Consensual Reality

I have heard from quite a number of people over the past couple of years, this idea that "you can't know anything" therefore it's all meaningless. Usually people throw that sort of concept out without ever explaining it. It sounds nihilistic, doesn't it? I've heard this from a philosophy professor, but also from normal people who don't seem to be able to explain what they are saying. Often it seems reactionary.

I've always had a problem with this school of thought, but I've never been able to really wrap my head around why, and what I thought was the more accurate way to look at the world.

But lately, I've formed this idea of reality that I thought I'd share with you. I've never taken a philosophy class, so excuse me if it sounds silly.

Ok, if I say "finger", most of us on the planet know what I am talking about. You can lift your finger triumphantly in the air and waggle it about. You can touch your keyboard with it. Even babies can learn what a finger is and how to use it to pick their noses and do other fun things.

Language helps us form a consensual reality. This reality is basically universal. For instance, I can say "love" and translate that into Japanese, and a Japanese person can get the general idea of what I am talking about. If I form a sentence, "I love my child", that other person on the other side of the planet can relate to that statement and agree or disagree.

Consensual reality has often been explained as "if enough people believe something, then it's real." This is not necessarily true. For instance, most people believe in a deity, but there is no evidence of anything supernatural, so most people are probably wrong. But just about everyone knows that water is wet, and they are correct.

People fall into the Bandwagon Fallacy trap often, though, and marketing companies and politicians use it ad nauseum to manipulate people. How many times have you been told something like "the majority of the people in this country are Christians, therefore we are a a Christian nation, and Christianity is the True religion." Or, "most people love these chips, so you have to try them."

But if you define it properly, then we do have a consensual reality. Language of all sorts helps us share our experiences and communicate to others, sometimes even from around the world.

For example, a person can go to some remote area of the Amazon where a tribe has been cut off from the rest of the world for eons, and the two disparate peoples can learn to communicate with each other in a short time. First you have body language, pointing, gestures, etc. Then you have spoken language combined with pointing.

But it's even more than that. My dog, a creature of a different species, responds to my communications with her. I can tell her to "sit" in English. I might add a hand signal. And she will sit because she understands what I'm saying to her. We have trained each other.

That's a form of consensual reality. If we had no objective meaning in our lives, we couldn't share our thoughts and feelings, and our actions would not impact other people.

The philosophy professor I met who said, "we can't know anything, and therefore it's all meaningless" used the same language I use to tell my dog to give me her paw. He used the same way of communicating his nihilistic view while he sat in a chair and drank a latte.

I also sat in a chair next to him and drank tea. We both understood what the other person was drinking and sitting on because we have both learned the same language, and we both used our senses to smell and look at the tea, and to see and feel the chairs.

So, I think to say that we can't know anything is not just meaningless but hypocritical because you use your brain and language to express that idea. The same brain that lets you drive a car, use a cell phone, have a conversation.

I've also heard religious people express something similar, that reality is subjective. But it's been awhile so I can't recall their arguments enough to tackle them.

Has anyone ever expressed this philosophy to you? Or do you feel that reality is subjective? If so, why?
Also, have you ever heard a religious person express something similar?

A note on nihilism. I think that there is a grain of truth to what they are saying. Nihilism posits that life has no intrinsic value, purpose or meaning. I think that it's easy for a new atheist to think that this is the case. And, in a way it is.

There is no loving creator who gives us a purpose. No one has a destiny. No one is owed anything. There is no karma or justice or fairness.

Here's the key to not falling into a black depression over this information. As humans with consciousness, we are how the Cosmos can know itself.

We create justice for ourselves, we create fairness. There's still no supreme loving deity pulling our strings (which I prefer, actually) but we create our own purpose and we decide what is valuable to us as individuals, as small groups, as societies, and as the entire human race.  We do all of that, all on our own, with our big brains. We feel love and passion, grief and happiness.

It's just that some people mislabel our values, our morals, our justice, and our purpose as coming from an external source instead. Which is sad because they are forfeiting their responsibility and decision-making to something that doesn't exist.

For those of us who come to terms with the fact that we are steering our own ships through the darkness, we are then able to make smarter decisions than abdicating to a fickle, jealous, angry deity of which there is no evidence.


  1. Religious philosophers have said (more or less to me) that atheists should come to terms with the inherent nihilism in their world view. I still haven't figured out whether they mean that I should just be depressed instead of creating my own purpose or if they're actually getting at something real.

    1. I think you're supposed to be depressed then come crawling to them in a fit of despair and open your heart to Jesus.

      Funny thing is, some of the most well-balanced and happy people I know are all godless heathens.

      I, for one, am far from a nihilist, and I love being alive. I see how amazing the Cosmos is, and our tiny little part in it, and I am awed by that. I think religious people just can't grasp that atheists can be filled with awe and wonder and deep love and happiness. I've been told many times that since I have turned my back on God I can't experience those things.

