The Lie of Useful Fictions

While writing about the helpful analysis described in Agile Conversations, I mentioned that I had some concerns with the book. While the analysis method draws upon solid scientific studies and I have personally found the conversation types useful in identifying and engaging in the different interactions that I have with my co-workers, the foundation upon which the authors built bothered me. The fundamental reason that the authors give for why conversations are effective at changing culture is as follows:

"Though our ability to gossip surpasses that of other species, [Yuval] Harari says that what is really unique about human language is our ability to discuss non-existent things. (Sapiens, Ch. 2). With this special power, we are able to create and believe shared fictions. These fictions allow us to collaborate at tremendous scales and across groups of people who have never met. In this way, a community's belief in a crocodile-headed god can create flood control works on the Nile, as described by Harari in another of his books, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Homo Deus, 158). And a shared belief in continuous improvement can allow us to create a learning environment and a performance-oriented culture rather than a power-oriented or rule-oriented culture, as described in Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and DevOps: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, and Gene Kim (Accelerate, 31)."

What triggered the most negative reaction was the concept of "shared fiction". The idea that fictions enabled large groups to collaborate didn't make sense. Rather than dismissing my reaction, I went in pursuit of what it was that bothered me, starting with a rough definition of "shared fiction".

I went to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary and pulled the following definition for "shared":

  • used, done, belonging to, or experienced by two or more individuals

And the following definitions for "fiction":

  • something invented by the imagination or feigned
  • an assumption of a possibility as a fact irrespective of the question of its truth

After seeing these definitions, my initial reaction was to cynically and naively reword the last sentence into the laughable statement: "And if we feigned that continuous improvement could actually happen, then we could create a learning environment and a performance-oriented culture rather than a power-oriented or rule-oriented culture..." Such a statement reminds me of the fairy tale about the Emperor's New Clothes. Just pretend and everyone will play right along until someone points out the obvious. While the rewording was overly simplistic in its application of the definitions, it led me to wonder what Yuval Harari meant when he used the word "fiction".

In an interview that he gave to the Smithsonian Magazine, Yuval Harari states:

"The truly unique trait of Sapiens [that is, human beings] is our ability to create and believe fiction. All other animals use their communication systems to describe reality. We use our communication systems to create new realities. Of course, not all fictions are shared by all humans, but at least one has become universal in our world, and this is money. Dollar bills have absolutely no value except in our collective imagination, but everyone believes in the dollar bill."

This division between the physical paper of the dollar bill and its accepted value provides a clue to what Yuval Harari means when he speaks of shared fictions. If I understand what he means, then Harari is saying that a shared fiction is a fiction that a group of people agree exists when it does not exist. I know of another more unpleasant word for "saying that something exists when it does not exist": a lie. Of course, claiming that Harari is saying the Egyptians were lying to each other about the crocodile-headed god of the Nile falls into the trap of believing that we humans can achieve perfect knowledge of the reality around us. This trap is well summarized by the authors of Agile Conversations in the section on cognitive biases that follows the paragraph I quoted from the book.

Another angle on the separation between the physical dollar and its agreed value is that there is no scientific experiment from which we can determine the value of the dollar bill. To put it another way, there is no empirical evidence from the dollar bill itself that would determine its value. Applying this pattern to what Harari says about the crocodile-headed god of the Nile, it seems to match up. The definition for "shared fiction" appears to be: "something that two or more people claim to exist that has no scientific, empirical or sensible evidence to confirm its existence." Turning to the claim in Agile conversations about a shared belief in continuous improvement, it appears that "shared fiction" as described by Harari and "shared belief" as described by Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick are synonymous.

If we applied this definition broadly, I fear we would find that justice, mercy, and peace would be categorized as "shared fictions". If that is over-broad, I would greatly appreciate being corrected, but based on Harari's application of this definition across science, legal theory, and religion, I find the case rather difficult to make. This definition of "shared fiction" appears to assume that "reality" would be defined as "something that has scientific, empirical, or sensible evidence to confirm its existence." These two definitions, as water-tight as they may seem, are incorrect. I will first deal with the definition of "reality" and then the definition of "shared fiction".

