Last weekend I saw a photograph of a small statue from about 30,000 years ago showing a human figure with the head of a lion. It was not a particularly sophisticated sculpture, but it clearly was a human-looking figure with an animal head.
The important thing about this small sculpture is what it says about human beings. No doubt 30,000 years ago seems like an awfully long time, yet even that far back, people were similar enough to modern humans to be able to imagine something that did not exist. Whatever else we might think about people from that time, they had the ability to mentally picture something far beyond the physical reality they lived in.
I was visiting friends in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week where I borrowed a book I’m reading now, called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. The book so far has been filled with ideas I’ve never considered, which makes it compelling to read. One point the author makes is that if we start with the physical world and the biology of a human being, much of our modern world consists of fiction, of things that exist only as ideas in our heads.
For example, money is fictional. Ten dollars can be a piece of gold in the shape of a coin, or ten pieces of printed paper, or the movement of electrons in a computer. Nowadays, in fact, money is most often abstracted down to nothing but an idea, such as when we make a purchase with a debit card and “money” is taken from the bank. In reality, money is only an idea that exists because we all agree to it.
The book Sapiens also argues that the “fiction” idea applies to organizations and countries, which also exist only because we agree they do. If tomorrow everyone agreed that Texas was at long last a separate cranky country, it would be, just because we all said so. Contrast this with the physical world, which does not depend on what we think. No matter how many people agree that an oak tree is a butterfly, you just have to look at them to see the difference.
Whether you can easily accept these arguments or not, you can probably see, at least with the money example, that many things do depend on the human imagination. We seem to be inherently wired for imagination. Being human means to have a capacity for fiction, for mentally picturing what does not exist.
As a writer of fiction, I’m struck by the idea that fiction itself is one of the things that makes us human, as well as by the idea that using fiction has helped us to create the civilization and cultures we live in. Of course this creation has both its positive and negative sides. We’ve created an awful lot of hideously stupid and harmful things, like racism, and we’re not done yet with our appalling sprawl of misery.
On the positive side, our imagination has allowed us to create not only good things, like the idea of justice—which doesn’t really exist, but it’s a nice idea—as well as myths and stories that we use to try to make sense of the kaleidoscopic chaos reality requires us to live in. And with the fairly recent invention of writing (about 4,000 years ago) we’ve been able to develop our imagination into amazing things, like Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and the Star Wars movies.
So most evenings, I’m sitting at my desk, doing something quintessentially human, imagining what doesn’t exist, like characters in a book.