“Man is split in two,” wrote Ernest Becker in The Denial Of Death.
Humans are the only animals that can imagine the future. And so, imagine the future in which they are no longer alive.
To deal with its mortality, the mind creates an immortal story about itself: the ego. The ego can defy destiny by living on in culture, in the hearts and minds of other people. Hence, it tells big stories, builds empires and self-expresses in art. Egos make meaning to deal with the impermanence of life.
Man is split between a body destined to die and a mind that imagines living forever.
Monkeys playing language games
Imagination works through language.
We use language to build mental models of the messy world around us, and share them with others as stories. Storytelling networks individual minds into a collectively imagined reality, better known as culture.
Culture is what happens in-between minds: the inter-subjective. It operates from intimate to epic levels.
Intimate culture is what comes naturally between family and friends.
Imagine you and a stranger sharing a room. As your experiences mesh together, a shared inter-subjective experiences organically configures. You'll coordinate on what you want and don't want to happen. For example, neither will want to be hurt by the other and so, implicitly or explicitly, you'll co-create a value — violence is bad, non-violence is good — that regulates behaviour and creates mutual trust. With time, interactions will continue to develop values into a shared culture that in, in turn, will enforce itself into habits. Longer-term, these habits become traditions.
Many mammals share intimate culture, too. Humans are unique for sharing culture across loads of strangers they don't directly interact with. Intimacy is sacrificed for scale.
At epic scale, culture replaces personal trust with grand stories we all believe in. Narratives like capitalism, democracy and Christianity, but also human rights, money and Nike. They have no grounds in the natural world, but are products of mind — crafted and shared through language — that become real as we collectively believe in them.
"You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven." — Yuval Noah Harari
Imagining together is the mind’s triumph over bodily constraints. It mass-socialises us. No other animal can get millions of strangers to work together as a tribe.
While the first humans used imagination to outsmart prey and predators, our web of minds now programs the biosphere rather than vice-versa. Much like nature selects genes, culture selects ideas.
Ideas on what is good and bad program human behaviour through culture: norms, values, religions and ideologies — encoded in laws and institutions.
Ideas on how to achieve more with less program the environment through technology — embodied in objects and structures.
Banks, courts, presidents, books, paintings, Rubik’s cubes, cars, computers, and spaceships are language games made real.
Daydreams come true
The mind fantasises about life beyond the body. Fantasies network together into a new layer of reality: culture.
At first, the body drives the mind. Nature shapes culture. Over time, the axis shifts. Collective consciousness designs the world to fit its fantasy. New minds are born into the mind-made world and keep the daydream going.
"Myths are public dreams. Dreams are private myths." — Joseph Campbell
The fantasy is real. It just doesn't start out as matter and atoms — but as perceptions, images, memories, puns, points of view, ideas, stories and hope. First private, then intimate, then public, eventually epic.
“We seldom realise that our most thoughts and emotions are not our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by culture." — Alan Watts
Philosopher Ken Wilber extends the mind-body paradox to map reality as follows:
- Subjective — The mind, its thoughts, emotions, perceptions.
- Objective — The body, its abilities and behaviours.
- Inter-subjective — Shared values, ideas, stories.
- Inter-objective — Shared material world, its objects, technologies and institutions.
“Our intellect does not draw its laws from nature, but imposes its laws upon nature.” — Karl Popper
Thought and the reflexive sharing thereof is what sets apart the human from the natural world. It is from and through thought that human history has taken its course.
What about economics and politics?
All animals engage in economics — the struggle for scarce resources. All animals living in communities engage in social hierarchy — politics. Human economics (e.g. money) and politics (e.g. democracy) so differ from what we observe in nature because of the cultures and technologies we have constructed by sharing ideas, stories, concepts.
Ever-developing products of collective consciousness, culture and technology have exponentially scaled the complexity of politics and economics as building blocks of human civilisation. Ushering in the age of humans and transforming Earth in what futurist Kevin Kelly calls the Technium:
“This global-scaled network of systems, subsystems, machines, pipes, roads, wires, conveyor belts, automobiles, servers and routers, institutions, laws, calculators, sensors, works of art, archives, activators, collective memory, and power generators – this whole grand system of interrelated and interdependent pieces forms a very primitive organism-like system.” — Kevin Kelly