First, how do we know that reality is limited to scientific, empirical, or sensible evidence? If this is certain then we should be able to find such evidence to confirm it, and yet we don't. One example is the Borde-Vilenkin-Guth Proof in physics, which indicates that any universe that has an average expansion rate greater than zero must have a beginning. Since our universe does have an average expansion rate greater than zero and nothing comes from nothing, something had to begin the universe. Now, scientific, empirical, and sensible evidence requires a universe to exist in the first place, yet it would be ridiculous to claim that a fiction brought reality into existence. Another example is from a longitudinal study of near-death experiences reported in The Lancet (van Lommel, et al 2001). In that study, they determined that the near-death experiences of the patients had no physical or medical root. Included in that study are examples of patients blind from birth who were able to accurately describe the people and environment around them during their near-death experience. In both of these examples*, we have indications that reality extends beyond scientific, empirical, or sensible evidence.

Second, if reality does indeed extend beyond scientific, empirical, or sensible evidence, that would contradict the definition of "shared fiction". One potential way to solve this contradiction would be to claim, as Harari does, that when we create "shared fictions" we create new realities. This goes against the basic common sense principle that something greater cannot come from something lesser. As we human beings are part of reality, and the part cannot be greater than the whole, then we cannot create a radically new reality to replace the existing reality. In addition, we human beings build fictions out of reality, which means that reality must be greater than fiction. Another potential way to resolve this contradiction is to point to examples of people who believed in crocodile-headed gods that didn't exist and how this "shared fiction" enabled them to collaborate with each other, as if to say that "if we can do great things by believing that non-realities are real, then so be it." However, believing that non-realities are real can be summed up in another unpleasant word: "insanity". I don't see how collective insanity would be an improvement to human life; it reminds me of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor who claimed he was greater than Christ since he would ensure people would go to heaven by teaching them that sin was a fiction, even if it meant that he would burn in hell for it.

Now, the authors of Agile Conversations don't say they are spreading a "shared fiction", though they do hint at it. "[A] shared belief in continuous improvement can allow us to create a learning environment and a performance-oriented culture." The authors made a slight adjustment in switching from "shared fiction" to "shared belief". While we may invent fiction, we don't invent belief. Beliefs are often the result of observing the world and drawing conclusions. For example, I believe that I will see the sun tomorrow. However, by using the two terms in the same paragraph in a synonymous way, it appears that Squirrel and Frederick do mean to treat the idea of continuous improvement as a fiction that we should share for the benefit of others. I would posit that this effectively undermines the goal of their entire book, as it would be difficult to build trust and mitigate fear if we believed that all our work, in reality, was for a shared fiction. If that is the case, then something must have gone very, very wrong.

All this being said, there is much that was good to consider and helpful to use when working with others, so there is something "real" and not "fiction" in the book. With this in mind, I will attempt to identify in my next blog post a better foundation that would allow the book to be effective and truly promote the well-being of those who follow the conversational analysis as described in its pages.

Since I've made some very sweeping statements in this blog post, please reach out to me in case I got something wrong or missed a nuance. I want to make sure that my thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs are in alignment with reality, and that I'm not spreading a lie or encouraging insanity.

* These examples were pulled from The Big Book on https://www.crediblecatholic.com.

2 thoughts on “The Lie of Useful Fictions”

  1. Let me suggest an alternative way of thinking about these concepts. Perhaps the dichotomy between reality and fiction is not itself very meaningful. That is, our perception of reality is necessarily filtered by our inability to comprehend reality in its fullness. You might even say that we see a dim reflection of reality. If that’s the case, then perhaps we can describe our attempts to make sense of the world around us as model building. All of our models will be wrong (in the sense that completeness is unattainable), some of our models will be useful. Context, scope, and goals become essential in evaluating the usefulness of various models.

    If we think of models, rather than fictions, we can see the power of promoting a more useful shared model. Better models of human interactions can create better experiences for us. If we help create better experiences for ourselves and those around us, haven’t we created a new, better reality?

    1. I think John’s comment is closer to the mark.

      He asserts that the dichotomy is very flat and obvious. The entire question is contingent upon reality being reality as well as being within the grasp of humans to understand. However, such understanding can only be obtained unto the degree of the information that we can extract from reality itself. Which is to say those blind from birth cannot comprehend color, but they still have access to mathematics in spite of their physical limits.

      We can create assumptions about how things work and test those models against what limited data we have available; this leaves room for continual development of our selves and society. In other words, we certainly can always aim to renew the world around us by better adapting to the intrinsic laws of nature or reality itself.

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