So, as a first attempt at understanding his book, these various strands of interest should be distinguished. Here I will concern myself only with one major and fundamental confusion, which is embraced or covered over by the use of the word “fiction” and by the phrase “common imagination.”
To clear up this confusion, we must start — as does Harari — with the distinction between humans beings and animals.
Watch the following video in which Herari tries to explain this difference (as well as other topics).
Commentary: He says that the difference between humans and animals is the fact that humans can cooperate more widely than, lets say, chimpanzees. That is true. But this cooperation is possible because we humans have a “human” language which no other animal does or can have. This allows us to share information with others and to make agreements. But from this elementary truth, he quickly jumps to the idea that we tell each other stories which gain acceptance. And he calls these stories “fictions,” giving the institution of money as a prime example. But then, in the same vein of thinking, he talks about religions and their “fictions.”
This is confusing. The word “fiction” is a pejorative term which suggests that what is talked about is not real in some sense of “real.” I was similarly confused by the title of the book, Bentham’s Theory of Fictions, until I realized that Bentham was referring to abstract (non sensorial) concepts as “fictions” and reserved the term “fables” for mythological stories. Harari, unfortunately, does not make this distinction, but conflates it.
With the use of language, humans can make agreements. However, we must distinguish those agreements which make a language possible in the first place, from the kinds of agreements which we can make by the use of language. An elementary feature of language is the existence of names. An animal is able to associate a sound with some object or activity, but only a human is able to understand that the sound “water” is, let us say, a common name in a language for water.
With the working of a language, which could be described, though not happily, with Harari’s phrase as existing in a “common imagination” and as a “fiction” (= creation of the mind), different activities are possible through Speech Acts. As an antidote to what Harari writes, I urge the reader to get acquainted with what John Searle had written and lectured on Speech Acts. See:
Searle distinguished five types of speech acts: Assertives, Expressives, Directives, Commissives, Declarations.
Harari’s confusion is explicitly present in the following summary paragraph:
“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” (Sapience, p. 28)
The claim that there are or that there are not gods is an Assertive which can be true or false — no matter how many people believe it. But to make such an assertion requires possession of a language, and a language exists — so to say — in a “common imagination.” But this is simply to note that an assertion can be made only is a language, and that a language exists only in humans. But the question of whether the assertion is true or not, is independent of what anyone asserts or believes. By “common imagination,” can only mean here that a community subscribes to some assertion or claim.
As concerns the term “nation,” it is a term of classification. In one sense, classes exist outside of human classification, but humans can choose which classes to use. As I use the term, a nation is composed of all the people who use a common language and give that language a preferential status. This could be my idiosyncratic understanding, but if others agree with me, then that is the meaning of the term for us. But here we are dealing with the elementary level of what does a word mean, and not with any assertion as is done, for example, with religious beliefs. I also know that the term “nation” or “nationality” is used by others in something like a disjunctive manner: A person is a member of the nation (or nationality) N if A or B or C or . . . And various things can be put for the variables. All this shows is that the terms “nation” and “nationality,” as commonly used, are ambiguous and vague.
As to rights and laws, these are the result of implicit or explicit Declarations. And declarations are either by common agreement, or by the declaration of some authority, such as a legislature or a judge. Justice, as I conceive it, is simply the abiding by agreements.
Harari has managed to conflate all these distinctions by saying that they all depend on a “common imagination.” And this conflation is not confined to some segment of his book but pervades it.