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False Truths Social Lies

If memory serves, I came across the following statement reading @naval’s tweets:

Society is a collection of individuals who have decided to forget something in common.

At first glance, the statement is an incendiary comment about the nature of the collective, though not necessarily anti-social; there is no moralization attached unless one considers the highest principle of morality to align themself with Truth (one could do worse than this). Yet, there is a penetrating quality even at the outset. To the admonishment of that pesky German’s voice (1), I’d like to expand upon this idea of “false truths”, “forgotten truths”, or “social lies” as I sometimes think about them, in a few examples within this note - a smarter one than I, calling them “social truths” form time to time (2).

The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it: it is here, perhaps, that our new language sounds most strangely. The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life- preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing, and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live–that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil.

Beyond Good and Evil, Prejudices of Philosophers #4, F. Nietzsche (1886)

If you have been on this planet long enough, I hope you have, you are presumably fascinated and frustrated by the paradoxes present therein - comical wisdom of nature to provide us with embedded entertainment. The absurd nature of reality is often central to Oriental instruction, particularly in metaphysics and spirituality. That, for example, a false statement can be true seems, to those of us not blessed in natural instinct toward formal logic, a contradiction. If the reader does not object to but for a singular example dripping with irony:

“Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” Tao Te Ching, Master Lao Tzu

The concept of “social lies”, in a specific case, is described by the philosopher Rene Girard in Mimetic Theory - a description of the origin of religion and culture. Girard argues in his landmark title Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World that the locus of culture and society began with a secret, a forgotten truth: a founding murder (3). Girard’s analysis of primitive and contemporary myth, up to and including Christianity, yields the theory that, in part, the purpose of myth, the sacred, and its persistence through culture, has been to carry the species-preserving quality of the scapegoat mechanism. The scapegoat mechanism, to recklessly simplify more than is prudent to do so, is a process in which the collective, at a moment of crisis, selects an individual possessing the dual status of “insider” and “outsider”, to persecute and blame for the collective’s pain, anxiety, and ailments. Such persecution often ends in a murder which, according to Girard, offers a temporary panacea to the crisis, only to repeat at a future junction. The mechanism serves to combat what Girard (and others (4)) consider an implicit and inescapable property of human social systems: envy, mimesis, and mimetic desire. For example, the slim harvest of autumn and rationing required to make it through winter was the fault of a nearby witch living on the lake, who must be murdered to quash further consequences for the town. For the readers lacking prerequisites in this domain, unfortunately, I must leave you afloat here to explore these concepts in greater depth to conserve length.

An intriguing consideration of Girard’s theory is the central observation that social lies are hidden in plain sight. Girard offers an interpretation of myth that highlights the essential effacement of its origin (i.e., collective persecution and murder), opting to recast instead into “voluntary sacrifice” that is characteristic of mythopoetic tales. In doing so, Girard argues, the adaptive process which has served to keep the collective united persists through time (5). Girard further elaborates upon the adaptive mechanism solidifying itself into collective conscious through the unifying idea of “the sacred”; the significance of the mechanism can only be expressed in full weight by its ability to wholly overwhelm the individual’s instinct and desire for survival and reproduction (6). The idea of the sacred as transcendent to the collective elucidates the power of this adaptation to preserve the culture past the point of crisis; it holds and pulls the group of today through it. In this regard, if true, the consequential phenotype expressed as individual possession by the “madness of crowds” is wholly understood; the capacity for emotions to override the pre-frontal executive functions (7) serving to motivate action - the unification of such action against the persecuted (in absence of possibility for deterrence by rationality) serving to keep the collective together.

The possibility of perceiving “forgotten truths” as objectionable is not lost here. Using an altogether different example, ignoring its irony, we can demarcate the profit obtained from “social lies”; the rhetoric offered in the anthropological title Sapiens by Yuval Hareri provides us two such examples. Hareri points out that social ideas such as corporations and nation-states, are in fact agreed upon fictions. Both ideas, from the perspective of social utility (measured as survival and reproduction of the collective), however, are beneficial (8); in this way, humans, like other animals, are simply architects of the structures which house their physical and mental being (9). The truth of the circumstance is revealed in the very technical language present in the legal framework:

A corporation is an entity that acts as a single, fictional person. Much like an actual person, a corporation may sue, be sued, lend, and borrow.

Nietzsche describes in the quotation for BGE above,

“the question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life- preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing, and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions”.

