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Ser Scot A Ellison

Imagination and Society

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We’ve been having a mildly interesting discussion about the implications of belief in non-material things (Santa Claus for example) and its broader implications to society as a whole.

Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (thank you Triskele) points out, very cogently, that most of the institutions that we depend upon in human society: laws, states, customs, money, employment, etc. are based upon imaginary constructs that have no or very little in the way of material reality.  Most folks don’t think very hard on the fact that our entire world is literally built on a house of cards that depends upon human imagination for its glue.  

Some folks are very down on telling kids “lies” about things like Santa, the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, etc. but don’t stop to think that what we use provide material support for ourselves and our families is literally imagined.  The paper is real but the value only comes from our imagination.

 Lest you think me a “Gold bug” the same is true of specie coinage.  You can’t eat it, you cannot cloth yourself with it, and you can’t build a house out of it.  It’s value is entirely dependent upon the imagined value humans place upon it.  

We cannot touch “Justice”.  We cannot take a photograph of “morality” but we shake our heads at others who depend upon imagination for meaning and purpose.

Is this something that should be widely recognized and discussed or would doing so cause the house of cards to fall?

Discuss.

Edited by Ser Scot A Ellison

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I think it's widely recognized, but we don't think about it on a daily basis because the imaginary constructs are relatively stable. Except in times of turmoil, they usually take years or decades to evolve and many barely change at all over centuries. Calling it a house of cards is an overstatement: the imaginary constructs are not immutable, but they usually take considerable time and effort to alter.

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I agree with the above post. Money is undoubtedly a social construct, but it is immensely useful. As Harri points out in his book, without money, each tradesman or labourer would need to know the exact trade equivalent of every commodity and his own. e.g, Is a bed worth seventeen pairs of boots, are a pound of bananas worth two pounds of potatoes, would me painting your house earn me food for a week etc etc. A universal commodity, through which all others is expressed, minimizes this problem.

What it doesn't solve is the huge disparity between national exchange rates, and the commensurate devaluing of labour. 

Pretty much everything should be recognized and discussed though, as if the fabric of human civilization is so fragile as to be threatened by a little thoughtfulness, we should maybe consider a rethink anyway.

 

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42 minutes ago, Altherion said:

I think it's widely recognized, but we don't think about it on a daily basis because the imaginary constructs are relatively stable. Except in times of turmoil, they usually take years or decades to evolve and many barely change at all over centuries. Calling it a house of cards is an overstatement: the imaginary constructs are not immutable, but they usually take considerable time and effort to alter.

This. Furthermore, outside of the major constructs (chiefly money and safety), the loss of individual ones won’t matter all that much, and the loss will create a vacuum that will quickly be filled. Really only a quick, massive upheaval of our wider social contract will cause the problems you fear Scot.

Would you mind answering my question from the politics thread?

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It's not about imagination, it's about common agreement. Nobody thinks there is a material thing called 'law', it's just an agreement between members of a society. And it has practical consequences. If you rob a bank, you can bet there will be police coming after you, but you can watch a chimney all you want, you won't see Santa climbing down.

This comparison between abstract things like money and Santa Claus is just weird. That both are "imagined" doesn't mean they are equal. "2+2=4" and "2+2=5" are both imaginary concepts in my head, but there is a big difference between the two.

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It gets weirder too. For example, we all pretend our vote counts during an election, but unless the result is so extremely and improbably close that one vote actually decides the outcome, it doesn't have any effect at all. But if a lot of people thought that way and therefore didn't vote, it most certainly would have a major effect on the outcome. 

There's collective truth in the individual lie. 

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58 minutes ago, Erik of Hazelfield said:

It gets weirder too. For example, we all pretend our vote counts during an election, but unless the result is so extremely and improbably close that one vote actually decides the outcome, it doesn't have any effect at all. But if a lot of people thought that way and therefore didn't vote, it most certainly would have a major effect on the outcome. 

There's collective truth in the individual lie. 

What is the alternative to elections then?

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Scot. I disagree slightly on your basic premise. Most of those key institutions and rules humans adhere to rely not so much on individual or collective belief, but are instead underpinned by the state’s monopoly of violence.

The state forces you to accept them, else they can unleash violence upon you (involuntary incarceration being a form of violence too).

Else I would drive at a speed I feel comfortable to drive at on any given road, rather than at whatever speed limit a roadside sign tells me to drive at, to use the most basic of examples.

The same applies to whether I will accept a bunch of random “peers” to decide my fate in a court.

The monopoly of violence of the state leaves me no choice in the matter. Whatever I may or may not believe or imagine.

