Truth and reality are not as obvious and easily established as we might think – especially in a world of diverse perspectives, competing special interests, and cognitive stumbling blocks. But there’s a level of reality which exists regardless of what we think about it, and that level of reality has the capacity to produce consequences. We all know this, even as me miss the mark in terms of actually understanding the fullness of reality in and around us. Thus it is vital that we clarify – and clear away – some of the growing fog around what is real and true so we can better navigate the complexity of “real reality” and improve our chances for success in a world filled with inevitable uncertainties.
Lately we – and by “we” I mostly mean we Americans, but actually everyone in the world for thousands of years – can’t seem to agree about “truth” and “reality” – about what they are and – perhaps most importantly – about how they relate to our collective affairs.
Although what’s real and true to each of us usually seems obvious, when we look real close or try to nail it down together, things can get pretty fuzzy.
Although past differences about this have been significant they’ve proved more or less manageable. But today I have a feeling that our differences about what’s real and true are about to become a Very Big Deal.
Let me back up for a minute…
In 1969 the American Heritage Dictionary came out with an Indo-European Roots Appendix. From this I learned that “tree”, “truth”, and “trust” – as well as “endure” and “shelter” – all derive from the Indo-European root “deru-“, meaning “to be firm, solid, steadfast”.
In 1978 science fiction author Philip K. Dick defined reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
Now, I find these two ideas fascinating – AND incredibly helpful when thinking about the nature of Truth and Reality. They point to an underlying essence of these words – a fundamental solidity that can be depended on.
The regular dictionary definitions back this up. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, truth means both “conformity to fact or actuality” and “a statement proven to be or accepted as true”. (You might take another look at “accepted as true” before we move on. It’s got a ton of loopholes!) “True” means “consistent with fact or reality; not false or erroneous” or “reliable or accurate”. And “real” means “having verifiable existence” and “not imaginary, alleged, or ideal”.
All of these definitions convey that root sense of solidity and dependability captured by both their Indo-European root and Philip K. Dick’s insight. They imply that what is real or true – or asserted to be real or true – can be counted on. Or at least we think we can count on it.
Unfortunately we live in a world where truth and reality are becoming harder to pin down – both on the surface and in their very depth and essence.
On the surface we find fake news and satire that people confuse for real news. And for several decades we smart humans have been busy increasing our capacity to alter photos and videos – once the sin qua non of proof – to represent things that never happened.
Moving a bit deeper, our sense of truth and reality is beset by the philosophical challenges of post-modernist relativism (“Such reality as there is… is a conceptual construct, an artifact of scientific practice and language…. there is no such thing as Truth”) which claims that our sense of what’s real and true is shaped by inescapable cultural assumptions and habits of thought.
Furthermore, we are learning that even eyewitness accounts and our own memories can no longer be considered dependable. What can we subjectively trust when our sense of certainty turns out to be only loosely related to reality and is further undermined by our confirmation bias – our tendency to seek and believe information that verifies what we already believe? To the extent we are open to such psychological and philosophical nuances, they raise serious questions about our individual capacity to nail down what is actually real and true.
To make matters worse, our trust in science – that exemplary collective approach to establishing what’s real and true – has lately been deeply shaken. As intrinsically trustworthy as science seems to be in theory, its practice involves dubious human nature and social dynamics, resulting in an extraordinary amount of “bad science”. The editor of one of the leading medical journals, The Lancet, suggests that “much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.” The leading scientific journal Science published research describing failure to replicate more than half of previously reported experimental findings in psychology. A nobel prize winner is boycotting leading scientific journals because he believes they are distorting the scientific process.
This is on top of the constantly changing findings of science which – though totally understandable due to the ongoing inquiry that is the essence of scientific research – leaves many people questioning how much they can trust any particular “scientific result”. This trust is further shaken whenever we hear – once again – that scientific findings are being produced – or suppressed! – by special interests with a financial or ideological stake in supposed scientific developments.
At an even more fundamental (but less broadly acknowledged) level, linear experimental scientists tend to dismiss the problems associated with applying experimental results and associated technologies in a world that – unlike a laboratory – is thoroughly interconnected, infinitely complex and always changing. Of course, the sciences of complexity and chaos and various forms of systems thinking address many of those problems – often viewing predictions in terms of probabilities rather than certainties. But few experts and even fewer ordinary citizens are well versed in those fields, still assuming that linear Newtonian science is producing virtual certainties. So we stumble once again into a once-dependable realm that leaves us without something solid to hold onto.
Life, being so complex and ever-changing, is filled with very real uncertainties, quite in addition to the many sources of artificial and unnecessary confusion. It is so hard for us to adequately sort out all the competing assertions and unexpected turns of events, especially by ourselves as individuals. So we grasp the best understandings we think we can find and hold on as tight as we can. And then some person, idea, or event comes along and shakes the hell out of it.
Into this confusing “reality” of uncertainty and relativity come special interests seeking to control public opinion and get their hands on public resources and power. They crank out fake news and propaganda and degrade, manipulate, and even deny mainstream science and research. They compete with each other to “frame” issues and solutions in thought-terminating narratives that align what we see, think, feel and do with their agenda, while leaving us thinking we are still independent agents. They take the uncertainty and confusion, magnify and strategically channel it, and then use their wealth and power to peddle fake certainties that rally people to their self-interested or ideologically biased cause.
