Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2020/ Collective Delusions

Collective Delusions

It has become clich├ęd to say so, but money only works because we believe in it. It is a form of collective delusion. If you do not believe that my coins and bills have value, then you will not accept them from me in exchange for things I want.

Every so often this principle becomes evident when something we thought was money stops being so, or vice versa. I used to be able to exchange copper pennies for goods and services. As far as I know, I can no longer do so. Copper pennies still exist, but we no longer believe they are worth one cent each. Overall, we are believing in cash less and less. I cannot pay for a passport (a Canadian government document!) using paper money. In these days of COVID19, stores want me to pay with a debit or credit card, and only reluctantly accept cash.

On the other side of the ledger is cryptocurrency. For some reason we believe that Bitcoins have value, but the value we assign to them fluctuates wildly. In principle (although I do not think in practice) that value reflects the goods and services we think we can exchange for a Bitcoin at any given time. If we stop believing in Bitcoins then they lose all their value.

Money is a clear and pure example of collective delusion, but there are others. Another relatively-pure example is language. If I speak words to you and you do not acknowledge those words as having meaning, then my language has no value. Similarly, if I use words and the ways we understand those words are completely different, then language is not working. We can see a version of this in the way body language differs between dogs and cats. Dogs wag their tails when they are happy and excited. Cats wag their tails when they are upset. Dogs that misinterpret this body language frequently get swatted on the snout for their troubles.

I know there are philosophical debates as to whether words can mean identical things for any of us, but these do not concern me that much. I feel that on a practical level language breakdowns result in a lot of conflict. This is particularly apparent in politically-charged discourse. What does "liberty" mean? "Freedom"? On a less abstract level, even the phrase "Universal Basic Income" means different things to different people. When we do not talk about the same things then the value of language is diminished.

When discussing collective delusions we have to be careful. I do not feel that every interaction between people falls into this category. I am not sure that every instance of shared belief does either. The key is that without the shared belief the entire concept falls apart. Things that have consequences independent of our beliefs in them should not be classified as collective delusion, or the concept becomes so broad that it loses its meaning. However, it might be worth thinking of collective delusion as a spectrum, with some concepts depending upon it more and some less.

Like money, status symbols seem to derive a lot of their value from collective delusion. A fancy bicycle has some independent value, because you can ride the bicycle and go places regardless of how much other people value it. But the bicycle gains a lot of additional value because other people see how fancy it is. Expensive art is another such good; I can enjoy a piece of art regardless of its market value, but if you believe that the art has a higher value because of its pedigree or rarity, then it is more valuable.

Science has elements of collective delusion (especially in how we categorize fields of study) but it does not depend upon it much at all. If I make a claim of truth/value on a scientific matter, then whole point is that this truth holds whether you believe it or not, and that you can independently verify or refute this claim without my involvement.

The law is an interesting case study. Clearly if nobody believes in a law any more it has no value. Homosexuality used to be against the law. Now it is not (at least not in this country). Nothing objective changed about homosexuality, but our perceptions of homosexuality have shifted, so the force of the law on homosexuals have changed, with real consequences for them/us. Marijuana laws may be another example of this, although it seems to me that consumption of marijuana has societal consequences that homosexuality does not. (Then again, opponents of decriminalized homosexuality would probably argue the same.)

On the other hand, some laws have real consequences whether we believe in them or not. If we get rid of laws outlawing theft or murder, then (maybe?) there are real consequences for society, because those laws enable trust in each other, which has all kinds of consequence. If I went to the Farmers' Market knowing that any of the vendors might stab me to death without consequence, maybe I would go to the Farmers' Market less often. Although there are elements of the law that seem like collective delusion, I do not think that is a complete explanation.

Narrative is another interesting case. Some forms of narrative are independently verifiable, such as news stories, but even news stories can be framed in different ways. Fictional narratives depend upon collective belief ("the suspension of disbelief") in order to work, but we can at least classify fiction as such even if we do not think it is convincing.

On the other hand, I do feel there are narratives where collective delusion plays a large role. Religious and cultural myths come to mind here. When we believe those myths are true then they take on a cultural force that shapes our collective behavior. When we stop believing in those myths then they lose their power. One example that comes to mind is the myth of Canadian multiculturalism: that we are a cultural mosaic of tolerant and friendly people. I grew up being taught that myth, but now it is under attack, because our history (slavery in Canada, residential schools, the Chinese head tax) does not reflect those ideals.

This is a tough one. Clearly there have been historical injustices, and clearly we should acknowledge and address those injustices. But it is not clear to me that the narrative of Canadian tolerance and multiculturalism should be thrown away because we have not lived up to it thus far. If we believe we are a tolerant and multicultural society, and orient our laws to reflect those values, then we can grow closer to those ideals. That is a collective delusion. But if we conclude from our ugly past that we are an ugly people and orient our values in that direction, that is a collective delusion as well. I am not sure that our past conduct should be the determining factor in the national mythology we try to live up to, but it is so easy to use those ideals to whitewash the evils we do behind the scenes (Canadian mining companies, anyone?).

Overall I feel that the culture wars are a struggle about our collective delusions. The beliefs we hold once this is all over (as if it will ever be "all over") will determine what narratives we give power to, and which we don't.

No doubt this idea of collective delusion has a better name, and has been articulated much more clearly by others. It is no doubt incorrect in ways I do not comprehend. That is okay. I am not trying to invent something new. By working through a concept and writing it out, maybe I can understand it better for myself.