    2. They do mean nihilism in a philosophical (nerdview) meaning though. When you say you're not a nihilist you more or less mean you're not depressed (correct me if I'm wrong), while you would agree that ultimately there isn't any intrinsic value to life or anything. In any case, it seems to me that you can turn that argument directly around and it'd be equally stupid. Some piss-poor intrinsic value given by God seems even worse and far more depressing. :P

    3. Hmm, yes, I guess you're right, Frenzie. Thanks :)

      And yes, I agree, saying that the only value comes from God is weak. Especially if you read his "holy" book. If that represents God's values, I'm not interested. He's a nasty piece of work.

  2. I've had religious people express the sentiment to me that since atheists have no God-given morality or eternal punisher of sin, we should be free to rape, pillage and burn. After all, when you're not afraid of punishment, what could possibly be holding you back from raping every woman you see, steal that shiny new cell phone that you can't possibly afford, burn a building to the ground just for the pleasure of watching it burn(added bonus if there are people trapped inside).

    Also, since there is God-given value to our lives, why do we bother? Why don't we just blow our brains out and be done with it?

    It's actually a projection of their own nihilism unto a group they don't understand, and fervently wish didn't exist. It's also more than a little bit terrifying. What they are really saying is that, if *THEY* didn't believe and weren't afraid of punishment, then *THEY* would be the ones doing what they say atheists should be doing. They just can't understand why we don't.

    To them, there is no value to life(theirs or anybody else's) but what they god provides. They don't understand(perhaps *CAN'T* understand) that other people who don't hold to their beliefs are perfectly capable of(and more than happy to) assign personal meaning to their own intrinsically meaningless lives.

    1. Sorry, I meant to write "Also, since there is *NO* God-given value..."

    2. Ha, that changes everything Weirdo! :P

    3. I've heard exactly the same things and have come to the same conclusion. I'm GLAD those people have God in their lives if that's the only thing keeping them from killing, raping and stealing.

      I just do good because it's the right thing to do. I know, that's just kooky talk, isn't it!?

      Plus, I'm happier and seem to be more full of wonder than most religious people I know. I love life, probably more than religious people because my life isn't just a bump in the road to the afterlife. My life is short and so very precious. It's the only one I've got.

      And yes, I fully agree that atheists simply find their own meaning and purpose. I contend (and I think I wrote it above) that we all do. Some of us find it through personal reflection, while religious people are told by their religious leaders and a musty old book what their purpose is.

      I, for one, prefer to decide for myself based on my personal values. :)

  3. It's interesting you use the example of translating love into Japanese, because when we first did that it actually forced a minor culture shift since they didn't really have a word to correspond with our concept.

    ...I'm too tired to tie that in to your original point but it probably does somehow.

    1. I guess I picked a bad example then. I didn't know that! Thanks for sharing it.

    2. I do have a bone to pick with that. If your goal is to produce a short text such issues might be problematic, but you can (almost) always find a phrase to express what you mean. For example, Dutch people often say that it's impossible to translate the word gezellig into English, or any other language for that matter, because the closest equivalent, cozy, doesn't represent all of the meaning contained in the word. Gezellig means cozy as well as pleasant and enjoyable, and sometimes also sociable, companionable or even convivial. As it turns out, while describing why gezellig allegedly can't be translated, I actually translated it: the only difference is that I needed a number of adjectives rather than just one. Now I don't know Japanese, but in a similar manner you might say you feel tender affection, endearment, and attachment toward a certain individual in order to convey that you love that individual. You might not be able to translate in a certain manner, but you should be able to make it clear what you mean through translation, by which I explicitly don't mean word-for-word translation,* but rather whatever means of paraphrasing is appropriate. N.B. This doesn't exclude word-for-word translation either,for in many circumstances that would indeed be appropriate.

      To counter my own argument, it might be rather hard to describe certain shade of red in a language that doesn't even distinguish more than dark and light. Ultimately, however, I think a far bigger issue would be how to translate e.g. a reference to Booker T. Washington for an Asian audience that is completely unfamiliar with the name. A scholarly edition would add a note, but for a popular text it might be better to substitute a more localized civil rights leader or some such.

      * Where translating "I love you" with "Ik hou van jou" (I love of you) still counts as word-for-word translation, as does "je t'aime" (I you love). But like I said above these are appropriate translations.

    3. Reading this over again I realize my reply was a bit too antagonistic, if only in the first sentence. The rest is basically the referred tie-in to the original post where I argue that you can more or less make your meaning clear to any member of the human species.

    4. Maybe because I sort of know you, Frenzie, I didn't take your comment as antagonistic. But I appreciate your clarification and thoughtfulness. :)

      I agree with what you're saying too. For instance, Eskimoes have many words for different kinds of snow. We just call it snow. But we then use adjectives like wet, heavy, light, etc. Or we say blizzard and flurries.