This is epitomized – but by no means limited to – some remarkable epistemological assertions masquerading as political commentary. The attitudes described in statements like these are as dangerously real as they are deeply disturbing and insanely manipulative:
1. One thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts. They’re not really facts….There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweet amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. — Pro-Trump commentator Scottie Nell Hughes on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show
2. The aide [to George W. Bush, supposedly Karl Rove] said that guys like me [the reporter writing this] were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do. — Ron Suskind, reporting on this phenomenon in the October 17, 2004 issue of the New York Times Magazine
3. Truthiness is tearing apart our country…. It doesn’t seem to matter what facts are. It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty. People love the president because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist. It’s the fact that he’s certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true? — Steven Colbert, AV Club interview, 25 January 2006
Together these three statements suggest that in our political consciousness, reality is created rather than independently existing and that power in politics is a matter of who can assert the reality of their views and opinions – and their will – well enough and with sufficient certainty to ensure that the majority of people see it as factual reality in that realm where perception and truth merge. Sorting out fact from fiction is the role of observers – whether citizens or experts – whereas historic actors meld perceptions and realities into impacts that shape the course of human events and, ultimately, how those events are perceived. The observers – the experts and citizens – are always behind the curve, generating conflicting perspectives that add to the confusion.
Does this mean we live in a post-truth, post-fact, post-reality age?
No. It just means that reality is more complex and conditional than we would like to assume and that this makes our sense of it more subject to manipulation than we’d like to believe – not only by the “bad guys” but by ourselves in our desperate attempts to make sense of our world.
But “real reality” – that elusive thing that is composed of “true facts” – is what, when we don’t believe in it, doesn’t go away. And as events unfold, we will find out what we overlooked, what we didn’t believe, and what we should have taken more seriously. Reality is quite good at telling us these things. Sometimes we have to really pay attention to get the message. But sometimes – and increasingly, if we don’t pay attention – “real reality” speaks with surprising or even unbearable intensity.
The fact that we can’t fully know reality ahead of time – whether by our own limitations or by the manipulative efforts of others – doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. That just means that we need to treat reality with more respect than we may have previously – especially when it has something to do with our ability to survive and thrive. It means we need to take reality more seriously in its own terms. And that means we need to do our best to fathom it – in all its changing complexity – as best as we can as soon as we can, and then to PAY ATTENTION to what happens next, next, next, listening to reality’s ongoing emerging messages. That means setting aside our fixed ideas and behaviors as best we can as we adapt – as we LEARN – to become reality’s dancing partner, not its dictator nor its blind victim.
And that is the role we’ll take on if we wish to survive the next century. Of course we need to play that role as best we can individually. But ultimately it is not an individual task. It is a collective one. Only all together can we have the capacity to even begin to track the complexity of what’s going on, to sort out useful information from lies and dangerous assumptions, and to respond in flexible ways not as conforming social masses but as collectively insightful and resilient groups, communities, networks, organizations, and societies.
This is the vision of a wise democracy, a self-organizing collective endeavor to dance creatively with reality towards better outcomes now and in the future, learning together as we go.
Four guidelines for wise collective life
Here are four general guidelines for functioning as a wise democracy. There are hundreds of ways to apply each one of these principles. Our challenge as change agents is to experiment with them all, learning how they might complement each other and – learning together as we go – embedding them into the ways we think, into the ways we train our children and ourselves, and into all the institutions and the cultures we create together and depend on.
1. Avoid doing things that would naturally tend to generate collective stupidity and folly over the long haul. This would include efforts to reduce bias, misinformation, and our tendency to sideline and suppress diversity, disturbance, legitimate science, people’s experience, and other potential sources of insight.
2. Use everything we can think of that could help us generate potent collective intelligence, wisdom and broad benefit over the long haul. This would include welcoming a broad spectrum of information, perspectives, intelligences and creativity in generative conversations and deliberations. It would include taking seriously humanity’s widely acknowledged ethical principles like the Golden Rule. It would include tapping the understandings of all sciences, especially those that take wholeness and interconnectedness seriously – like systems thinking, chaos and complexity science, and ecology – as well as various forms of holistic philosophy and awareness.
3. Guided by the understandings generated by the previous two principles, take collective action. This would include the laws, policies, programs, and budgets that apply to the whole society, as well as more local and self-organized activities.
4. With ongoing openness, humility, and repeated reviews and deliberative attention to ground that has already been covered, gain further guidance from reality about the wisdom of actions already taken. Reality will reveal any important overlooked factors and offer new insights and possibilities. Rework activities covered in 1-3 above so they continually realign with what reality newly reveals to us through results, experience, evidence, and consequences. This would involve, most notably, treating disturbance with respect as a source of information and creatively using its energies to improve on what we’ve done so far.
If we did these things – and, even more importantly, if we organized our societies to do these things collectively, thoughtfully and routinely – our whole civilization could become a vast dancing partner with the full evolving complexity of reality.
If you’d like to help the Co-Intelligence Institute catalyze a movement around that, send us some support for our work in 2017.
Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole