Consensus Reality

Dandelion by Bennett Klein

Consensus reality is that which is generally agreed to be reality, based on a consensus view. However, human beings do not fully understand or agree upon the nature of knowledge or knowing, and therefore (it is often argued) it is not possible to be certain beyond doubt what is real. Accordingly, this line of logic concludes, we cannot in fact be sure beyond doubt about the nature of reality. We can, however, seek to obtain some form of consensus, with others, of what is real.

We can use this consensus as a pragmatic guide, either on the assumption that it seems to approximate some kind of valid reality, or simply because it is more ‘practical’ than perceived alternatives. Consensus reality therefore refers to the agreed-upon concepts of reality which people in the world, or a culture or group, believe are real (or treat as real), usually based upon their common experiences as they believe them to be; anyone who does not agree with these is sometimes stated to be ‘in effect… living in a different world.’

Throughout history this has also raised a social question: ‘What shall we make of those who do not agree with consensus realities of others, or of the society they live in?’ Children have sometimes been described or viewed as ‘inexperience[d] with consensus reality,’ although with the expectation that they will come into line with it as they mature. For adults, departure from the consensus reality is associated with eccentrics, the mentally ill, and the enlightened or divinely inspired (or evil and demonic). Alternatively, differing viewpoints may simply be put to some kind of ‘objective’ (though the nature of ‘objectivity’ goes to the heart of the relevant questions) test. Cognitive liberty is the freedom to be the individual’s own director of the individual’s own consciousness and is fundamentally opposed to enforcement of the culturally accepted reality upon non-conforming individuals. Effects of low cognitive liberty vary from indifference to forced-medication and from social alienation to incarceration to death.

In considering the nature of reality, two broad approaches exist: the ‘realist’ approach, in which there is a single objective overall space-time reality believed to exist irrespective of the perceptions of any given individual, and the ‘idealistic’ approach, in which it is considered that an individual can verify nothing except their own experience of the world, and can never directly know the truth of the world independent of that.

Consensus reality may be understood by studying socially constructed reality, a subject within the sociology of knowledge. Consider this example: reality for people who believe in any particular God is different from reality for those who believe that science is sufficient for explaining life and the universe. In societies where God-centered religions are dominant, that understanding would be the consensus reality, while the religious worldview would remain the nonconsensus (or alternative) reality in a predominantly secular society where the consensus reality is grounded in science alone. In this way, different individuals and communities have fundamentally different world views, with fundamentally different comprehensions of the world around them, and of the constructs within which they live. Thus, a society that is (for example) completely secular and one which believes every eventuality to be subject to metaphysical influence will have very different consensus realities, and many of their beliefs on broad issues such as science, slavery, and human sacrifice may differ in direct consequence because of the differences in the perceived nature of the world they live in.

Objectivists, though not necessarily materialists, also reject the notion of subjective reality; they hold that while each individual may indeed have their own perception of reality, that perception has no effect on what reality actually is; in fact, if the perception of reality differs significantly from the actual reality, serious negative consequences are bound to follow. Some idealists (subjective idealists) hold the view that there isn’t one particular way things are, but rather that each person’s personal reality is unique. Such idealists have the world view which says that we each create our own reality, and while most people may be in general agreement (consensus) about what reality is like, they might live in a different (or nonconsensus) reality. Materialists may not accept the idea of different possible realities for different people, rather than different beliefs about one reality. So for them only the first usage of the term ‘reality’ would make sense. To them, someone believing otherwise, where the facts have been properly established, might be considered delusional.

The connotation of the term ‘consensus reality’ is usually disparaging: it is usually employed by idealist, surrealist, and other anti-realist theorists opposing or hostile to this ‘reality,’ with the implication that this consensus reality is, to a greater or lesser extent, created by those who experience it. (The phrase ‘consensus reality’ may be used more loosely to refer to any generally accepted set of beliefs.) However, there are those who use the term approvingly for the practical benefits of all agreeing on a common set of assumptions or experiences. Singers, painters, writers, theorists and other individuals employing a number of means of action have attempted to oppose or undermine consensus reality while others have declared that they are ‘ignoring’ it. For example, Salvador Dalí intended by his paranoiac-critical method to ‘systematize confusion thanks to a paranoia and active process of thought and so assist in discrediting completely the world of reality.’

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