared fictions.”
“If you think about the political system then nations are just a fictional story. Nations have no physical or biological reality. They are not like a mountain or a tree or a river that you can actually see.”
“It’s the same in the economic field – with corporations and money. Money is probably the most successful story ever told because its the only story almost everybody believes. But again if you look at the reality of money. Then the paper bill, the Dollar, the Euro, the Pound they are worthless. But they become valuable only when somebody comes along and tells us a story about them.”
The dominant stories of our time
“We do need to tell the difference between fiction and reality. As a species, this is a big problem for Homo Sapiens. The success of Homo Sapiens as a species is built on our inability to tell the difference between fiction and reality. We rule the world because of our global networks of cooperation and they are all based on believing fictional stories. We have an evolutionary pressure not to be able to tell the difference between fiction and reality.
“The two most dominant fictions of our time are capitalism and humanism. Which for the last few generations have been in alliance, but now this alliance is breaking down. And much of what is happening in the world can be explained in terms of capitalism and humanism divorcing.
“Capitalism is based on money, and corporations – which lawyers will tell you are legal fictions. Just a story that the powerful shamans called lawyers have invented and created and everybody believes in it.”
“Every society has powerful word sorcerers who can change reality. This is how nations and corporations are constructed – through these word spells. I’m not saying we should completely abandon that, because society will collapse but we should be very careful that the stories we create serve us, instead of us serving them. All too often in history you find yourself sacrificing your life for an imaginary entity that was created by these magicians supposedly in order to help you.”
“For me the crucial thing is to differentiate between the fictional stories and reality. Which is extremely difficult because the whole of society is based on being unable to distinguish between the two. If you go around all day realising that the nation, and money and corporations and Coca Cola are all just stories created by humans then it would be very difficult to sustain the economic and political systems that we know. I keep making the effort to distinguish between the reality and fiction.”
“What Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow try to do is to try to distinguish what is the reality of history and what are the narratives and the stories that people have been constructing. The basic tendency of our species – when we look for meaning in life or we look for identity. Everybody wants to know ‘who am I?’, ‘what am I doing in the world?’ – in 99% of cases what people want to hear in response is a story. That they have a part to play, that they just need to discover. My impression is that any answer that comes in the shape of a story is wrong because, yes, Homo Sapiens is a story-telling ape but reality is not shaped like a story.”