An Imaginary World

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From the moment human beings are born, we are bombarded with rules.  As children, we are taught to go to bed at a certain time, eat certain foods (and certain amounts of foods); when we reach a specific age, we go to school – generally, we are taught: “shut up, listen, and learn”.   Then, at the magical age of sixteen (at least in America), we are gifted the rules of the road, and it feels like freedom.  But as we learn soon enough, freedom comes at a cost, with even more rules: go to college so you can get a good job, then get said job so you can make money and support yourself, and don’t forget to follow the speed limit so you don’t waste all of your hard earned money paying traffic tickets.  But following the speed limit isn’t all; somewhere in between we learn the fundamental rules of our society: the laws of our federal, state, and local governments; and often enough, the laws of God are placed above all.

In the eyes of the rule-makers, rules exist for a purpose; e.g., traffic laws are in place to keep the roads from becoming chaos, and to attempt to limit the number of deaths and injuries caused by car accidents.  This may seem like common sense, but if we all had the common sense to live in peace, then why would rules ever exist?

The truth is, even though rules may exist for a purpose (which I will come back to shortly), they are all just made up.  The rules of our legal system are just as made up as the rules of the game of Monopoly.  And the money we earn from our jobs is just as made up as the money from the game of Monopoly.  Most of the things we know in the world are just a figment of our collective imaginations.  We are all just players in the game of Monopoly, and if we don’t follow the rules, we won’t pass go or collect our two-hundred dollars.  At this point you may be thinking that we just moved from common sense to crazy talk, but as I will attempt to explain, “crazy talk” is actually what makes our society work (or not work) we just don’t like to refer to it by that name.

I have provided and explained below the most basic yet most meaningful of the fictions that we have written into our modern lives.

  1. Money – Though the first known currency dates to 5,000 years ago, the U.S. dollar wasn’t printed until 1792.  To put this in perspective, the dollar which Americans are so passionate about earning and hoarding was thought up by a group of people (the U.S. Congress), then printed on a piece of paper by those same people a mere 200 years ago. If we compare this to the amount of time that people have lived on North America, about 18,000 years ago, money is just an infant (many people care for it as an infant too).  The only reason those pieces of paper or numbers in a bank account mean anything is because we the people put our trust in banks, financial institutions, and our government.
  2. Laws – In 1789, not long before the U.S. dollar was created by the U.S. Congress, the first American law was signed by George Washington.  Since that time many additional laws have been put into place making up our current U.S. legal system.  And about 4,000 years before that time, the first known written laws were created somewhere near present-day Iraq.  Like money, laws are also made up by our governments.  Whether you live by our current laws because you believe in them, or in an effort not to spend your life in jail, the truth about these laws is that they were made up by our forefathers.  Laws, like money, are just words on pieces of paper, and are only provided meaning by our collective imagination (i.e., they only mean something if/because enough people believe in them).
  3. Corporations – A corporation, possibly like the one you work for, is just a product of the law; lawyers even call them “legal fictions”.  Corporations don’t exist as living, breathing organisms; we made them up in order to encourage entrepreneurship and to protect individuals from the costs and hardships that businesses may go through.  Corporations exist as part of our collective imagination and as a result of our trust in the collectively imagined legal system.
  4. Religion – Growing up I was taught, according to the Catholic religion, that the Earth and all existing life held by the Earth (including man) was created by God in just six days.  I was not taught this as a story or a myth, but as fact.  This “fact” lead to certain questions that brought about my disconnect from this faith.  However, I have since learned the Catholic church itself doesn’t try to support the Bible’s story of creation as a fact; the book of Genesis is thought of as “history written in a mythical language”[1].  Looking back at my younger self, if I had known these stories were just stories, meant for the purpose of learning the moral, maybe I would have been more interested in learning and less interested in questioning.  And the Bible isn’t the only religious text filled with these mythical stories; they exist in all religions and throughout time.  However, calling something a “myth” doesn’t mean merit should be lost, if anything, allowing ourselves to think of them this way could lead to a wider understanding and acceptance of them.  Each myth provides a glimpse of history, the thoughts of our ancestors, and a lesson, which if applied can help lead a person to be the best version of themselves.  Most of all, these stories bring people together, most often for a positive purpose, and myths like the ones in the Bible are likely the root of how the first civilizations were built.

It may be a bit scary to think that everything is made up, and maybe it’s even too scary to fathom, but moving past the fear is the only way we can ever create change.  Once you understand that we have collectively imagined so much of what runs our lives, it is not as much scary as it is beautiful.  There is reason and purpose behind the things we have imagined, and we wouldn’t be able to cooperate or work together in this world without our collective imagination.  

According to sociological research, most people are unable to get to know or be personally connected to more than 150 people.[2]  This number even has a term, “Dunbar’s number”, as it was first proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar in the 1990s.  The only reason we can get along in societies larger than 150 people is because we have created systems of order to live by.  These systems, such as our legal systems, monetary systems, and religious groups, operate only within our collective imaginations, meaning they won’t work if we don’t trust and believe in them.

Trust in America

The most important word in the paragraph above is “trust”.  In America today, science and technology are starting to push the boundaries of what we understand about the world, and more and more people are becoming aware of the fictional world we live in.  The more knowledge we gain, the more the “facts” become fictional; the more trust in the system is lost.

Trust is the driving factor in making a system work, so without it we won’t be able to operate as a society.  But before we get to the point of downfall, we have the opportunity to re-imagine our (American) systems, to re-build our society based on current beliefs and supported science.  As we said earlier, our first laws were written almost 200 years ago, and a lot has happened in the last 200 years.  It is understandable that these laws no longer suit our society, and it makes sense that trust is being lost in these laws.  However, if we want to re-imagine the world, we need to come together and build trust in a new idea, we need to collectively imagine change, and together build a new system that we all trust in.  If it’s all a fiction anyway, then we might as well make it a fiction that we are proud to be a part of.

If this sounds like a dream, it probably is.  Change is founded in dreams, and I believe that change is possible.  I know that many people have lost trust in the American system, and that we need to start from the bottom up in re-inventing it.  We need to start teaching children the purpose behind the rules, laws, and learning, rather than forcing the systems upon them.  Our first step should be talking about these types of ideas, sharing them with our friends and families, re-imagining what a world would look like which we want to live in.  Though I don’t have all the answers, I know my ideas are not alone, and those who share my thoughts need to collaborate.  Though we may or may not see the change in our lifetimes, the more work we do now, the better the world may be for our children.


[2] Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari


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