On subjective realities


Sapiens was a terrific book; like Guns, Germs, and Steel, it’s a book every human should read. That said, I found Harari’s perspective on human history to be quite disorienting. The most troubling part was the realization that a lot of what we build our lives upon and take for granted as objectively true is actually only subjectively true: that is, true only because most people believe in it. For example, money, democracy, the free market, the United States government, human rights, justice, equality, and many other things would all simply disappear, would cease to have any power, if we all just quit believing in them.

This is an especially disorienting idea in this era where we are beginning to see such a divide in the subjective realities held as “true” by people in our population. I’m sure that the reality as seen by a Fox News viewer is quite different from the reality that I perceive. Regardless of who is “right” and who is “wrong,” complete fictions have incredible power if enough people believe in them. The suffering and murder of untold millions can be attributed to various shared “subjective realities.” Human belief in things is so powerful that we should be especially cautious about what we choose to believe in. We should probably be picky enough to only believe in the most benevolent of forces, irrespective of any presumption of “truth.” In fact, humans are probably not very reliable interpreters of objective phenomena, so belief is a very dangerous thing indeed.

That said, I think it’s impossible for humans to give up the desire to know what’s true. And, as I read about the “fictions” and “subjective realities” the author spoke of, I can’t help but think of the imaginal nature of science. John Snow “imagined” that cholera was caused by microscopic organisms that reproduced in the gut and caused a fatal diarrhea a whole decade before we could visualize microorganisms. That was a “fiction” that had tremendous power to explain observed phenomena and to stop a cholera epidemic. Similarly, we still can’t visualize the orbitals of atoms, but our model for them is a “fiction” that nicely explains the observed behavior of chemicals.

The question I’m left with after reading the book is this: Just how powerful is the human capacity for belief? Shared “subjective realities” seem to make things materialize in our world. Is that true only as long as the “subjective realities” are consistent with “natural laws?” (If that’s a thing.) Or does the power of the collective imagination of Homo sapiens actually CREATE what we call “natural laws?”