It was late evening on 8th November, 2016. My wallet lay open on a table in front of me. Inside there were three, just three, 500 rupee notes. Those had magically transformed into multi-colored papers of no value. The transformation was imperceptible and instantaneous. The Prime Minister of India had announced the government’s decision to demonetize 500 and 1000 rupee notes.

To make the mystery deeper, two 100 rupee notes, which lay next to the 500 rupee notes mentioned earlier, had inexplicably survived annihilation. They stood out like proud survivors, their ghastly blue tinge notwithstanding. And the fact that the whole thing was not a dream had already been confirmed by the deluge of WhatsApp messages which solely focused on how to deal with the "fallout."

Having had my intellectual upbringing in an environment dominated by classical science, my belief in the supremacy of matter was over everything else was infallible. Properties of matter defined the universe and allowed no alternative narrative. The bank notes in question were not subjected to any event that would alter their material properties in any way. With every possible physical property remaining absolutely unchanged, they had lost all their values.

It looked like the practitioners of science had completely forgotten to define "value" as a basic property of matter. A deeper analysis revealed that there were quite a few such attributes — like utility, desirability, acceptance, etc. — which were kept aside. Once one identified a pattern among them, the underlying intent looked more deliberate than random.

Subjective thoughts and resulting emotions were excluded as a rule.

The reality defined by science thus remained tiny and often inadequate.

That inadequacy seriously hampers brain’s functioning. The legendary conscious mind loses most of its power of information synthesis, parallel operation and, of course, rationality. The ensuing situation is more like a hung computer process. It does not know what to do next. The impact of such information crises may be measured to some extent by looking at the broad spectrum of "professionals" who thrive on it. From the Corporate Strategist to the Black Magician – the solution spectrum is quite wide and hence raises doubts about the underlying science.

If we look at the same problem from an institution’s head’s point of view, it quickly transforms from a mere crisis into a major catastrophe. If a king, the captain of a ship or the headmaster of a school has to face such a problem, he needs to take some unusual measures to save whatever he heads. Construction of social reality is one such measure. In this one fills the information gaps with imaginary truths. Rich cultures create smooth blends of objective and imagined truths. The group members are coerced to accept those imagined truths as objective truths. Their behaviors are monitored strictly for gaps in their beliefs. Some adventurous and freedom-loving souls setup in-house fact manufacturing facilities and end up being diagnosed with various mental illnesses like paranoia, schizophrenia, hysteria etc. In fact it may be argued that any mental illness is a due to generation of alternative realities at personal level.

Belief is an imaginary product which you create by accepting truths imagined by someone else as objective truths.

The root cause of today’s brouhaha about having "faith in the leader", "believing the leader", "faith in the system" is our dependance on belief. The medieval era societies, having minimum access to science, had to heavily depend on socially constructed truths. And to keep their houses of cards from falling apart they had to brutally and ruthlessly execute non-believers. The stakes were too high to justify burning at the stake. Heresy and treason attracted the most horrific forms of capital punishment.

Science, as mentioned earlier, does not bother itself with this story. It is too full of subjectivity and imagination. Also, it is highly temporal. Even the most rigid of social systems change over time.

I tried to recollect how I built my personal faith on bank notes. It was part of the socialization process that an average urban child would undergo. It was triggered by observing the curious ritual of keeping certain pieces of colored paper safe inside a locked up cupboard. The belief got reinforced many times by the unusual care that they took while carrying those papers in person. I got an idea of the value that those papers carried by being witness to the magic of their being exchanged for anything and everything. And then there was the funny yet useful ritual of bargaining that one went through before parting with the same.

The process that something has to go through to transition from being "generally true" to be a part of "reality" is rigorous. It has to pass different types of testing, collectively called "reality check. Person-independence is of highest importance. The "person" involved maybe you, someone in your group, or someone unrelated to you or even an enemy. The next level of tests checks for independence of place. So, what is true in Delhi should be true as well in Dallas. The final level involves time. What was true yesterday should be true today as well as tomorrow.

Printed currency notes pass all those levels of testing with absolute ease. The myth of money is so pervasive that we never look at the institutions working behind the scenes to maintain the same. Prior to the demonetization, I had been barely aware of the currency lifecycle. An average citizen had no clue. It was the collective faith in currency that made the whole system operate flawlessly. Collective faith gives material form to something purely imaginary.

