Consensus reality

Consensus reality

Consensus reality is an approach to answering the philosophical question "What is real?"

It gives a practical answer:

  • reality is either what exists, or
  • what we can agree seems to exist.

The process has been (perhaps loosely and a bit imprecisely) characterised as "when enough people think something is true, it... takes on a life of its own."[citation needed] The term is usually used disparagingly as by implication it may mean little more than "what a group or culture chooses to believe," and may bear little or no relationship to any "true reality," and, indeed, challenges the notion of "true reality."

The difficulty with the question stems from the concern that human beings do not in fact 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.[1][2] 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."[3]

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,"[4] although with the expectation that they will come into line with it as they mature. However, the answer is more diverse as regards such people as have been characterised as eccentrics, mentally ill, enlightened or divinely inspired, or evil or demonic in nature. 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.[citation needed]


General discussion

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. (Read page three of The Social Construction of Reality by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann.)

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,[5] 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.

Consensus reality in science and philosophy


Materialists, however, may not accept the idea of there being 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.


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.

Social consequences of consensus reality issues

Views on the term "consensus reality"

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.[6]

Social aspects of consensus reality

Singers,[7] 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.[8] For example, Salvador Dalí intended by his paranoiac-critical method[9] to "systematize confusion thanks to a paranoia and active process of thought and so assist in discrediting completely the world of reality".[10]

Reality enforcement

The theory of reality enforcement holds that belief in consensus reality (the "reality"[11] of "reality enforcement" is used in this sense)—on which the apparent persistence of consensus reality's existence may depend—is "enforced" through various means applied against those who challenge it, including involuntary commitment.[citation needed] Thus, believers in reality enforcement are typically sympathetic to anti-psychiatry. While mental health codes in some United States states specify that a diminished "capacity to recognize reality" (taken from some definitions of psychosis[12]) is part of the standard for mental illness, "there is controversy over what is considered out of touch with reality."[13] Richard Rogers and Daniel W. Shuman, in their book Conducting Insanity Evaluations have, however, said that the standard "refers to the intactness of the individual's perception of external stimulae" and equated it with "reality testing",(p. 85) a definition that goes right to the heart of the argument. The validity of this as a standard in general has also been questioned. Arthur D. Hlavaty has called the unwillingness of his parents to be overly harsh in breaking down the "walls" of his Asperger syndrome an unwillingness to engage in "reality enforcement."[14] Some have expressed concerns on computer forums about psychiatric medication being used for "social control" and "reality enforcement."[15]

Reality enforcement has also been used to apply to the promotion of consensus reality, such as in education.[16] (The term "reality enforcement" has apparently been also used in looser senses, such as a moment in which one is suddenly "jolted back" to "reality,"[17] negative social sanctions applied to those who transgress gender norms,[18] the correction of factual errors in print or speech[19] or vigilance applied to the "authenticity" of a fictional world.)[20] Reality enforcement has been characterised as a possible aspect of psychiatry or approach to or method of psychiatric practice,[21] though its efficacy in promoting realism [disambiguation needed ] (in the particular case of genetic counseling) has been questioned.[22]

The theory of reality enforcement is opposed by those called "reality enforcers" (or, more precisely, "enforcers of consensus reality")[23] by the supporters of the theory, who have been called "biased" and having a "skewed view of reality;"[24] the term "reality enforcers" has also been used more loosely to describe those who "shore up" a "dominant paradigm" in which general belief is wavering.[25] (Sometimes the term "reality enforcement police" is used interchangeably.)[26] The so-called "reality enforcers" occasionally use the phrase in order to ridicule those who believe in the theory, or, more loosely what they see as farfetched or conspiracy theories generally.[27] (It should be noted Alan C. Walter uses the phrase "reality enforcers" in a highly idiosyncratic way having nothing to do with the theory of reality enforcement.) These "reality enforcers" appeal to an objectivist theory of reality, rejecting multiple subjective realities which could diverge considerably, which contradicts the theory of "reality enforcement."

