Tag Archives: language

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

The Hierarchy of Values

Yesterday I posted the following comment on FaceBook:

“I was just looking to see whether there’s a word for “humanitarian” in Arabic. There is: إنساني. So that’s not the problem, I guess. Must be something else. Why can’t we talk the same language?

It’s a simple enough question. Many Arabs speak English as do many Israelis. It’s even safe to say there’s no lack of Israelis who speak Arabic in addition to their native Hebrew. So language is not the problem. But still, we don’t seem to be able to find a common ground, to speak a common language.

I would venture to say that our problem is related to values. I would not dare to suggest that our sworn enemies don’t possess a set of values. I know we have values. There’s no reason to suspect that they don’t. At the highest levels of abstraction, I would say that we probably have the same values:

Life, family, friends, freedom, democracy, economic fairness of opportunity or allocation of common resources, peace, country, religion, culture, education, health, courage, success, ethics, generosity, beauty, safety, adventure, the ascendancy of political views, of religious belief, of a sports club, etc.

However, these common values may not be in the same order from one person to the next. Aye, therein lies the rub. If I were to list my top five or ten values in order, would somebody else list the same values in the same order? What about somebody from my family? What about a friend? What about somebody at work? What about the guard at the entrance to our bank who checks purses and briefcases for explosives or weapons? What about somebody from another country? Another religion? What about our enemies?

Given my particular background, the fact that I was raised in one country and went to live in another country halfway through my life makes it rather difficult for me to talk to some of my friends on both sides of the pond. Language is not the problem since I speak the languages of both countries. So if I have problems sometimes speaking to my friends about the things that really matter to me, how could I expect sworn enemies to engage in a meaningful dialogue in order to find a common ground on which their swords and shields may be lowered?

Let’s examine two hypothetical hierarchies of values, only five levels down:

Side 1 values:                         Side 2 values:

  1. Life                                          1. Ascendancy of religious belief
  2. Family                                   2. Ascendancy of political view
  3. Freedom                               3. Courage
  4. Democracy                         4. Family
  5. Ethics                                    5. Life

Side 3 (the mediator whose value hierarchy is also relevant but will be ignored for the sake of simplicity): “I’ve finally brought you both together to the same table. Let us now begin negotiations in earnest.”

Side 1: “Since we both value life, I am willing to offer you not a temporary cease-fire but peace for peace.”

Side 2: (thinking – you are a coward hiding behind your hi-tech weapons and your deep-pocketed benefactor, what value is life if it is not lived in accordance with the precepts of our religion? We will conquer you in the end. We are courageous and God is on our side! A cease-fire would allow us to regroup and gather strength. It would serve our purposes more than a peace that lets cowards live.) “We want our past grievances redressed. To this you must agree unconditionally as a precondition to the continuation of these peace talks.”

Side 3: “Let us look forward instead of to the past. Let us look for a common ground from which to progress.”

Side 1: “We both value family. Don’t our wives and mothers weep when their husbands and children are killed? Let’s lay down our weapons for our families’ sakes.”

Side 2: “Don’t talk to me of family. There isn’t a single family in our land who hasn’t had someone killed by your bombs and bullets. Our children are braver than your soldiers. They are willing to sacrifice themselves to rid you from our land.”

Side 3: “Come now. Neither side is being productive at this time.”

Side 1: (thinking – what could I possibly have to offer him that he would value? Certainly not freedom and not democracy. He has no use for those things. Ethics? He would slit my throat in the blink of an eye if he could. The only thing we could offer him is our death.) “It is clear that we have nothing to talk about.”

Side 3: “What about a temporary cease-fire?”

Side 1: “For how long?”

Side 2: “For how short?”

The problem with values is that they come from a position of no compromise or movement what-so-ever.

They are our succor and our bane.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Filed under Essays, Dilemmas, & Philosophy, Prose