Belief: A Human Currency

We live in an age where belief increasingly infringes on reality. This isn’t exactly new, of course: people discounting truth based on preferences, staging shouting matches, and outright refuting reality have been done for some time. See the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, global terror, or any indoctrination against any outside group, purely on grounds of “them” being different than “us.”

But it’s not all grim. In his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari claims this same phenomena — at root, an ability to suspend belief, our ability to imagine — is responsible for the proliferation of the human species, for humankind’s success and our tendency toward progress around the globe.

Humans have done so well in part because we can mentally hold whatever is ideal or abstract: what is (or could be) fake, the intangibles, and the things that bear little or no relation to the material world. Our ability to imagine and believe have allowed our population to explode worldwide, as we trusted one another, as we visualized potential prosperity, then worked together and flourished.

Harari uses religion and money as two contemporary examples, specifically presenting the U.S. dollar as the currency we believe in most, and Capitalism as the predominant “religion” or belief system of our time.

Thinking about it, money isn’t “real” per se. Intrinsically, it has no function — you can’t use it like a tool, nor can you eat it. Yet we have created something that we all believe in, that we use everyday around the world, no matter what country or culture you come from.

Right now, we are also witnessing the dawn of new types of currencies: the explosion of bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general. Though older demographics and less tech-savvy individuals may not “believe” in this new form of currency, the collective belief in them and steady adoption of cryptocurrencies is enough to drive up and stabilize its valuation. It is a self-perpetuating cycle of currency growth.

What are the implications for our species? Our societal values? The environment, politics, and the dominant economic system? All of these things are linked through money.

With less friction, with fewer barriers to communication, we see more connectivity and automation (what began with the Internet; what we see today, too, as the Internet of Things). People aren’t just sharing collective beliefs, but they are taking collective action. From this arises a culture that has the potential for greater co-dependence, greater fiscal responsibility and growth potential. People can imagine that potential, with hypothetical future rewards, with more positive externalities and less unforeseen fallout.

This sort of unified action, grounded in trust, comes at a time when people seem divided, perhaps overly eager to disagree. But perhaps as long as people do band together, even in the realm of ideas — in internet forums, in subthreads, through more ethical markets and commerce — we have good reason to be optimistic.