Our Shared Reality is Fraying

Summary: Researchers report truth is key to normal human interactions and consider how society might be losing its sense of shared reality.

Source: The Conversation.

The concept of truth is under assault, but our troubles with truth aren’t exactly new.

What’s different is that in the past, debates about the status of truth primarily took place in intellectual cafes and academic symposia among philosophers. These days, uncertainty about what to believe is endemic – a pervasive feature of everyday life for everyday people.

“Truth isn’t truth” – Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s lawyer, famously said in August. His statement wasn’t as paradoxical as it might have appeared. It means that our beliefs, what we hold as true, are ultimately unprovable, rather than objectively verifiable.

Many philosophers would agree. Nevertheless, voluminous research in psychology, my own field of study, has shown that the idea of truth is key to humans interacting normally with the world and other people in it. Humans need to believe that there is truth in order to maintain relationships, institutions and society.

Truth’s indispensability

Beliefs about what is true are typically shared by others in one’s society: fellow members of one’s culture, one’s nation or one’s profession.

Psychological research in a forthcoming book by Tory Higgins, “Shared Reality: What Makes Us Strong and Tears Us Apart,” attests that shared beliefs help us collectively understand how the world works and provide a moral compass for living in it together.

Cue our current crisis of confidence.

Distrust of the U.S. government, which has been growing since the 1960s, has spread to nearly all other societal institutions, even those once held as beyond reproach.

From the media to the medical and scientific communities to the Catholic Church, there is a gnawing sense that none of the once hallowed information sources can be trusted.

When we can no longer make sense of the world together, a crippling insecurity ensues. The internet inundates us with a barrage of conflicting advice about nutrition, exercise, religion, politics and sex. People develop anxiety and confusion about their purpose and direction.

In the extreme, a lost sense of reality is a defining feature of psychosis, a major mental illness.

A society that has lost its shared reality is also unwell. In the past, people turned to widely respected societal institutions for information: the government, major news outlets, trusted communicators like Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley or Edward R. Murrow. Those days are gone, alas. Now, just about every source is suspect of bias and serving interests other than the truth. In consequence, people increasingly believe what they wish to believe, or what they find pleasing and reassuring.

In the quest to restore peace of mind, people scramble for alternative sources of certainty. Typically this means narrowing one’s circle of confidants to one’s tribe, one’s side of the aisle, one’s ethnicity or one’s religion.

For example, in his monumental work on the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Edward Gibbon, the British historian recounts how the shattering of the Roman common worldview facilitated the emergence of a host of alternative religions – including Christianity, which finally prevailed over other faiths and belief systems that also sprung up at that time.

Then, as now, the fraying of our shared reality portends a fragmentation of society, an unbridgeable polarization in which distrust reigns, outsiders are demonized and collective action to address problems comes to a standstill.

Back to a shared reality

Philosophers in the 20th century, known as part of a “post-modernist” movement in Western thought, eschewed the idea that objective truth is attainable.

That school of philosophy was critical of the modern notion that science, through its methods, is able to conclusively prove its claims and theories.

Instead, post-modernist authors stressed that human knowledge is ultimately subjective and relative rather than absolute. The post modernist movement ushered a sense of irreverence and freedom into culture and society. It stressed alternative ways of knowing through feeling and image thus impacting the communication industry and encouraging imagination.

a frayed piece of rope
Have we lost our grip on the truth? NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from The Conversation news release.

Even major defenders of science like Karl Popper maintained that truth is but a guiding ideal for scientific inquiry that can never be realized or proven for certain. Thomas Kuhn believed likewise. What these philosophers perhaps did not anticipate is what would happen to societies if skepticism and relativity – unconstrained belief systems in which nearly anything can be sustained – became widespread.

How can this dynamic be reversed?

Rebuilding a sense of shared reality among different segments of our society isn’t going to be easy, especially as it seems forces such as politicians and Russian trolls are working towards just the opposite goal. Also, deeply committed advocates and true believers from both sides are making it difficult for to rebuild that invaluable common ground that shared reality rests upon.

Psychological research suggests that such an about-face would require a willingness to “unfreeze” our entrenched positions that demonize the opinions of others, and often are based on narrow interests of one’s tribe or class.

In a forthcoming book I’m co-authoring with colleagues, “Radicals’ Journey: German Neo-Nazis’ Voyage to the Fringe and Back,” we tell the story of an arson attack against a synagogue in the German city of Düsseldorf in 2000. The German chancellor at the time, Gerhard Schröder, issued a public call for a “rebellion of the decent.”

