The Fictions That Create Our Reality
Updated: Jun 9, 2019
I’m in the middle of this fascinating book called Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s quite a thick book, so I still have a little ways to go until I’m finished, but it is essentially about how we humans are constructing ourselves into godlike creatures and, as technology continues to advance, we may very well cause our own extinction. While this is a little hum-drum bummer for my liking, there are a good number of thought-provoking ideas backed by research within the book.
One idea that really stuck out to me was intersubjective reality. Harari quotes:
“Most people presume that reality is either objective or subjective, and that there is no third option. However, there is a third level of reality: intersubjective reality, which depends on the communication of many humans rather than on the beliefs and feelings of individual humans.”
Trees and oceans are examples of objective realities. They are outside of us and no one would disagree that these things exist. Fear and desire are examples of subjective realities. While we can all have these emotional states, they are only real to us. Say I have a fear of spiders. That fear is super real to me, but for someone else it means nothing. This is subjective reality.
Examples of intersubjective reality are those things that have no real value besides the value that we place on it. Money, for example, is just paper, but it is highly valuable because we have determined as a collective people that it is valuable. Laws are another example of intersubjective reality. Laws are only real because we have determined them to be so as a society. Not only this, but entire nations can be swept away from existence because we, as people, decide so.
Harari goes on to argue that humans rule the world because we can weave an intersubjective web of meaning, “a web of laws, forces, entities, and places that exist purely in their common imagination.” He concludes:
“North Korea and South Korea are so different from one another not because people from Pyongyang have different genes to people in Seoul, or because the north is colder. It’s because the north is dominated by very different fictions.” The world is made up of fictions that we have created.
WHAAAAAT!? Yes, indeed, and it makes a lot of sense as Harari puts it. As I mentioned, I still have a good amount of this book to read, but it is already fascinating me.
This got me thinking about the fictions we have created in the realms of technology. Obviously, social media isn’t our own reality, but the reality we wish to portray. We are usually broadcasting a fiction that then gets perceived as a reality, for better or worse. Not only is this prevalent in social media, but also with the rise of the smartphone. Society created the fiction that smartphones were necessary. Anyone who doesn’t have a smartphone knows this to be fiction, but if you have had a smartphone since before 2010, you’d likely disagree.
While it’s important for the human species to create fictions, it’s crucial for us to be mindful which fictions we are creating. Fictions create our intersubjective reality. We look back at Nazi Germany and cannot understand how such an atrocity occurred, but Hitler created a fiction that much of the German population believed as their reality.
Technological advancement is super exciting. I’m very curious to see what we end up creating in the next ten, twenty, or thirty years. If our ancestors looked at our lifestyles today, it would look like a science fiction film. This will likely be the same for today only a few decades from now. We are endlessly creating things into existence.
But we mustn’t get carried away. Fictions hold an immense amount of power over us. As Harari puts it, “Fictions enable us to cooperate better.” For these reasons, we must exercise caution. These new fictions we create will form our realities and we want to make sure they do so for our benefit and not to our detriment.