Why does money have value? After all, if I went with some colorful feathers and tried to use them to purchase a hamburger, I’d get laughed right out of McDonald’s. Then, why do colorful pieces of paper and metal work instead?
According to Yuval Harari in his book Sapiens, the answer is that the value of money is a shared myth. The value of money works not by getting you to believe money has value, but by convincing you that other people value money. Since other people value it, you will value it and thus a stable equilibrium forms where people share the useful hallucination that paper and coins mean something.
This fascinates me because it’s an example of bootstrapping truth into a false idea. Money doesn’t have value, unless you believe other people think it does, which causes it to have value for you, which causes it to have value for everyone. Weird.
Which brings me to gri-gri.
Can Shamans Make You Bulletproof?
Apparently, in South Kivu of Congo, local elders have been forging magical spells which make the bearers immune to bullets.
What’s more interesting, is that it actually seems to work.
Those who have the magical spell, known as gri-gri, are able to overcome armed thugs and attackers. In regions which are prone to violence, this has had a positive effect, allowing locals to resist attack and establish peace. Since the spell only works if the bearer adheres to certain moral codes of conduct, gri-gri can’t be used by the bad guys.
What seems to be happening here is that gri-gri, like money, bootstraps truth into itself. The armed attackers are greatly outnumbered by the unarmed civilians. Even with a weapon, a group of unarmed people could quickly overpower someone with a gun. However, most people are too afraid of being shot to stand up and do something. With gri-gri, however, groups of people aren’t afraid to collectively work to disarm the attackers.
A myth in being bulletproof allows people to become less likely victims of violence.
There doesn’t seem to be a good word for what’s going on with gri-gri or money.
Saying the ideas are false is plainly wrong. Money clearly has economic value. While one can debate the importance of such value, nobody practically denies that money can be used to buy things and that other people value it. Gri-gri may not make people bulletproof, but combined with a shared belief in local magic, it has had at least partially the effect of reducing such types of violence.
But saying these ideas are true is also more complicated. Money is just paper, coins and, increasingly, the direction of spins of electrons on large ferromagnetic discs somewhere. Make tiny changes to those spins and the value disappears.
Instead, these ideas are true, but only within a particular background context and communal beliefs. Gri-gri isn’t true in suburban North America. Money has no value in isolated, hunter-gatherer societies.
True by Convention?
Money and gri-gri aren’t the only examples of bootstrapped truths. Seemingly much of what we know is at least partially defined conventions rather than facts on the ground.
The meaning of words is such a conventional truth. Everything I’m saying right now only makes sense because we agree on the meaning of certain strings of symbols.
Truths about our institutions are also created by convention. Everyone agrees George Washington was the first American president. But to do so, we all have to agree on what it means to be president, that there are things called nations and the United States is one of them, and even on ascribing names such as “George” to temporally extended masses of flesh and tissue.
Even scientific theories are also true by a sort of convention. We know that Einstein’s equations for relativity is the “truth” of gravity. But scientists also know that these equations are currently incompatible with quantum physics in a way that suggests the former are probably not the final word on the matter. Therefore, we agree that in some sense Einstein’s equations are “true” even though we know that they will probably be replaced by something more “true” when science advances.
And all of this is beginning to sound like a typical conversation between second year philosophy students who’ve smoked too much pot.
The point of all this isn’t to cast doubt on everything in reality. The vertigo from realizing that many facts are as much collaborative creations as they are derived from objective circumstances only lasts a little while until you realize just how amazingly stable those truths are.
Fake news is still fake news. When people lie, in a conventional sense, there’s an important way in that they’re really lying, and not that everything just boils down to some kind of confusing postmodern relativistic soup.
However, what I think is the value of this shift in thinking is that it shows the paucity of the English language. It would be really nice if we had different words for different types of truths, which are true in different ways, rather than just the typical set of “fact,” “lie,” or “opinion.”
In particular, I would propose:
- Conventional truths. Truths which are only true in light of shared cultural agreements. That the United States is a country is such a truth, because if we didn’t culturally have the concept of nation states, that sentence wouldn’t mean anything.
- Placeholder truths. Truths which we know are probably false, but are our current best guess of what is really true. Much of science is a placeholder truth. Einstein’s relativity is probably not the last word, but it’s still fantastically accurate enough to be called true.
- Bootstrapped truths. Falsehoods which become true by their shared belief. The value of money and effectiveness of gri-gri are such truths because they only become true once a certain mass of people believe them.
- Beneficial lies. These would be falsehoods whose truth value remains unchanged by widespread adoption (i.e. they still don’t work) but have collateral benefits which are positive enough to encourage their continued propagation. Many rituals work this way because the consequences of their stated rationale is negligible, but they create spillover into greater group solidarity or social harmony.
I’m sure there are even more exotic species of truths and falsehoods that someone much smarter than me has already explored and labeled taxonomically. How about the converse to bootstrapped truths? Something that is true, but becomes false when too many people believe it (e.g. the belief that a particular stock is underpriced)?
The postmodern insight, in my mind, wasn’t that knowledge is impossible and we’re all swimming in a cesspool of meaninglessness and falsehoods, but simply that things are more complicated than just true or false, there’s shades of true, things we’ve made true by convention and things which change their veracity based on who believes them.
Note: Much of this article is inspired by Harari’s Sapiens. We’re currently (July 2017) discussing this book in our monthly book club. Join the discussion!