It was a call to find a way to coalesce around common values and listen to each other’s concerns; to find forgiveness instead of rejoicing at each other’s misfortunes and mistakes.

Schröder’s plea triggered one of the largest funding schemes for counter violent extremism programs on the federal, state and community levels across all of Germany. It mobilized the entire German nation to stand together against the forces of divisiveness.

Wisdom from the field of psychology hails Schröder’s advice. The alternative to finding our lost common ground may be our self-destruction as a community and as a nation.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Arie Kruglanski – The Conversation
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from The Conversation news release.

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]The Conversation”Our Shared Reality is Fraying.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 15 September 2018.
<https://neurosciencenews.com/psychology-shared-reality-9872/>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]The Conversation(2018, September 15). Our Shared Reality is Fraying. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved September 15, 2018 from https://neurosciencenews.com/psychology-shared-reality-9872/[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]The Conversation”Our Shared Reality is Fraying.” https://neurosciencenews.com/psychology-shared-reality-9872/ (accessed September 15, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]

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  1. When I read, “Russian trolls”, I tiraded to my wife how the author of this article is guilty of what he is criticizing. Then I read the next sentence, “deeply committed advocates and true believers from both sides are making it difficult for to rebuild that invaluable common ground that shared reality rests upon”, which clarifies that the author is a deeply commited advocate and true believer who is so utterly convinced that “his” beliefs are “the truth”, that he uses a lying propaganda slogan as an example of a “self-evident truth” that all right-minded rational people should believe is true – even though nobody has ever presented any actual evidence, anywhere, that Russina trolls are running amok on the internet. Nor does the author identify the source of most people’s lack of shared truth: “authorities” who make claims that are either not supported by the evidence, or contradicted by the evidence, but the authorities maintain their consensus belief that their moral, empirical and ideological assumptions and certainties are “the truth”. And they dismiss alternate assumptions, interpretations and theories as “stupid”. Scientific certainties have replaced religious certainties as the foundation upon which the authorities try to impose their ideologically biased and self-serving worldview on the masses of deplorables. But now that the deplorables have an independent source of information – that bypasses the academic peer review and publsihing and other processes by which contradictory ideas are censored and suppressed – they are waking up to the reality that the authorities are feeding them a trough full of horsesh*t which is presented as “the facts”. Not “our theories”; but the indisputable truth of the matter. Darwinists cannot explain how the first living cell built itself, but anybody who says Darwinism is incomplete or wrong is dismissed as “unscientific” by the authoritative consensus of society’s self-appointed knowing ones who “know” Darwinian evolution is the only possible answer to how humans came to exist here in this reality. The author cites Thomas Kuhn, who described how scientific disciplines work within paradigms whose walls are built by the consensus beliefs and assumptions and interpretations of the evidence. But some of the empirical evidence cannot be explained within that conceptual framework, and eventually new interpretations become “the facts”; the old facts are abandoned as obviously false; and new scientific certainties are established. False certainty is the problem: authoirites who clearly don’t know the truth, who claim to be the only ones who do know the truth; and who simply dismiss any alternate explanations as preposterous balderdash. The old authorities can no longer exert their old control over information; and people are doing their own research and learning that “authoritative consensus” serves the interests of the status quo; and that progress toward learning the truth requires stopping believing the horsesh*t the authorities are pumping out, and seeing reality through eyes that are not blinded by the walls of false paradigms that the authorities who live inside those walls believe are the boundaries of reality itself.

  2. Embarrassing inclusion of the ‘Russian trolls’. Embarrassing. Kind of like you yourself missing your entire point.

    But then, that too is the point.

  3. The main problem is that today’s hyperactivist progressive liberal lives by this motto: the ends justify *any* means. Thus, the law of the land means little unless *you* break it. Then it must be upheld using the strictest possible interpretation.

    So you are correct regarding our future. If a people group decides not to live by the same rules or adhere to the same consensual hallucination of laws, there can be no civil society.

    Also, food for thought: in every nation where Muslims are the minority they forcefully demand minority rights.

    In every nation where Muslims are the majority, there are no minority rights.

  4. Research? No. this is common sense, when people cannot communicate with one another because of ideological differences, when people refuse to listen to the views of those that differ from them, when people shout down and attack those they disagree with, Society is broken. The world leaders are at fault to some degree but the real fault lies with those that elect to power demagogues and idiots. We are going to see much more strife across the world because people do not pay attention to history. The German wars will be remembered fondly.

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