Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. ~Philip K. Dick

The world would probably be a lot better off if people weren’t so smug about their sense of reality. Regardless of nationality, religion or political affiliation, we have a tendency to believe we have a firm grip on The Way Things Are, and a confidence that our actions and beliefs are clearly the best way to deal with life’s issues both large and small.

The fact that many things in life today, including many things other people do, appear nonsensical to us is just a minor detail. We know what’s what, and we tend to feel it would be better for all concerned if everyone saw things the way we do.

We never seem to realize that big chunks of our understanding of reality reflect our own biases and perceptions, not the inherent nature of the world “out there.” The perceptions we embrace with certitude are in fact usually best guesses about what is happening around us. And our certitude in these perceptions leaves us open to manipulation by others who present stories we find conveniently agreeable, even when those stories are lies. That certitude can also blind us to warning signs of coming disaster.

Ron Suskind once related a story about an anonymous aide who spoke about the Bush Administration creating its own reality:

The aide said that guys like me 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.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”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.”

Many of us with a liberal point of view may tend to view this Bush/Cheney perspective from a lofty perch in the “reality-based community” and conclude that these people are either sinister or crazy. However we need to recognize there’s an element of truth in that aide’s statement. And then we need to decide how to deal with it.

On the most simple level, the aide was right. The Bush administration has created realities – in the Middle East, in New Orleans, on Wall Street and Main Street – that we’re now trying to figure out how to deal with. The key proviso that they either didn’t acknowledge or didn’t recognize was that those created realities often turned out to be quite different from what they themselves expected.

But beyond that is a much bigger question: what is reality today? In his book “Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be,” political scientist Walter Truett Anderson argues that in today’s postmodern world we are inevitably dealing with socially constructed realities. He notes the relevance of this in understanding modern politics:

“…the real fount of political power, the source of all loyalty and all independence, is the reality-creating process by which we decide who we are and what we think is happening.”

Although this book was published in 1990, it appears to define a problem Democrats have had lately in presidential elections: while Republicans provide stories to voters about who we are and what is happening, Democrats all too often respond with position papers and program promises. The egghead label that frequently stuck with Gore and Kerry – and has threatened at times to stick to Obama – is probably rooted in this distinction. (Note that Bill Clinton, who was also an exceptionally intelligent politician, managed to generally avoid the egghead label by – among other things – connecting with voters and “feeling their pain.”)

As we’ve seen over the past eight years, Republican hubris in reality-making has frequently doomed their plans to failure. Anderson notes: “…our deliberate reality-creating, future-making, civilization-building projects always turn out to have unexpected consequences…” This is especially true when you fail to recognize that you’re not operating in a vacuum; that others are creating realities at the same time you are.

Being a member of the “reality-based community” can only be useful when we recognize this truth: in today’s world we are each involved in creating realities, and such realities always exist within a larger context of other people’s realities.

As for the many problems confronting us today and in the upcoming election, Anderson provides a perspective from 18 years ago:

“This is the issue that mass democracies are going to have to come to terms with: whether we can construct our large-scale public realities in forms that enable us to grow and change and engage the difficulties of life in adult ways, or whether we will inevitably gravitate toward simple fables of good guys and bad guys.”


About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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