In a more general sense, "reality enforcement" is used to mean an (often violent or forceful) ending of a "fantasy" in the person, persons or group on whom it is enacted,[28] or the assertion, using force, of some "reality" to those who are not aware of it, or are in denial about it.

Consensus reality and reality enforcement in fiction and literature

  • Norman O. Brown's book Love's Body discusses reality enforcement.
  • Dr. Louis Sass' book Madness and Modernism argues for some supranormal cognitive aspects to schizophrenia, and against the view that it is a purely degenerative disorder.

Novels and short fiction

  • In the play Peter Pan by writer J. M. Barrie the hero rejects adult reality by flying to Neverland. Fairies like Tinkerbell only survive if children believe in them.
  • Various dystopian novels, such as Nineteen Eighty-Four, and its concept of groupthink, feature a highly controlled consensus reality.
  • The works of Philip K. Dick often involve shifts in or deviations from consensus reality.
  • In Terry Pratchett's Discworld, Gods and such entities exist because of sufficient belief in them, without which they fade away.
  • Kim Newman's novel Jago focuses on the consequences of a breakdown in consensus reality.
  • In Chuck Palahniuk's novel Rant, the eponymous character contends that "reality is a consensus".
  • The works of Robert Anton Wilson usually discuss consensus reality.
  • Karl Schroeder's novel Lady of Mazes posits a society with technologically-enforced separate realities; the protagonist can switch between them, and rebuilds a shared consensus reality.
  • Neil Gaiman features consensus reality in much of his work, including Sandman, Neverwhere, and American Gods.
  • Nancy Kress's short story The Flowers of Aulit Prison and the related Probability Space series deal with a species whose consensus reality is propagated and enforced biologically.
  • Consensual reality is a recurring theme in the short-story book "Dreams Underfoot" by Charles de Lint.
  • Against a Dark Background by Iain M. Banks contains a group of solipsist characters who believe there is no existing reality outside their own minds. Every person and every thing they meet/perceive are figments of their imaginations designed by their deeper thought processes to either help or challenge them. As a group they enjoy some form of consensus reality in that they all believe the same thing, only differing over which person is the originator of their own perceived reality.
  • Solaris by Stanislaw Lem is also a good example of consensus reality in film and literature.

Role-playing games

  • The Planescape: Torment role-playing video game takes place in a cosmology (Planescape) consisting of certain planes of existence where sufficient belief can cause something to simply pop into (or out of) reality, even move territory from one dimension to another.
  • The Mage: The Ascension role-playing game takes place in a cosmology where, in modern times, mages must work against the consensus reality which dictates that magic cannot work and must cope with the results of the reality enforcing force called paradox, which results if they "break the rules".
  • In the world of d20 Modern, specifically in the Shadow Chasers and Urban Arcana settings, various creatures that are perceived to be fictional exist, but are viewed as mundane creatures due to the average persons view of reality.
  • The Six-Guns and Sorcery supplement to the Castle Falkenstein RPG includes a small section on American legendary figures (e.g., Paul Bunyan) who gain supernaturally-powered physical reality as the European immigrant population increases. This is a variant on the pervasive belief-in-gods-creates-them meme mentioned in connection with the Discworld novel above.
  • In the current version of the Forgotten Realms Universe, Gods of the realm of Toril must rely on their followers' faith to sustain them. This rule was enforced by Lord Ao the Overgod after the Time of Troubles to ensure that Deities could not ignore their worshippers. This can be considered a form of Consensus Reality, as without the faith of others, a God would cease to exist altogether.

