The Evolution of Ideas, part 1: Reality Tunnels

So I haven’t posted for a long time. Sadly, we recently lost my mum to cancer. Having found myself with a spare few minutes, I thought I’d upload a paper (in a few parts — it’s fairly long) that was originally published in the July – September edition of Telicom: the journal of the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry. My thanks to the editor of said publication, Dr Scott Harrigan, for accepting it. I have made 1 or 2 small changes hereafter (such as removing references and embedding quotes in the text). i hope you enjoy it:

To borrow a term from the late polymath Robert Anton Wilson, we each of us live in a reality tunnel. This is a tunnel of our own making that includes everything that appears to be true, and excludes everything that appears to be false. It is our own neurologically constructed model of existence, the sum of our cultural conditioning – all our learning and our experiences – interacting with our biological blueprint.


While each of us have access to our own, individual, reality tunnels, they become subsumed in larger temporo-cultural tunnels that include themes of race, geography, politics, spirituality, intellectualism and morality. So when we talk about ‘working class England’ we are not only talking about a group of people, we are talking about a model of the world in which they live; a model that (to those people who live within it) literally IS the world itself.


Philosophy and science have conspired quite successfully to demonstrate that we do not live in an objective world. Rather, we live in a spider’s web of (often questionable) empirical sense data, which is filtered through an individual brain and interpreted by a subjective mind – a reality tunnel.


Stepping back further and further from our individual realities, we can see reality tunnels belonging to broad groups such as Western Roman Catholics, or New York intelligentsia. And as we step back ever further, the groups become fewer in number and contain a broader range of information and opinions. We eventually come to what Charles Tart referred to as a ‘consensus trance’ – a societally accepted view of reality into which we are indoctrinated upon birth. Hypnotised into accepting this worldview, our consciousness constantly self-edits and fits our experience and empirical sense data into this model of the world. So we have a vast reality tunnel that belongs not only to us, but to our neighbours and relatives too.


The work of certain modern psychologists does a lot to back up this view. Those readers who are familiar with Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment (see Zimbardo’s excellent book ‘The Lucifer Effect’ for more details), or the Milgram experiment (which is easily researchable by anyone with access to google) will find it easy to comprehend the effect that perceived authority can exercise on individual thought. Furthermore, even a cursory examination of hypnotism reveals the pliability of human behaviour and belief.


Friction occurs when these reality tunnels bump into one another and disagree. Anyone who has spent time perusing the internet and come across a wanderer far from home (a Christian on an Atheist forum, or a socialist on a right wing website, for example) will have witnessed how heated conversation can become when an individual finds himself at odds with a group regarding the essential nature of reality. It is so self-evident N (where N is any belief held to be fundamental to a particular world view) is true, that when N is challenged, it makes a mockery of the conversation. Often, it is not only incorrect to challenge N, it is ‘evil’ or ‘irresponsible’.


In large part, a consensus trance is a set of these beliefs N that we consider to be incontrovertibly true. This set may contain truths such as: all mentally competent adults have the right to vote, the earth is flat, the world is created and sustained by a personal god, everything is reducible to matter.


Issac Newton, for example, lived in a reality tunnel that included the truth: physical immortality is achievable via alchemical means. He died still in pursuit of such immortality.

Today, we have little difficulty reconciling Newton’s obvious brilliance with what would commonly be considered a fallacy. He was, after all, a man of his time – such beliefs were not uncommon. Likewise, we are understanding of Einstein’s refusal to accept Quantum Theory, and when we read the speeches of great political figures of the past (take, for example, this quote from Abraham Lincoln: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races” – Fourth Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Charleston, Illinois, September 18, 1858), we remember them in context rather than judge them by temporal moral and intellectual standards. However, we have a strange inability to apply the same logic to our own reality tunnels.


For some reason, a vast segment of the population seem to believe that they have been born into a time and place unique, thus far, in human history. A time and place where their assertions are always correct.


This is unlikely. It’s far more likely that our worldview, replete with what are now considered scientific, moral and political truisms, will look ridiculous to our descendants. Perhaps, one day, Stephen Hawking’s worries about alien life forms (The Telegraph, on 25th April 2010, quotes Hawking: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the American Indians.”) will sound as fallacious as Issac Newton’s search for physical immortality. Perhaps one day, people will be outraged at the suggestion that everybody should have an equal vote regardless of race, sexuality or gender.

The purpose of this article is to examine some of those beliefs N that we hold and take for granted, and speculate on some of the ways that perhaps they will, or should, change as our societies evolve. I certainly don’t claim to hold the answers to tomorrow’s riddles, and this essay is far from a comprehensive study of ideas and their possible evolution.

In examining the beliefs we take for granted, I have attempted to choose three subjects which I suspect many of us hold opinions on and which are relatively well known. Those subjects are: the future of religious belief, the scientific worldview, and the viability of democracy.

Part 2: ‘God is Dead: Religion and Secularism Today and Tomorrow’ to follow soon. 



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