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6 hours ago, Free Northman Reborn said:

Scot. I disagree slightly on your basic premise. Most of those key institutions and rules humans adhere to rely not so much on individual or collective belief, but are instead underpinned by the state’s monopoly of violence.

The state forces you to accept them, else they can unleash violence upon you (involuntary incarceration being a form of violence too).

Else I would drive at a speed I feel comfortable to drive at on any given road, rather than at whatever speed limit a roadside sign tells me to drive at, to use the most basic of examples.

The same applies to whether I will accept a bunch of random “peers” to decide my fate in a court.

The monopoly of violence of the state leaves me no choice in the matter. Whatever I may or may not believe or imagine.

I think there is a collective agreement that the state is allowed to enforce the rules that we all agree we should adhere to. The state is the really the embodiment of how we enforce all the ideas we have agreed to.

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Libertarians don't want to adhere to any of your commie rules ! They mean to decide by themselves what is real and what isn't.

Edited by Rippounet

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I think there is a huge resurgence in the in the interest of folklore and mythology in the past few years so I would say that human imagination or desire to engage with imagination and stories is alive and well and people are relatively aware that most things are substanceless and are social constructs. 

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My issue with the Santa example is that you're kind of implying that without Santa, the rest if this would fall apart.  Which is weird because I can think of a bunch of other examples of using your imagination that don't shame people into being good little consumers, make poor kids feel like shit, or get people to buy a bunch of stupid sweat-shop made trash that will end up in a landfill or wrapped around a dolphin's head.  

It's not the fantastic element of Santa that chaffes, it's all the bullshit behavior that's associated with the meaning behind the myth.

Edited by larrytheimp

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On 12/27/2018 at 1:58 PM, Ser Scot A Ellison said:

We’ve been having a mildly interesting discussion about the implications of belief in non-material things (Santa Claus for example) and its broader implications to society as a whole.

Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (thank you Triskele) points out, very cogently, that most of the institutions that we depend upon in human society: laws, states, customs, money, employment, etc. are based upon imaginary constructs that have no or very little in the way of material reality.  Most folks don’t think very hard on the fact that our entire world is literally built on a house of cards that depends upon human imagination for its glue.  

Some folks are very down on telling kids “lies” about things like Santa, the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, etc. but don’t stop to think that what we use provide material support for ourselves and our families is literally imagined.  The paper is real but the value only comes from our imagination.

 Lest you think me a “Gold bug” the same is true of specie coinage.  You can’t eat it, you cannot cloth yourself with it, and you can’t build a house out of it.  It’s value is entirely dependent upon the imagined value humans place upon it.  

We cannot touch “Justice”.  We cannot take a photograph of “morality” but we shake our heads at others who depend upon imagination for meaning and purpose.

Is this something that should be widely recognized and discussed or would doing so cause the house of cards to fall?

Discuss.

I simply disagree that all our institutions are just made up bullshit, that have no basis in material reality. I don't believe in anything goesism.

I'll take the case of money as an example. It would be hard to think of an decentralized economic system where there wasn't a medium of exchange, unless I guess were dealing with the case of the mythical Walrasian auctioneer that decides the relative prices of all commodities, both present and future. I've criticized before (along with others before me) Robert Lucas inspired RBC models for this very reason. In short, I'm saying their is likely a correct "metanarrative" about the role of money in economies, likely to the chagrin of the "deconstruct  everything" crowd.

Secondly, money potentially serves as a safe liquid store of value for an uncertain future where financial markets are not complete. The idea that humans would want to hold safe liquid assets for an uncertain future is just a social construct seems to me rather absurd.

As far as metallic money appearing as the first form of money used by states, there is I think a reasonably plausible explanation, which is that metallic money was used first because it was relatively hard to forge. And that money acquired its value because it could be used to pay taxes.

A lot of this sounds like post modernist drivel, something you know I'm not a fan of.

I'm of course not denying that cultural constructs exist and many are past their sell date. But this whole idea that anything could just be anything seems to me rather wrong.

Edited by OldGimletEye

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On 12/27/2018 at 8:59 PM, Free Northman Reborn said:

Else I would drive at a speed I feel comfortable to drive at on any given road, rather than at whatever speed limit a roadside sign tells me to drive at, to use the most basic of examples.

Well this presumes roads would in fact be built in the absence of something we think of as the state or the community.

Assuming, such things would be built, under some kind of Murray Rothbard, anarcho-feudalist-capitalism, you'd evidently drive the speed limit that the owner of the road would say you'd could drive (assuming he allowed you to drive on the road at all), unless you happen to own the road yourself.

