Gri-Gri, Money and Bootstrapped Truths

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.

Bootstrapping Truth

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.

Expanding Vocabulary

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!

  • carlmilsted

    Money is backed up by far more than faith!

    You are making an error that it very common. I have devoted an entire chapter to the subject in the book I am about to release.

    In a nutshell, today’s U.S. dollar, the Federal Reserve Note, is backed by the collateral that backs up the huge amount of debt that exists in the United States. If all retailers were to “lose faith” in dollars tomorrow, and I needed silver Ron Paul dollars or Bitcoins to buy groceries at the local Food Lion, I would still desire Federal Reserve Notes. The reason is completely tangible: my home is mortgaged. I require Federal Reserve Notes to keep the bank from legally taking my home from me.

    I value my home — for its intrinsic value. Even if the entire planet believed my home was infected with cooties, thus driving the market value of my home to zero, I would still value it since I don’t want to sleep on a park bench, and I don’t want to purchase another home.

    In the real world millions of people are in a similar situation. The dollar is backed by real estate: millions of homes, farms, etc. It is also backed by other forms of debt: car loans, corporate bonds, etc.

    The dollar was originally backed by gold as well, but this is no longer needed — as long as fresh loans with collateral continue to be made.

  • Scott Young

    I think you’ve misunderstood my point.

    I’m not arguing that a currency, whether it’s a fiat currency or backed by some kind of collateral, isn’t valuable. Rather that its value doesn’t come from its intrinsic substance (the paper or metal it was made out of) but the beliefs people attach to that money, namely, that it has value to other people.

    My comments about modern currencies apply equally to older ones of gold, silver or cowrie shells. People desire them primarily as a medium of exchange and not for their intrinsic properties. When people traded in gold, they lusted after gold primarily for its ability to get other things they wanted and not for its metallurgical properties.

    If, through some magic, everyone but you suddenly believed the US dollar had no value (including government officials, bankers, etc.) then it would have no value. You wouldn’t be able to take the US dollar bills and eat them, or use them as building material.

    Your point suggests that the strength of the US dollar as a currency means that this belief is more robust (perhaps than, say, Bitcoin). If the US dollar is backed by assets held by the government, or by legal precedent, or whatever, that means a lot more people would need to believe it has no value for it to lose that value. If we still believe in contract laws, for instance, you might be able to use your dollars to exchange for something intrinsically valuable even if, say, 90% of people believed the dollar was worthless, per your logic. That’s good news, but it’s not really related to the argument I’m making.

    A good example to make this clear, is imagine if you transported into a parallel universe where US dollars didn’t exist. In that universe, you might want to bring your house (as that retains its value regardless of beliefs) but you wouldn’t want to bring money, because it isn’t useful to you unless you can trade it with someone else.

  • Arjunartisan

    Are you sure it’s not gris-gris, not gri-gri?

  • I love this! Especially the line about ‘ascribing names such as “George” to temporally extended masses of flesh and tissue.’ Thanks Scott!

  • Witt Flynn

    The phenomenon you described in this post do have a name. People call this “Tinkerbell Effect”, which is a phenomenon where something is true because a lot of people belief that it is true. Any boundary (eg. city boundary) would be an example. It seems kinda silly to say that the area inside this line is New York city and the area outside it isn’t. Yet this is what we do for administrative purpose. The city official have power inside this well defined area, and none outside it. Same thing with the state, Louisiana law may apply here, but move a few kilometers and you are under Texas Law.

    The reverse would be “Reverse Tinkerbell Effect” where the more people believe something, the more that thing become untrue. For example if i believe the road is really safe, i may drive more recklessly making it less true that the road is safe.

  • Witt Flynn

    Scott, i believe you missed his point. I’m not an economist and so i’m not really qualified to say what the fact of the matter is in this debate. But i believe he is saying that mortgage is backed with U.S. Dollar (by the federal government, i assume). That is if the rest of the world doesn’t want U.S. Dollar tomorrow, i still need it to pay any debt i have with the bank. And if i don’t, they reserve the right to take my property away from me.

    In other word the dollar was backed by gold in the past. But when America abandoned the gold standard, it doesn’t become something that is backed up solely with people “faith”, it’s still backed up with debt. Which is a “renewable resource”, so we won’t ever need the backing of a “real asset” again, is the point that i think he is making in the last paragraph.

  • SplicePebble

    This reminds me of something I learned in a philosophy course in ontology (the nature of reality). The idea was that some things aren’t real in and of themselves but become real in their consequences. With your example of gri-gri, the recipients of the magic aren’t really/objectively bulletproof but as a consequence of gri-gri they are effectively/pragmatically bulletproof.

  • Fred Miller

    I think most placeholder truths are truths that are truths is some defined context. Einstein’s relativity, as Newton’s Laws are true in the context of working with large objects. Reconciling relativity and quantum theory expands the context to different scales. I would consider placeholder truths to be hypotheses that on further analysis can be disproven.

  • Aljedaxi

    Max Stirner referred to most of these as “spooks”, or „Geist“. Anything that relied upon people believing in it (especially those which were/are politically exploitative) was/is a spook.

  • Deepti Km

    Well, taking on debt is just an agreement between institutions. The agreement that was made has to be remembered and interpreted by the parties involved (and courts, collectors and lawyers). If everyone got together and changed their mind about what ‘debt’ meant, then debt would mean something entirely different than it does now. So that reality is constructed too.