The Imagined Order: The Power of Fiction

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is an imagined order? How are imagined orders created?

An imagined order is essentially a rule or restriction that people believe to be real, even if it’s not grounded in an objective reality. Imagined orders are a by-product of the human search for meaning. As people imbue imagined realities (e.g. stories about divinity) with meaning, imagined orders are created in the process.

Keep reading to learn about the concept of an imagined order.

What Is an Imagined Order?

To fully understand “imagined orders,” you must understand the ways in which people perceive reality:

  • Objective reality: a reality that can be proven by science and exists regardless of one’s personal beliefs. For example, gravity is an objective reality. Science has proven the existence of gravity, and it will continue to exist regardless of society’s opinions.
  • Subjective reality: a reality that can’t always be proven by science but feels real to a person or group. For example, pain is a subjective reality. The way that you experience pain is personal to you and may not reflect the way that other people perceive pain.
  • Intersubjective reality: a reality that relies on the communication and communal agreements between large groups of people. For example, money is an intersubjective reality. Human beings have attached worth to otherwise worthless materials. Take away its manufactured worth, and a dollar bill is just a piece of paper.

“Imagined orders” rely on intersubjective reality. Governments and religious entities attach meaning to stories, laws, and gods, creating imagined orders in the process. Once they’ve created the orders, they set punishments and rewards for obeying them. 

For example, the Catholic Church says that practitioners have to go to confession. Failing to attend could cost even the most devout Catholic their spot in heaven. By threatening eternal damnation for disobedience, the Catholic Church protects its imagined order.

Time usually unravels intersubjectivity from objectivity. In fact, it’s easy to embrace past imagined orders as “intersubjective.” For instance, most people accept that the gods of the Greeks and the Romans were purely mythological, even though they were seen as actual gods by people at the time. 

However, most people don’t want to believe that their current beliefs are intersubjective. By removing “objective” meaning, intersubjectivity removes power from “imagined orders” and threatens stability on a national or global scale.

For example, if soldiers no longer believe in the imagined order that dying for your country is noble, they may lose meaning and stop fighting. While they may be controlled by the threat of court martial, if this feeling spreads to hundreds or thousands of soldiers, a country’s military could collapse because it relies on this intersubjective belief to exist.

Without imagined orders, society could collapse into chaos and anarchy. For example, if the dollar bill suddenly stopped holding any meaning, the entire economy would collapse. No one would know how to move forward because the imagined orders that people had created to exchange goods and services would no longer exist. 

The Imagined Order: The Power of Fiction

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  • Why technology is replacing humanist ideals
  • How previous generations relied on prayer to deal with serious problems
  • How AI and algorithms are going to run the world

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