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On 12/27/2018 at 4:08 PM, SweetPea said:

It's not about imagination, it's about common agreement. Nobody thinks there is a material thing called 'law', it's just an agreement between members of a society.

On another thread, I brought up the Stag Hunt game. Under that game, it's well known that there are two Nash equilibrium. One equilibrium is better than the other in the sense, both actors will have more, if they cooperate. Which equilibrium obtains, depends on what the actors believe about what the other actor will do.

In short, laws and norms, often can help members of society coordinate. 

Edited by OldGimletEye

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11 hours ago, Starkess said:

There's a difference between abstract concepts and false ones.

Its basically this isn't it. 

Having said that, there are some false concepts that might be quite useful and be worth maintaining. For instance there is some value in religion as a moral system, and it can help some people lead happier, more worthwhile lives (can also cause a lot of harm too), but IMO all religions are based on false beliefs and understandings of the world. 

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1 hour ago, Heartofice said:

Its basically this isn't it. 

Having said that, there are some false concepts that might be quite useful and be worth maintaining. For instance there is some value in religion as a moral system, and it can help some people lead happier, more worthwhile lives (can also cause a lot of harm too), but IMO all religions are based on false beliefs and understandings of the world. 

I'm not convinced this is true.

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1 minute ago, larrytheimp said:

I'm not convinced this is true.

I'd say Religion is a useful tool for laying a set of values and moral principles onto a population. I'm not in any way religious, and am closer to being anti-religious but I wouldn't say religion has no value.

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5 hours ago, OldGimletEye said:

I simply disagree that all our institutions are just made up bullshit, that have no basis in material reality. I don't believe in anything goesism.

This is, imho, misrepresenting Harari's views. Since I read his books (Sapiens and Deus), I'll attempt to clarify.

It's not that Harari says that anything is made up. It's more that he argues humans have been building collective abstractions and narratives to make sense of the world and organize the public affairs - and that those have become increasingly complex and powerful.

I don't remember Harari dwelling on what's true and what isn't, or what has a basis in reality and what doesn't, because the aim of his books is to be rather consensual. I guess that's why he describes political ideologies as religions (or vice-versa), despite the fact that political ideologies are generally linked to socio-economics and thus are (in our day and age) more grounded in reality than religions. However, since religions are also a means to organize public affairs (at least through morality), it's difficult to argue that they are complete fictions. One way to put it is that whenever humans agree on a collective abstraction (like the value of money), this abstraction becomes part of the human reality, whether it's based in the real or not.

And Harari uses this perspective not exactly to deconstruct (he's not that type of thinker imho), but to argue that humanity has passed the point where it has to focus on the real (as in, the material world). He argues that we have already vanquished famine or epidemics for instance, and that our abstractions have become our reality, i.e. our daily life is no longer about surviving (we can safely assume that we're talking about a Western readership here of course) but about succeeding within frameworks that we ourselves establish. He concludes that humanity will eventually free itself from its natural limitations such as mortality, or at least make such limitations largely irrelevant in our daily life (to some extent, this is already the case for most people here I presume). Hence the title of his second book (in this series at least, I'm sure he wrote others), Homo Deus.

I doon't think Harari's persspective is that groundbreaking. I'd say most people have reached a similar conclusion at least at some point in their lives. Popular wisdom has it that some things (family life, socializing, traveling... ) are more important, more real, than others (money, career, material possessions... ), or that life & death exist in a realm of their own within the human experience. What's interesting however is that as a historian he argues that there has been an acceleration of the process of... hmm... developing the abstract, and that because of technology we are about to venture in completely uncharted territory for our species. For what will humanity be, when we can free our children from the necessity of sleeping or eating? When we can augment our bodies and our reality, to the point where one could live decades in a virtual world (like that of ice and fire)? Or simply live their lives in a completely artificial environment, like that of a space station?

One of Harari's main worries is economic inequality, and the fact that the deification of humanity may be reserved to a select few, who will use their newfound powers to oppress (or at least dominate) the rest of us. However, his work also raises deep questions about the human condition, about the nature of our reality, and the definition we have of humanity. And perhaps it's just me, but I'd say that in the last decades fiction and science-fiction have been exploring these themes with increasing urgency. I'd even argue that soon enough, conservatism may become the defense of the natural, i.e. the preservation of the "natural" / "normal" human existence, with unaugmented human bodies, spontaneous/traditional moral or socio-economic structures, the link with the real/material world... etc, while "liberalism" in the future may become the force behind the deification of humanity and the challenge to the natural/original order. And given the many perils that "men like gods" entails, within such a paradigm, conservatism may prove necessary to guide us as we slowly take control of our collective destiny.

 

Edited by Rippounet

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