      The point is, we could figure it out if the two different people spent the time to communicate, explain, etc.

      Even for the Booker T. Washington example, you could use him, but then add a note explaining what he did. And as you said, you could then compare him to a local person who is similar to help people.

    5. Actually that Eskimo thing is a myth. ;) (Also see

    6. Ha! I stand corrected! I really thought it was true. :P

      Which goes to show, question everything. :)

  4. One further comment...I really know nothing of "consensual reality", except for context clues.With regard to karma though, I don't think a deity needs to intervene there, I do believe in natural law, eg., birds use their wings to fly, dogs bark to warn.I think, and this is strictly an "I think", that it works without a deity, and by personal interpretation, I have seen some people experience the nastiness they doled out in their life. Its a simple, "what goes around comes around", an adage, if you will.Karma is essentially the same thing. Not that we can manipulate our future (as in the SECRET arrggghh!), but that if we do something nasty, it will come back and bite us in the hinder!It again, seems like its a natural process. I may be wrong.

    1. If you're always being nasty to people, even your most good-natured fellow humans will sooner or later start being nasty back, but other than that it sounds like an unsatisfying and perhaps even dangerous line of thought. Isn't that how some freaks end up saying messed up things like a rape must've been deserved, or for that matter the hurricanes and tsunamis?

    2. *is not sure where that stay "the" in front of "hurricanes" came from*

    3. I think you need to be careful with "what goes around comes around". I agree that often it is accurate. If you are nasty to someone, it will cause others to react to that.

      But to clarify, as you said, there is nothing supernatural about it. I think many people think that there IS something cosmic about it, though and they are wrong.

      To be sure, I know some really nasty people who sort of float through life and have very little bad happen to them in reaction. Many people would think that these people will get what's coming to them, even if it's in the afterlife. But there's no evidence of cosmic justice.

      Take most politicians, for example. Sure, they aren't necessarily happy, but they are more often than not filthy rich, have people cater to them all the time, do nice things for them, etc. Wasn't it Newt Gingrich who dumped his wife a few days after her cancer surgery? Now he's running for the presidency.

      Sure, he could have something bad happen to him tomorrow, but that might just be random. It doesn't follow that just because he is a horrible person that the rest of the world balances the cosmic justice with him.

      So it's really just being careful with what you're saying and defining what things mean.

      When you talk about Karma, it's not the same thing. You're saying that there is a cosmic force out there keeping records and balancing the books.

      And just because you do something nasty it doesn't mean that you won't get away with it. People do all the time.

    4. Frenzie, yes, I was trying to say the same. It's a very dangerous line of thought and is certainly not what most people think of.

      And I am sure there are nasty people who people are still nice to, probably due to the nasty person having a lot of money/power.

    5. And another typo snuck in — I like that tense so much better than sneaked — as it should've been a sTray "the". :P

      Also, a good point about being nice to people with power.

    6. I guess I don't belong on this site. You speak of talking with philosophers about abstract ideas, which are spiritual in a sense. You have no degree of any sort that I recall that you've alluded to.You're as dangerous as most psychotherapists. No more from me.

    7. I never claimed to be a philosopher. In fact I said I wasn't. How is talking about this stuff "dangerous"?
      All I'm saying is, we need to define our terms carefully. Karma has a definition which is supernatural. People assume you mean it that way because that's the definition.

      If you mean natural law, then use appropriate terms.

      In fact, that explains what I'm trying to say about consensual reality. We agree as a society what a word means. Sure, that meaning can and does change over time, but dog means a canine, for example.

      If I say I have 3 dogs, you have a general understanding of what I mean because we have defined our terms and have learned the same thing. That's how we can communicate now.

  5. Ok, this is pathetically simplistic, but take the show, MY NAME IS EARL.He was a bad ass, and after landing in the hospital and by some chance making money, he takes it on himself to right wrongs he has done. He personifies Karma.Earl is anything but religious or a believer, but he feels he has to "pay it forward", probably to save his ass. He must have some belief that his accident was related to his deeds.He's pushy with some people, but in the end, his actions tend to prove good for all.If I sounded like I accept a "cosmic force", I don't-I believe I alluded to natural law. Whatever!
    What I do think is dangerous is something on a local level: there's a family that lost a daughter and established a place for kids to grieve. This place is staffed by anyone who has sentiments on grief and wants to listen to/help children. If you want to be a counselor for adults, it requires advanced education, usually above and beyond an MA. I know people that were a little 'on the edge' in grad school who were good persons, but who the school rejected for counseling studies. So much more the caution is needed for kids!

    1. I'm not sure if I understand what you're saying. Are you saying that the Earl show represents how things are?

      I was just saying when you throw loaded words around like karma, it muddies the waters and people assume you agree that there is a supernatural bookkeeper in charge.