The nature of reality used to be a philosophical, metaphysical contemplation. But now it’s political. There’s a struggle going to to take ownership of what defines it. And our most instinctive ideas about what it is need to re-evaluated.
Reality beyond our immediate awareness is constructed from information received via personal anecdote to some extent, and beyond that, by information streaming services such as news outlets, blogs, independent journalists.
A process of reality-modification is ongoing, continuously updated, on a personal and a collective level. On the collective level reality is constructed through assimilation. Daily announcements are made – usually via mainstream or social media – that certain events have occurred or that a trend is being observed somewhere. These events/trends will be analysed, debated, compared to other similar or contrasting events/trends, and gradually synthesised into the ever-evolving thing we call “the real world.”
Interpretations of those events will differ, often splitting along quite predictable political or cultural lines. Crime statistics will be seen differently by supporters of the status quo than by those who oppose it. The same with other “controversial” topics such as immigration, poverty, war, gender rights etc etc.
The vast majority of these differences occur within an acceptance of the alleged event/trend. It’s rare that these differences extend to questioning whether or not the event/trend is even real.
There’s a good reason for this. In evolutionary terms, accepting collective narrative testimony as being broadly true is a rational thing to do. If you’re a tiny australopithecus in a huge and dangerous world, ignoring the fact the other australopithecines are screaming there’s a predator in that tree over there is unlikely to produce a good result. You go with the majority verdict on such things. Stay away from the tree and survive to evolve.
It’s equally rational, on this basic human level, to think that the larger the number of individuals telling you something, the greater the likelihood this something will be true. In a world view dominated by direct observation and – at most – second hand testimony, such multiple certitude is very very likely to be broadly grounded in fact.
If you’re a neolithic person and thirty of your relatives and friends are telling you those bushes over there have the best berries, and only one person – weird cousin Groot – is saying no, it’s those bushes over there, you’re probably wisest to go with the majority view, simply because the likelihood of thirty of your relatives lying to you or being mistaken about the berry situation is probably close to zero. These thirty people have been to the bushes themselves individually. They’ve seen the fruit. Their collective testimony is undeniably worth more than that of Og, the single outlier, whose observations could be confused or motivated by a spiteful desire for you to waste your time.
So our innate tendency to believe “majority” statements that are authenticated by collective observation is actually very sound and grounded in our evolution as a societal creature.
Where it begins to fail us is when increasing civilisation removes the proximity between the reporters of events/trends and the events/trends themselves.
From the moment the information about where to find the best berries comes, not from personal observation, but from an announcement on a clay tablet hung on the wall of the meeting house, the potential for confusion and/or disinformation increases dramatically. And at this point our instinct to trust the majority view becomes more of a hindrance than a help. Because when our thirty relatives come and tell us where the best berries are they are no longer offering you thirty individual firsthand testimonies. They are offering you the same, unverified, testimony thirty different times.
At this point, if weird cousin Groot comes and says he’s checked it out and the clay tablet is lying – it’s those bushes over there that have the best berries, he’s actually more likely, rationally speaking, to be correct, given he’s bothered to investigate and the thirty other people haven’t checked anything at all.
But if we were there, would we, as individuals, act on this likelihood? Would we even process it? Or would we just go with the flow and head off to the bushes the “majority” seem to be recommending? Would we likely point and laugh at Groot, trudging off to his silly old minority-endorsed berry patch. And would we likely continue laughing even when he comes back with huge amounts of luscious fruit, while we have almost none?
A strange truth about humanity is, once enough people have read something or heard something, and passed it on, our hardwired instinct to trust what our trusted people tell us begins to reinforce that information irresistibly, even in the face of refutation or evidence to the contrary, even in the face of clear proof it isn’t, and never was true.
Our consensus reality is stuffed with such anomalies. Relic “truths” that aren’t true. Relic “events” that never happened as recounted or never happened at all. Because collective, consensus “knowledge” trumps individual observation. It needed to for eons while we evolved. And now we can’t turn it off, even though it no longer makes any sense.
I’m not even discussing here the question of who controls the information on which our realities are built. This is discussed a great deal, and it’s vital. But there’s another question – viz how much does anyone control it – even those who like to think they do? To what extent has the invention of collective “truth” reached a point beyond control? Become self-pepetuating, impervious? Like a space probe in a vacuum, moving irresistibly in the direction it was propelled, simply because there’s nothing to stop it or slow it down?
