What is reality?

By Ande Jacobson

In our current world, there is a great deal of effort being expended to bend people’s perceptions of reality to gain personal, organizational, or even national advantage. I’ve written about the dangers of propaganda before, and in modern society with its current technological advancements there are more tools available today than ever before to impose false realities, i.e., to create mythologies. Granted, not all propaganda is necessarily negative since the term applies to any attempt to create a narrative to further a cause, some of which could be focused on good things. Still, there is far more press reporting on the dangerous side of the equation.

Taking a step back from current world events, it’s instructive to consider something that Yuval Noah Harari observed. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, he introduced the idea of common myths, upon which all of our modern societies are based, suggesting these myths may have primed us all to be open to persuasion in direct conflict with our own observations. Add to that some striking revelations Richard Dawkins brings to light in his writings from studies in evolutionary biology that show that organisms perceive the world around them in ways that give them their best chance for species survival. This perception slant results in the confounding concept that one’s reality is based on their ability to perceive. This means that from species to species, what constitutes reality can differ dramatically depending on an organism’s needs, perspective, and senses.

A poignant example of perspective is captured in an ancient parable of multiple blind men describing an elephant. One version captured on Wikipedia reads:

‘A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.’

The men were all exploring the same beast, but from vastly different vantage points. In the physical world, we are all limited by our particular vantage point, specific sense capabilities, and cognitive acuity which shape and limit our ability to perceive what’s right in front of us. This creates a unique reality for each of us. More globally, the range of perceptions within the limits of a given species create a model of the world specific to that species. Various insects see a very different model of the world and the flora and fauna upon it than humans do. Dawkins takes it even further in The God Delusion describing that while we view solid objects as impenetrable, at the atomic level even solid objects consist mostly of space, but based on scale we cannot perceive those spaces without the aid of an electron microscope. Viewing the world from the atomic perspective refutes everything our species can observe unaided by technology in the physical world around us.

The ability to perceive evolved in ways that helped each species survive. As humankind’s cognitive abilities evolved, we developed a capability to use fictive language, i.e., to employ our imaginations to describe things and events that were not immediately present. Instead of only being able to react to an imminent danger such as a tiger preparing to eat us, we could describe the tiger and the dangers it posed even when the animal wasn’t present. In so doing, we could teach our young how to react should they encounter such a threat. Of course humans go far beyond just describing “real” events and dangers.

Since so much of human society is based on fiction, something that many people prefer to term a shared narrative where we accept societal concepts not based on the physical world alone, there is a lot of room for shaping that narrative, sometimes in nefarious ways. Were we not able to imagine, propaganda would have no effect. As discussed in a recent short story, A World Without Lies, there is a place for stretching the truth both as entertainment and as a teaching tool to illustrate and explore possible courses of action. Where it becomes problematic is when a dangerous fiction is presented as fact, reaches a receptive audience, and succeeds in encouraging harmful actions against others.

So what constitutes reality then? Clearly the physical world has to be considered. As humans have thrived, we’ve impacted the world in ways other species have not and created dangers for all living things. While dealing with dangers of our own making such as rapidly accelerating climate change is vitally important for our continued survival, that’s not the focus of this essay.

The shared fiction our laws establish is what allows humans to cooperate in large numbers and is necessary for our survival as a species. Where reality gets twisted is when a large enough subset of the population tries to subvert the established laws to impose their own rules without buy-in from the majority of the population. That’s the stuff of revolutions, not all of which end well.

The societal perception of reality has shifted dramatically in the past several years. Between the deadly political fights in many parts of the world and the worldwide pandemic threatening humans and other species close to us, finding the truth in a fast changing environment can be challenging. Finding a definitive human reality is even more so because human society is so dependent on the rules it establishes to function blending physical fact and intellectual fiction in new and mysterious ways.

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins
Why limit our perception?
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
Common Myths
Eclipsing Reality
Trouble – when the story matters more than reality
A World Without Lies

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