The Government of India declared its faith through the following statement printed on each 500 rupees note.

By announcing demonetization, the Government of India invalidated that certificate temporarily. The same could be renewed when you re-validated by going through the banking system. Those who had money from dubious sources had to avoid the system altogether. That was the modern way to smoke out the heretics!

This abstract thing called the collective belief is a potent force. It builds big institutions and sustains them. Institutions validate their real existence by minimizing the gap between the behavior as imagined and the behavior as seen in real life. Or, in simpler terms, it is constantly monitored that the deviation from the ideal behavior should not be large enough to bring faith into question.

The head of an institution is also the unofficial custodian of the myth that sustains the institution. Every English monarch has an additional title of "Defender of the Faith". Modern institution heads are entitled to a similar title. They take great measures to prevent the important pieces of faith from falling apart.

USA gets rid of politically expendable dictatorships to show the power of democracy and free society. The army makes a hero out of a corpse every time a soldier dies. The police make sure that decade old unsolved cases are also solved to prove the existence of the proverbial long arm of the law.

People of law possess some special capabilities for codifying something in black and white. So one Lord Justice Hewart once famously said about the delivery of justice:

"It is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done."

– Gordon Hewart
Lord Chief Justice of England
The signs of exhibitionism, prominent in the quote, run counter to the usual restraint that the judiciary is associated with. But when you discover that the very foundation of the edifice is made of something as transient as belief, you exercise extreme caution. Extreme caution becomes extremism when it comes to religion. We cleverly hide state sponsored violence behind extreme discipline. Extreme measures invariably kick in extreme emotional response. Once that is achieved, denial becomes a difficult proposition.

If you are looking for a benchmark, the brick and mortar world around us is the best example. It is extremely durable. So is the land beneath our feet. That shapes the qualitative nature of reality. Anything that you sell as reality should measure up to the sheer solidity of the world just described. We have built a bulwark of culture, law and religion to build our civilization. Life inside is reassuring as well as stifling.

An extensive collection of rules and regulations and policies necessitates the existence of a collective entity which will hold all those things together. So in the public life we invented the state. The state required a head. Hence the existence of the king. Similarly, private life needed the family and the patriarch, respectively. The heads had to live up to the associated social myths. To achieve that, it was not uncommon to don such funny attire:

The pomp and show to bolster an imaginary entity is an age-old practice. Tribal chiefs wore bizarre things to emphasize the point.

In this context, the head of Gandhi-ji on currency notes bears special significance. By using a trusted symbol, the bank note tries to gain some sort of legitimacy. In fact, there are too many symbols there – the RBI lion, the Ashok pillar, the signature of the Governor…

It is not an easy task to reduce a visibly expensive item like say a luxury car into a set of printed papers which can be held and exchanged anonymously. It becomes more difficult when one has to further reduce those papers into electronic records. You use those electronic records to buy dematerialized shares of listed companies. One such company decides to hold virtual AGM due to the ongoing pandemic. In the AGM a dividend is declared, which is disbursed electronically. You see some additional entries in your bank statement.

An extreme stretch on conventional imagination!

Poor Trump went bust when he accumulated a stockpile of unsold myths. Post-truth got discovered.

Trump may not be officially credited with the title of the inventor of post-truth. But he has been the most prominent prophet of it. And the motormouth is still preaching actively. But he will also be remembered for bringing the subject of truth, so far restricted to the world of theology, into everyday social and political discourse. That paradigm shift was long overdue in our global village. As trade and commerce brought us together, our cultures and religions also got exposed to each other, leading to conflicts.

Some groups put imagination on after-burner and created yet another reality wherein morons who blew themselves up with explosives and killing lots of innocent people in the process became martyrs and got 72 virgins as reward in afterlife. Others tried to resolve conflicts, debating and discussing, but keeping the core issue of collective imagination untouched. Meanwhile, science, the irresponsible truth hunter, made matters further complicated by announcing a discovery which conclusively proved that religious beliefs and secular beliefs are controlled by the same brain area. The explanation was put succinctly in a Scientific American article:

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, used functional MRI to evaluate brain activity in 15 devout Christians and 15 nonbelievers as the volunteers assessed the truth or falsity of a series of statements, some of which were religious ("angels exist") and others nonreligious ("Alexander the Great was a very famous military ruler"). They found that when a subject believed a statement-whether it was religious or not-activity appeared in an area called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is an area associated with emotions, rewards and self-representation.

