Science & Physics Society & Culture

Reality is a consensus

We shape reality by actions that emanate from our minds.

Reality is a consensus. Yes, each of us is capable of having different but consistent experiences, but for the most part we agree upon reality as a shared experience. However, like most things in life, it’s not that simple — but then reality never is.

At its most fundamental, reality is subjective. While it appears obvious that a tree is a tree to everyone observing a tree, reality has other ideas, negating an objective perspective, and with it reality itself. What’s more weird is the fact that in spite of the consensus of reality, there are multiple such realities, and we drift between them, often without realising.

The realities of nature itself

If I were giving a talk, the audience would see me stood or moving around on a stage — animated perhaps as I often am — explaining things both prosaic and profound. On the face of it, everyone would be seeing the same thing, but the reality of it is, this objective perspective wouldn’t be valid.

In ancient Greece there were a number of theories of vision, one of them — Emission theory, as espoused by Plato — was that the our eyes were emitting visual rays, and that these rays combined with the luminous rays from our environment and the Sun, giving the appearance of the things before us. As theories go, it wasn’t unreasonable, given that the Sun and other such sources of light would illuminate various objects, so it must have seemed obvious that our eyes did the same.

The fact is, the light of the Sun or sources of artificial light bathe our environment and everything in it with countless trillions of photons, the essential particles that are the source of the light we see (and also of what we do not see, since the portion of the visible spectrum is the merest slither of the whole thing).

So when the audience perceives me on the stage, I’m but a figment to them, one of countless instances of me — or at least, instances of the myriad photons that have reflected from the various surfaces of me, travelling at the speed of light, such as skin, hair, clothes and so on. Each person would be perceiving a different assortment of light that is nothing more than a representation of what it is that I am and where I was at a specific moment, when in fact the true nature of reality remains unknown.

Since each person in the audience would be seeing a different instance of me, each person would then be experiencing a subjective reality, similar but different to that of everyone else.

At the macroscopic scale, the differences are so trivial as to be imperceptible, giving the appearance of an object reality that everyone is able to agree on. But at microscopic and astronomical scales, the differences could — and sometimes do — have profound consequences.

I could be a tree.

But the strangeness does not end there.

American theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler — who counted the father of Many-Worlds Interpretation, Hugh Everett, among his students — conjured up a profound thought experiment:

Most of us have heard of the famous double-slit experiment. Usually it’s played out in a lab in seconds. But there’s one version, dreamt up by physicist John Archibald Wheeler, that can be played out over much of the galaxy, over millions of years. His thought experiment suggests that we could retroactively determine the fate of ancient photons.

Nature itself is not as absolute as we imagine it to be.

Realities of the mind

Take the Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Aztecs, Purépechas, Toltecs, and perhaps the Mayans, who made human sacrifices to their gods, and that — to them — was a time-honoured custom.

The rationale for Aztec human sacrifice was, first and foremost, a matter of survival. According to Aztec cosmology, the sun god Huitzilopochtli was waging a constant war against darkness, and if the darkness won, the world would end. The keep the sun moving across the sky and preserve their very lives, the Aztecs had to feed Huitzilopochtli with human hearts and blood.

Of course, like so much of religion in general, such beliefs are a contrivance and a nonsense to everyone else who does not consider themselves to be an adherent to those beliefs, where each adherent of one religion dismisses the one before it — so on and so forth. Mesoamerican civilizations, for centuries, believed the sacrifice of human life to be essential, and the numbers of those slain is perhaps in the tens of thousands.

Although this practice shocked the Conquistadores who witnessed it, they would weaponize their own religion and use it as a justification to almost wipe out those same civilizations.

Religion is a furious maelstrom of ignorant and violent realities.

While across the Pacific Ocean in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, cannibalism was common, not out of a bestial need for food, but as an act of inconsolable grief:

In many villages, when a person died, they would be cooked and consumed. It was an act of love and grief.

However, this custom was not without its problems, and it gave rise to a terrible disease known as kuru by the people of the highlands, and it was often fatal.

Our knowledge of the Romans is somewhat mixed: on the one hand, a huge, advanced, and sophisticated empire that bestrode significant portions of the ancient world for several centuries; while on the other, the endemic use of slaves, and a predilection for warfare and conquest. But our understanding of ancient cultures has revealed customs that to us are sometimes shocking and horrific, and the Romans are no exception.

While excavating what was thought to be a brothel at the site of a Roman villa in the Thames Valley, Buckinghamshire, England, archeologists found the remains of human infants:

Archaeological records suggest infants were not considered to be “full” human beings until about the age of two, said Dr Eyers.

Since this was a brothel, unwanted births would have been an unavoidable consequence of the sex trade:

Children any younger than that age were not buried in cemeteries. As a result, infant burials tended to be at domestic sites in the Roman era.

Physical realities

So far, we’ve learned of the realities of the mind that manifest as customs and rituals, but what of physical realities?

In the Kanyemba region of Zimbabwe you’d find the Vadoma people who are afflicted with a genetic condition known as ectrodactyly or lobster claw syndrome, which results in the absence of one or more fingers or toes, and in the case of the Vadoma tribe, they have but two toes.

As a people, the Vadoma tribe share in this physical trait, which — to them — is normal, and perhaps advantageous to climbing trees, as some have speculated.

Realities of perception

What of our perception, and would that give rise to alternate realities?

William Gladstone, a British Prime Minister from over a hundred years ago, had a fascination with the work of the Greek poet Homer, but took a specific interest in a colour, though not because of the excess of it, but its complete absence:

Gladstone used examples of things we know to be blue to work out the Greek term for the color.

Gladstone reported that Homer used the word “iron” and the word “copper” to describe the sky. The adjective employed in the Iliad to describe the sea is even more puzzling – “οἶνοψ πόντος” (oinops pontos), literally “wine-face sea”. Gladstone interpreted this as “wine-dark” in color. Others have since seen it as “wine-like”, suggesting that it might have to do with the sloshing of wine similar to the rough sea, rather than the color.

How could the people of the Hellenic Republic — a culture, and once a significant civilization that influenced the Roman Empire that would in time subsume it, surrounded by the azure of the waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the skies — have no understanding of the colour blue?

Amongst the loss or lack of senses, blindness has to be the most terrifying, leaving a person exposed and isolated in a world designed for those that see. But this isolation — an individual reality, shared by millions around the world — is one that, for a time, is conquered by those who choose to participate in the game of football for the blind or those with impaired vision, a sport that becomes a new reality by consensus, and a measure of fitness and fun!

Individual realities

A while ago, I happened to share the conclusion that reality is a consensus, and in spite of these instances, someone decided I was wrong. The simple fact is, if reality wasn’t a consensus then we would have no basic — or basis — for a common rule of law.

You’re not convinced?

Imagine a consensus doesn’t emerge, and chaos ensues. Out of this chaos, a bunch of people decide murder is on the table of possibilities, proceeding to enact their intentions. Spot the problem? Should but two people decide murder is a good idea, their realities would begin to coalesce, as would the realities of those opposing them.

We shape reality by actions that emanate from our minds.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay.

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.