Film and Television

  • The film The Matrix shows something similar to reality enforcement;[29] Agent Smith could be called a "reality enforcer".
  • The films Dark City and The Thirteenth Floor have a very similar theme to The Matrix, and deal with mistaken reality
  • Consensus reality is a recurring theme in the movies of David Cronenberg (Videodrome, eXistenZ).
  • In the 1998 anime series Serial Experiments Lain the protagonist adjusts consensus reality.
  • In the episode "The Tooth Fairy Tats 2000" of South Park, Kyle questions reality after learning that the tooth fairy is not real.
  • In the episode "Chain of Command" of Star Trek: The Next Generation, an alien captor attempts to enforce a false reality upon Captain Picard. He does so by forcing him to admit that there are five lights in the room, when in fact there are truly only four. In the end, Picard did change his perception of reality to match the torturer's, but he was escorted out just before he could answer "properly".

See also


  1. ^ Lakoff, George (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. University of Chicago Press. pp. 259. ISBN 0-226-46804-6. "In summary, Putnam has shown that existing formal versions of objectivist epistemology are inconsistent; there can be no objectively correct description of reality from a God's eye point of view. This does not, of course, mean that there is no objective reality—only that we have no privileged access to it from an external viewpoint." 
  2. ^ Putnam, Hilary (1981). Reason, Truth, and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  3. ^ Stork, David G., editor (1998). Hal's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality. MIT Press. p. 201. ISBN 0262692112. 
  4. ^ Rostow Kuznets, Lois (1994). When Toys Come Alive: Narratives of Animation, Metamorphosis, and Development. Yale University Press. pp. 228, note 14. ISBN 0300056451. 
  5. ^ According to philosopher Ken Wilber. See Ken Wilber's book A Brief History of Everything.
  6. ^ Zane Crawford. "ideotrope: consensus reality". Retrieved 2007-06-19. [dead link]
  7. ^ Scott, Aaron (August 19, 2005). "Angel in America: Holcombe Waller's seraphic voice provides comfort during Troubled Times". Just Out (Portland, Oregon) 22 (20): p. 37. 
  8. ^ "LiveJournal: Interests". Retrieved 2007-06-27. 
  9. ^ "DALI.UFFS.NET - Salvador Dali - Odjinud ...". Retrieved 2007-06-07. 
  10. ^ Bryan M. Papciak. ""Thank God I'm an atheist: "The surrealistic cinema of Luis Bunuel". Retrieved 2007-06-19. 
  11. ^ "OVERCOMPENSATING: The Journal Comic with a Seething Disdain for Reality.". Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  12. ^ ", paranoid schizophrenia". Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  13. ^ "reality: Definition, Synonyms and Much More from". Retrieved 2007=06-05. 
  14. ^ "Casting Aspergeons". Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  15. ^ "psychForums : psychForums: psychology & mental health forums. Forum Index -> Schizophrenia Forum: trying to help a family member". Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  16. ^ Mini, John (2000). The Aztec Virgin: The Secret Mystical Tradition of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Trans-Hyperborean Institute of Science. p. 100. ISBN 0965782506. 
  17. ^ "Post Comment". Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  18. ^ Talia Mae Bettcher. "Appearance, Reality and Gender Deception:Reflections on Transphobic Violenceand the Politics of Pretence" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  19. ^ "Re: Editorial: Carolyn Parrish on Afghanistan". Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  20. ^ "Neverwinter Nights: Why are there Christian grave markers in Faerun?". Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  21. ^ Howells, John G. (1971). Modern Perspectives in Child Psychiatry. Brunner. p. 241. 
  22. ^ Ching, Chun Li, quoting Kallmann (1961). Human Genetics: Principles and Methods. Blakiston Division, McGraw-Hill. p. 181. 
  23. ^ Boyer, Daniel (July 11, 1997). "Letter to the editor". The Harvard Crimson. 
  24. ^ "Mental Illness - Page 4 - Uncicylist Community". Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  25. ^ "Peak Oil News & Message Board Forums". Archived from the original on 2007-10-07. Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  26. ^ "The Official Dark and Shattered Lands Forums: sneaking invis and whatnot". Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  27. ^ "Plastic: I've Got a Bad Feeling About This".;sid=05/11/30/10002085;cid=79. Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  28. ^ David Pryce-Jones. "Death of a Fantasy". Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  29. ^

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