Science is a strange kind of reality worship. We want to know what really is, out there in the physical world, independent of the vagaries of our internal experience. We try to find what’s true for everyone, all the time. It’s easy for me to forget that there are some contexts in which what is actually happening, in a measurable sense, is not what matters most. Sometimes, it hardly seems to matter at all. Corporate PR hacks, religious proselytizers and other propagandists understand this intuitively. If you tell people a story they want to believe, often they will go ahead and believe it, regardless of any countervailing evidence. They will thank Big Brother for increasing the chocolate ration from 30 grams to 20 grams per week. But this kind of disconnection of external from internal reality isn’t always sinister. Sometimes it isn’t even a disconnection so much as it is an orthogonality. Disconnection suggests that the two were once connected, or are intended to be one, but our internal experience is just not the same thing as external reality. They are related, but separated, by warm vitreous pools of light and hairy waveguides. There is some part of us which is intrinsic, or such a distant and distorted echo of the outside world as to be unrecognizable.
In our dealings with that outside world, it’s dangerous to let these two truths diverge. The rules of material existence are inflexible. They are non-negotiable. They do not care how you feel about the situation. You must either adapt yourself to the environment, or re-arrange the environment in a way that conforms to the laws of nature. When it comes to connections between our separate inner worlds though, between our personal experiences, our experiential truths, the landscape becomes less fixed, more varied. Macroscopically, this is politics, religion, marketing, and the huge network of human interactions that make up the fabric of our society. We are continuously tinkering with our collective experience, and so it evolves over time. Occasionally, we try to overhaul it altogether in a revolution. There are more ways to be human than we give ourselves credit for. Most of them haven’t been tried and never will be. Societies, like genomes, are grotesquely non-repeating.
At the individual level, the inner life is love and friendship and familial ties. In these interpersonal spheres the experience is the reality. Do I love you? If I feel like I love you, and you feel like I love you, then by a consensus of size two, I do. Obviously these experiences are shaped by the outside world, but two people can have very different experiences of the same shared situation, so some of the experience is coming from inside. Love can only be maintained by conspiracy. Love lost by one is still love lost. Relationships are stories we tell about ourselves and other people, but we and they have to agree on the story, or get close anyway. If narrative discrepancies get too large, if we let them drift without regular collimation, continuing the conspiracy becomes more difficult. The code gets forked irreconcilably, and one day, we might wake up in different books. In different states. In different places. And those differences may be painful to resolve. They may never be resolved. Different people tell different stories about the same happening, as anyone who has taken an eyewitness deposition knows. Do all differences need to be resolved? Are there mutually compatible narratives which are not identical, which intermingle and fit together, maintaining the illusion of continuity on long timescales?
Managing the daydream, the storyline, the fever, the collusion, and maintaining it, means managing the experiences of those involved. It’s not accounting or actuarial work. Not for most people anyway (though some of us are more inspired by numbers than others). The quantitative external existence is an important input, but unlike in science, it is not ultimately the thing that matters. It is secondary and may be productively subjugated to the shared experience. Quantitative fairness may not feel good. What feels good might not be quantitatively fair. Which would you rather have?
Maybe I’m late to this game. To this realization. Maybe I’m just slow. If so at least it’s not just me. Robert S. McNamara only realized decades later that the Vietnamese were fighting a different war than the US. Is this kind of collective dreaming so second nature to most people that they can’t or don’t distinguish it from objective reality? That’s the underlying premise of James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed. People a hundred or a thousand or even ten thousand years ago (but maybe not 100,000 years ago) were the same animal as we are, lived in the same world we do, were subject to the same physical laws, observed the same natural phenomena. But they lived in different worlds too. Their collective dreams about this same world were not ours. Their gods and demons. Their goods and evils. Their social contracts. The so-called Enlightenment was in some ways a broad realization that there even was an inflexible external reality we could approximate, and that all the other rules and norms we’d accumulated over the centuries were mutable, and up for debate.
We still have not fully absorbed this realization. We still do not understand culturally that We and They can be having wildly different experiences of the same interaction. Certainly many individuals see this, and some can work with it, seeking out narratives which are at least mutually acceptable, if not the same. But we also fail to recognize the difference between problems we can solve by rewriting our social, cultural, and economic narratives, and problems that can only be solved by quantitative changes. For we also have a relationship with material reality, with this planet, with the laws of nature. We and our institutions are so used to the flexibility of human relationships that we are having trouble admitting to ourselves that in this case, the other party will not budge. These are the highest laws of the land. There will be no out of court settlement. No bailout. No appeals process. No amendments. No synod. No peace and reconciliation. No effective outreach campaign or rousing oratory will make the difference. We will not experiment with an open relationship or have a trial separation. At least not any time soon. We can either accept the law and work within it, or somebody is going to have to move out.
And it’s not going to be the Earth.