Without religion and while we lose faith in the institutions that we saw as the savior for liberalism, we are found grappling for truth yet again. The scientific world places its full significance on this one value, but we seem to never quite find it. It makes me wonder: is the truth really out there?
Humans have not been around for long. Scholar Jamie Wheale points out that if you took all the time that life has been on earth and compressed it into a 24 hour day, anatomically modern humans wouldn’t appear until the last four seconds — the last few ticks of 11:59 pm. Despite having an outsized impact on the world in the short time that we have been here, it’s hard to comprehend how short the time actually is. It is almost impossible to imagine a world in which humans weren’t at the top of the food chain and had not achieved world domination. Yet this was the case just 150,000 years ago.
In Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, he details the story of how humans went from just another animal to becoming kingpins.
If I was alive then, I wouldn’t be betting on Homo sapiens. In fact, in the first battle between Neanderthals and us, we were left licking our wounds, retreating from the territory we so desperately sought. We had the ambition but not the tools.
Between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, though, humans gained a special power: the ability to create collective truths.
While many would point to the explosion in innovation as the source of human success, that approach looks to the effect rather than the cause. The real secret behind human advancement was our ability to tell and believe stories. It is the power of fiction that gives us the opporutnity join something greater than ourselves — the belief in a collective truth — that allows us to flourish.
How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.
Most of us would agree that the myths of these ancient cultures weren’t based in reality. They were fiction. But that didn’t matter. For humans, they didn’t need scientific proofs to succeed; they just needed something to believe in.
The truth isn’t important; believing that it exists, though, is.