24 Apr Perceptions of Reality
“Dear Dr. Hanson,
When I reflect on ‘What is true… what is real…?’ I feel very challenged: where to begin when it’s a matter of perception? For example, my husband drives slowly because he feels this is safe. I experience his slowness as unsafe based on my perception relating to other drivers and my understanding of the rules, which he interprets in his own unique manner. Which reality is true? We could enlarge this to political discourse, especially in divisive and challenging times. I don’t want to add aggression to the world, and I struggle to respond mindfully. How do we not create enemy images? How do we determine what is TRUE/REAL when every individual creates their own unique reality based on perception? One cannot measure his objectively when each individual has his own unique subjective reality!“
First, let’s make some clear distinctions: I think there is an objective reality – in other words, facts – independent of our descriptions of it. For example, if a tree falls in the forest, it falls in the forest no matter whether anyone sees it or hears it. Whatever is happening in the center of our earth is what is happening there no matter whether anyone knows what it is. What is real and true is real and true even if our knowledge of it is limited and our descriptions are shaped by culture or emotion. Reality is distinct from our perceptions of it. People describe facts in different ways. But just because our descriptions are limited and sometimes erroneous does not mean that facts are not facts!
Each human has a unique individual perception of reality, but reality is universally true. Just because we disagree about perceptions of reality does not mean that there is not an actual reality, nor does it mean that it is not knowable. Think of the zillions of ways that people do recognize reality: Is there water in the glass or not? Is the light green or red? Did the kid do her homework? Also think about the progress in science and education in which humans have gotten vastly clearer in the past few centuries about what is actually true.
Second, some descriptions of reality are more accurate than others. Saying that the earth is round is more accurate than saying it is flat. Saying that the crowds at Obama’s inauguration were bigger than those at Trump’s is more accurate than the reverse. Saying that Russia manipulated our election to favor Trump (as all 17 of our intelligence agencies have concluded) is more accurate than saying they did not.
Over time, people reveal how credible their descriptions of reality are. People who are usually accurate are more credible than people who are not. People who place a high value on telling the truth are more credible than people who routinely lie. People who admit their errors and correct them are more credible than people who do not.
We discover what is true and real by patient observation. You can trust yourself. What do you see? What did you hear? What is happening in front of your nose over time? Who is getting richer? Who is stagnating economically or getting poorer? Is the planet warming up? Are there more severe weather events? Who is trying to count all the votes and who is trying to stop the count? These are things we can see plainly.
Third, a lot of our descriptions of reality are probabilistic, in which we estimate the chances of something happening, such as a car crashing into us on the freeway. The actual chance of something – if we could run an experiment in a jillion parallel universes and then find the average percentage of times it did in fact occur – is an objective reality, but our estimate of this chance is a description of things.
It could be that your husband’s estimate of the chance of an accident is higher than yours. His estimate could be more accurate than yours, or yours could be more accurate than his. But part of what is at issue is an estimate of the chances of a bad event, and clarifying this could be helpful.
It could also be that your husband’s estimate of the consequences of a car crash are more awful than yours. His estimate could be overly tilted toward the negative or yours could be more tilted toward the positive. But another part of what is at issue between you is an estimate of how bad or costly the consequences of an event would be.
Fourth, we have values that are independent of the facts and our descriptions of them. As a general principle, your husband might value caution more than you do. I’m not saying what value is right; reasonable people can have different values; it’s a personal choice, and not a matter of what objective reality is. But just because we have different values, does not mean that we share different realities. We live together in one shared reality, in which we have multiple individual descriptions and values.
This blog post comes from a question submitted to Rick Hanson. To see more answers to great questions like this one, please visit our FAQ page.