Reality, Part 1 – Consensus Reality

            “Don’t kill a narcissist! The world will end!”

            I don’t know where I first heard this, but it encapsulates several problems at once. One of these is the nature of reality.

            In other essays I have talked about consensus reality. Because our sense of the world is a mapping of the objective world in our minds, not actually the world itself, there is room for disagreement as to what’s actually out there.

            The information we get from the world is very dense, and we each choose what parts of it to attend to, so we can disagree on very basic things about reality. In my essay “Ideals and Ideas” I discuss what “tree” means. The image it brings into my mind is almost certainly not exactly the same as the image for you. This could matter if we agree that I will plant a tree for you. I might plant a pine tree because I have a strong memory of planting pine trees in a field when I was younger. What if you wanted an oak?

            This is minor stuff, but when we talk about sensitive issues like legal limitations on abortion, processing of immigrants at the border, gun control, etc., the different images we each have from those words really matter. If we don’t clarify very carefully which image we are discussing, no actual discussion is possible, and nothing can be resolved. This is usually the case in public discourse. Two sides argue using the same words but with different images in mind, so they are not talking about the same thing at all.

            What about things we all take for granted? Gravity pulls us down towards the ground. The sun rises every day. People are born, and eventually they die. You and I are both made of flesh, blood, and bone with some hair thrown around on the outside.

            The narcissist in the opening sentence would philosophically be called a solipsist. Solipsism claims that nothing exists outside the self. Not even other people, or New York, or the history of the world. Everything perceived as outside the self is just in the solipsist’s mind.

            Though logically impossible to prove from this point of view, I have no doubt you are actually there. (You’re welcome, but New York, well…)

            However, what you and I actually are objectively is not simple to determine.

            Whatever stimuli I receive from your presence is processed through a lot of body machinery and preconceived notions. All that adds up to what you are in my mind. Who knows how that matches up with what you consider yourself to be, let alone what you are. If we disagree, who is right?

            More importantly, what about all those things we “agree” on? (Gravity, sunrise, birth, death, flesh, blood, etc.) How can we be sure we actually know what they are?

            We can’t. The only relevant answer is functional. If you ask me to plant a tree, and I plant a pine when you wanted an oak, that’s a functional disagreement about reality concerning a tree. If you ask me to get in an airplane you just built and fly it, and I take off and land in it, that’s a functional agreement about reality concerning flying your airplane.

            All that matters is that we agree that what I did is what you asked me to do. Our individual subjective mappings of the event as we communicated them to each other are congruent. What I actually did objectively is irrelevant.

            This may seem academic and pointless. Perhaps it mostly is. But considering all the ways in which we as humans interpret and misinterpret each other and how that affects our lives, our ability to communicate and resolve problems, and the continued existence of our civilization---if we can’t agree on things so obviously critical, it seems to me that everything is in question, even our shared physical reality.

            We all, every one of the many billions of us, communicate shared congruent subjective mappings of gravity, sunrise, birth, death, etc. We don’t go to war over whether or not water runs downhill or uphill. We all agree on that. But this is functional only. We only know that these shared descriptions function such that what each of us does or observes in regard to these events and millions like them matches the shared language we use to describe them. When I check my mapping of reality and say, “water runs downhill”, you check your interpretation of my words against your mapping of reality and say, “well, duh”.

            That’s all. It’s enough because it’s functional, not because it’s objectively true.

            Where does the communicated congruence of our subjective mappings of reality end and actual objective reality begin? It could be outside of our experience entirely. There may be no “water” and no “downhill” in any recognizable objective sense.

            We are a collective solipsist. The only reality we can know is our shared mapping.

            This matters because if we are only loosely connected conceptually to reality, there must be many possible mappings of reality that, if widely congruent, would be just as functional as the mappings we use today.

            This means that we, as a social species, collectively define our perceived reality and can change it. If we can change it, we undoubtedly have changed it and are still changing it today.

            But what about science, repeatable experiments, etc.?

            To be continued…


            Hugh Moffatt
            Waltham, Massachusetts
            July 22, 2019