Fighting for Real

Why do societies lose their shared definition of truth? How does this complicate conversations? And how can we think intentionally about this?

Our shared definition of reality anchors our debates. But over the last few years, it feels like we’ve shifted to debating reality itself, which is a much more complicated conversation. Thinking about this, I realized that there’s a conversational spectrum around reality, and here I explain this idea, and how I use it to avoid conflicts and pick which hills to die on – or not.

Defining Reality

What is reality? This apparently rhetorical question has an outsized impact in our daily lives. To be sure, we often take reality for granted. Looking at my physical surroundings as I write this, nothing stands out as unknown or ambiguous; it’s a reality that I happily accept. But every once in a while, as a community, we need to articulate a situation or problem, and we need to debate a solution or course of action. Inevitably, this is grounded in our shared understanding of reality.

The discussion of reality is as old as philosophy itself, specifically under the branch of metaphysics. A tricky aspect of reality is that it encompasses things beyond the physical world. If that wasn’t the case, all we’d need is science. Consider the colour red. Someone affected by Daltonism perceives it differently than an unaffected person. But we can specify a precise range of wavelengths for red light, and assess a light’s colour against that definition, irrespective of differences in perception.

But reality includes things that aren’t physical. The mind is one example. The mind is part of the self, and as real as the body, but it’s not a physical reality. You know that your mind is real. You also know that other minds exist. But there is no way to experimentally, scientifically, verify these metaphysical truths.

The same thing happens with mathematics. The material world matches mathematical models perfectly, but math exists and is true independently of the material world.

Reality extends beyond the material world. As I’ve said before, this is why science can’t describe its entirety.

Debating Reality

In any case, issues of perception and reality are, well, real. Ambulances have the word “Ambulance” spelled backwards on the front. In actual reality, the word is reversed. When you see that word reflected in the rear-view mirror of your car, you can read it straight – which is the intention.

This makes sense. But it raises the question: can we always trust the perceptions that inform our reality? Are we able to know reality as it is? And taking this to the extreme: what is reality? Does objective and absolute reality even exist?

This, of course, is at the core of the classic modernist/postmodernist debate. Modernism upholds the existence of absolute reality, but elevates rationality and evidence as the only ways to know it. Postmodernism, on the other hand, denies the existence of an absolute reality. In this view, reality is not something to observe or discover, but something to construct.

We can thank David Hume and Imanuel Kant for enabling this dilemma. Hume’s skepticism gave roots to logical positivism, a self-defeating philosophy that’s now fallen out of fashion, which provided a very narrow and therefore incomplete definition of reality. Kant’s contribution was even more consequential. He asked, can we even differentiate reality – what he called noumena – from its imprints on our senses – what he called phenomena? He opened the door to the idea that even if absolute reality exists, we can never really know it.

The Reality Conversational Spectrum

Going back to the beginning, this is all philosophical fun and games until, as a society, we need to face and solve an issue. I think there’s a spectrum in that process determined by what is being discussed in relation to reality.

At the simplest, most pleasant, and arguably more productive end of the spectrum, we share an epistemically certain definition of reality, and we’re just discussing approaches or solutions. In other words, we believe there is a reality, we share a fairly accurate and truthful grasp of it, and we just need to determine the best way to interact with it.

Here’s an imperfect example. In 1992, Bill Clinton became President of the United States. A pillar of his successful campaign was the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” That was the brainchild of campaign strategist James Carville. For quite a while, we’ve had standard and well-accepted indicators to measure and define economic reality. We have the gross domestic product, or GDP. We have inflation. We have unemployment rates. With those indicators, we could assess the economy and agree when there’s a crisis. From there, different solutions could be debated. Do we cut taxes and let the private sector drive the recovery? Or does the state launch massive spending programs through infrastructure and welfare?

Today, things are more complicated. Ideas like Modern Monetary Theory and alternative ways to measure economic output imply a different reality, as well as different solutions. Part of this is simply the world becoming more complex. Like pure science, economy often needs to shift paradigms when the existing one can no longer be stretched. Still, that would fall within the end of the spectrum we’re exploring: we seek to agree on a certain definition of reality, and to operate within that definition.

Further along the spectrum, we arrive at a more uncomfortable, less productive stage: we debate reality itself. Here we don’t have sufficient common ground to discuss solutions or approaches, so the conversation pivots to identifying that foundation. In a sense, this is where society is on many current topics. Here are some potentially disturbing examples – simply for illustration:

  • Is climate change real? Is it humanly instigated? Are we able to control it, and do we still have time?
  • Is the coronavirus real? Is it as lethal as they say? Are vaccines safe?
  • Is racism systemic? Does it stem from individual actions? Or is it intrinsic to specific identity groups as an expression of power?

Hopefully you get my point. I am not endorsing or trying to debate these viewpoints. All I’m illustrating is that we aren’t always debating within a well-defined circle of reality. Often, what we’re debating is the circle itself – if not outright whether the circle even exists.

This is tiring, polarizing, and demoralizing. But it’s not the worst end of the spectrum. That dubious honor corresponds to our third and final stop: constructing a false reality, and the inevitable totalitarianism that follows. This isn’t a new phenomenon. History is filled with examples of how false definitions of reality bring about tyrannies, which then exploit lies to perpetuate themselves, rewriting not just the present, but the past if it were necessary.

In true postmodernist fashion, this often implies revolutionizing language – rapidly and drastically redefining the very meaning of words. George Orwell’s writings provide good examples of this. They are just mirrors of terrible historical realities, like the Soviet Holomodor in 1932, and a myriad atrocities that contemporary Communist regimes routinely commit and deny.

It’s a key reason why those who believe in reality take these issues so seriously. We know and remember that society unravels very quickly when it loses its grasp on objective reality.

Practical Applications of the Spectrum

This is the crisis of our time. In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” the international word of the year. Five years later, we remain firmly in this era. At that scale, I obviously have no significant solutions to offer. However, I’d like to comment on more practical and intimate uses for the spectrum I’ve described.

First, I find it helpful to understand where in the spectrum my conversations are. I routinely have really good discussions with people who don’t share my beliefs, but I think it requires us to settle on some shared definition of reality. If we’re discussing reality itself, I need to step back, realize it, and ask others if they’re willing to settle that first. If the answer is no, I may actually step away from the conversation.

In fact, when I know that someone openly disputes specific elements of reality, I go out of my way to avoid engaging that person on related topics. It is a fool’s errand. It has nothing to do with my ability to persuade or be mature – it just tends to be an unproductive conversation by design.

This also helps me to refine my thoughts. Before I even talk to others, I ask myself: am I trying to figure out what the reality is here? Or is that sufficiently clear to me, and I’m just trying to clarify my posture within that context?

As a Christian, this is crucial to me. Our faith is based on the fact that reality exists and is knowable. As such, I’m wary of embracing or espousing conspiracy theories. I believe that doing so points to the sinfulness in my heart – a preference to indulge in rebellion and self-righteousness, which I need to fight constantly.

I also think that believers must be ready to embrace the consequences of this aspect of our worldview. In a postmodern world, we will be ostracized at best, and persecuted at worst. We’ve had a good run in our time. What we know as the Western civilization has benefited extensively from Christian influence. And let’s face it: some of us might have gotten used to the distortion of our faith into civil religion. But in a society that insists in constructing reality, Christians being strangers and aliens is a more natural outcome, as the Bible clearly teaches.

Reality matters a lot. We might not be able to single-handedly drive society towards it, but we can make consistent personal choices on this matter. On that note, I end with these words from Russian Nobel laureate and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”

Tags: #reality , #politics , #conversations

Published: October 17, 2021