Imagined Realities

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #6: Building Pyramids

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding. All ideas and examples are by Dr. Harari.)

Homo sapiens have no natural instincts for cooperating with large numbers of strangers. Humans evolved for millions of years living in small bands. Consequently, there are no instincts for mass social cooperation. To make up for that, humans have to rely on all kinds of imagined realities that regulate cooperation on such a huge scale. The human empires are based on shared common beliefs, social and legal norms that sustain them. The stability of the complex societies is not based on natural instinct or on personal acquaintance, but on shared imagined realities.

Compare the Code of Hammurabi with the American Declaration of Independence. Code of Hammurabi, written around 1776 BC, provided the basis for the social order of the ancient empire of Babylon. The American Declaration of Independence, written in 1776 AD, is the basis for the social order of the modern USA. 

The code of Hammurabi is a collection of laws and judicial decisions made by king Hammurabi, and reflects how ancient Babylonians Understood social order and injustice. Hammurabi's code asserts that Babylonian social order is rooted in universal and eternal principles of justice dictated by the gods. People are divided into two genders and three classes. There are superior people, commoners and slaves, and each of these categories is divided into men and women. Members of each gender and class have a different value. For example, the life of a female commoner is worth 30 silvers of shekels. In contrast, the life of a female slave is worth only 20 silver shekels. And the eye, just the eye, of a male commoner is worth 60 silver shekels.

The American Declaration of Independence also proclaims universal and eternal principles of justice inspired by the divine. It speaks of self-evident truths that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

So, we have two historical documents both of which provided a foundation for social order in a society, and both of them claim to outline universal eternal and divine principles of justice, but the principles are opposite. One proclaims hierarchy and the other proclaims equality. Which of these is really true? Neither, because the fact is that the only place where such universal principles of justice exist is the fertile imagination of homo sapiens*.

There is no objective justice and there are no objective principles of justice. There is nothing in biological reality that suggests the essential equality of all humans. Imagined orders exist not because they are objectively true, not because they are a scientific fact, but because believing in a shared imagined story it enables us to cooperate effectively and to forge a stable society.

As the social order of humans does not have basis in biological instinct, it is far, far less stable than the social order of animals. It is also the reason why the social order of humans is so amenable to change, and there are so many revolutions in history. At the same time, the social order is not so unstable as to be changing all the time. Humans invest a lot of efforts in stabilizing the social order and the stories that uphold it.

Some of these efforts of stabilization take the shape of violence and coercion, but an imagined order cannot be sustained only by violence; it also requires true believers. Through education and socialization, from birth till death, we are constantly being told over and over again, the basic stories of our societies, in fairy tales, dramas, songs and political propaganda. We also see and touch, and smell, and taste these fundamental stories in paintings, in architecture, in food fashions and in clothing fashions.

There are three main factors that prevent people from realizing that the social order in which they live exists only in their imagination.

1) The imagined order is embedded in the material environment.

Consider, for example, architecture. Westerners today believe in equality and individualism. In modern homes, children have their own private room, which they can decorate as they please. 

“Somebody who grows up in such a private and closed space, cannot but imagine himself or herself to be an individual. Somebody whose true worth, whose true value, emanates from within myself and not from what others are thinking about me.” (Dr. Harari)

In contrast, in the Middle Ages, noblemen they did not believe in individualism. The medieval nobility believed that the true value of people is determined by their place in the social hierarchy. The home of a medieval nobleman rarely had private rooms for individual children. The children slept and grew up in the constant presence of other people, and this is how they came believe that true worth depends on their place within the society.

2) The imagined order shapes our deepest desires and wishes.

People today believe in ‘romantic consumerism’. Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our lives, we must have as many different experiences as we can, a wide spectrum of emotions, relationships, foods, fashions etc. One of the best ways to do so is by taking a break from daily routine and visiting unfamiliar and distant cultures. Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. Consumption of new products, car, clothes, foods, or services like yoga classes is what we need to live in the best way. 

Romantic consumerism is basis on which the modern tourism industry is founded. Tourism industry doesn’t sell us tickets or hotel bedrooms; it sells us experiences. In a modern society, if a multimillionaire and his wife have a fight, he may seek to patch things by taking her on expensive vacation to Paris. But a wealthy man in ancient Egypt would never have dreamed of solving a relationship crisis with his wife by taking his wife on vacation to Babylon. He might instead have offered to build for her the sumptuous tomb that she always dreamed about!

3) The imagined order is embedded not only in the desires of a single person, but of countless people.

The imagined order is an inter-subjective order that exists the shared imagination of millions of people. Things like the U.S. dollar, the human rights, or the United States of America itself exist as inter-subjective realities. If I stop believing in the dollar or human rights or the USA, it does nothing to threaten their existence. In order to really change them, you will have to change the beliefs of billions of different individuals. However, in order to accomplish such a massive social change, you would need to convince millions of strangers to cooperate with one another. This will only be possible if these strangers believe in some other shared myth, in some other shared story. In order to change an existing imagined order, you require an alternative imagined order.

* Dr Harari seems to have the belief that the only objective reality is the biological reality or the reality of scientific facts. Are there objective moral facts? Dr Harari's answer seems to be a clear-cut no. I, for my part, would be hesitant to rule out the philosophical possibility of the existence of objective values so easily.