The man who knows

We shouldn’t underestimate how counter-intuitive it is to pursue unknowing. Knowing is at the core of what we understand being human to be. We call ourselves the man who knows, for heaven’s sake: Homo sapiens.We chose this name in distinction to other species of human that once existed such as Homo neanderthalensis (the Neanderthals), Homo floresiensis (the Man of Flores, in Indonesia) and Homo ergaster (the somewhat dismissively named Working Man).

We define ourselves as the clever species. But the earlier humans were not without knowledge. What kind of knowing enabled Homo ergaster to organise socially and employ tools without the level of language and cognition that Homo sapiens was to acquire?

As Yuval Noah Harari explained in his book Sapiens, our acquisition of cognitive prowess tens of thousands of years ago was a random happenstance:

What caused it? We’re not sure. The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate using an altogether new type of language. We might call it the Tree of Knowledge mutation. Why did it occur in Sapiens DNA rather than in that of Neanderthals? It was a matter of pure chance, as far as we can tell.

The Tree of Knowledge mutation enabled us to spin stories. But there’s more to it than this. “Many animals and human species,” Harari says, ”Could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’” The differentiating factor was our propensity to create fictions: “Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’”

The development of believable fictions enabled us to organise at scale and have a massive impact on the world. Our hierarchies and power structures are mostly a function of fictions that we have chosen or been persuaded to believe.

We can see this in relation to religions organised around an idea of god and what god expects of us. The power of the Christian church was built on persuading people to accept the axioms propagated by its priesthood. More recently, Islamic State drew people into its network in no small part by spreading memes that enticed lone individuals to self-radicalise. They were buying into an abstract idea of ISIS, albeit one that had impacts on the real world.

Harari applies the term religion not just to organised churches but to any form of collective belief in an organised fiction. His concept thus includes ideas such as nation states, political ideologies, business corporations and so forth – all ideas that enable strangers to co-operate in their millions and over huge distances. This is what gives our species such power. It enables the creation of an entity like Amazon. This grew from an idea imagined by Jeff Bezos into a technical and logistical behemoth that turns the impulses of millions of consumers into tangible goods delivered to their homes within 24 hours (or instantly in the case of Kindle books and Alexa requests).

So dependent are we on our cognitive story-spinning, that our imagined worlds are more real to us than the given world as it is found. How we understand the world is organised not around our direct experience of breathing, hunger or walking in the rain but around beliefs in the abstract entities that constitute modern society. As Harari puts it, we live in a dual reality:

On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

Our imagined reality solidifies into knowledge to which we hold firm attachments. The way we live is possible only given our strong faith that electricity and water will continue to be supplied to our home, that our currency will continue to enable us to procure goods and services, that we’ll be able to find whatever food we need at our local supermarket, and Amazon will continue to fulfil its promise to provide anything else we might want at the touch of a button.

So strong is our reliance on these systems that we barely stop to question how prudent is our faith in them. For the first time in my lifetime, it does not seem outlandish to suppose that our confidence in them – our knowledge that we inhabit a technologically ordered world – might be misplaced.

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