Science, as usual, refuses to give any moral or ethical guidance in this context. The avowedly materialistic and largely Christian West has to, paradoxically, reconcile everything with sin and guilt. So all their public debates need to compulsorily include moral and ethical aspects.

Their engineers are busy designing and producing unbelievable material objects. They have no time for such idle banter. Otherwise the whole dilemma would have been resolved under one minute. It would have been pointed out that for the system of modern civilization to operate you definitely need some strong binding force to hold its millions of members together and make them work cooperatively too towards common goals.

An engineer would view any functioning society as a complex system consisting of independent parts, each having a potential of random behaviour due to free will.

The key challenge to such a system is uncertainty. Random urges are generally balanced by a rule of law. The fear of the law dampens random behaviour considerably. But free will may still bring about anti-social behaviour. An elaborate system of belief effectively restricts free will by using social taboos.

Having taken care of stability, the engineer would address motive force. Since a common goal binds humans together, common beliefs help the cause of binding by creating perpetual common goals. Human brain responds to any repetitive task by automating it through habit formation. Under the hood, neurons form permanent pathways to store the "program".

Belief is prejudice. An engineer would be uncompromising in that proposition. Because by assuming something to be true you have violated a fundamental procedure of operation. In modern systems, a procedural lapse is treated with unusual harshness due the problem of cascading effects on large and finely balanced systems.

Belief is open to misuse, as it has the potential to set up a mildly positive feedback loop. Suppose you assume having food using chopsticks adds to your longevity. You build a belief in that. As a result, your behaviour changes. Every time you use chopsticks, you feel good about it. That sense of good feeling makes you repeat the behaviour again. Thus, you yourself strengthen your belief, which may be quite arbitrary in its content. That is the way notions come into existence.

This curious process of self-certification quite depends on a person’s self-esteem. People with low self-esteem naturally put lower value on their own judgments. The positive feedback loop never forms properly. Conservative societies use that bug in human nature by systematically eroding the self-esteem of its junior members quite early in life. Patriarchs are usually entrusted with taming the young ones.

The situation is quite different for group beliefs. A strongly positive feedback loop sets up automatically. Because any behaviour that is approved by a group is considered to be a) sign of compliance and hence strongly related to one’s survival. One of the important lessons of evolution is the strong correlation between social inclusion and survival. The African savannah, where human genes evolved, was a dangerous place. You did not survive without the protection of a group. Period.

So the human brain, even today, puts a high premium on social approval. Anything related to that gets a blanket approval internally. That loophole is routinely exploited by advertisement makers. The central idea is often social inclusion. You don’t belong to the group of smart people if you do not use certain products.

Modern democratic societies require volunteers for constructing modern myths. So inspiration is also needed in addition to inducements. The post-colonial Third World nations offer some interesting case studies.

African nations failed to create and sell enduring social myths to their own people. Asian Tigers followed an entirely different path. Unsurprisingly the immigrants from those two regions demonstrated similar group behaviour even in the USA.

The rich nations maintain their existence like topiary gaedens.

The plants in those gardens are not dead. They continue to grow randomly while the gardeners go on trimming with equal consistency. Similarly the rich nations with their ultra-liberal culture allow lot of room for "alternate" thoughts. But their reconciliation with the mainstream also happen effectively to keep the overall narrative consistent.

The very same skill of maintaining realities consisting of complex and diverse elements goes behind building of large MNCs. They start constructing the myth early on, at the infrastructure level. By heavily investing in general infrastructure, they create an environment of quiet efficiency and perfection. Things as inconsequential as lobbies and elevators and washrooms are leveraged. Then you have the processes, which are implemented with ruthless efficiency. Processes, as opposed to lifeless infrastructure, give you a delusion of sentience. Those are perceived as behavioural signature of the underlying creature called the company.The sum of behaviours forms a bridge between imagination and reality. By keeping up the former you create a delusion of the latter. Nature has been able to do that to us successfully by making earth rotate around its axis at a constant speed. Geocentrism had an unusually long life between Eudoxus in 380 BC and Copernicus in 1543 AD.