The perception problem: how do you define ‘reality’?

There are many reasons why people come to wildly different conclusions about what is “real”. We explore some of the causes of conflicting perceptions.

The perception problem: how do you define 'reality'?

Over the last few weeks I have had many discussions with friends, family, and associates in the United States. These conversations broadly fall into one of two social contexts:

  • Those who believe that CNN, MSNBC, NYT, and WaPo are legitimate journalism; late night comedy shows are funny and informative; Hollywood makes film art; Donald Trump is a criminal narcissist ruining the country.
  • Those who believe that CNN, MSNBC, NYT, and WaPo are criminal enterprises; late night comedy shows are vile and deceitful; Hollywood makes evil propaganda; Donald Trump is an honourable warrior saving the country.

It hardly needs stating that these are opposing paradigms, even if there may be nuance in individual views. Whilst there may be common ground — “Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself” — the situation is best characterised by a divergence of perspectives. It seems fair to say that we are in a societal battle to define what “real information about reality” is.

This “perception problem” transcends traditional politics. My purpose in writing this missive is to share my observations at the philosophical and media studies level, rather than to opine on world affairs or advocate for a movement. What might be the appropriate “thinking tools” to help us to ground our perspective of reality?

Macro vs micro outlooks

The scope of the issue we face is the “macro” definition of reality. At a more
“micro” level of life we have fairly widespread consensus — we agree what we perceive when we see an airplane fly or a duck swim. An example of a “macro” dispute is whether humans are endangering the planet by producing CO2, or if vaccines are broadly safe and/or effective.

There are different thinking toolsets that apply at these different scopes. Knowing the psychology of psychopaths doesn’t translate directly into understanding of pathocratic societies and ponerology (the study of evil). Being a criminologist doesn’t make you into an expert on the rise and fall of totalitarianism. Stock investing success is different from the architecture of new financial systems.

There are phenomena that exist at the macro level that don’t apply at the micro, and vice versa — just as how we differentiate between macroeconomics and microeconomics for a reason. For instance, understanding mind control cults (micro) doesn’t automatically map onto mass brainwashing via propaganda (macro). The temptation is to over-extrapolate our expertise, in either direction.

Scaling assumption of beliefs

Taking the above a little further, there are macro (non-)scaling assumptions baked into the arguments being offered. For instance, a common perspective is that “conspiracies” don’t scale — the “one whistleblower” effect. Hence media articles exist stating Large-scale conspiracies are mathematically impossible to keep quiet.

This ignores the possibility that whistleblowers are frequent, ignored, and violently punished. The institutions of journalism and justice can be compromised. Compartmentalisation of knowledge means most people
“involved” operationally have no idea of intent. Crime families and secret societies offer mechanisms to replicate and scale efforts. Blackmail and extortion keep secrets very effectively.

“Conspiracies” are just business plans in a psychopathic culture. They can be “connected” by deeper structures of negative power and control, such as via banking, education, and religion. Beware simplistic “flat earth” type arguments about the political firmament! What we call “reality” is a more multi-dimensional phenomenon, especially in the social — where there arguably is no singular “reality”.

Baseline reality is (in)sane

Our definition of reality is often anchored in the idea of consensus. The problem with this is a “madness of crowds” trap. Deviation from the norm can be harmless eccentricity, or problematic illness. When the norm itself is “crazy”, then it helps to remind ourselves that science is about evidence and logic, not consensus.

“Bubbles of insanity” are commonplace, and can engulf whole societies. An example might be Lysenkoism, a failed Soviet industrial pseudoscience. When the “baseline” is “insane”, then those who are heading towards “objective reality” will appear to be mad deviants. Knowing whether the “deviation” is “sane” or “insane” invites some difficult philosophical issues!

There is a risk of pathologising those who deviate “positively” from an “insane” baseline norm. The term “conspiracy theorist” appears to an example of this, being designed to use emotive ridicule to inhibit rational examination of narratives that contest what is real. Some humility may be in order before insisting it is the “other” who is the “crazy” one!

Spiritual warfare is a thing

Our desire to seek information is modified by what we perceive as being “good” to know. Should our beliefs about what is “good” (and hence “bad”) can be influenced, then our concept of what is “real” can be modified. This can be a source of deep division about the nature of our shared experience.

If religion is upstream of culture, and culture is upstream of politics, our views of the political arena may be unconscious reflections of our deep spiritual assumptions. These in turn may be “inverted” — what is loosely referred to as a “Satanic” outlook or “Luciferian” doctrine. (I am not an expert on these terms; do your own research.)

Information warfare’s fractal of fakery

All success in war is anchored on strategic deception. As Sun Tzu famously stated: “Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”. In other words, the strategic memetics dominate the tactical kinetics, and this is achieved by outwitting the battle and logistical plans of the enemy.

The context of the present day is arguably an unconventional cyberwar that involves the mass media as active weaponised participants. The context of our sense-making of what is “real” is a tangle of false flag deceptions, sting operations, ambiguous narratives, paradoxical interventions, and manufactured distractions. These are being executed by sophisticated state-level actors.

That you or I can definitely discern the true meaning of any act from its surface appearance requires a lot of chutzpah. It takes time to understand what is or was really going on. Given how the historical context is always edited to favour the victors, and true history can be hoarded, we may never be afforded an accurate personal perspective during our lifetime.

Intrigue is complex and confusing by design

Adding an extra observation to the above, the present day feels like inhabiting a rather extreme thriller novel with a bizarrely twisted plot. The roles of the characters as villains, heroes, or victims seem to shift as the story unfolds. Whether someone is a “white hat” (for good of all), “black hat” (criminal), “grey hat” (between these extremes), or “red hat” (leveraged asset) may be unclear.

