Gri-Gri, Money and Bootstrapped Truths

Why does money have value? After all, if I went with some colorful feathers and tried to use them to purchase a hamburger, I’d get laughed right out of McDonald’s. Then, why do colorful pieces of paper and metal work instead?

According to Yuval Harari in his book Sapiens, the answer is that the value of money is a shared myth. The value of money works not by getting you to believe money has value, but by convincing you that other people value money. Since other people value it, you will value it and thus a stable equilibrium forms where people share the useful hallucination that paper and coins mean something.

This fascinates me because it’s an example of bootstrapping truth into a false idea. Money doesn’t have value, unless you believe other people think it does, which causes it to have value for you, which causes it to have value for everyone. Weird.

Which brings me to gri-gri.

Can Shamans Make You Bulletproof?

Apparently, in South Kivu of Congo, local elders have been forging magical spells which make the bearers immune to bullets.

What’s more interesting, is that it actually seems to work.

Those who have the magical spell, known as gri-gri, are able to overcome armed thugs and attackers. In regions which are prone to violence, this has had a positive effect, allowing locals to resist attack and establish peace. Since the spell only works if the bearer adheres to certain moral codes of conduct, gri-gri can’t be used by the bad guys.

What seems to be happening here is that gri-gri, like money, bootstraps truth into itself. The armed attackers are greatly outnumbered by the unarmed civilians. Even with a weapon, a group of unarmed people could quickly overpower someone with a gun. However, most people are too afraid of being shot to stand up and do something. With gri-gri, however, groups of people aren’t afraid to collectively work to disarm the attackers.

A myth in being bulletproof allows people to become less likely victims of violence.

Bootstrapping Truth

There doesn’t seem to be a good word for what’s going on with gri-gri or money.

Saying the ideas are false is plainly wrong. Money clearly has economic value. While one can debate the importance of such value, nobody practically denies that money can be used to buy things and that other people value it. Gri-gri may not make people bulletproof, but combined with a shared belief in local magic, it has had at least partially the effect of reducing such types of violence.

But saying these ideas are true is also more complicated. Money is just paper, coins and, increasingly, the direction of spins of electrons on large ferromagnetic discs somewhere. Make tiny changes to those spins and the value disappears.

Instead, these ideas are true, but only within a particular background context and communal beliefs. Gri-gri isn’t true in suburban North America. Money has no value in isolated, hunter-gatherer societies.

True by Convention?

Money and gri-gri aren’t the only examples of bootstrapped truths. Seemingly much of what we know is at least partially defined conventions rather than facts on the ground.

The meaning of words is such a conventional truth. Everything I’m saying right now only makes sense because we agree on the meaning of certain strings of symbols.

Truths about our institutions are also created by convention. Everyone agrees George Washington was the first American president. But to do so, we all have to agree on what it means to be president, that there are things called nations and the United States is one of them, and even on ascribing names such as “George” to temporally extended masses of flesh and tissue.

Even scientific theories are also true by a sort of convention. We know that Einstein’s equations for relativity is the “truth” of gravity. But scientists also know that these equations are currently incompatible with quantum physics in a way that suggests the former are probably not the final word on the matter. Therefore, we agree that in some sense Einstein’s equations are “true” even though we know that they will probably be replaced by something more “true” when science advances.

And all of this is beginning to sound like a typical conversation between second year philosophy students who’ve smoked too much pot.

Expanding Vocabulary

The point of all this isn’t to cast doubt on everything in reality. The vertigo from realizing that many facts are as much collaborative creations as they are derived from objective circumstances only lasts a little while until you realize just how amazingly stable those truths are.

Fake news is still fake news. When people lie, in a conventional sense, there’s an important way in that they’re really lying, and not that everything just boils down to some kind of confusing postmodern relativistic soup.

However, what I think is the value of this shift in thinking is that it shows the paucity of the English language. It would be really nice if we had different words for different types of truths, which are true in different ways, rather than just the typical set of “fact,” “lie,” or “opinion.”