That is, though intelligibly false, a certain opinion or concept can be useful in its capacity to further the species; in the above example the capacity for coordination of capital and labour, as well as social consensus and adjudication of disagreements using the constructs of corporations, nation-states, and contract law, respectively. The consequences of concession for employing illusions, however practical, must be underscored though - at least for the individuals looking for potential value in what lies hidden (10).

Social proof is a heuristic used to evaluate and filter prospective challenges - serving to conserve mental bandwidth. The internal logic observes that by the multiplicative effect of others’ reasoning and positive conclusions, it is probable that the decision made is of good quality; the so-called, “wisdom of the crowds”.

What is central to this observation is that if one is seeking average outcomes, the use of social consensus tools is valuable when time (or desired effort) is scarce. A corollary is that in pursuit of non-mean outcomes, consensus may provide the very antonym to the desired result.

“Wide diversification is only required when investors do not understand what they are doing.”

W. Buffet

Where wisdom can become folly is with the collective choosing, under some pressure or crisis, to unilaterally concede on a given position. More too, is the matter of determinate layers in which the consensus has been made - a question of depth and abstraction: dig deep enough into any field and you will, in time, discover the madness and confusion that lies at the epistemic frontier (11). The deeper a “forgotten truth” lies in the social stack the greater the asymmetric payout if the reality “comes to”. The trouble is that unilateral consensus is intensely useful during a crisis for beneficial outcomes; the difficulty lies in knowing when one makes a step closer towards truth in the matter or insanity - as it is said, genius and madness often cohabitate.

Where does this leave individuals seeking advantage or truth in the arena of their choosing (e.g., literature, entrepreneurship, sports, et cetera)? It may, perhaps, be the consideration that what has gained the greatest scale in generalization, necessarily means it has become falsified or at least “mean tainted” (13). If such a proposal is true, what firm ground have we to stand on? The only backstop as metric rating the quality of social consensus, may be time as a dictator of utility - reliance upon the ancients and our best possible reasoning. We must understand the dual status of asset and liability for social proof. But even this is only semi-decidable (as far as my understanding has developed); for this reason, nature is the ultimate artisan, surely. Time might be the most granular Sieve of Eratosthenes (14) in use for the capture and filtering of ideas; should one choose to look carefully into that strain’s hull, they may discover the sediment of a forgotten truth as gold for a most passion endeavor.


(1) “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”, F. Nietzsche

(2) See The Peter Thiel Question Footnotes #4 and:

Political truths

These are true if everyone believes them to be true — money, status, borders.

You can change these by rewriting facts in people’s brains: what is a dollar worth, who is the president, where is the border?

This is what our establishment is set up to manipulate.

— Balaji (@balajis) March 6, 2020

(3) It is a fascination to me, in its own right, that the first Biblical story following the creation of the earth and Fall of man, is the same story of a murder: Cain and Abel. (4) See Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (5) If Girard’s perspective about Scapegoating is accurate, from the evolutionary psychology lens (a lens met with, rightly, heavy skepticism from critics), one might argue that the given process of “scapegoating” has a selective advantage (e.g., keeping the social unit together) and that the collective “etches” the process (unaware of its purpose) into its cultural canon (12) (6) See Genesis 22: The Binding of Isaac (7) A phenomenon sometimes termed “Amygdala hijacking” refers to the capacity for overwhelming stress and emotional perturbation to impair higher-order executive functions in the prefrontal cortex regions of the brain. See Arnsten AF. Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009. doi: 10.1038/nrn2648. (8) This is under the contextual perspective of anthropocentrism. (9) Consider basic ecological habitats such as beaver dams and bird’s nests, and more abstract, but still relevant, dominance hierarchies, respectively. (10) Such individuals, it would appear, are the pioneers and “orchard seekers” of civilization. (11) See The Peter Thiel Question Figure 1 (12) I use the term cultural canon to denote the common repository of stories that the collective contributes to and maintains over time as a means to persisting metaphysical heuristics that are highly fit in the evolutionary landscape. In absence of formalized knowledge (e.g., science) and instruments of persistence (e.g., writing), the collective’s oral tradition as narrative uses the instruments of characters, symbols and archetypal qualities to project and store for reification, the qualities which appear to enable the group to survive and reproduce. (13) “Vanity of vanities,” says Solomon — “vanity of vanities — all is vanity… I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit” - L. Tolstoy, Confessions (1882), pp 24 (14) See Sieve of Eratosthenes