utility of the unreal
an essay dedicated to the made-up part of the world
An Instagram account recently posted a statement that got me thinking for a few days. One of her followers challenged her belief in astrology by saying that it is not “real” as there is little to no scientific evidence to prove its credibility.
To which she responded with this statement —
“nothing is real in this world, your name is a gibberish of random symbols and yet you respond to it every time someone calls you by it.”
Makes sense. She’s right. My name is unreal, the language we speak is unreal, the songs we sing are unreal, it’s all just noise. Language is just a combination of weird noises restricted by some made-up rules (grammar) that we blindly abide by. They are not objective facts that all of us can agree upon the way we can about the numerical value of pi and the speed of light.
If someone tells you that the value of pi is 2.5, you are right to point out their inaccuracy. You cannot do that if you have a disagreement with someone whether the thing you rest your head on is a pillow or an oreiller.
However, there is a fine distinction between the unreal things we discussed and astrology. The distinction of utility. Your name and the language we speak serve a purpose that is far more superior than that of astrology1.
It won’t make difference to this world if the practice of astrology magically disappears tomorrow. The world would be pretty much the same place. But it is difficult to conclude the same for a world where nobody has a name. It will be absolute chaos.
Your Rights Are Unreal
John Locke said that irrespective of the political recognition granted to the individuals by the state, they possess certain natural rights. Locke argued that natural rights flowed from natural law.
However, no other species on this planet seems to be concerned about the human rights of their individuals.
Tear open a human body and you will find a liver, two lungs, small and large intestines, a stomach, and a bunch of other organs. What you won’t find are the human rights Locke mentioned.
The entire Judicial System of your country is unreal, it doesn’t exist in nature. Your national constitution—the most important book for the entire population of your country—is just a collection of made-up laws to govern you. It’s not real, yet the utility it serves is what keeps your state in order.
Mental Model of Utility
As a conclusion to this essay, I would like to share a personal mental model with you. I use it quite often in my conversations about social constructs. While analyzing social conventions and ceremonies, instead of arguing whether they make sense or not, focus on the utility they serve. A lavish wedding ceremony with 100+ guests might not make sense from a financial pov, but it creates a sunk-cost bias2. By throwing a grand party in the presence of a large group of people you establish a substantially rigid social commitment. So when chaos falls upon your relationship, instead of running away from it, you will try to fix things.
Also, it’s a great chance for old friends to get in touch again. And the food’s great, so can’t complain. 🙃
The real question, however, is that whether the utility of lavish weddings deserves that amount of resource allocation. Think. Let me know in the comments.
We can discuss weddings some other day, so let’s get back to the main point.
The gist of this section is that you need to get over your obsession with real and unreal, rational and irrational. Change your perspective and think in terms of utility.
Nothing against astrology. I find it entertaining.
The more resources you invest in something, the more likely you are to continue doing that.