The Truth about Fiction

Animals are realists. All the species except for us. There are a couple significant differences between the rest of the animals and us that are probably related to each other.

The first difference is that animals are born with the knowledge of how to make use of all their bodily functions and how to get along in the world whereas we are born with only a partial knowledge of our bodily functions and how to get along in the world. Animal instincts are transferred and stored in their genes. Sapiens’ knowledge is acquired through our senses, stored in the brain, and transferred by means of language. Animals are capable of learning varying amounts of information but could probably get along with nothing more than their instincts for most of their lives. Sapiens have instincts too, but not enough to survive on.

The second difference is that animals have only rudimentary languages, if at all, for conveying only real concepts, commands, and warnings whereas we have highly developed languages for conveying representations of internal and external realities, as well as fictions. Fictions include assertions that may or may not be true, that haven’t been proven yet, that we’d like to be true, that we wish were true, that we want to believe are true, that we want others to believe are true, that were once thought to be true, that we are willing to accept for the moment as true, or that are patently false.

Examples of fiction include stories, myths, religious dogma, beliefs, astrology, political propaganda, rights, duties, lies, traffic lights, metaphors, hyperboles, scientific conjectures and theories, histories, nationalities, communities, races, cultures, civilizations, money, corporations, gender roles, purpose, meaning, romance, and our world views. Examples of reality might be hungry, lion, waiting, and waterhole.

I’m reading a fascinating book called “Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind”, written by Doctor (of Philosophy) Yuval Noah Harari. One of the interesting points he makes in his book is that animal species cannot aggregate and cooperate in groups composed of more than a few hundred individuals whereas Homo Sapiens can and in many cases do aggregate and cooperate in groups numbering millions or more. Harari attributes this capacity of Sapiens to get such massive numbers of individuals to live, work, and fight together to their ability to convey fictions with their languages. Our fictions unite us, keep us together, and direct us towards common goals far more so than our reality. If a lion enters our camp, it’s every man for himself. As we say, you don’t have to run faster than the lion. You just have to run faster than the guy in front of you. If you want to kill a mastodon, you don’t need more than a hundred or so men with spears to surround it and bring it down. If you wanted to launch a Christian Crusade to take Jerusalem from the Muslims back in 1099, you’d need thousands of foot soldiers and 300 knights and if the Muslims wanted to take Jerusalem back, they’d need even more soldiers and horsemen, which they were able to muster easily. For the Christians, God was on their side, but for the Muslims their God was greater, or Allahu Akbar (الله أكبر).

Lest we conclude that civilizations would be a lot better off without their fictions, Harari goes on to point out that every social structure comprising more than a few hundred individuals would break down without the fictions that organize them. Many large groups enforce religious beliefs or official party lines, such that non-believers are subject to violence and/or death, for the groups to survive. If, however, enough members of a group stop believing the organizing fictions, that group will cease to exist, as will any benefits accrued by members of the group.

Remember Kant’s Categorical Imperative? Kant’s criterion for whether an action was moral or not was derived by asking what would happen if everybody were to perform that action. If the answer were that society would survive or even thrive, then it would be considered a moral action. If, however, the answer was that society would break down, then it would be considered an immoral action. For example, is it moral to steal from a person? No, because if everybody were to steal from each other, then society would break down. Is it moral to give charity? Yes, because if everybody gave charity, society would survive or thrive. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but you get the idea. If not, read the link above.

So the bottom line is I shouldn’t attempt to persuade people to give up their fictions. If I did, society would break down, people would stop working at their jobs, drive through red lights, crash into each other, babble meaninglessly, commit crimes, acts of violence, and suicide, starve, get sick, and die. As a matter of fact, I should probably keep my opinions to myself.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel


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Filed under Essays, Essays, Dilemmas, & Philosophy, Prose

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