I hate to break it to you, but [insert country name] does not exist. Basically, it doesn’t make any sense that something a group of people decide to imagine ‘exists’. If a group of children gets together to play doctors, why is their hospital not real but that of adult people is? We may answer that adults engage in serious or large-scale activities, but this is not a fundamental or qualitative difference.
Many would argue that the activity resulting from the belief in a country proves its existence. However, this fallacy implies not only that the children’s hospital also exists, but that it exists all the more, given that countries lack the observable, physical integrity of a hospital. Besides, hospitals are for curing people, but what are countries for? Sure, some great geographical areas can be called countries based on their natural attributes, but that is not the same thing as the political regions I am here referring to.
It is no accident that the countries in a continent share frontiers. You never see a country here and a country there surrounded by no man’s land. The land is always someone’s. Once upon a time, people A came and declared, “this is the people’s land”, and their land just didn’t get as big as the continent because they couldn’t beat people B, who claimed exactly the same.
Yuval Noah Harari has noticed this and written a best-seller, Sapiens, on how human beings have come to dominate the planet because these sorts of declarations are the way in which they linguistically ‘cooperate’. Yet, clearly, this kind of activity isn’t exactly cooperative.
Most adult people love to feel reassured in their illusions of punishment and reward, just as most children love to believe in Santa Claus. But their country does not exist, and it is not cooperative. One of the ways in which thinkers such as Harari continue to reassure you is by speaking of functional social fictions like money. Still, you do not see a single money being used by the entire planet, which would seem to be the rational thing for a cooperative animal. On the contrary, you see a multiplicity of ‘moneys’ that benefit people A or people B; and this works because people A largely believe in ‘money A’, people B largely believe in ‘money B’, neither believes in the other’s ‘money’, and both want the other to believe in theirs. As I have explained, this is because those things aren’t really money but credit. Gold and silver are money, and so are bitcoins and cowrie shells. What happens is that the dollar, the ruble and other forms of credit are made in the image of money, just like Monopoly money.
Let’s explore this way of confounding social properties with natural ones a bit further by quoting Harari:
States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights, and money paid out in fees.
The problem with this account of large-scale ‘cooperation’, again, is ignoring the relation of the Serbian myth, which divides people, to the myth of ‘laws, justice, human rights, and money’, which presumably unites them. The two lawyers cannot help the complete stranger but within a legal framework based on a national myth such as Serbia. These ethnic or tribal properties become imbued with a sense of universality: not everyone is Serbian, but everyone should be ‘just’. Therefore, somehow everyone should be Serbian. In the same way, Harari talks about religious myths involving natural laws such as there being heaven and hell. Like justice, these laws apply to all humans because they are ‘natural’ but only Christians will play by them; and if you are not a Christian, well, you know what happens.
The key word in this broader game is socialisation, that is, the transmission of norms of acceptable behaviour, which happens primarily when we are children. This is why most people stay in their country of origin and obey its rules for life, or at least try to. Harari is quick to point out that myths ‘aren’t lies’. Of course they are. They are just the kind of lies that contain truth, and that reward you with a sense of belonging in a society that expands and makes more copies of your genes. Who doesn’t like that.
The thesis of Sapiens is therefore mythical in itself. Harari likes to see humans as gods who are in the process of creating some sort of planetary nation, teeming with artificial life even (this reminds me of Santa’s beard). Yet this does not seem to be where the world is going. The illusions of the 20th Century are finally being abandoned, as ideological conflict increases due to the inevitable collapse of the financial system.
Besides, the true forces of globalisation are not based on myths. The youth do not ‘believe’ in the English language, or in the languages of mathematics and music. Computers do not ‘believe’ in the TCP/IP protocol that runs the internet, or in the Bitcoin protocol that carries value all over the internet. Air travel does not involve incompatible local technologies, and wishes there were no customs upon arrival. We are actually on our way to ridding ourselves of this shameful impediment that is myth. We are on our way to genuine cooperation.
Harari’s work is nevertheless interesting for the way it has captured people’s attention. The myth of a planetary state is not going to become true, less so artificial life. But it is true that our species is special in its linguistic ability to exert evolutionary change, and that our curiosity is unstoppable.
Our article ‘Children’s pretence: A scientific perspective on social reality’ illustrates how the belief in myths continues to affect academia.
A closer look at the nature of language reveals the developmental roots of this phenomenon: The nature of kinship terms: From dad and mum to god and society.