Our sense of “reality” in terms of character and narrative can be wildly off-base, since the nature of statecraft and military intelligence obfuscates these. “Professional liars” are very good at their jobs, even when motivated by the highest ideals, and know how to fool even the most sophisticated observer —given enough time and resources. Everyone has a belief “attack surface” that their intrigue can penetrate.

Occultism and esoteric knowledge exist

We are taught in school about the “exoteric” (shared knowledge) aspects of our society. This can be data on our legal system, scientific understanding, of historical narratives. There is also “esoteric” knowledge, that is not in the public realm. An example might be the statecraft of creating an assassin.

For both better and worse, occult beliefs and institutions also objectively exist. The balance of exoteric to esoteric knowledge that may be available is by its nature difficult to know. The assumption that “reality” can be understood through exoteric knowledge alone is just that — an assumption. Those who have endeavoured to uncover esoteric understanding may be worthy of some extra attention and respect.

Operation is not intention

In my telecoms work, a major fallacy surfaced with “net neutrality”, where activists have falsely assumed that operational network performance is intentional, and thus deviations for specific users and applications can be defined as “throttling”. This is untrue: it is impossible in principle and practise to reverse out the intention from the operation in a system with emergent characteristics.

This insight also applies more widely. The hiring or firing of a particular player in the political realm is an operational fact, but the true intention behind it cannot be known with certainty. Only the passage of time can help us to eliminate intentional hypotheses that do not align to the unfolding operational narrative reality.

Absolute statements of good or bad intent — “withdraw troops from Syria” could be a recent example — are often naive and premature (unless one understands the wider strategic context and methods). Our “operational reality” and “intentional reality” are distinct things! What constitutes a “fact” is not based on the same evidence and logic for these.

Legibility of symbolism and semiotics

Our world is filled with icons, brands, and symbols. They can have multiple and complex meanings, and some of those meanings may not be widely understood. In the media world, what is the meaning of someone covering one eye? In the architecture world, what is the meaning of an obelisk? In the commercial world, what is the meaning of a logo based on a swoosh?

Our sense of what is “real” depends on us having a shared understanding of these symbols, and for them to be “legible”. The assumption that we are taught all we need to know to “read” the world is a very limiting one.

Belief in the boundedness of evil

It is well known that humans perceive what they want to see. We have unconscious policy constraints on whether evil is bounded in its behaviour. Conversely, we may have paranoid beliefs that exclude possibilities of unexpected goodness in the world.

If we believe that people in power are essentially good and deserving —because they have repeatedly told us this is “real” — then we may automatically dismiss data about paedophilia, baby farming, human sacrifice, live organ harvesting, and cannibalism. What is “allowed” to be real is a statement of what we feel we can emotionally tolerate.

Could our present monetary system be one of universal debt slavery? People can differ on the answer, but the “thinkability” of the question is rooted in our acceptance of the possibility of widespread and powerful forces of wickedness.

Solipsism is not a logical argument

A phrase I often hear is “I cannot imagine that…”. This is a statement about the limits of the speaker’s imagination, not about the reality of the world. To confuse these is a solipsism, i.e. to suggest all that exists is what I can imagine, and nothing more or less.

Conceptual universe size matters

One of the ideas that I have inherited from my computer science work is the “universe of discourse”. For instance, we might have an (unconscious) assumption that “reality” is a thing bounded to that which largely happens on the surface of this planet and involves homo sapiens humans. But if we add in deep underground military bases, a secret space program, and human cloning, then different possibilities open up as to what is “real”.

Throw in the radical idea that we live in a busy galactic neighbourhood, together with interstellar travel, and the potential size of “reality” grows almost incomprehensibly. These things may or may not exist in actuality, but the consideration of what is “thinkable” affects what we can perceive as being “real”.

Assumption of competence

It is a social requirement at dinner parties, especially in more educated circles, to have an opinion on pretty much everything. There is an implicit assumption that being relatively educated and informed makes us competent to form opinions on very complex matters.

In reality, we “borrow” most of our opinions from “official narratives”, since we are too lazy or under-resourced to go back to source data and think through everything for ourselves. What is “real” is that which avoids ridicule and ostracism because “authority” has told us it is “real”.

Frequentist and foundationalist assumptions

Our beliefs about “reality” are rooted in deep and often unconscious biases around how we relate to new information that clashes with what we “know is real”. We may assume that the future is like the past (or not), and there are only few (or many) possible interpretations of what is going on.

The “end of history” illusion can trap us into thinking the present moment is unduly special. Conversely, we may miss out on “changing of the ages”, as “cycles of cycles” come to an end. It takes a great deal of inner work and
“learning conversations” to surface these biases and to make them conscious.

Have respect for others and adopt a learning outlook

This list is just a small selection of the possible ways we can misread reality. Many books have been written on this topic by those erudite in matters philosophical and psychological. Because of this, there has to be scope for accepting the legitimacy of opposing beliefs about what is “real”. It respects our individual competence and contribution in making sense of the world.

To insist on a “unilateral consensus” risks dehumanising and pathologising the dissenting “other”, since it (wrongly) believes we have nothing to learn from others. Mistakes then lead to a “shriek of the conscience” from over-estimating our ability to discern world affairs.

Conversely, to celebrate difference of perspective for its own sake is unhealthy. There is value in the synthesis of a consensus reality, since it enables shared understanding and collaborative activity. The first step to synthesis is to abandon the desire to overpower the other with one’s views and voice. Listen carefully instead to their perspective of reality, since there may be something to learn, however “crazy” they are.