Look at this one small example from recent “news.” The Guardian today has an article on “moped enabled crime“. It’s a problem. It’s increased by nearly 2,000% in four years (from around 1,000 in 2014 to over 19,000 in the year to last September). There are statistics. A solution is badly needed. More money for the police maybe. Or – possibly – an immunity for police officers who run over people or damage property while chasing mopeds in their squad cars (you can see why this would help keep us all safe).
Problem. Reaction. Solution. We know it well. But check it out. Look at the source. A press release of nine months ago from the Mayor of London’s office, that simply says “in the last year there were more than 19,385 moped enabled crimes in London – an average of 53 a day – including thefts and robberies.”
Ok. Well, “moped enabled crime” is a pretty vague definition. What’s included? Getting away on a moped after robbing someone? Attacking someone with a moped? Stealing a moped? Acccidentally running over someone on a moped while drunk? The question seems to be begged – isn’t “moped enabled crime” just crime with incidental moped quite a lot of the time?
And what about those vague statistics? Who compiled them? Under what direction? With what agenda? Where did they get their facts? And where did that source get the info from?
The press release doesn’t develop or explain and the Guardian, of course, didn’t ask. We just get the headline. Which of course has the effect of endorsing “moped enabled crime” as a piece of commonly understood reality ever after. Where in this echo chamber of chinese whispers is the actual, hard, cold truth? Have you ever seen anything you thought of terming a “moped enabled crime”? I haven’t. I don’t know anyone who has. If, as is entirely possible from my current POV, no one in 7 billion of us have ever seen or conceptualised such a thing or been victim to such a thing, how would this disparate but actual reality ever be asserted in the face of the apparent, but illusory consensus “truth” created simply by putting that term in a newspaper?
And to what extent will defining it and publicising it be involved in actually creating it? Even if the claim of “increasing moped enabled crime” is a deliberate/accidental lie at the time of utterance, will it become true simply by being uttered?
And will we ever know the difference?
Have to say at this point – This isn’t an article about moped-related crime. I don’t own a moped and can claim no experience of ,or expertise in, anything moped-related, criminal or not. It may indeed be a crucial aspect of the current underworld, and there may be places in London where the sound of a 50cc two-stroke in the distance brings cold fear into a thousand hearts. But that’s not what this article is about. So, I hope we don’t get umpteen comments telling us it’s ABSOLUTELY A MAJOR PROBLEM and Catte should be flayed for making light of INNOCENT VICTIMS of moped-based HATE.
The point is, we human beings, as collectors and disseminators of “reality” will never know if it’s true or not. None of us. Despite the most simplistic kinds of “presstitute” memes, the journos who wrote the piece don’t know any more than we do how real it is. The Mayor’s office doesn’t know. Even the compilers of statistics don’t know, unless they were on the streets personally documenting every case of moped criminality in the greater London area in the past two years.
It’s less that we are being intentionally deceived and more that the system itself has lost its grasp on what is real, and doesn’t much care. Real is now nothing more or less than what someone says it is. The right someone in the right place at the right time. Maybe in pursuit of an agenda. Maybe just because it’s easier or cheaper. Maybe because they really think it’s true. It doesn’t matter. No one ends up knowing the difference.
The point is our ancient concept of consensus reality isn’t working any more, and probably hasn’t been for longer than we are comfortable contemplating. Can we even tell the moment it began to diverge from veridical reality, let alone see how far its path has now diverged? All we know is our histories are assemblies of anecdote taken on trust. Few to none of us were there when the events allegedly happened. If we go back further than ninety years none of us were even alive to hear about them third or fourth hand. Everything beyond our own first awareness is an assembly of communal trust.An act of faith in our own human narrative.
Our culture is still basically the neolithic one of collective understanding, but lost in cognitive trauma. Collective experience has moulded us to be what we are. We owe it everything. Without it we are nothing. Yet collective experience is blatantly not telling us the truth any more. Guy Fawkes was likely a patsy set up by Robert Cecil. The Gulf of Tonkin was a lie. The “gas attack” at Douma didn’t happen. Babchenko wasn’t dead.
There are NO berries where we are being told to find them. We need to find the courage to evolve to the point we can finally admit this and move on to a different form of understanding in which “consensus” is interrogated as a matter of course.