Why Society Rests Upon the Collective Imagination

Sapiens“Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings”

Yuval Noah Harari travels along evolutions timeline, from the first signs of life to the future of mankind, in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

One topic he presents is that of socialization and tribe formation, an interesting exploration of why there were certain limits on how big a group could get, and how we eventually exceeded it.

“How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.”

If people come to believe in the same rules and divine properties of life then as a whole the group will be more cohesive and trusting. Knowing your neighbor shares your beliefs in an afterlife and a merciful God allows you a degree of trust even if you know nothing else about them.

“There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

While the notion of God is slowly dying, there still exist a great many “beings” that are simply creations of this collective imagination.

“Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a ‘legal fiction’. It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. Just like you or me, it is bound by the laws of the countries in which it operates. It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it.”

While these mental creations don’t really exist in a sense, they are still an integral part of society, helping it to hold together.

“Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.”

For more, check out Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari.

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