How I gave up on the idea of consensus reality, by Richard Feldman

I grew up with the idea of objective truth. I knew that people had a variety of
religious and political views that didn’t always seem reconcilable, but I
thought there was essential consensus in at least the U.S. and the Western world
in general around scientific truth or the news of the day.

I’m not sure that consensus reality is the best name for the concept in which I
believed, but I like it best among the terms with which I’m acquainted. In
preparation for writing this post, I have searched the term on the Web, where
most of the first two pages of Google results reference the discussion in
Wikipedia, itself a gigantic attempt at realizing the concept. The Wikipedia
article says, “The term is usually used disparagingly,” which may be right, but
is not how I’m using it here.

As the years have passed, I’ve found myself drifting away from belief that there
is anything resembling consensus reality. Not only do religious and political
differences among residents of the U.S. and the world seem as hardened as ever,
the idea of science as a basis for understanding the truth seems no more
generally accepted than the idea of using any randomly chosen religious
denomination’s beliefs for the same purpose.

Here in Santa Fe, many components of my belief system are minority viewpoints,
or, at best, part of a tenuous plurality. I’ve had to become inured to having a
luncheon companion declare that she turns to Western medicine only after all
else has failed, or hearing the day’s mishaps being attributed to Mercury’s
currently being in retrograde. I might feel less on the reality fringe in some
other places, but I’m having less and less confidence in that. Perhaps I first
realized that there was no limit to the possible manifestations of attacks on my
idea of consensus reality when I discovered that my stepdaughter’s
then-boyfriend disbelieved that Apollo spacecraft had landed on the moon. (Rick
Perry’s invocation of Galileo as his intellectual precursor in the climate
change debate may represent some kind of extreme along this line.)

Another area where consensus reality turns out to have been a mirage is grammar.
For the most part, I’ve maintained my loyalty to the orthographic and writing
rules that I learned in school, but in recent years I’ve wondered why I’ve
bothered. If I’m going to live to see any kind of consensus in this area, it
will be that all plurals that end in s will have a preceding apostrophe.

I can’t tell how much anyone else cares about consensus reality. I suppose that
feeling that I always have to be careful about expressing beliefs that I take
for granted makes me both sad and tense, but perhaps everyone feels that way.
Is the idea that we share our realities just an illusion that people are able to
maintain by blocking out other people and media that don’t agree with them?
That’s what I’m inclined to believe. In the end, my abandonment of the idea
that my reality can be part of a consensus leaves me sadder, but (I hope) in
some way wiser.