Reality, Part 5 – Strong or Weak, Change is Coming

            When I speak of collective solipsism there is a strong version and a weak version. The strong version says that all reality, even our observed physical world, is dependent on our mutually agreed descriptions. The weak version is less radical. It says that the physical universe is objective and on the way to being understood by scientists, but our collective awareness can drift away from this understanding, sometimes quite far away for long periods of time, particularly with isolated groups of us.

            We are today entering what may be a new age of human cognitive life. Instead of coming together in larger and larger societies, we are fragmenting into more and more splinter groups. We are becoming more isolated as we become more numerous.

            Many of these groups believe what they believe without regard to any universal standard of objective fact. This makes for different collective realities in the weak sense. Even if this kind of difference doesn’t affect science directly, it very clearly can affect all of us anyway.

            Locally shared beliefs have local power. The more integrated the beliefs, the more power they have. At some point, they might as well be reality. Within limits, they are reality, even from the weak perspective.

            This can lead to a consistent, sustainable society. Let me give an example from fiction. In the film, The Gods Must be Crazy, a Coke bottle falls from an airplane to be found by a member of a small isolated primitive society. The Coke bottle becomes a source of unrest in the tribe, so the man who found it decides he must return it to the gods who sent it to them. He travels by foot far outside of his land, where he has never been before, looking for the edge of the world. A lot happens (it’s a wonderful film), and at the end he reaches the edge of the world (a high cliff with nothing but clouds below), throws it over the cliff, and starts his journey home having saved his society from the disruption caused by crazy gods.

            Through all that happens to him and all he sees from the outside world, nothing changes his world view. He finds the edge of the world, throws the Coke bottle over it, and returns home. All is well. His view of reality accommodates everything just fine. He has grown, he knows more about the weird capriciousness of the gods, but all within the context of his pre-existing reality.

            Here’s the difficulty. We, Western rational society, assume that objective reality is just there. It’s solid, dependable. When someone stubs their toe on it in ignorance, it hurts, and they will correct their thinking and become less ignorant.

            We view the man in the film as is in a bubble, and that bubble is within the larger context of our far more expansive scientific rational reality. Eventually, his society will stub their toes on our reality and become “awakened” to it. But will he? Or does the “conversion” happen just because we are more numerous and more powerful? And is our reality better than his?

            That belief is the same kind of reasoning that says the Spanish were better than the Incas because the Spanish won the wars. It has an inarguable prima facie validity, but it doesn’t really satisfy*. Having better weapons and other technological devices doesn’t make a society more highly developed overall, or one viewpoint more real than another, no matter how strongly our instincts insist that it does.

            Our reality wins because there are more of us constantly inter-communicating our consensus of what is real.

            Throughout this series on reality, I am proposing that even the laws of physics are part of our consensus reality (the strong version), but even if there is an objective reality that our rational worldview is approaching ever more accurately, there is no guarantee we will continue that progress, certainly not in a linear fashion.

            Fake news doesn’t have to start water running uphill to be disruptive. Even if it can, there is a great deal of conceptual inertia in billions of individual perceptions, and people don’t just jump to that radical a concept. There’s no doubt that our weapons and general technological control over our environment rule today, but that depends on our universally shared experience of the world, which may be coming apart, if only in the weak sense.

            If engineering becomes viewed as the enemy, there will be fewer and fewer engineers. If universal facts become the enemy, fewer people will bother to learn those facts. They will learn other, more convenient “facts”, promoted by governments to some extent, but the most powerful trends are always organic. Governments, to the meagre extent they can effectively carry out any long-term project, just attach themselves to these trends. It feels to me as though the human race has grown tired of trying to be conscious and civilized and just wants to go back to sleep. Denying current reality is the beginning.

            Don’t place too much faith in the “objective” world self-correcting these trends, even if you accept only the weak version of collective solipsism. The power of the human mind to rationalize preconceptions when faced with new evidence is impressive. That same power from hundreds, thousands, millions of similarly inclined minds may be limitless.

            Eventually, we could lose the scientific rational world altogether—even if only in the weak sense—and it won’t be a normal clash of cultures. It’s will be like Washington, D.C. vs King’s Landing (Game of Thrones). Just like with the man in The Gods Must Be Crazy, there will be no intersection of realities, and no communication possible, and the belief with greater numbers will win.

            Next (finally!) what do we do about any of this?


Hugh Moffatt
Waltham, Massachusetts
August 28, 2019


            *There were other factors at work I don’t think we understand. The Incas should not have been helpless before the Spaniards. They were experienced warriors, and their far greater numbers could easily have nullified the technical advantage of guns. A couple hundred years later the Comanche kept the Spanish out of most of Texas with a much greater technical disadvantage. For a really interesting theory of psychological evolution that touches on the problem of the conquest of the Incas, check out The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. It’s a wild ride and not without credibility.