In particular, I would propose:

  • Conventional truths. Truths which are only true in light of shared cultural agreements. That the United States is a country is such a truth, because if we didn’t culturally have the concept of nation states, that sentence wouldn’t mean anything.
  • Placeholder truths. Truths which we know are probably false, but are our current best guess of what is really true. Much of science is a placeholder truth. Einstein’s relativity is probably not the last word, but it’s still fantastically accurate enough to be called true.
  • Bootstrapped truths. Falsehoods which become true by their shared belief. The value of money and effectiveness of gri-gri are such truths because they only become true once a certain mass of people believe them.
  • Beneficial lies. These would be falsehoods whose truth value remains unchanged by widespread adoption (i.e. they still don’t work) but have collateral benefits which are positive enough to encourage their continued propagation. Many rituals work this way because the consequences of their stated rationale is negligible, but they create spillover into greater group solidarity or social harmony.

I’m sure there are even more exotic species of truths and falsehoods that someone much smarter than me has already explored and labeled taxonomically. How about the converse to bootstrapped truths? Something that is true, but becomes false when too many people believe it (e.g. the belief that a particular stock is underpriced)?

The postmodern insight, in my mind, wasn’t that knowledge is impossible and we’re all swimming in a cesspool of meaninglessness and falsehoods, but simply that things are more complicated than just true or false, there’s shades of true, things we’ve made true by convention and things which change their veracity based on who believes them.

Note: Much of this article is inspired by Harari’s Sapiens. We’re currently (July 2017) discussing this book in our monthly book club. Join the discussion!

Book Club: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (June 2017)

Kalid Azad and I discuss June’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. We discuss the practical implications of the book as well as some of its loftier philosophical ambitions.

If you would rather read the transcript, download it here.

Below are some highlights:

…on the analytical “knife” and what is created/destroyed in the process of thinking:

Scott: I want to move on to an idea that you’ve previously mentioned: the idea of an analytical knife. It’s the idea that how we conceptualize the world is like a knife cutting up the world at the joints.

I think it’s often discussed in a destructive process or a negative light whereas I thought that the book handled this with aplomb and showed how it’s useful. But it also showed that by cutting something you are destroying it to a certain extent. What are your thoughts on this dual nature of the analytical knife?

Kalid: The author mentioned that when you cut something you are basically creating something and destroying something. So when you separate things into components you’re taking a different view that’s more microscopic and you might miss the big picture. So you might see more detail but you’re missing the Gestalt overall experience. I thought it was interesting.

So if we’re talking about Geometry for example do you ever allow those two parallel lines to meet? It will change your view of the universe. The meta lesson that I’m getting from it is that essentially choice in life is quite important and we’re actually not aware of it. But we need to look at why we chose that knife.

…on whether we agree with the metaphysics of the book:

Scott: Let’s touch on the meta-physics. What is the big idea of this book? For me, the book has so many little insights and discussions. It’s so well written in so many ways, I feel as though, even if you went through and it didn’t like the meta-physical lessons, it’s still such a valuable ride.

Kalid: I am a pragmatist on these types of things. I go through it thinking, does this worldview help or hurt me? Does it make me live a life more consistent with the values I actually care about? And I think it does.

Scott: However, on the meta-physical end I do have two opinions on that. My first opinion is that I have a general doubt about meta-physics in general. My favorite quote comes from Tyler Cowen (renowned economist) he was asked about why he is is agnostic.

His opinion of this is when you come across a watch in the desert, you can form some analogies about it such as its design, who created it, etc. because you have other experiences not having to do with the watch. However, we never come across the universe because we are embedded in it. Therefore our analogies are a bit naive because we are implying reasoning about the part from within the whole. There is something to be said for that.

Where I do disagree, theoretically with this idea, personally, is that I do feel perceptions of value are emergent phenomena in the universe. The fundamental “things” are probably not values but field theories or something like that. Value comes at a level of complexity at a level much higher up on the chain.

For those of you who want to read the book, it is available here. If you want to participate in the group discussion for the book, throughout the month, you can join our book club here.

Special thanks to Kalid Azad. His website, Better Explained, is a great resource for learning mathematics.

The book for July 2017 will be Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.